Buffalo’s Indeterminacy Festival founded and directed by Stanzi Vaubel and co-produced by sarah jm kolberg, is entering its third year presenting: PASTFUTURE/FUTUREPAST, taking on a wide range of topics related to interstellar communication, from the Golden Record to Gravitational Waves. The idea is to think big enough to stage a large-scale reset of our relationships to each other and to the cosmos. To arrive at such a goal, the festival will include many seemingly divergent paths towards conjuring up this experience of cosmic communication. The festival will kick off on May 11 at 5 Loaves Farm with a composting workshop and dinner hosted in honor of St. Isidor, patron saint of farmers, on May 15 you can make a day of it with activities ranging from learning how to build your own transmitter with visiting artist Emiddio Vasquez and UB Media Study faculty Jason Geistweidt, making your own instrument out of recycled materials with visiting artist Ben Zucker, learning about where your trash goes, or how to get involved in local beach cleanups in the area, and then if you’ve still got the energy, catch an evening performance with the Monochord Quartet and screening of
a little green men.
The festival describes indeterminacy as being the exploration of “the various facets of uncertainty, which are typically experienced as negative, transformed into a site of creative possibility.” The festival has been doing just that for the past two years, drawing together over eighty collaborators from across an unlikely and wide set of backgrounds and experiences to put on these events leading up to two finale performances which will take place this year at Penn Dixie Fossil Park and Nature Preserve. Make an evening out of these finale events by attending the pre-show cocktail event on Friday at the lake-side restaurant The Bedrock Cafe or the post-event party with cast and crew also hosted at The Bedrock on Saturday following the show. I met up with Vaubel to ask her about the process of staging Indeterminacy.
So for the past two years The Indeterminacy Festival has been hosted at Silo City. Why the change in location?
For the past two years the Indeterminacy Festival has been hosted at Silo City. The festival grew out of the site itself, inspired by the interlocking one hundred and fifty-foot cylindrical cement structures and by the conversations had on site with Swannie Jim, the former caretaker.
Indeterminacy, which is a term that means “not known in advance, not precisely determined or fixed” was a fundamental characteristic of the silos, as I encountered them. Indeterminacy both as a word and an experience, is an attractor, it allows experience to gather around itself, developing meaning and specificity along the way. The word itself eludes direct meaning.
Silo City was a place that dropped you into a direct experience with indeterminacy. Particularly during the late-fall and winter months when, prior to the opening of Duende, it was completely desolate, except for Jim’s shack, where there was always a fire going, his residence on site threaded the past, present, and future potentials of the site together. Jim helped re-frame the silos as a place of artistic potential and encouraged the imagination to arrive at unlikely places. All the other actors at Silo City were non-human. They were snow, wind, ice, rain, and the ways in which these mediums interacted with the silos. The interactions were harsh, beautiful, and shocking, they were acoustically strange, and visually uncanny. It was a place that made it worth enduring the negatives to explore with good collaborators who were willing to brave the challenges with me.
It encouraged me in the first year of the festival to imagine a world of interlocking bubbles in which people could be fully immersed and in the second year of the festival to imagine a completely different world, connected by net and string. I invited friends and collaborators in the area who were equally as taken with the site to create with me, to design the bubbles, and construct the network of nets. We imagined these worlds together and it was exciting to see them come to life each year. The silos provided a place for imagining from the ground up different realities, different ways of connecting spaces and people together.
So why did you move the festival to Penn Dixie?
In the second year of the festival EMERGENCE I collaborated with PhD and undergraduate students in the Geology department to create a section of the festival focused around deep time. Deep time, is defined as the multimillion year time frame within which scientists believe the earth has existed. Geologists think in terms of this unfathomable timeframe within which humans are just a tiny tiny fragment. Thinking geologically, deep time provides a different way into understand human existence, making us diminutive in the same way looking up into the 150 ft cement cylinders of the grain silos does. It’s a way to step outside our current frame of human anthropocentric mindset and enter into something far more expansive. Deep time offers another paradigm of geologic time.
After EMERGENCE wrapped up I continued conversations with PhD Geology Candidate Carolyn Roberts. She was fascinated by the Apollo Missions and we were brainstorming how this year’s festival could have a lunar theme. At the end of one of our coffee meetings she mentioned an event she was volunteering for at Penn Dixie, a fossil park and nature preserve in Hamburg. I was immediately intrigued, what did a fossil park look like? As it turned out, it looks very lunar.
The challenge of designing the finale performances for the festival on such an open, barren, treasure trove of ancient geologic history seemed exciting — presenting a very different set of limitations as creative propositions that were distinctly different than the ones encountered at Silo City.
In moving out of Silo City and beginning to create a performance at Penn Dixie was a shift from thinking about Buffalo’s man-made past, to thinking about our geologic past. I think both frameworks are equally important, and run parallel to each other — we have to think of our human futurity and geologic futurity simultaneously. There is a growing awareness around the need to think in terms of these parallel frameworks, and these two specific sites literally draw us into direct physical relation to these realities.
Was the festival this year entirely inspired by Penn Dixie and Geologic themes? Or what else is in the mix?
Continuing with the idea of parallel frameworks, while I was talking with Carolyn about the moon, the Apollo Missions, and discovering Penn Dixie as a site, I was also trying to wrap my head around gravitational waves, something I knew absolutely nothing about. It was brought to my attention by sarah jm kolberg who has co-produced the festival with me these past two years. sarah made a film called little green men focused on high school students who searched for pulsars, which are a certain type of collapsed star, using radio astronomy data from West Virginia’s Green Bank Telescope through the Pulsar Search Collaboratory. Almost everything about this description was foreign and unknown to me. I couldn’t imagine what the Green Bank Telescope looked like, or what pulsars were, or what a collapsed star could possibly be. Through patient explanations and regular conversations, with both sarah and our science advisor on the project, Doreen Wackeroth who teaches Physics at UB, I was able to begin breaking down how these astronomical events come to be.
I realized that one big reason why understanding something like gravitational waves was so difficult for the average person was because many of us lack a basic understanding of the fundamental concepts that underlie these discoveries.
I began charting a thought path through extremely rudimentary physics to develop the most basic understanding of the way the planets orbit, general relativity, the fabric of spacetime, and the discovery of gravitational waves.
Eventually this research formulated itself into a four part event score which I shared with this year’s choreographer, Michaela Neild. She has taken on the daunting task of taking concepts like “Music of the Sphere” and “General Relativity” and developed a movement score from them.
Parallel to this process the festival is also collaborating with thirty students from Buffalo String Works, who are participating as dancers this year. Michaela has been working with these students through monthly workshops including them into the movement score with the adults.
In the poster advertising the festival, we see a large white parachute that a dancers is jumping into the middle of. What’s that about?
Yeah, so along with the “event score” I gave Michaela, I also provided her with eight 12ft parachutes — to use in representing our orbiting planets as well as two 24 ft parachutes to use in representing black holes and gravitational waves. Dancers will all be wearing LED, turning all the dancers into flickering stars of light.
How did you arrive at those specific props?
Penn Dixie is incredibly barren. There is nothing to hook onto, no place to attach scrims or materials of any kind. It forced me to imagine a world of collapsing and expanding forms. I wanted this to come entirely from the dancers themselves. I wanted it to be such that you could look out onto this expanse and enjoy the performance at a distance and up close as a series of tableaus that would open out and then contract down into darkness. Parachutes and LED wristbands seemed like a practical and innovative way to go and Michaela incorporated these materials into her own vision for how they might work as a canvas for her movement score.
You also lead a group called The Indeterminacy Ensemble, can you talk a little about how you direct that part of the project and how it fits into the festival in May?
Yes! The ensemble was formed in 2016 informally at first for an event called Excursions Into Unknowable Worlds that I staged at the Hi-Temp Warehouse. It was inspired by music faculty Jonathan Golove’s Open!Ensemble, a group that anyone could join, no matter their instrumentation or musical background. Jonathan’s ensemble changed my idea of what a musical group could be and how an original score could be developed. The group was not genre specific, but was formed generatively out of the backgrounds and experiences of the participants.
For the past two years, I have structured the ensemble around the underlying concepts driving the festival. So this year, I focused on creating music that reflects ideas around the harmony of the spheres, the orbiting of the planets, gravitational and electromagnetic waves, and larger questions around the nature of communication between earth and what lies beyond. I wondered how orienting ourselves outwards and thinking beyond earth can help us reflect back on our values at home.
a former UB music student and participant in the project for the past four years Luis Blanco the opportunity to create original music related to the concept of planetary music. Through a laboratory process of trial and error we eventually arrived at some really beautiful sections that he and the larger ensemble are really proud to perform.
In tandem with this, I have been interested in developing original instruments that become integral to giving the ensemble a unique and unusual sound.
Last year, this took the form of a “singing string” that was inspired by Alvin Lucier’s composition Music on a Long Thin Wire. The electrified string we developed following Lucier’s instructions of how to amplify the string to make it sing, was combined
it with another instrument that was developed by musician Ellen Fullman, which consisted of two spigots which at specific intervals released a drop of water onto the head of a drum, creating a percussive, but slightly asynchronous rhythmic pattern. Creating our own version and then putting the two inventions turned it into something new and interesting.
This year, the focus has been around the development of an instrument called the monochord, which is based on a one-stringed instrument that was used throughout the middle ages as a tool to explore the relationship between mathematics and sound. Essentially, the instrument takes one piece of 2 x 4 wood and by slicing it into three slimmer pieces, turns it into a box to which it is possible to attach a single or double string to produce a sustained droning tone.
This old/new/past/future instrument has found a life all its own, one that I am excited to see resonating out, producing effects I couldn’t have planned or imagined.
The story of the monochord, and the liminal space that it holds, to produce new yet unknown musical frontiers is not just about the instrument itself, but is the story of how innovation happens.
To purchase tickets and to view the full workshop & weekend performance schedule visit indeterminacyfestival.com.