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The Singularity

An immersive experience that combines live music with a flight through the universe, animations, and mixed reality is about to be staged at, appropriately enough, the Dome.

Now the Dome as we know it might not be an actual planetarium, which is where Anthonie Tonnon’s work A Synthesized Universe was first conceived, but that hardly matters.

To transpose the work – originally composed and designed for Otago Museum’s 50-seat planetarium – to fit into other venues, Tonnon partnered up with artist/designer, Erika Sklenars. Also known by her stage name Lady Lazerlight, Sklenars works in new media, video art, installation, performance and intervention, and brings a hi-tech, hologrammatic-like technique known as projection mapping to A Synthesized Universe.

While A Synthesized Universe is an intergalactic, multi-sensory experience with custom animations and high-tech lighting effects, what drives it is Tonnon’s music. This he plays on a New Zealand-designed, state-of-the-art, all-in-one, portable synthesiser-sampler known as the Deluge and a 1968 semi-hollow electric guitar. Not only is the Deluge used for the creation, performance and improvisation of electronic music, Tonnon operates LED lighting effects from it.

“You plod along playing guitar almost anachronistically, then when you start to play the technology it’s like a singularity,” says Tonnon.

The singularity is described by cultural impresario John Brockman as a “merger between human intelligence and machine intelligence is going to create something bigger than itself”.

Tonnon got involved with the singularity when Otago Museum’s director asked if the musician would like to stage a show in a planetarium. Tonnon thought at first he was referring to the science section of the museum – then the director took him into the museum’s own dome room with its 900 kilogram aluminium dome suspended in a light and soundproofed space at a 12 degree angle to enable a 360-degree viewing experience from tilted seats.

“He turned it on and you have the planets and stars above you,” says Tonnon.

“We spent a couple of weeks back and forth to develop the show. Working in a planetarium there are many constraints. It’s not like people are walking around, and going to the bar. It’s not a case of playing a song, waiting for applause then playing the next song. We wrote a show where I take my songs and instruments and linked them together.”

Science, time and the universe

“We started to weave narrative and science, time and the universe together. I did very much a crash course.”

That began with studying children’s books about the universe, infinity and beyond, then deepened. Having studied for a degree in history, Tonnon enjoyed the research process.

“I’ve always approached songwriting that way,” he says.

“I always do research on a song. This was a nice development. It’s a good thing to have happened. If you’re a musician you’re not limited to doing things the same way. There are many pathways.”

On the visual side of the planetarium project he worked with a digital-creative team that included animator Andrew Charlton.

“I looked at the planetarium to see what it could do. I wanted to get a sense of everything I could do to figure out what it could do that was meaningful to me. We had a great show. It turned out to be a great way to perform. In other shows people come in and sit in an intense environment for an hour and then are gone but this is an immersive experience.

“It’s such a good show I wanted to see how to bring it to other places. Dome projections can’t be done in regular venues.”

To help with that transition Charlton customised the animations while Sklenars introduced projection mapping, a technique used to turn objects into a display surface for video projection.

“By using specialised software, a two- or three-dimensional object is spatially mapped on the virtual programme which mimics the real environment it is to be projected on,” Wikipedia tells us.

“To me they look like holograms but are maps of projections in different areas of space,” says Tonnon.

“She has special, thin screens we’ll place around the stage.”

Tonnon started his musical trajectory as a guitarist and piano player.

“I come from the fringes of a movement in New Zealand. We were all making music that sounded like The Beatles.”

New technology

He came to embrace technology “to a degree”.

Tonnon became obsessed with shrinking his show, he says. Now he can carry his equipment in a wheelie suitcase and a guitar case.

“A couple of years ago I had an 88 key piano and guitar. I now have a 32 key instrument you can barely see.”

The 32 key instrument would be the Synthstrom Deluge, an innocuous, deluxe chocolate box-sized machine that takes the audience into another dimension.

The music for A Synthesized Universe is built around Tonnon’s songs including Two Free Hands and Old Images which he describes as dual pillars between organic and synthesised sound. New songs he has developed for an as yet unreleased album also feature in the show. The playlist is woven with instrumental sections as well as spoken word narratives about space, science and the nature of reality, and dance moves. The instrumental sections nod a little to electronic maestros Vangelis (Albedo. 39) and Brian Eno (An Ending (Ascent), Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks).

“With new technology you can layer things in advance. You can make it sound that much more full,” says Tonnon.

“I have some insight into what it would be like to set up in the 1970s. You had cables everywhere. With the new technology a lot of that has been streamlined. You can build things. I can put more time into it and it makes everything better. For me, performance is all about time.”

From the solo singer to the comedian, the artist invests more time into the performance than the audience. The performance distils time, says Tonnon.

And, now, space.

“If this is the beginning of a singularity moment, maybe in the future I can just wave my hands around to make music.”

Anthonie Tonnon presents A Synthesized Universe, the Dome, October 11, 8pm. Tickets $25, concessions $20, book at www.iticket.co.nz