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a dramatic monologue with music on tape for live performer

Year:  1999   ·  Duration:  16m 38s
Instrumentation:  music on tape, for a live performer and optional interactive control of sound files, and projected imagery mixed in realtime. Equipment required for performance includes two Macintosh G3 computers, a Silicon Graphics workstation, MIDI interfaces, a video camera and a video projector.

Year:  1999
Duration:  16m 38s
Instrumentation  music on tape, for a live p...

Composer:   Matthew Suttor


Sarrasine takes a pragmatic approach to so-called real-time interactive music technology. The environments I am using to perform this work, BigEye (video to MIDI) and Image/ine (real-time control of video processing), were developed at the Studios for Electronic Instrumental Music (STEIM) in Amsterdam.

These programs produce no sound themselves but offer a myriad of control possibilities and in doing so ask the question: what is a musical instrument? A computer keyboard, a mouse, a video camera?

Matthew Suttor's multimedia theater piece, "Sarrasine", is comprised of eight sections, and is based on Balzac's "Sarrasine". Balzac's work takes place in the 1830's at a party in Paris as two lovers discuss the tale of Sarrasine, a frightful old man, believed to be over 100 years old, who is seated in a corner. Though the narrative of Balzac's "Sarrasine" is difficult to discern from a first listening, the major themes of Suttor's work are conveyed through a pleasantly overwhelming barrage of sound and video, enhanced and enriched by the live performance of Suttor. This collage of richly variegated of sounds and images, collected from across centuries, challenges the audience to weigh the world of Balzac's latent tale with Suttor's "Sarrasine".

In the beginning of "Sarrasine", the text projected onto a large video screen directly behind Suttor invites the audience to, "Imagine you are sitting in an opera house. Somewhere in France. Nowhere fancy. Provincial even. In 1999." And later, Balzac's texts recounts, "Sarrasine left for Italy in 1758." Henceforth the audience is invited to dispel the notion of chronological time and geographical place, and imagine a landscape which fuses past and present worlds as the work draws upon references across centuries.

The sonic world of the opera is a blend of the recorded speech of the Suttor's voice reading from Balzac's text, recorded and processed mbira, harpsichord, flutes, and other electro-acoustic samples. Despite their possibly disparate features and implications, Suttor combines these sounds, and successfully forges a unique sonic world which at once suggests the Eighteenth century of Balzac's piece as well as our own time.

Though Suttor remained mute throughout the performance, allowing the recorded music and text to speak for him, his reserved, yet precise, performance maintained a delicate balance such that he could step in and out of the pre-recorded video world. The video often contained images of paintings from the earlier time periods, including one recurring image of Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus." Suttor at one point assumed the pose of Venus, and their striking resemblance was as provocative as amusing. At another moment, Suttor stood such that a portion of the video was projected onto his body as well as onto the screen. In the most complete union of the video and live performance, the screen contained live video footage of Suttor writing and drawing as prerecorded video images were superimposed on the screen.

As the audience watched Suttor literally step in and out of the video, and listened to his pre-recorded music and voice tell the story of Sarrasine, the audience was compelled to draw parallels and conclusions regarding the juxtaposition of the two distinct yet delightfully mergeable worlds of Balzac's and Suttor's Sarrasine.

Report written by David Birchfield, Producer of the Movement and Sound Concerts

Text note

English words based on Honoré de Balzac's "Sarrasine"

Performance history

06 Apr 1999: Performed by Matthew Suttor at the Merce Cunningham Dance Studios in New York, USA