"Gorgeous," "stunning" and “so wrong.” These are the words that artist Robbie Lynn Hunsinger uses to describe her experience of the total solar eclipse this past August. She says she watched the awe-inspiring and eerie event from one of the best spots in town: a hillside next to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Even while Hunsinger was taking video and photographs of the celestial event, she didn’t yet know that the experience would be the impetus for a new multi-media composition. Nashville’s alternative classical ensemble, chatterbird, will perform the world premiere of Hunsinger's Eclipse this Thursday.
“My work tends to go in unexpected directions,” Hunsinger explains over the phone. “Usually it ends up different than I originally thought.” She says she’d been kicking around motives for the commissioned piece from chatterbird when she witnessed the eclipse, which she describes as a deeply moving moment. While she had seen partial eclipses, this was her first experience of totality.
The resulting work will also be some firsts for the composer. Eclipse is the first time she has written for an ensemble of chatterbird’s size, and the first time she won’t be a performer in her own work. It’s also the first time she has written for female voice, and Hunsinger says Annie Dillard’s classic 1982 essay “Total Eclipse” served as the basis for her text and a “very strong thread” throughout the piece as a whole.
But for all the firsts, fans of Hunsinger’s work will also recognize her hallmarks: a mixture of sonic and visual elements fused intimately with technology that is, in many cases, designed to be responsive to audiences.
In creating complex, trans-media work, Hunsinger says it’s always her hope to create something that is compelling enough that audiences don’t think about the technology. “I want to shape the work in a way that is engaging, and not a mental or academic exercise. I want audiences to be drawn in to connect with the work, whether that’s through a fascinating image or a swirl of color,” she explains. At the heart of everything, she says, is an emotional element.
To hear her describe the bird’s eye view of Eclipse is to hear about an emotional journey: each of the piece’s movements sequentially trace the shifts in mood as the sun is slowly blotted from the sky, from pre- to post-totality.
Throughout the work, Hunsinger explores the range of emotion from tranquility to agitation to shock, using both traditional and graphic notation with passages of improvisation. Her music is accompanied by visuals she collected during the eclipse.
This way of composing is a far cry from Hunsinger’s early career. “For a long time my life was very compartmentalized,” she says. “I was a very serious classical oboe player for many years, but I was also in a country band, I played free jazz and did photography and videography on the side just because I loved it.” Trans-media work is a “lovely way to bring all of me into one space,” she explains. “I have all of my interests here: electronics, robotics, acoustics, textures, classical melody, and more.”
She is also quick to praise chatterbird for their excellent musicianship and for “being game” to try just about anything. Hunsinger’s piece is part of the evening’s program that includes music from Wu Fei, chatterbird’s current composer in residence, Blair faculty member Michael Slayton, American composer Eve Beglarian and Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir.