A Monstrous Creation: Whit MacLaughlin on NPL’s O MONSTERS First Draft

The inventive devised works by New Paradise Laboratories are staples of the annual Philadelphia Fringe Festival (recent offerings include 2014’s The Adults and 2012’s 27). So it’s fitting that the company is presenting its latest work-in-progress at the FringeArts headquarters. O MONSTERS First Draft “combines the joys of horror and science fiction with a philosophical investigation into what is knowable and what is beyond our ability to contemplate.” In this interview with FringeArts, artistic director Whit MacLaughlin describes the inspiration behind the piece and its music.

[FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Boulevard] April 23-30, 2016; fringearts.com.

Photo: Kate Raines plate3.com
Photo: Kate Raines plate3.com

FringeArts: Where did the title O Monsters come from?

Whit MacLaughlin: I’m thinking about mutation and unprecedented life forms. I am also thinking about non-human points of view. What the philosopher Meillassoux calls ancestrality—is it possible to imagine the world separately from the human perspective? To take the human perspective out of the mix? Of course that is difficult from the point of view of artistic expression, but the world existed before man came along—do we really need to be so concerned about how we describe it and what we think it is? Is there anything knowable about the world-in-itself, apart from us?

These questions seems pertinent, especially now that we are imagining what things might be like if we were extinct. What would the world without us be like? I’m not longing for that, exactly, but it’s a comforting thought, actually. That we might be completely off the hook some day. That we’re not as important as we might imagine. This leads us to think about horror. Horror is the unthinkable—the non-human and unfathomable—leaking into this world.

What effect does monstrosity have on this world? We are creating a family of monsters who don’t really know that that’s what they are. It’s hidden from them. The thought sneaks up on them. Like it sneaks up on me when I realize that my actions really do have an effect on people who live halfway around the world. Imagine being a monster without knowing it.

FringeArts: Can you describe the origins of the music and how it’s created?

Whit MacLaughlin: We’ve been working with composer Bhob Rainey for several years now. He’s an absolutely brilliant fellow. He has taste, extraordinary intelligence, a bizarre sense of humor, and a lot of rock and roll in his heart. We have been longing to hear the world in unusual and unprecedented ways. So Bhob has sonified some very interesting things. That is, he has taken various phenomena, mined them for the math at their core, and turned that math into music.

For instance, he has taken the equation describing the electrical behavior of squid neurons and made music from it. For us, he has sonified the near misses of the earth by meteors over the past 100 years and composed a piece called Canopy of Catastrophes. He has made music from the massive data output of the Chicago Commodities Exchange, which, incidentally, is random. No algorithm will ever be able to anticipate, with any real accuracy, what the derivatives market is going to do.

We’re treating Bhob’s music like spontaneous expressions of something in-the-world that can be used to choreograph out-of-this-world stage action. There will be sections of O Monsters First Draft that will be like a concert, but different from anything you’ve ever attended. We are also making sound poetry, a la Francois Dufrene, under Bhob’s direction. Sound poetry is a kind of voiced, but non-pitched singing that has some of the qualities of speech along with a dollop of the non-human.
Listen to this excerpt of Bhob Rainey’s immersive, electroacoustic score:

FringeArts: How do the music and performers play off/inform one another one another?

Whit MacLaughlin: Well, I have to admit that I’ve never heard anything like this music before. It’s otherworldly, but not in an eerie space-music sort of way. Though it could possibly be like the sounds that you’d hear on Jupiter. We’ve experimented with it, just as it is (not as underscoring) as a stimulus to stage action. It has resulted in some very fun things. Yes, it’s almost like we are choreographing on the surface of Jupiter. Ultimately though, we are exploring something we haven’t quite found a name for yet. Symphonic theater might be a good name for it.

FringeArts: How did the idea of metamorphosis become central to O Monsters First Draft?

Whit MacLaughlin: My mother died very suddenly one day about eight years ago. It was a household accident that no one could figure out. She was here one minute and gone the next. Super strange. I haven’t found a proper place to explore that event, but it obsesses me, so maybe this is the proper place.

Here’s another story. We’ve been hanging out with French philosophers. One told me the other day of a friend who had tickets to see the Eagles of Death Metal at the Bataclan in Paris on the day that the militants shot it up. This friend gave his tickets away, on a whim, and set out to go to dinner at a restaurant in another arrondissement. At dinner, he was shot and killed by a separate terrorist cell. On the same night. What the hell! What can you make of such a thing?

I find metamorphosis a beautiful and horrific thing. Total, seemingly unprecedented transformation. Happens all the time, but that doesn’t mitigate its strangeness.

Metamorphosis. Can a caterpillar really imagine, really visualize what’s going to happen to it? It doesn’t transform into a moth in a clean way. It first turns to goo inside the cocoon and then the goo turns into a moth. I doubt that it recognizes itself after the transformation. It’s a sure thing, for the most part, but entirely unanticipated. Like dying.

FringeArts: What is the world of O Monsters First Draft?

Whit MacLaughlin: It’s a delivery system for unexpected and unprecedented things. A Rube Goldberg machine with an otherworldly idea of causality. A place to explore pure chance. A place where really weird and beautiful things can happen. Think weird fiction, HP Lovecraft, crossed with the nice family next door. [FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Boulevard] April 23-30, 2016; fringearts.com.

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