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Narrative Bio, Sara Roberts

Sara Roberts develops performance strategies for exploring sonic interaction in groups. Social and crowd dynamics, game and text scores, interdisciplinary education, and sonic activities for both trained and untrained musicians.

Roberts' MFA is from the California College of the Arts, Oakland/ San Francisco, 1988 in Film/Video.  Throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s Roberts worked in feature film editing at Zoetrope Studios and Skywalker Ranch.

Throughout the 90’s Roberts’  large scale interactive installations were shown in Los Angeles at the Williamson Gallery at ArtCenter, the Fisher Gallery at USC, at the Yerba Buena Center and the Arts Commision Gallery in San Francisco, also extensively in Germany, Denmark, Finland and France. She collaborated with media artist Lynn Hershman Leeson on several interactive installations, also shown internationally and now in major collections.

Roberts taught at San Francisco State University, in the InterArtsProgram and the Conceptual Design Program with the late Stephen Wilson. In 1993 she was a resident artist at the Djerassi Foundation and received a WESTAF grant for New Genres.

In 1994 she moved to Los Angeles to teach at Cal Arts in the Composition/New Media Program with Morton Subotnick. She was the founding director of the Integrated Media Program (an interdisciplinary graduate program) at CalArts, 1996-2001. In 2001/02 she was a senior researcher at the Interactive Institute in Malmö, Sweden, and was honored as a Rockefeller Media Fellow in 2002.

In 2002 she and her husband, Palle Henckel, made the first set of Earbees, simple handheld loop recorders that can be distributed to a group for exploring sound, games, and human dynamics. The third set, of 50 earbees, is still used by Roberts, and numerous other artists, for works and workshops in fields from dance, to puppetry, to social activism.

Work from 2002 - 2013 involved active group participation and was typically presented as workshops or activities for standing or seated audiences. She has presented workshops and pieces at venues in Portugal, London, Houston, San Antonio, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Minneapolis, often through the LA based Machine Project.

In 2014, with poet Jordan Biren, Roberts founded the Reader’s Chorus, an open ensemble of readers with varied backgrounds; musicians, composers, visual artists, film makers, poets - all people interested in reading aloud and experimenting with the possibilities of the speaking voice. Year-round the chorus meets weekly to experiment with material at a rehearsal space in Chinatown. The Reader’s Chorus has performed at the Wulf, the Velaslavasay Panorama, Automata, and the Museum of Jurassic Technology, and most recently MOCA Geffen, presenting the premier of a recently recovered final Postcard piece by James Tenney.

Current projects include a reader’s chorus version of poet Joshua Beckman’s set of 30  Mechanical Poems: for Reading Aloud, and a collection of scores: The Reader’s Chorus Reader. More about the Reader’s Chorus at our website: https://www.readerschorus.com/

Current teaching is in the Experimental Sound Practices Program in the School of Music, and emeritus on the faculty of the Center for Integrated Media, at CalArts. She is also active in the teaching and administration of the Performer/Composer DMA program in the CalArts School of Music.

Classes At CalArts:

Sound Art and Space

This class familiarizes students with factors that come into play when making sound art installations, in using space: the placement of objects, scale, the site, and considering what objects and spatial situations “say” to people (semiotics).

We look at contemporary and historical works, explore sculptural and architectural use of space, visual and spatial semiotics, and make a survey of exhibition practices. There will be in-depth study of various sound works and artists. This is not a lecture class, it takes the form of a seminar. There is a topic question each week for students to think about, research, and write about for class discussion.

Reader’s Chorus

This is both a composition and an ensemble class. We begin by experimenting with previously developed pieces for reading aloud, and text scores. Once acquainted with the form, students write or find material for the chorus to develop. As a group we experiment with techniques, ”arranging" for a reader's chorus; playing with timbral combinations of voices, rhythms of speech, movement and spatialization of the material. There is a final performance of work developed during the semester.

Low Tech Prototyping

This class teaches the planning skills necessary to make gallery or site specific installations. Students begin by making an informal proposal for an installation or site-specific work. A series of exercises helps clarify the project, and understand how an audience might perceive it. Three-dimensional mockups and models assist in refining student’s ideas and help them communicate them to others. Lighting and display are addressed as we mock up proposed works in gallery space and test whether interactivity in a piece makes sense to a visitor. There is discussion about permits and permission. Finally there is revised proposal, budget, and presentation of work to the class.

Survey of SoundArt

Students become familiar with the history of work done by artists and musicians with sound, to practice listening, broaden sound vocabulary and fluidity in talking and writing about sound, and experiment with classic & lesser known techniques for making sound works.

This year we will focus on the history and current practices in the field of Text Sound.

Topics in Sound Art: A to D - Analog to Digital 1968 to 1988

An interdisciplinary history class designed to cover developments in late 20th Century and 21st century music, art, and technology. Relevant for students with an interest in the historical roots of the technological tools that we use every day in music and art-making. The class learns about and uses online research tools to build a timeline, a broad and detailed picture of the recent past. A critical inquiry that questions the conditions of innovation and challenge notions of technological progress, asking the following questions:

- Is a Darwinian “survival of the fittest”-picture of technological progress valid?

- Have there been technologies passed over that might be of interest to us now?

- Are we doing significantly different things with technology now than we were during that period?

The Interactee

Perception, memory, and interpretation play critical roles in experiencing artworks. Do these three major players function differently in works that involve audience participation? This is a practical exploration into the dynamics of audience participatory work for students who are interested in developing skills: communication, anticipation, and improvisation with groups and audiences.

Rules and Space

Exercises and activities for developing spatial awareness and noticing the social dynamics created by simple rules and suggestions, connecting narrative and space, working with network/group behavior, testing and refining rules, and making participation meaningful. The students work as an ensemble, practicing, adjusting, playing and replaying pieces and games invented by students.

20th Century Influences and Interactions

Each week covers a specific year in each decade of the 20th Century, for instance, from the ‘50‘s: ‘the historical and cultural events of 1951’. An important goal for the class is to learn about and use online research tools. Students are asked to research biographies and archives of artists, scientists, theorists, composers, and other cultural figures in detail to build a timeline, a broad and detailed picture of 20th century lives. Class begins with a cultural and historical panorama of the specific year we are covering and then focuses in on details: events, inventions, relationships, and features of the social landscape. The aim of researching these lives is a better understanding of the roots of movements that are still moving us, the overlapping field effects of ideas in many disciplines, and the interplay between the work of an individual and the broader culture.

Interdisciplinary Initiative classes (not currently taught)

(developed with Mona Heinze)

Getting and Using Critique

Understanding the roots of your own position and the positions of of others.

Critique Methodologies

Comparative critique, trying out a variety of methods for critique from different disciplines, schools of thought, and -isms (feminism, marxism, etc.)

Beyond Personal - Dealing with Larger Issues

Using protocols to address questions and problems arising between people in collaborations, productions, classrooms, and institutions

Recent Interim Period Classes

Bringing the Past into the Present: exploring the CalArts archives (with Kathy Carbone) Introduction to the cultural treasures of the CalArts Library’s archive. An opportunity to root around in the archives for material and inspiration from CalArts’ past. Lectures on other special libraries and archives and examples of artist’s archive projects.

Eno for Airports (with Clay Chaplin)

In depth listening and looking at the influential work and milieu of multifarious artist and producer Brian Eno, emphasizing analysis of his early recordings and looking for their influence in his many collaborations.

Pandemic Performance (with Kristin Erickson)

A mass, interdisciplinary performance workshop featuring people as the medium as a dynamic network of self-organizing agents, mutating and adapting from individual and collective behaviors. In order to create an engaging and absorbing social medium rules must be refined and tested. In this performance workshop we will actively tweak the rules of pandemic performances in order to achieve the fullest collective realization of each piece.