Cipher is a stage piece by vocal artist Samita Sinha. A theatricalized music work for live voice and electronics, Cipher deploys sound, silence, light and the body to rewrite notions of power. It is performed in an immediate, responsive relationship between Sinha, as vocalist; DJ/sound designer Dave Sharma; and lighting designer Christopher Kuhl. The set is designed by visual artist Dani Leventhal and costumes are by Anna Telcs. I worked in the last phases of it’s development as an artistic adviser, providing directorial assistance, in order to help the final work of bringing the subtle levels of vocal and bodily expression within the reach of the audience via the medium of stage performance.

A journey through an otherworldly sonic, vibrational and sculptural landscape, Cipher suggests finding one’s self through finding one’s voice. Ranging from tightly structured to freely improvisational, from melodic to atonal, the experimental score embraces Sinha’s diverse heritage and investigations: classical Indian forms (e.g., raga, thumri, mantra); folk music (early blues from the American South and Bengali Baul songs); pop and electronic music. The work reflects how her sensibility as a music artist is closely bound to the sound qualities of language (a result of her speaking and singing in Hindi, Urdu, Brajh, Bengali, Sanskrit, Mandarin Chinese, English, and Spanish. The “vocabulary” heard in Cipher is tarana – a genre in Hindustani classical vocal music mixing Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit syllables said to encode mystical meanings.

In addition to Sinha’s vocal performance, the unconventional Cipher “ensemble” features a gritty sounding tabla (rhythm) machine expertly altered by Sharma; an ektaara (one-string instrument); microphones and looping devices; and bass frequencies. Each sound is localized on stage through amplifiers and speakers, threaded together by Sinha’s voice into a sonic, vibrational architecture built from body/space/sound. The pulse of the electronic tabla surrounds the audience, as Sinha becomes a lightning rod of melody and embodied vocalizations.

At its core, Cipher touches on visibility and invisibility, on suffering and its transformation, so the visual terrain is crafted by Christopher Kuhl from light and shadow to frame the abstract story as it moves from a kind of underworld into fully embodied voice and sight. Moreover, the sound and light in Cipher combine to bring forth two levels of meaning – conceptual and visceral – as the realm of cultural politics and the realm of the sprit converge in the body. As a first generation American in a South Asian immigrant family exploring her inheritance, Sinha brings feelings to Cipher that flow from the loss of mooring to ancestral home and language, as well as the creative potential embedded in that rupture. The artists’ in-the-moment interplay creates a live, vibrational space that powerfully conveys what it means to be seen and heard.

Cipher is produced by MAPP International Productions, and it premiered at the TBA-festival at Portland Institute of Contemporary Art 12th of September 2014 and has been performed since at Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech and at The Kitchen, New York City.

Review on Culturebot.


PHOTOGRAPHY: Dani Leventhal