#630: A Live Musical Graphic Novel Lecture: Cory McAbee’s Mixed Modality Performance

cory-mcabeeEach year, the Sundance New Frontier features VR experiences, films, and live performances that push the boundaries of storytelling. Cory McAbee did live performance of a piece called Deep Astronomy and the Romantic Sciences, which combines elements of illustrated visual storytelling, embodied communication, a fictionalized lecture, and musical interludes. He describes his mixed modality performance as a “live musical, graphic novel” that could be thought of a surrealist TED talk about the nature of consciousness and reality. McAbee’s mixture of a lecture with all of these other live performance modalities felt like the early signs of how the concept of a living story is evolving.


McAbee is a storyteller who immersed himself in conversations across the country about his big ideas as he formed the architecture of his presentation. He has been tuning into the deeper existential questions facing our society that he frames as a battle between the “truth seekers” and the “fact-checkers.” What are the limits of what science tells us about the patterns of reality? And how do the artists, poets, musicians, and storytellers fill in the gaps in what McAbee refers to as the “Romantic Sciences.”

There will be more and more live performances of this sort that are ephemeral, and hard to describe or fully capture the experience in 2D. McAbee did capture his performances, and is planning on translating this experience into a film, but it’ll no doubt be qualitatively different than the live performance version. The striking thing aspect about McAbee’s performance is the degree to which he used his full body to amplify his message, but also mixing in music, humor, and a surrealist fiction into what can otherwise be some heady topics about the nature of consciousness and reality.

I’m curious to see how this type of mixing of modalities continues to evolve, and I think the next step is thinking about how to more directly engage the audience within the performance. While conversations and questions were vital to developing some of the content of the piece, the performance itself was heavily scripted without any direct audience participation. It’ll be interesting to see if adding in audience generativity with improv elements can make the live performance even more of a “living story” that allows the audience to leave a trace of their participation and tapping into the quality of the moment of the time. There are tradeoffs to being able to be in full control of the narrative arc and crafting an emotional journey, but increasing the audience participation in this type of experience seems to be the next frontier of where this fusion of modalities seems to be headed. Perhaps AR and VR technologies will eventually provide a logistical mechanism for helping make that happen.

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