Artist Interview: Composer Scott Ordway and Designer Erica Eliot Discuss Innovative Concert The Clearing and the Forest

Courtesy of Scott Ordway
For each new season, San Antonio's SOLI Chamber Ensemble tries to up the ante, and the group's latest project is no exception. The ensemble commissioned "boundary-defying" composer Scott Ordway to create a special, site-specific piece, The Clearing and the Forest, a project that soon took on a life of its own, requiring Ordway to call in an assist from designer and longtime friend Erica Eliot. Ahead of this weekend's premiere, the Current connected with Ordway and Eliot over email to discuss the process of creating and executing this unique new work.

What were the origins of The Clearing and the Forest?

Scott Ordway: The ensemble reached out to me in 2016 after the premiere of Tonight We Tell the Secrets of the World, a crowd-interactive “whisper play” in which the audience participates in the performance as a large choir of whispered voices. We began discussing another large-scale work that could similarly challenge the traditional relationship between ensemble and physical space, between ensemble and the public and even between members of the ensemble themselves. At the same time, I also wanted to create a work that was inspired by SOLI’s location in San Antonio, Texas, which is so near to the border with Mexico and whose culture has been shaped in profound ways by that proximity. And so we set out to use this format of experimental theater to explore the idea of leaving home, seeking refuge, starting again in a way that could speak to a wide variety of audiences and to people of varying backgrounds. Sadly, these themes have become relevant in ways that we could never have imagined when this project began to take shape in the summer of 2016, and the process of creating this piece against the backdrop of current events on our southern border has been heartbreaking at times.

When you receive a commission like this, do you take your parameters and run with it, or do you closely collaborate with the ensemble while composing?

SO: For a project of this complexity, and one that stretches boundaries in the way that it does, communication is incredibly important. I do my best to keep every ensemble I collaborate with in the loop as the vision for the project evolves and takes its final shape. As part of this process, I visited San Antonio for several days in 2018 to meet with the ensemble, share my vision for the work and tour possible venues throughout the city. These in-person meetings are vitally important for the type of collaborative work that I do.

What was similar or different about working with SOLI for a second time?

SO: My first collaboration with SOLI in 2014 wasn’t a commissioned work or a
Courtesy of SOLI Chamber Ensemble
 world premiere. It was much more straightforward because they were interpreting a work which had been performed widely already. They are incredible musicians, so bringing the final performance to life was mostly a matter of adjusting details and interpretation. The Clearing and the Forest is something totally different: it is a joyous leap of faith musically, technically, conceptually and logistically. A project like this can only be built on a foundation of trust and successful collaboration, so in many ways our smaller interaction in 2014 made this much larger and more ambitious project possible.

Scott and Erica, how early in the composition process did you begin to collaborate, and what did that look like? Was there any triangulation with SOLI in regard to this aspect?

SO: When SOLI offered me the commission, the parameters were deliberately vague: to create an evening-length, site-specific work that would explore the themes of borders, immigration and refuge in a distinctive way. At that time, it wasn’t clear to me that I would collaborate with anyone else on the project. But as the piece began to take shape in my mind, it became apparent that the work I was envisioning was something I couldn’t possibly create alone. Erica and I have known one another for many years, and share a very particular aesthetic sensibility that is grounded in the belief that landscape and the natural world are, and must be, the contexts within which all human actions take place. In my work, I return again and again to imagery of the forest in particular, and so it’s incredibly exciting for me to work with a designer and visual artist whose medium is plants and foraged material.

We haven’t had the opportunity to collaborate in a robust way before, but I knew this project could only flourish with her contributions. I was thrilled when she agreed to participate. As we began our work, it became clear very quickly that we would co-author the piece, and that the visual dimension was no more or less important than the musical or theatrical dimensions. We devised the scenario and basic architecture of the work and discussed how these would be reflected in the visual dimension over several months of weekly calls. Then, I disappeared and wrote the music itself (at 1,527 measures, it is the longest work I have completed to date) while Erica set about sourcing or foraging the materials and creating a complex plan for how everything would converge in San Antonio and be assembled in just under a week.

Erica Eliot: Scott and I had a phone call very early in the process –
click to enlarge COURTESY OF ERICA ELIOT
Courtesy of Erica Eliot
 shortly after he received the commission – about the opportunity to use the medium of chamber music and a distinctive venue (the McNay Art Museum) to create something very unique. He had already conceptualized what he wanted to convey through the piece (larger ideas of borders, crossing, movement and change), and we built upon these notions as we began to collaborate on the project. We began working together even before Scott had started to write the music, as we both wanted cohesion between all aspects of the experience. It was incredibly important to us that the composition and the environment we created around it were linked in a way that feels inextricable.

The process of working together was incredibly natural and uncomplicated. The two of us have been friends for nearly a decade and have been present at some of the most important moments in one another's lives, so there was an openness and vulnerability to working together that I don't think always exists in artistic collaborations. Because we're in different states, most of our collaborative time was spent over video calls and through digital platforms. At the beginning of the process, we dove into a really diverse set of source materials that we shared with one another, worked together during scheduled weekly calls and built on the progress we made each week.

We started by thinking of the story we wanted to tell through the piece and mapped out what was possible in the space logistically, and then worked through each act of the piece (there are three in total) visually and musically. We have a Google Doc full of absolutely wild ideas that we brainstormed, and a Slack workspace where we shared everything from YouTube videos of a Chanel runway show to an Italian theatre manifesto to John Ashbury poems to editorial photographs of Beyonce. The process of collaborative ideation, sharing, learning and ultimately creating something new is always something I love to do, and to think through creating something visually that's also being conveyed musically was a really energizing exercise for me. Scott's work exists in such a different world than mine does professionally, so for each of us to bring such a depth of knowledge from our own backgrounds to one another to create something new and experimental was incredibly inspiring.

Erica, what is your usual design approach, and did you conform to or deviate from that process for this project?

click to enlarge COURTESY OF ERICA ELIOT
Courtesy of Erica Eliot
EE: Most of my work is inspired by something visual (most often color), and     is connected conceptually to the materials I decide to use and have access to (these change through the seasons and my location); the beginnings of this piece were no different. When Scott initially approached me about the project and I began to think about within the contexts of boundaries and crossings, color was immediately where the process of envisioning the end product began. It’s a constraint that ultimately allows for so much more freedom in the process. Because the ideas of borders, crossing and migration can be both extremely vague and incredibly specific, I wanted to use color and natural materials in the space to reset the predetermined visual attachments we may already have to these themes.

I'm almost always able to visit a space I'm transforming in person before I think through what and how I want to create. I didn't have the opportunity to see or walk through the gallery at McNay until the week prior to the premiere, so I had to really approach most of the installation work with a lot of flexibility. I take a holistic approach to my work and really consider how I want the viewer or audience to feel when they encounter it. Every piece of this work is intimately interconnected, and Scott and I both considered the architecture of the space, the light, the layout of the room and the way an individual will move through the space and interact with both the installation and the music. The process of conceptualizing, visualizing and planning for the piece is similar to how I usually work, but I've also been really open to being guided by the limitations of working on this piece entirely remotely. Many of my initial design sketches are based on photographs and on the descriptions Scott shared with me about the space, and there have been many iterations as we worked together over the past year.

What led you to choose to center your design on organic materials, and what challenges has this imposed?

EE: I'm utterly captivated by the natural world. I was raised on a farm in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, so from a young age I had a lot of freedom to experience the landscape. Watching it change dramatically as I grew up was incredibly formative for me, and the thread that runs through all of the work I create is a desire to explore the disconcerting beauty that emerges from the tenuous relationship between nature and humanity. Using natural and organic materials allows me to create pieces and installations that continue to evolve and eventually disintegrate after I last touch them. Flowers 
click to enlarge COURTESY OF ERICA ELIOT
Courtesy of Erica Eliot
fade, leaves warp and the process of decay is often visible after only a few hours. This fragile connection between beauty and collapse is a theme that I've been able to explore deeply with natural materials, and I think this runs parallel to the themes of movement, evolution and change that Scott addresses musically in The Clearing and The Forest.

In using natural materials, sourcing can always be a challenge. I always  consider where the materials are coming from and try to use what I can get  locally (the floral industry is a global behemoth of which most consumers are unaware), and if I can responsibly forage materials to use in installations, I do. Using flora as a medium requires a lot of flexibility on my part, as well – nature has a mind of its own and every stem and branch has grown in a way that I could never hope to control. This means that I allow the materials to dictate the shapes and forms of the installations I build, rather than attempting to mold them into something they're not.

What do the logistics for design and install look like when you are putting together a set that will be built far from your home-base and on a quick turnaround? Will you be in town for the concert?

EE: I'm thrilled to be in town for the concert! Scott and I both arrived on Monday, which means he's able to spend time with the ensemble at rehearsals, and I'll be able to dedicate several days to build out most of the pieces for the installation.

Logistically, the biggest hurdle was making sure that I was organized enough to ensure that all of the materials and supplies I'm using arrived when I needed them, where I needed them. I usually have the luxury of being able to transport things from my studio space in a vehicle, so shipping a lot of materials and supplies was a logistical hurdle. Coordinating shipments, scheduling van rentals and making sure I can source things locally are parts of the process behind the scenes that take a lot of time but make the production days much easier. Beyond that, it's not uncommon for me to only have access to a space for a few hours on the day of an event to build out an installation, so a quick turnaround isn't a stressful or intimidating situation.

$10-25, 3pm Sun June 2, Leeper Auditorium, McNay Art Museum, 6000 N. New Braunfels Ave., (210) 824-5368,
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