Stanford's 'Live Context' series explores art and its ideas

Leveraging the university’s deep intellectual and artistic resources, "Live Context" is inspired by the conviction that the more you know about a work of art's historical and contemporary resonance the richer your experience. On tap for February: Haydn and the music of the Nile River basin.

The Nile Project in concert in Cairo

The Nile Project, shown in concert in Al Azhar Park, Cairo, in 2013, will bring top musicians from Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan and eight other Nile River Basin nations to Stanford on Feb. 18. (Image credit: Matjaz Kacicnik)

Compared with Mozart and Beethoven, “Haydn gets the short end of the stick,” says violinist Geoff Nuttall of the celebrated Stanford-based St. Lawrence String Quartet.

He will make his passionate case for Haydn’s greatness – playing and talking about the composer’s music – throughout the weekend of Feb. 13–15 as part of the campus-wide Haydn: Patronage & Enlightenment program. It’s the inaugural event of a new Stanford Live series called Live Context: Art + Ideas that will highlight the ideas that inform great works of art being performed here each season and connect them to the scholarship and research for which Stanford is renowned.

Live Context is inspired by the conviction that the more you know about the ideas ingrained in a work of art, its historical context and contemporary resonance, the richer your experience of that art will be. And with the university’s deep intellectual and artistic resources, “This is something Stanford can do like nobody else can,” said Stanford Live Executive Director Wiley Hausam.

The ideas in art

The centerpiece of a yearlong exploration of the artist and the period, Haydn: Patronage & Enlightenment – which includes performances of chamber, choral and orchestral music and an international conference focused on the culture and shifting support for the arts in the late 18th century – is one of three major events of Live Context.

The second program occurs Feb. 18 with The Nile Project. That’s the collective
 of top musicians from Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan and eight other Nile River Basin nations who have come together to create 
a uniquely East African sound and engage in a transnational conversation about the ecological sustainability of the river that’s essential to the lives of 450 million people.

The group’s 7:30 p.m. concert 
at Bing will be preceded by
 a symposium that day on “Women of the Nile”; a lecture highlighting Stanford’s collection of rare maps of the Nile region by Grant Parker, a music-loving associate professor of classics and co-director of Stanford’s Center for African Studies; and other water-related discussions particularly relevant in drought-plagued California, including a pre-concert forum featuring Barton “Buzz” Thompson, director of Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment.

Then on April 1 and 2, Stanford Live presents the world premiere of The Demo, a multimedia performance piece based on the historic 1968 demonstration of early personal-computing technology by the Stanford Research Institute’s Douglas Engelbart, which among other things introduced videoconferencing, networked collaboration and a little device called the mouse. Created and performed by composers Mikel Rouse and Ben Neill, the piece uses music, light and sometimes hallucinatory video projections to re-create Engelbart’s mind-bending demo and the Bay Area gestalt of the 1960s, and to reflect on how those now-ubiquitous technologies have developed and been put to use in ways he may not have envisioned or particularly liked.

Hausam had heard about the work-in-progress and knew it was perfect to premiere at Stanford: “How often are we going to see a large-scale work of art based on a technological revolution that happened here?” he asked.

To put the piece in context, Hausam sought out faculty members and other prominent figures engaged with technology and human augmentation to 
talk about the scientific, social, and ethical issues involved.

The highlight will be a public conversation on April 2 at Bing with the celebrated technology writer Jaron Lanier, known for his humanistic vision, who will engage in what should be a lively discussion with Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford research professor and former Google-meister who founded the firm’s Google X, which brought forth the self-driving car and Google Glass. Expect a wide-ranging discussion touching on current technology and its implications and the ethical issues of privacy and surveillance. Prior to this, on March 12, Stanford Computer Science Professor James Landay, who specializes in computer-human interaction, will give a Green Library lecture about human augmentation.

A culture of investigation

“I like art that’s engaged with the issues that are going on in the world,” Hausam said. This new series aims to fulfill one 
of Stanford Live’s missions – “connecting great performance to the significant issues, ideas and discoveries of our time,” to which Hausam added, “and to all the brilliant people at Stanford who are doing these things.”

One of the invaluable people involved in this inaugural series is Stephen Hinton, Stanford’s Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities, professor of music, and director of the Stanford Arts Institute. He organized the extensive campus-wide Haydn: Patronage & Enlightenment program, which presents three all-Haydn concerts that feature string quartets, orchestral works and the so-called Nelson Mass, plus two days of discussions that include a lecture by University
 of Vienna scholar Wolfgang Fuhrmann called “Black Box Esterházy: The Elusive Figure
 of Haydn’s Most Important Patron” and the University of Toronto’s Caryl Clark on “Haydn’s Social Networks in London.”

Hinton, who is teaching a continuing-education class on Haydn this spring, said he thinks it’s crucial that Stanford present performances “in the context of the liberal arts education we’re offering our students,
 to create a link between the concert hall and the classroom, and what performers do and what scholars do.”

Musical connections

Making connections is what 
The Nile Project is about for Meklit Hadero, the Ethiopian-American singer
 who cofounded the group with Egyptian ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis in 2011. They started talking about how there’s very little cultural exchange in Africa itself and why, as Hadero put it, “We had to come all the way 
to the United States to hear each other’s music. We all share this river, and yet we’re strangers in many ways. What 
if we brought the music of the neighbors to the neighborhood?”

That’s what they did, using funding from a Kickstarter campaign to travel around East Africa to find musicians who wanted not only to collaborate musically but also to talk with audiences and students at home and abroad about the ecological issues and political conflicts involving the world’s longest river. “Many of the development issues facing East Africa can in some way be tied to water and how we use it. It becomes a nexus point for a lot of other questions,” said Hadero, who said he hopes the musical collaboration serves as a model for international cooperation.

The Nile Project features 
an extraordinary group of musicians, including the young Egyptian singer Dina El Wedidi, Kenyan percussionist Kasiva Mutua and Ugandan multi-instrumentalist Michael Bazibu. They play original music merging their various traditions.

“To me it sounds really different and unique,” said Oakland-based Hadero. “We feel the potential for this East African sound to have a place in the world and to have meaning beyond the music.”

Composer Mikel Rouse described the music he and Ben Neill
wrote for The Demo, in which 
he plays Douglas Engelbart and Neill appears as the computer scientist’s associate Bill English, as a combination of techno beats and phrasing –”although the rhythms are much more complicated” – and ethereal, minimalist-style singing.

“The libretto is mostly made
 of code that you see on the screen,” said Rouse, whose piece, commissioned and developed by the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in association with the eDream Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, takes place simultaneously
 in 1968 and the present.

The non-narrative piece is built
on the narrative framework of Engelbart’s original demo, “giving you the information that was imparted in 1968 but finding a musical and theatrical way to both respect the original and reflect on it,” explained Rouse. The collage-like visual imagery, which Rouse will trigger live at a computer keyboard of the kind Engelbart used (while Neill sets off synthesized sounds playing his MIDI-equipped “mutant” trumpet) draws on the history of computing, from early codes and algorithms to Facebook and contemporary advertising.

“Everyone knows Jobs and Gates, but they don’t know that Engelbart had a huge effect on how they
live their lives now,” Rouse said. “We couldn’t be happier to premiere this at Stanford, where it all happened.”