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  • Making Music People Can See

  • Making Music People Can See
    Design students use technology to reinvent the role of orchestral garments.
  • Closed eyes traditionally make way for open ears. Orchestral musicians drape themselves in black to enhance and grant priority to their sound — appealing to one sense at a time. But at The New School, where tradition is traditionally disrupted, angular notes stack like polygons, and dismantled high hats splash wild blue lightning.

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    Back in 2012, students from fashion and design and technology programs at Parsons School of Design and the College of Performing Arts' Mannes School of Music began a collaboration with Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO), that unfolded over the next few years. It was a creative engagement at the intersections of performance and design, sight and sound, that exploded the senses and sparked new ways of thinking about apparel and performance.

    In the course Fashionable Technologies, Parsons students constructed innovative sustainable, wearable technologies that both transcended material performance constraints and visually illuminated the original music compositions of their Mannes classmates — a prototype meant to topple the black dress symphony paradigm. With the help of Kinect-paired sensors, brightly colored geometrical formations were projected onto dresses and danced to the music played by the performer wearing them. A syncopated piano march shot red crystals across the pianist’s all-white cape. With every drummer’s downbeat, green spheres and triangles met onscreen for a tiny fox-trot. In effect, viewers heard colors and saw sounds.

    Fashion students later collaborated with BSO musicians to take the concept of performance wear to new levels by reimagining silhouettes and patterns to make it easier to perform in the garb traditional to the field of classical music. So, for example, a cellist received a new wide-legged pant that freed her to sit and play comfortably instead of having to tug at a long skirt to accommodate her instrument. And a violist worked with students to design a tuxedo jacket and vest featuring breathable mesh materials and stretchy fabric enabling him to more easily bow his viola. Other design exercises included designing with upcycled garments — a design tactic meant to address the high cost of performance wear for working musicians. Throughout the process, the symphony members came to see themselves a participants in the design process, co-creators of custom apparel meant to make their work easier. The engagement featured the human-centered approach to design and co-creating for which Parsons as a whole is known.          

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