Perhaps it’s the church setting for the installation, or the strains of 17th-Century choral composition by Allegri. But Streetwise Opera’s My Secret Heart, binding together reactive visuals and post-Minimalist musical strains, has the feeling of a 21st Century passion play, a digital devotional piece.

My Secret Heart is a commission by Streetwise Opera, which develops work in the UK’s homeless centers, featuring performers from those shelters as stars, then transposing them to venues like Westminster Abbey. This work is a collaboration between electronic composer Mira Calix (Warp) with sound designer Dave Sheppard, and directed by video artists Flat-e with custom software programmed by visualist Memo Akten.

An installation, a film, and a performance, My Secret Heart’s 100 performers are wrapped in a virtual sonic and visual world, interwoven with digitally-generated, flowing tendrils, and driven by software that responds to sound and user interaction.

HD video on Vimeo

Director Flat-e and visualist Akten used a variety of techniques to create the organic fabric of the visuals:

  • Filmed live action sequences and rendered After Effects sequences
  • Visual components built in Quartz Composer, the free Mac developer tool
  • Custom C++/OpenFrameWorks software for live performance
  • Artificially-intelligent flocking behaviors, forming the particle strands that wend their way through the piece, as initially prototyped in Processing
  • A new, original particle/physics engine built for OpenFrameWorks. Originally inspired by the open source traer.physics library for Processing, Memo’s library will support advanced features like recording and playback and pluggable force fields. (That makes me think of the Death Star tractor beam and the Millenium Falcon, but that’s probably just me.)
  • A multi-dimensional spline interpolator for translating the particles into the flowing tendrils of the piece, also built for OpenFrameWorks.
  • Cylindrical projection on a 16m-circumference “aquarium” rig by Gaianova

Photo: Memo Akten.

Open source is more than a philosophy or an ideological ideal. It’s a real-world practice for getting (paid) gigs and building more expressive art. In this case, Akten drew upon existing, shared work, from Quartz Composer patches to Processing and OpenFrameWorks code and development environments and related libraries. But he’s also giving back to those communities, in the form of his own, improved physics and modeling libraries.

In the time of someone like Allegri, it was taken for granted that composers and artists would share basic techniques, notational and technical convention, and skills. They learned from one another and worked together in guilds. The fundamentals of art were never proprietary, but that didn’t mean their work was non-commercial. On the contrary, with the basic techniques as shared knowledge, artists and composers were free to differentiate themselves based on the details of their unique tastes and styles. In fact, consumers consumption and commissions were essential elements of the artistic and musical landscapes. I wouldn’t necessarily argue that the emphasis on proprietary technique and knowledge has limited art’s commercial appeal, but certainly strategic sharing of information can help artists to push forward the value of their own work at the same time as they support the work of others.

The issue of secrecy is especially appropriate given the title and topic of Streetwise Opera’s piece. The Allegri composition itself was closely guarded by the Vatican with an embargo, and the questions of secrecy and expressions are central to the piece.

Since we are neither the Vatican nor especially interested in proprietary secrets, it’s a pleasure to share the craft of how Akten put together the piece – and to me, particularly with the echoes of Mira Calix’s beautiful music mixed with the genius of Allegri, it makes the work no less magical.

Here’s an early test in Processing:

My Secret Heart – Eels demo 1 from Memo Akten on Vimeo.

And, as though looking at an x-ray of a skeleton, here’s a demo of the underlying, original OpenFrameWorks particle/physics library:

ofxMSAPhysics – Traer like physics library for C++/openFrameworks from Memo Akten on Vimeo.

And from the project, a behind-the-scenes video:

My Secret Heart []
My Secret Heart Project Site

More from Memo:
Spaces and Roots: Manipulating Sound with Processing + Touch, Tangible Interfaces [Create Digital Music]
Psychedelic Fluids at Glastonbury: Musical, Motion-Activated Installation from Memo