'Trying to expand what music is and can be' with the SPCO

SPCO Artistic Partner Martin Frost stands behind the motion sensor camera.
SPCO artistic partner Martin Frost stands behind the motion sensor camera on-stage at the Ordway Concert Hall during rehearsal on Wednesday.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Martin Fröst is known for physically throwing himself into playing his clarinet. That physicality will become part of a world premiere piece he'll perform this weekend with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Even as Fröst conducts the orchestra — and plays his clarinet — he'll also use a motion-control app to add music from a virtual orchestra to the sounds of the SPCO.

Fröst is tall, with a shock of blond hair befitting a Swede. As he plays he moves to the music, swaying and coaxing the notes he bends from his clarinet. But as he rehearsed a new piece called "Emerge" with the SPCO on Wednesday afternoon, he added a whole new set of gestures, and got a whole new sound.

At times Fröst stuck out his hand like a traffic cop. Others, he waved like he was washing a window. At least once he looked like he was throwing an elbow in a soccer game. And the whole time, he had his clarinet glued to his lips. With his gestures he was playing an instrument, actually called the Gestrument. Its inventor is also the composer of "Emerge," Jesper Nordin.

Composer Jesper Nordin talks to Martin Fröst and members of the SPCO.
Composer Jesper Nordin talks to Martin Frost and members of the SPCO during a rehearsal of his piece "Emerge" on Wednesday.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"What we are doing here is trying to expand what music is and can be," Nordin said.

The Gestrument works on a smart phone, tablet or computer. The device's touch screen allows users to change a sound: raise or lower pitch, make it louder or softer. For his performance with the SPCO, Nordin uses a motion-sensor camera from a video game instead of a touch screen to change the sounds. It translates Fröst's movements into music.

He spent a week learning the gestures, including throwing that elbow.

"That's probably when I am leaning into the camera, which makes a big sound," he said, "and then I have to make it softer and softer. In the end I have to use my elbow only, and that's going to be a smaller sound, a softer sound.

"It is a searching process still," Fröst added. "And it is very subtle, the instrument is very subtle. You have to learn it just like an instrument, so I am learning it in this moment, and hopefully the day after tomorrow I (have fully) learned it. Hopefully!"

Fröst is internationally known as a clarinet virtuoso, and recognized as a conductor. So why add yet another layer to an already complex performance?

Fröst said this latest experiment is an answer to the questions he believes musicians, particularly in the classical sphere, should ask themselves every day: What are we doing — and why?

"What are we going to do right now with classical music?" he asked. "Where are we going from now? It's not so much if it was better before or not. It's like, what are we doing now?"

SPCO Artistic Partner Martin Fröst uses his hip to create a specific sound.
SPCO artistic partner Martin Frost uses his hip to create a specific sound from the Gestrument app during a rehearsal at the Ordway Concert Hall during rehearsal on Wednesday.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Composer Nordin said "Emerge" is meant to augment Fröst's performance, to use the Gestrument to do something he can't do by himself. The sound files linked to Fröst's gestures are from a virtual clarinet choir, he said, modeled in part on the musician himself.

"To add a clarinet choir of 16 clarinets that plays together with Martin and imitates him in different ways, that is something he can't easily do," said Nordin.

After this weekend's world premier of "Emerge," Nordin and Fröst hope to perform the piece in Europe and expand it, too, maybe even using a choreographer.

But there is still one thing they are pondering. The Gestrument motion sensor doesn't stick out on stage. It looks a bit like a microphone stand. Audience members might not make the connection between Fröst's movements and the sounds they hear. So how much should Fröst tell the audience before performing the piece?

"Well, I don't know," he said. "I was thinking of course they should know what they are going to hear. But at the same time if they could understand without an explanation that would be fantastic. What is happening? And they understand he is playing on something we can't see."

Which means, if you are going to the concert this weekend, maybe forget you ever read this story.

If you go: Martin Fröst and Mozart's 39th Symphony

• When: Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.

• Where: The Ordway Concert Hall, 345 Washington St., St. Paul

• Who: The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra

• More information at thespco.org