Music

Experimental artist Moses Sumney just wants you to feel

This eclectic artist with a dizzying range has tapped the Azure Kinect DK to foster a powerful connection to his audiences.

This was going to be Moses Sumney’s summer. The quickly rising star was coming off a sold-out residency in Los Angeles and a stunning TV debut with his performance on Late Night with Stephen Colbert, all while gearing up for a world tour in support of his acclaimed (as in Pitchfork “Best New Music” acclaimed) double album, grae.

Then, coronavirus happened, throwing his well-laid plans for a loop. “My ultimate goal is to have an emotional connection with people—to have people think of things in a way they haven’t before, either musically or just thinking to feel,” says Sumney. But how do you achieve that kind of connection when you can’t physically interact with an audience?

“How can I make compelling art during social distancing about isolation, without being redundant or insensitive?” asks Sumney. “How can I continue to produce live versions of the album and share them with the public?”

To answer those questions, Sumney turned to frequent artistic collaborator Sam Cannon and the Azure Kinect DK. They worked together to create a striking performance piece for his track, “Bless Me.” With no in-person experience possible—no crowds, but also no light show, no fog machine, no multi-channel surround sound that most artists (and fans) use and appreciate—Sumney focused on creating an incredible video, leaning into technology to make this 2D output feel a little more three dimensional.

While he was social distancing in his home in Ashville, North Carolina, Cannon was working from Virginia. The two hashed out a creative treatment and capture strategy over Skype calls and email: They would co-direct the video, with Sumney setting up the Azure Kinect in his living room; Cannon would direct his movements remotely over Skype; and Sumney’s poses would be captured by the Kinect, to be translated into stirring animations by visual artist Luigi Honorat based in Tokyo.

A laptop screen displays a digital point cloud rendering of a person’s body. The person’s body is green and is standing with one arm raised, legs hip-width apart.
Moses Sumney faces a laptop, in profile to the camera. He is talking over Skype with his video director, Sam Cannon, a woman with a brown ponytail and black button-down shirt. Both are smiling. We see the gold hoop in Moses’ right ear; his hair is cut short on the sides and dyed platinum, while the top is in short dreads.
On a camera monitor screen, we see Moses Sumney play a black guitar. His head is down as he is captured mid-strum. Various video and equipment data is displayed around the frame in white digits and abbreviations.
Moses Sumney turns away from the camera. We see the artist’s face in profile with his back to us. He’s wearing a dark brown winter overcoat and ribbed tank top; the top of his head is in short dreads, while the sides are short and dyed platinum blond. His image is reflected over the Y axis in a mirror.

Moses Sumney experiments with the Azure Kinect’s body tracking for his performance video for “Bless Me.”

Video director Sam Cannon stayed in constant contact with Moses over Skype, directing his movements and monitoring the Azure Kinect capture.

Moses has a remarkable range and musicality. This helped land his new album, grae, a coveted “Best New Music” rating from the esteemed reviewers at Pitchfork.

Sumney’s vision for his “Bless Me” video is “a live performance that feels elevated beyond a typical live video, employing hyperreal visual effects that take the viewer on a spiritual journey.”

The Azure Kinect captured Sumney’s dance moves and poses from within his Ashville, NC home.

“I’m always interested in the intersection between humans and machines, so I’m looking for the synthesis between art that feels raw, organic, and sincere—and art that exploits technological advancements, often in order to produce a critique of that same technology or modern society … The vision [for this piece] is a live performance that feels elevated beyond a typical live video, employing hyperreal visual effects that take the viewer on a spiritual journey.”

The Azure Kinect helped make this vision possible. “This is the first time I’ve worked with the Azure Kinect and I was very excited to introduce a new way for Moses to manipulate and control what we see,” says Cannon. “The ability to easily capture the skeleton and point-cloud data from his performance opened up a whole new world of possibilities.”

“We are a small team, but with the right tools we can make something really special.”

- Sam Cannon

With just a few weeks to get from ideation to premiere, Cannon was able to export the Kinect’s depth and body-tracking data direct to Honorat to begin animations almost immediately after the shoot. Meanwhile, Sumney recorded himself singing over the track live to create an urgent, powerful piece.

As an artist regularly able to transport audiences through transcendent live performances full of gut-wrenching lyrics, breathtaking vocal runs, and soaring instrumentation, Sumney proves that tech can be a tool in service of that emotional connection and magnetism—even when the audience is hundreds of miles away.

A still of artist Moses Sumney’s head from his latest single "Bless Me."

Moses Sumney takes fans on a spiritual journey

Amidst protests and a pandemic, Moses Sumney created a new video for his latest single “Bless Me,” merging a live performance with abstract 3D animation. Find out why he wanted to explore the themes of isolation and solitude—and how he tapped technology to create an experience that “bends reality” for his fans.