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.

How has our technology come to shape us, especially following a year when we turned to our devices for connection—when we learned, loved, grieved, and shared in life milestones through our screens?

It’s a provocative idea that piqued the interest of artist Moses Sumney, the rising star who turned heads in 2020 with a stunning TV debut on Late Night with Stephen Colbert and won widespread acclaim with his double album grae. And it’s a question he seeks to answer in technoechophenomena, his experiential audiovisual installation launching at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn’s Red Hook Labs this September.

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Moses Sumney

Conceived during lockdown, technoechophenomena explores the convergence of isolation and technology, and how this relates to echophenomena—that is, the unintentional ways we pick up and imitate the words, sounds, and movements around us.

The experience begins in a custom-built cubic room, where visitors learn a series of gestures choreographed by Sumney. His song “Me in 20 Years” pumps through the room as the lights come up. Then, using Microsoft’s Azure Kinect body-tracking technology, participants can manipulate the room. Different motions provoke responses to the light and shadows and alter the music’s elements as they shift Sumney’s voice through octaves, reverberations, and space. The technology enables each guest to have a powerful, out-of-body experience that is totally unique to them.

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For Sumney, creating an installation that brings together music, art, and technology is a reflection of how he views himself as an artist in a world where rigid categories are increasingly being blurred and broken down entirely.

“All of my art comes from a need to explore a concept or ask a question. I choose the best medium to make that inquiry,” says Sumney. “Music is not always the best medium, although it is my first. We are all consuming, all of the time. It makes sense that we would want to create in different disciplines as well.”

Creating and connecting with the Kinect

technoechophenomena isn’t the first time Sumney tapped music, art, and technology to explore new ideas. When coronavirus happened, throwing his well-laid world tour plans for a loop, he sought out new, multi-media ways to connect with audiences.

“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?

We see Moses Sumney from behind in a small white room. He has his left hand on his hips and stretches his right arm out, gesturing to the right side and in front of him.

“How can I make compelling art during social distancing about isolation, without being redundant or insensitive?”

- Moses Sumney

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.

“The ability to easily capture the skeleton and point-cloud data from his performance opened up a whole new world of possibilities.”

- Sam Cannon

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.

“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.

Moses Sumney wears a black tank top and loose black trousers, standing in the center of a small room bathed in amber light with arms outstretched side to side. You can see Moses’ shadows on the floor emanating from his stance.
Moses Sumney wears all black and stands in the center of a small room, bathed in purple light. Several rows of bright white spotlights hang from the ceiling and point down on him.
Moses Sumney’s face and upper torso are reflected in a laptop’s screen, over the blurry form of a green point cloud in the shape of a person.
Wearing a brown ribbed halter tank top and overcoat with black dress pants, Moses Sumney leans to the left in front of a gray wall with an electrical outlet visible near his shoulder. His image is reflected over the Y-axis in a mirror.
Moses Sumney sits on a folding chair in front of a laptop, looking to his right over his shoulder, with his right hand resting on his knee. A black guitar hangs from a strap over his dark brown overcoat. His hair is cut short on the sides and dyed platinum, while the top is in short dreads.

The Kinects (seen here embedded in the walls beneath the speakers) track every visitor’s movements and trigger lighting and music changes allowing a guest to “play” the room in Moses Sumney’s technoechophenomena.

The Kinect’s body-tracking technology allows each guest in the experience to control the lighting and sound in the room through a series of basic gestures.

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

Moses Sumney performs in his home in Ashville, North Carolina, for his new video for “Bless Me.”

Sumney pauses during recording the performance video for his song, “Bless Me (Live from Home).” His friend and frequent collaborator Sam Cannon directed him over Skype from Virginia while he performed from his living room in North Carolina.

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.

: Moses Sumney wears a black tank top and spreads his arms out wide. He is bathed in purple, pink, and blue light.

See Moses Sumney’s new immersive experience

Presented by Pioneer Works at Red Hook Labs, technoechophenomena is an experiential, audiovisual installation by Moses Sumney running September 2-26, 2021.