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MCA’s On Stage: Resonance ‘Tremor’

How Samita Sinha’s ‘Tremor’ explores complex emotions through Indian vocal traditions

By Arts & Culture, Featured

Samita Sinha, “Tremor,” Danspace Project, 2023. Photo by Rachel Keane.

The seats are in a circle, and despite many stage lights, it’s hazy and smoky as if a large fire was just put out. Three seats are placed in the center and all face each other triangularly. They are accompanied by cascading translucent red fabric that descends from the ceiling. Thunderous rumbling is emitted through various speakers placed throughout the stage. One seat holds a mixing console, another, a wooden instrument, and another, speakers.

The lights dim and a group of four performers enter from behind the seats. They are all barefoot and wear either black or charcoal gray shapeless clothes. They enter in a single file line and begin circling the stage. Suddenly one performer lets out a single piercing note.

This is how “Tremor” Samita Sinha’s latest work begins.

Samita Sinha is a composer and vocalist who aims to use Indian vocal traditions and vocal vibrations to explore language itself and asks the audience to be present and consider instances of silence within the feelings the vocal performances may bring up. “Tremor” is her latest work which premiered November 9, 2023, at Dancespace in New York City. It came to Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art on April 18-20, 2024.

Sinha is joined by dancer Darrell Jones and musician and dramaturg Sunil Bald. Bald also collaborated with Sinha in the stage design as they worked to create a spacious environment that invites intimacy between both the performers and their vocal performances. As the former curator of performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tara Aisha Willis describes the “On Stage: Resonance” series, and “Tremor” specifically, stating “Sinha’s long standing vocal practice, which filters traditional Indian music techniques through space at a cellular scale, vibration her body as a microcosm interconnected well beyond her own skin — The minimalism of the diagrams, a single hum might seem simple, but it comes to feel complex and changing in Sinha’s approach.”

As the performance continues, the performers step out of line and take their seats. Jones continues to stand and dance in the center of the stage as Sinha and Bald continue to vocalize and harmonize together. The lights continue to dim and the only things illuminated are the red fabric of the seats.

As “Tremor” continues, there are periods of quiet where Sinha is the only one vocalizing and other instances where Sinha and Bald harmonize together and increase in volume while the sound of thunderous rumbling, heavy winds, and helicopter blades play through the speakers on stage. Throughout the performance, the stage remains mostly dark but the lighting continues to change. At times only Sinha is illuminated and at other times the lights are nearly fully dimmed.

Occasionally, the only word that can be used to describe “Tremor” is visceral. Some portions of the performance completely overload the senses. Other times it’s quiet, Sinha vocalizes in a way that emits a sense of crying or pain. She sings in intervals while she strums an ektaara a lute instrument with a single string. Bald also vocalizes in intervals and at times his performance is reminiscent of chants that priests conduct during Hindu prayers. As they sing, Jones remains still, however as the singing crescendos Jones stands up slowly and begins dancing in the center of the stage.

Towards the end of the performance, Sinha slowly rises from her seat. She continues to quietly sing as she makes her way to center stage. Bald and Jones rise in tandem and join Sinha in the center. They all take a seat in a circle as the lights turn to them and softly illuminate the three of them. The background sounds go completely silent with only Sinha and Bald singing.

The contrast in performance is completely intended by Sinha. As Willis points out, “Tremor” is a reminder to be present with our sensations and those of the people around us — Vocal sound can carry a listener from the most painful sensation to the most blissful, and make evident how often these are inseparable.”

Although the emotions “Tremor” intends to bring up do not conclude, it ends as the performers fall silent. The lights turn on and the stage is no longer hazy. The performers stand up and exit through the back, where they entered.


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