“Uncanny valley” was a term first used in 1970 by roboticist Masahiro Mori, describing the peculiar feeling that many experience when faced with something artificial that seems almost too human. It’s this strange sensation that drives the work of concert pianist Oni Buchanan and poet Jon Woodward, who will be performing a multimedia concert-length piece titled “Uncanny Valley,” after Woodward’s serial poem by the same name, as part of the Zell Visiting Writers Series’ on Thursday evening.

Zell Visiting Writers Series, “Uncanny Valley”

Tomorrow at 5:10 p.m.
Pendleton Room, Michigan Union
Free

Buchanan’s piano work, composed by John Gibson, provides a backdrop for Woodward’s poetry performance to express its themes and eerie sentiments. Combining classical piano composition with electronic samples, echoing repetitions and other disorienting components, this performance hopes to be “uncanny” in the way the disorienting acoustics blend perfectly with the spoken text elements. Meant to evoke a sense of discord between human and simulation by highlighting a combination of the natural and artificial, the poem includes repeated lines that echo the sentiments of the recurring piano while also evoking a strange, unnerving feeling when combined with the abrasive electronic additions.

One of the themes explored by this work is the psychological phenomena of “semantic satiation,” where reiteration of a word renders it temporarily meaningless. In combination with other artistic elements, “Uncanny Valley” looks to explore this sensation further, experimenting with repeating phrases, verses and musical forms.

“It can be either really maddening or really hypnotic, or both at the same time,” Woodward said. “The point of the whole thing is to take that experience of having words repeated until they lose their identity or their meaning and to use that experience as a piece of poetry.”

This sensation aims to create a deep thought process concurrent with the goals of the piece, toying with the sense of perception and the ongoing battle of what is reality and what is artifice. By making natural phrases, words and music seem alien and unnatural, this sensation is in direct opposition to the idea of “uncanny valley,” where the unnatural seems almost human.

This is not Buchanan and Woodward’s first work together, as the husband and wife duo have experimented with combining their poetry and music with kinetic sculptures in their project “Machines,” and they have also produced a reimagined rendition of T.S. Eliot’s poetry in “Four Quartets: Variations.”

“We’re just trying to design an interesting experience, something that will make people think,” Woodward said.

An addition to their established lineup is electroacoustic composer John Gibson.

“We thought that having the voice echoed and put through all kind of electronic manipulations and stuff would be an interesting thing to add into it,” Woodward said. “He took the idea and really made it his own and came up with stuff that we never would have expected. He’s a real pro and a real perfectionist.”

The premiere performance of “Uncanny Valley” will be held in the Pendleton Room of the Michigan Union at 5:10 p.m. on Thursday.

A short Q & A session is planned for after the performance. Buchanan and Woodward will also be holding a free poetry reading on Friday night at 7 p.m. at METAL Design & Fabrication studio, accompanied by University professor Benjamin Paloff.

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