Black Fell: Combining gaming and opera for a compelling effect

University of Manchester’s Senior Lecturer Frances Leviston is launching a new, online interactive digital opera in partnership with Martin Suckling, Head of Music at the University of York.

Kielder Observatory in Northumberland at night

Inspired by visits to the Kielder Observatory in Northumberland, Black Fell is a game-for-music, a story in song where a psychological landscape of memory, grief and scientific passion unfolds. 

The story explores the thoughts of a central female character, an astronomer, on a cloudy night. Without the use of her telescopes, she turns inwards, where a psychological landscape of memories and scientific passions unfolds.

Funded by DC Labs, the co-creation of the research practice artefact brought musical development, led by Martin, together with Frances who shaped the poetry narrative. Hailed as a new approach to music, Black Fell is designed to bring a gaming-feel to opera storytelling.

Martin Suckling, Head of Music at University of York said:

Black Fell was designed to take advantage of the possibilities that game environments and online delivery offer for new models of musical structure and audience interaction. A central feature is to allow the player-audience to move through musical space as if it is a physical environment: imagine being able to walk amidst the seats of an orchestra while it is performing – or rather, wander around multiple orchestras whose different music’s blend but also work independently. 

In this way, the player’s movements in the game environment controls the balance between different types of musical materials. By moving towards or away from different types of musical texture, the player is an active agent in composing the musical setting for Frances’ poetry.

How does Black Fell work?

Players are situated within a virtual ‘orchestra’ where they can freely move. Where you are positioned gives a unique balance of audio elements coupled with a variation of type of music. This shapes the direction the story takes. Audiences navigate by ear alone, or with the optional aid of a virtual ‘forest’ which provides visual feedback on their movements. Black Fell is designed for solo listening with headphones and is best played using a desktop PC or laptop. The full story only emerges over several iterations and responds to the listener’s choices as to how they move.

Frances Leviston, Senior Lecturer in Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester said:

I wrote the libretto as a series of five-line fragments that could be arranged and rearranged into various constellations. Inside the game, the listener can move towards or away from the fragment they’re hearing, in multiple directions, until they stumble over another fragment and start listening to that. This creates a branching, iterative text — although it doesn’t branch in the same way as ‘choose your own adventure’ fiction, which is quite rigid. Instead, all the different fragments coexist simultaneously, and dozens of combinations are possible. 

On one playthrough of the game, you won’t hear all the fragments, but what you do hear will constitute a creative whole with its own tone and mood. You’d have to play several times to encounter every aspect of the story. We’re inviting you to uncover the whole shape of the character and her experiences through repeated listening. Each time you ‘meet’ her, you will learn something new about her inner world.

Black Fell is available from Friday 3 November 2023 on the Black Fell website. The piece is performed by Loré Lixenberg (voice) and Jonathan Morton (violin), with software development by Marco Ng.

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