Fused Muse Ensemble Draws Attention to Environmental Issues Through Music, Dance and Video at Constellation in Chicago

By Louise Burton on Oct 15, 2014 11:47 PM EDT

Is it possible for artists to influence people's attitudes toward global concerns through their art? Or, to put it another way, can a string quartet practice social activism, in addition to Mozart and Beethoven? If you talk to cellist Sophie Webber for any length of time, as I did earlier this week, you may start to believe it is possible to change minds and influence hearts in this way through the language of music.

Webber founded the Fused Muse Ensemble in part to increase awareness of global concerns through performances that unite music, dance and other art forms. On Thursday evening, the chamber ensemble will present the culmination of their efforts this year: "Breaking Ice," a program of multimedia works at Constellation in Chicago that draws attention to climate change, melting icebergs and the fragility of nature.

The program will be repeated at Constellation on October 17 and 18 at 7:00 p.m. For more information, please visit

Webber collaborated with Winifred Haun & Dancers, dancer/choreographer Matthew McMunn, video artist Jessica Segall, and two University of Chicago physicists to create the imaginative multimedia works that will be premiered on these programs. 

"Each piece takes a different perspective on some aspect of an environmental concern," Webber said. "So for example, one is obviously climate change. The way that we have addressed that in our show, we have this collaboration going with a couple of University of Chicago physicists. That has been a really great [avenue] for the arts and science to come together."

Video artist Jessica Segall worked with the physicists to shoot footage of their experiments with ice. "They were basically going through various ways of torturing ice, like dropping it from a height, crushing it... and they were taking data about the pressure under which it cracks and the way it cracked," Webber recalled.

"And then Jessica came up with an ice cube house design...and so in the performance, you will see this really elaborate ice house being crushed, and just splintering into a million pieces, and dancing in different directions," Webber said.

Using this footage, Webber and the main composer of the work, Iddo Aharony, created a narrative that speaks to climate change, the melting icebergs and people's complicated relationship to these phenomena, represented by the imagery of the fragile ice house.

Fused Muse will also collaborate with Winifred Haun & Dancers on several works, including "Cold Air," based on music from "Winter" of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons; and "Is it too late to touch you?" a lament for soprano, string quartet and dancers, based on music by Osvaldo Golijov.

"Cold Air" features Dawn Gingrich as violin soloist, and the Golijov work will be sung by soprano Henriet Fourie. Both musicians will interact with the dancers during the performance.

Winifred Haun, who choreographed both works, said "Both Henriet and Dawn have been really great in terms of learning movement... I've choreographed both of them into their [respective] works. The piece with Henriet, she and the dancer are going to be dressed alike, and so they're different things at different times. At one point they're sort of the two different parts of one person... It's really fun."

"At the opening of 'Winter,' I have a line of people walking backwards onto the stage, and Dawn is leading them. It's almost like the violin is calling them forth onto the stage. And then she kind of weaves herself in and out of the dancers and she even does some turns. All while holding the violin."

Dawn Gingrich said that she has thoroughly enjoyed the experience of interacting with the dancers. "It's so beautiful, all I want to do is watch them," she said. "Witnessing the dancers' physical response to this music informs my own interpretation... It has definitely re-invigorated how I see and play this music."

"Is it too late to touch you?" is the name that Fused Muse has given to a work that they based on Golijov's "How Slow the Wind," a song for soprano and string quartet. The text is from a poem by Emily Dickinson, in which the poet addresses someone who has passed away.

"The piece was written as a lament for one of Golijov's recently deceased friends." Webber said. "In the poem Dickinson is asking, 'Is it too late to touch you?' And we felt that was more appropriate for the direction we were taking it environmentally."

Through this work, Fused Muse is asking a question: is it too late to be able to make an impression? To somehow affect things and touch you, the audience?

"We felt that that could be interpreted in an appropriate way for what we're trying to get at in terms of raising awareness of environmental issues," Webber said.

Fused Muse will donate the net profits from these concerts to the Awassa Children's Project. ACP provides funding for an orphanage in Awassa, Ethiopia. The orphanage has an environmental mission to plant trees and dig fresh water wells, and is powered entirely through solar panels.

Here is Sophie Webber speaking about "Breaking Ice":

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TagsFused Muse Ensemble, Breaking Ice, Sophie Webber, Constellation, Chicago, Winifred Haun & Dancers, Jessica Segall, Dawn Gingrich, Henriet Fourie

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