Call + Response: Beast of Torpor

Composer: Micah Hummel + Filmmaker: Jeff Oliver
Actor Vaughn Kimmons in a still from Jeff Oliver's Beast of Torpor during filming at Open Signal.

Making Space

by Kristin Thiel
photos by Kathryn Elsesser

There’s a clue to Micah Hummel’s creative and collaborative intent in the title of his Call + Response composition, “Retroscript.” Retroscripting is the process of giving actors a scaffolding—plot, theme, basic idea—but then allowing them to improvise within that. Similarly, when Hummel sat down to compose, he placed filmmaker Jeff Oliver squarely in mind. He explained that he and his bandmate and trusted main collaborator, Alex Meltzer, “focused on the pacing and arch of the composition and tried to give Jeff room to work based off our dynamics and shape we created.” Hummel wanted to set Oliver up with an inspiring “call” but acknowledge that he would—and should—have “full creative authority” over the “response,” the visuals.

Director Jeff Oliver and the the Beast of Torpor puppet pose on set at Open Signal.

Hummel took interesting creative control over his own process. He used the Sunhouse Sensory Percussion, sensors that attach to his acoustic drums and transfer the audio into digital information in real time. Using the Sunhouse SP, he recorded an improvised drum part over a piano loop. The composition developed out of the recorded MIDI data from his performance. After he had something he liked, Hummel explained, the next step was learning how to perform the piece live to capture it in a recording studio.

Angela Lares-Benitez and Aldolfo Cantu-Villarreal on set during filming of Jeff Oliver's Beast of Torpor

Hummel was thrilled to be back in the studio. When the Montavilla Jazz commissioned him for Call + Response, we were deep in the pandemic. Hummel said, “I was questioning whether or not pursuing music full-time after the pandemic would even be viable. This project was a great thing to put my energy into.” Meltzer being his housemate, and therefore in his social pod, helped move the process along during the strictest of lockdown periods.

Puppet operator Stu Davis poses with the beast head on location at Open Signal during film of Beast of Torpor

The trust that the artists involved in this partnership placed in each other paid off. Hummel said, “I loved what Jeff created for our composition. It had everything I was looking for in a film, including humor. The scene where the puppet’s stuffing is coming out is insanely brilliant.” 

Actor Vaughn Kimmons on set at Open Signal during filming of Jeff Oliver's Beast of Torpor

The final partnership of any shared piece of art is between the artist and the audience. It represents the last step in the creative process and solidifies a piece in time and space—and in the public’s mind. Hummel hurried from a gig to just barely make the August 20 Call + Response premier at the Portland Art Museum, a little on edge because, as he explained, “sometimes I feel as if the technology is lost on the audience with this particular instrument. You almost need to see it to properly experience it.” But even with the unusual presentation, and even with the “imperfections” a composer always hears in their piece, Hummel was pleased. “It’s a good representation of where I was at as an artist. After spending so much time fine tuning something, it feels good to give it away to the world.”