"Enlight" by Maria Brodskaya, known as ÅMBE
PHOTO BY BRIAN FORBES
At the end of a decade, one trend has emerged as a force across the creative industries with a promise of many beginnings: Virtual Reality. This multi-billion-dollar segment of the global tech market is powered by surprising early adapters. Artists, brands and institutions already renowned for their contributions to Culture have embraced the chance to “rock the boat”. Tommy Hilfiger was the first iconic retailer to add VR experiences to stores as Dior launched the first branded luxury VR headset. Bjork turned the conventional music industry inside-out with Vulnicura and real award-winning chefs ventured into VR kitchens. While Christie’s had successfully auctioned its first work of art by Artificial Intelligence, the entire Strasbourg Biennale was dedicated to the plight of arts in the digital age. Beyond the commercial hype, practical possibilities of virtual reality, extended reality, augmented reality and other realities appear infinite.
Recently, I had a chance to sit down with one of VR pioneers who is merging classical performance, neuroscience and holistic body practices into one-of-a-kind experiences for her growing audiences. Meet Maria Brodskaya, a Russian-American musician, producer, educator and entrepreneur known as ÅMBE. Since winning her first music award at the age of seven, she has recorded and performed around the world with Grammy-winning producers and artists. Her latest work has been exhibited at South by Southwest, MORA (The Museum of Russian Art) and Bowery Film Festival. Oh, and she is also a ViolinBorg with impeccable otherworldly style.
Your current release is getting a lot of attention as a VR Music 360 Experience. Can you explain the concept and the premise?
I was curious to do something completely different from kind of dark sophisticated electronics of my first album. I also wanted a totally immersive performance art piece to let my listener quite literally dive into the song’s world. In collaboration with the leading VR Cinema and Lab Jump Into The Light I’ve created “3.O.W. - Alien’s Code”. It is the first of its kind fully hand-drawn in Virtual Reality 360° Music & Lyric Video. I literally hand-executed every stroke of it in 3-dimensional Virtual space. I think in the nearest future it may become a very common and popular avenue for your art, whatever it is. The task of this immersive composition is to visualize the wide emotional range of human feelings and emotions. This piece is based on the philosophical idea that a mortal life on Earth is a temporary escape from eternity. This journey brings one to an abstract place in the space-time continuum, immersing the participant in a series of primordial emotions like love, desire, creation, pain, destruction. The experience of such range is one of the most unique and amazing features of our human nature.
What is your experience of Virtual Reality as a creative medium?
I think I was born in a perfect time, directly on the border between generations and worlds, the time when technology was not yet everywhere, and when it started to conquer all the different fields of our life, including art and music. I enjoy blurring the boundaries between traditional and experimental art. I feel I have a chance to use technology to bring all the different elements of my artistry together. I truly believe that Virtual Reality is an amazing PLATFORM to organically bridge different arts with science to help people learn and create. I am synthesizing dancing and painting into the performance where music intersects with theatre and fashion, introducing body and EEG (electroencephalography) sensors into my creative process, and getting a unique insight into how everything and everyone is interconnected.
Only in mixing existent colors can we create and find some new tones and shades. Technologies come and go, but the needs of people stay the same. At the end of the day, the most important thing is not what technology you are using, but what you do with it. It actually allows people to become more connected with each other, and even more importantly, with ourselves. Being born as humans is already a treasure! One that we, unfortunately, don’t often value as much as we should. The emotional experience that we come into this life for, regardless of whether it’s positive or negative, is something that keeps us growing and evolving. And that is what matters the most.
Maria Brodskaya, a Russian-American musician, producer, educator and entrepreneur known as ÅMBE.
PHOTO BY OLI REN / ART DIRECTOR KARINA KANDEL
Let’s go “back to the future.” What has your creative journey been like?
I was born into a family of classically trained professional musicians. At six years old, I was admitted into a boarding school for musically gifted children from all over the former USSR. I was very lucky to grow up in that tough but incredible environment. It was a great time that has established a strong work ethic and built my character. At 14, I was already studying at the conservatory, but my heart was calling for something else. I ran away to Moscow and enrolled in the Gnessin Academy of Music where I created a jazz band, sang, played violin, was writing original arrangements and learned to be a manager. I did a bit theater, film, modeling. I published books of poetry in five countries. In 2012, I came to New York City. No friends, no work, barely any English. I played my first American concert in Cafe Vivaldi. Grammy composer and pianist Fernando Otero noticed me there and we've been collaborating ever since. Later I started to work with another Grammy laureate, producer/mixer and guitarist Brian Forbes aka ADMRL which lead to creation of the label ADIM Records. In a short length of time I managed to live a few different lives!
How do you see personal style in VR terms?
I think fashion is another language to express, another instrument to play your inner Universe’s theme. And the way to do so is ever-changing for me. Contradicting and eclectic. Perfectly myself! Quite minimalist, shape emphasizing, often black today. It’s folksy and colorful, theatrical and loud tomorrow. But no matter how it’s seasoned it will always be reflecting this independent but very feminine power leading me. My strength and vulnerability. Provocation and conflict. XR environment obviously offers you totally new fashion paths. Maybe what you are wearing right now is not even real, but “augmentedly” real?... But what is real? Nothing. And everything. Speaking of personal VR style... Well, I am a ViolinBorg after all.. So let’s see how that mutation is going to go!
You are a Russian-American artist. Is that heritage reflected in your work?
Funny you should ask! Back in Moscow, I had recorded three albums of my original music in collaboration with the amazingly talented composer and entrepreneur Basil Genesis. I went to many Russian producers. They all said the same thing. “You are crazy, your music doesn’t have any Russian mentality!” Whatever the heck it means! Personally, I think my creativity has been naturally bridging the Eastern and Western worlds. On one hand, I have a strong influence of pagan Slavic folklore and this collides with jazz and R&B. On the other hand, I marry western classics like Bach, Debussy and Bartok with the Russian school of Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, and Borodin.
Maria Brodskaya as ViolinBorg
PHOTO BY MICHAL SKALSKI / JUMP INTO THE LIGHT
Is there freedom in such creative license or is it just added pressure?
This is a complex question. As a child of early post-Soviet times, I’ve seen both a desperate lack of freedoms and the face of freedom in its most commercial, “white-teeth” way in the USA. I don’t think an artist’s greatness is conditioned by either. To me, the best form of freedom is to be able to choose my own limitations.
Here’s a really good example. On my very first session with Brian Forbes, after we did some improvisation, he asked me to put my right hand behind my back for playing the verse only with my left hand, and then to do the opposite for the chorus. This approach immediately changed my way of thinking, filtering the “diarrhea” noise. It’s like writing a haiku: 5 - 7 - 5, no more, no less. This kind of perceived limitation is really sobering the brain up from its freedom “intoxication”.
Your debut album was called “Enemy of the People”. Is this a reference to another face of or a price for freedom?
The inspiration comes from my great-grandfather who was a free thinker. In 1937, the Stalinist Soviet Union pronounced him an “enemy of the people” and he was shot dead. His wife became “a wife of an enemy of the people” and spent 17 years in the Gulag. This story has been embedded in my family and cultural DNA on many deep levels. I was the youngest kid ever admitted into my boarding school. Being from a poor Jewish family, I faced a lot of anti-Semitism and bullying there. Through my own experience as a misfit, I’ve learned about the personality kind of split, feeling half of myself “against” the entire world, and the other half “in league with” that same world. I consider myself to be the proud great-granddaughter of “an enemy of the people”. In the spirit of rebellion and self-determination, I hold tight to my freedom to think and create, no matter what other people think or what they say. I am very grateful to Brian Forbes, for his amazing guidance and belief in me on that project. The album is the biography of my soul and the map of my mind. All I’ve learned and been through in my life has found its embodiment in sound.
Maria Brodskaya, a Russian-American musician, producer, educator and entrepreneur known as ÅMBE
PHOTO BY OLI REN / ART DIRECTOR KARINA KANDEL
That is quite a remarkable journey, indeed. Let’s come back to Virtual Reality for now. What other projects are you working on that utilize it as core technology?
So, the power of creative expression has proved significant in healing the body and the mind. Technology is increasingly popular in healthcare. Now, multiple studies suggest that Immersive Virtual Reality could be a revolutionary way to treat depression and help people with a range of psychotic disorders. We are on a mission to bridge these worlds into a beautiful instrument for healing the Body/Mind Complex through the VR Music Education and Therapy Platform - NEXVOX. It's a music visualization app, based on our proprietary multi-sensory learning methodology, which combines the latest advances in VR, AR, AI, and EEG technologies.
Imagine, you could be creating music from brain-wave impressions as an anti-depression & anti-anxiety practice... In this tremendous undertaking I am supported by the world's leading neuro-analytics company Neuro-Insight. I am partnered with its global CEO John Zweig , which has been a true expression of the "universe’s touch” for me. Besides being an industry icon, chairman and top-manager for the number of world’s largest business like WPP and Procter and Gamble, to name a few, John Zweig is also an amazing jazz guitarist, writer, and inter-spiritual philosopher. To me he is a unique example of a possibility to succeed in both fields - in business and in the creative world. And that’s exactly what I am trying to learn to do with my interdisciplinary activity.
We’ve also teamed up with the Manhattan Symphony Orchestra led by Gregory Singer something mind-blowing on the theme of "Making the Invisible Visible". With my Augmented Violin, I am creating in real-time sound-responsive VR visuals, simultaneously playing and singing and performing a kind of “cyber dance” through body movement. We hope to put on a show at Carnegie Hall in the fall of 2020.