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Patrick Marshke on Music for Merce: Night Two

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, musician and composer Patrick Marschke shares his perspective on Music for […]

Music For Merce, Night two. Photo: Gene Pittman

Left to right: George Lewis, Zeena Parkins, Christian Wolff, Fast Forward, David Behrman, Joan La Barbara, Philip Selway, Quinta, Ikue Mori, and John King performing night two of Music For Merce, February 24, 2017, in the McGuire Theater. Photo: Gene Pittman

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, musician and composer Patrick Marschke shares his perspective on Music for Merce: A Two-Night Celebration. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

It would be easy to interpret “Music for Merce” as an answer to the question “whatever did happen to Indeterminacy?” It could have easily been a night of  “Music After Cage.” Those angles would have completely made sense within the context of Merce Cunningham: Common Time, but unlike the incredible archival materials found in the gallery or the jarringly pristine performances of Cunningham’s choreography throughout the exhibition, this night of sound making went beyond documenting a time and place, beyond putting Cage or Cunningham on (yet another) pedestal, and transcended what could have easily been billed as historical performance. The night captured what (for me and hopefully some of you) is incredibly special about experimental and improvised music: the performers completely embodied what self-actualization can look and sound like and epitomized the idea that virtuosity can be more about perceiving an incredible amount of love/compassion in the environment an artist creates rather than simply being about how skilled a performer is at a thing.

So what does sonic self-actualization look like?

For George Lewis in his piece Shadowgraph, 5 it was quadraphonic signal processing of Joan La Barbara’s tactile vocal iterations, Fast Forward’s literal kitchen of instruments, and Zeena Parkins’ sometimes extended harp techniques with subtle accompaniment by Ikue Mori’s own digital sound palette and thoughtful and subtle piano played by Quinta. Sounds whirled around, sometimes with clear correlations to what was happening on stage, other times not (a theme of the night). It sounded like what one would expect “sonic research” to sound like. What set this piece apart from the novelty of 4.1 surround sound and Lewis’s digital effects was how perceivable the performers’ listening was (another theme of the night): compassionately listening to their own sounds, Lewis’s sounds, and each others’.

The love that Zeena Parkins has for the sound of the harp is palpable. Captiva for Acoustic Harp and Processing, performed with assistance from David Behrman on the processing component, framed Parkins’ incredibly physical playing with distinct electronic landscapes. The work had a sense of direction and narrative that differentiated it from the improvisation/indeterminacy of the rest of the night.

Behrman remained at his computer for his piece Long Throw. Electroacoustic music is tricky in many ways, a primary reason being that one has access to any and all sounds: an infinite palette of sorts. Another being how to compellingly incorporate acoustic instruments. The instrumentalists in Long Throw seemed secondary to Behrman’s sonic landscapes at times, but rather than detracting from the work, the disparate and patient iterations contributed to feeling of sonic time lapse before evaporating into silence.

Ikue Mori’s subtle laptop keystrokes completely contradict the intense kinetic and frenetic sounds that her laptop produces — a sonic arsenal that is nearly impossible to keep track of, all somehow being individually triggered by the same interface one would answer an email with. The depth and complexity of timbres are astounding, which made for a bit of a shocking entrance by Christian Wolff’s slightly acontextual clapping. The duo took a moment to calibrate, but eventually the prepared piano and electronics blended and morphed into a cohesive whole.

Earle Brown’s December 1952 / November 1952 stood out as the only purely acoustic performance of the night and the only piece by a composer outside of the group. The work deserved a bit more context, either as a program note or a simple glimpse of the piece’s stark graphic score, which is interpreted by performers simultaneously. It was the most “historical” of the performances of the night, one whose sparseness was welcome.

Fast Forward’s graphic score Octopoda (for four arms) ended up being a bit indiscernible from Shadowgraph, with the only thing setting it apart being Philip Selway’s first appearance of the night. Selway seemed uncomfortable, as did his ocarina tooting ‘xylosynth’ and the queasy jangling of a coat rack tucked to the back of the stage. Perhaps this unease was made starker next to Fast Forward’s performative and aural confidence with his mass array of metallic objects being perpetually sent down Lewis’s quadrophonic rabbit hole. Forward’s take on indeterminacy invites the audience to chuckle a little, warming up a medium that can be a little more distant than it means to be.

Each individual performer’s voice had come into focus at various points throughout the night, particularly in the kaleidoscope of the large group improvisation at the end of night, but the individual personas never clouded the communal joy that perpetually radiated from the stage.

In a time when ‘individualism’ has been commodified to the point of parody it seems especially poignant that art collectivism and community is a thread that ties Music for Merce together. It pops up in the program, where many of the artists appear in each others bios and discographies. George Lewis literally wrote the book on the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and David Behrman is a founding member of the Sonic Arts Union. Notice the empathetic listening and generous sonic support that is inherent in improvised music of this caliber. Then notice the collective aesthetic of Cage, Cunningham, and Rauschenberg that is currently enlivening the Walker galleries. It keeps going — all culminating in the realization that when an artist’s work so clearly comes from a place of compassion and love it becomes natural to extrapolate that love and compassion out onto others, enriching an arts community person by person — a truly inspiring model for what a community/society can look like, all stemming from experimentation and exploring the fringes of sound/art. It could feel like a bit of a stretch, but for me, Music for Merce proved that experimental/improvisational music isn’t a fixation on the individual, but in fact a model for a society in which individualism strengthens rather than stifles community.

Music for Merce: A Two-Night Celebration was presented  February 23 -24, 2017 as part of the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, on view in the Walker galleries until July 30. 

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