From on stage, back stage and the theater seats, the Performing Arts blog illuminates the intersecting worlds of dance, theater, and music.
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, Jesse Leaneagh shares his perspective on Friday night’s performance of Devendra Banhart […]
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, Jesse Leaneagh shares his perspective on Friday night’s performance of Devendra Banhart & Friends: Wind Grove Mind Alone, a two-night engagement copresented by the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
Walking into the McGuire Friday night the theater looked as it always does, with the small exception of the mauve zafus sprinkled near the front of the stage. Waiting across the proscenium a guitar, electric guitar, small keyboard, and multiple laptop configurations.
Pre-show not everyone was reading the program. Someone in the front row scoured local obituaries. A man in a raccoon hat read a mystery novel. Someone to my left kept folding and unfolding the New York Review of Books to get a closer look.
You could hear a pause when Devendra Banhart walked out, with many in the audience likely coveting now his exact pair of black leather slide sandals.
Banhart’s only set of the evening was solo acoustic guitar. Two songs in, one of which the classic “Carmensita”, he promptly began asking for requests. The audience yelled out song titles while he mostly shook his head or countered that he didn’t know or want to play that one. Eventually someone in the audience grokked with him and he began again.
He talked a bit about the back-to-back evenings of music that he had curated, which he titled Wind Grove Mind Alone after a concrete poem by Father Dom Sylvester Houédard. “Monks can be pretty cool, it turns out,” Banhart said. “Benedictines especially.”
Banhart said his first idea for Wind Grove Mind Alone was to have 100 bands each play for one minute. The audience laughed, but he emphasized that it’s a concept he still wants to develop. Then he explained that what unites the musicians playing both nights is that they’re interdisciplinary. They do other things.
“I’m just gonna play new songs, “ he announced. What followed were vignettes: a song about enjoying San Francisco but not being able to afford it. Several songs were in Spanish and all I could think about was why his Spanish reminds me of Portuguese. Why does one get the feeling watching him that he is Caetano’s heir?
“Thank you thank you thank you,” he said after five songs and sidled off. Tonight’s program was a tight ship, each artist clearly allotted 20 minutes.
Next up: Los Angeles–based experimental music group Lucky Dragons. Sarah Rara and Luke Fischbeck walked impassively onstage, a screen forming behind them with a white cursor blinking on grey background. They sat across from each other, poised in front of separate laptops. Rara began typing and each letter announced its pronunciation as it appeared onscreen, sometimes a flurry of burping consonants or vowels hissing together. Fischbeck meanwhile looked at some sort of graphic layout, and my friend leaned over and asked if he was checking Facebook. Rara stood up and unrolled a banner near their station, which was kept flat on the floor although its colors of red, white, and blue were visible. New loops of sound repeated as the screen paused on a stanza.
More and more I heard a bog chorus, both sunken and locomotive at the same time. Mirroring arpeggios filled the audience, a guy in the front row rocking hard in his seat like we were at the club. “Ripping to re-vegetate,” read a line onscreen, and it sounded like we were listening to the soundtrack of a community garden being born, the music undeniably naturalia. The mysterious banner was rolled up again, while Fischbeck sang alone. A buoyant set.
Next up: more music from LA, with Jessica Pratt and Greta Morgan. Jessica Pratt performed tracks off her newest album (“Game That I Play,” “Jacquelyn in the Background,” “Back, Baby,” “Moon Dude”) except for her opening song, which I couldn’t place from either album. Pratt’s music hits the ears like a high quality vintage, a sound from decades past. Her voice bends the air like a golden halo around an AM radio. I must confess I find her music beguiling to a distracting degree. I took barely any notes. People on the zafus hugged their knees and swayed as she sang. That kind of set. She is the bard of every meaningful relationship you’ve ever had, complete with strange key changes. Her final track featured Greta Morgan on the mini keys and then they walked offstage, the spell broken.
Helado Negro emerged with his silver compadres. Costumed in what appeared to be shredded disco balls, the completely silver backup dancers had no eye holes, no arm holes. When they danced they looked like pin art portraits of chickens. In other words, you couldn’t look away. “Give it up for my furry friends.” He said. Occasionally the tinsel fell off their costumes and you could hear it hit the stage.
Helado Negro heated up the night with his dancing, bringing major level hip gyrations. People on the zafus got lit. Midway through his set, Devendra Banhart came onstage for the night’s only collaboration to sing “Young, Latin and Proud.” Devendra joked about being old, but that Helado Negro was keeping it sexy with his hip moves. The two embraced and their duet was a clear highlight of the night.
The final act of the evening, William Basinski, walked out with a blast of East Coast vibe that felt like a nice change of pace from what came before. “Minneapolis, oh, my babies,” he said. Then he clarified, “I’ve actually never been here before.” He brought up Prince, with whom he shares the same birth year. “Let’s purple down the lights. It’s not easy to do what that bitch did…dance to the death.”
He sat down in front of his set-up: laptop flanked by reel-to-reels, and other equipment. He barely moved during his set, still to the point of sculptural. He looked the part of the supremely confident auteur.
And his sounds, the ambient soundscapes. The sound of waking up among skyscrapers, to that window view that looks out only on brick wall. Ideas surface, grow, and pass within his work. Walking fast, then turning the wrong corner. Perhaps you see a car crash or an old friend. Another car pulls up, you get in. All that matters is the narrative and where you’re taken. Onboard the ferry now no seagull in sight only fog. You find a bathroom aboard and notice in the mirror for the very first time a lipstick imprint on your neck. Dark red, maroon. Marooned? The music has stopped but you’re clapping and you remember Devendra’s words sung during the very first song the beginning of the night it all feels so long ago: “A kiss begun will never end.”
There are periods in every adult’s life when we are forced to return to a state of infancy. David Zambrano began his career as a dancer at 21 and threw himself so thickly into the fray that he sprained his middle arches and could not stand for six months. For his recuperation process, he rolled […]
There are periods in every adult’s life when we are forced to return to a state of infancy. David Zambrano began his career as a dancer at 21 and threw himself so thickly into the fray that he sprained his middle arches and could not stand for six months. For his recuperation process, he rolled on mats every day like an infant, or as he says on his website, “a reptile.” In Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s Body-Mind Centering philosophy, an infant’s period of rolling on the ground is crucial to their physical integration, their posture, their openness to the world, the development of their nervous system and confidence, and their comfortability with giving and receiving touch.
In the New York gym where Zambrano recovered and retrained everyday were, as he says, “a Brazilian jump roper and an old Kung Fu master.” He observed their exercise regimens and incorporated elements into his own exploration of nearness to the ground and the earth. By the time he returned to standing on his own two feet, Zambrano had developed a new movement practice technique: “Flying-Low.” In Flying-Low Dance Technique, “there is a focus on the skeletal structure that will help improve the dancers physical perception and alertness.” You can see that skeletal emphasis in the accentuated limb movement of the soloists featured in his Soul Project, which is being performed in the McGuire Theater Friday and Saturday night.
Zambrano’s dancers are graceful, but their movements don’t melt into the background like balletic organza. Instead the piece is—for Zambrano—about “being continuously alive. On, like a candle.” When Zambrano’s dancers flop to the floor, torquing and convulsing, it is easy to forget we are all on a stage and not in a club or even outside, with clumps of dirt and grass about to fly in our face. Zambrano’s show shares a similarity with Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s performance two months ago because both pieces invite the audience to break through the proscenium and crash the class ritual of a nice night out at the theater (although you will definitely have that). Soul Project is also similarly joyous, and for a show comprised of only soloists, it’s actually about the power of dance to unite people. Couched in the seemingly atomized format is an intensely social experience.
The ebullience of the piece overflows even its own two night run, with the Zambrano dancers cavorting around the galleries this Thursday night around 6:30 and again at 7:30, perhaps even for a cameo during Colin Stetson’s Sound Horizon set in the Ernesto Neto room. In other words, Target Free Thursday Night has quite a bit to offer Performing Arts fans this week.
Lastly, Zambrano company dancers are offering workshops at Walker on the Flying-Low Technique tomorrow morning (Wednesday) from 9:30-11:30 am and Saturday morning from 11 am-1pm. Space is limited; registration is required by calling 612.375.7600.
The best way to understand Tortoise is to remember that they are a group formed entirely of bassists and drummers/percussionists. With background and side projects in grunge and hardcore bands, Tortoise emerged from the need to be creatively versatile, with the musicians pursuing ambience, math-rock, and dub in a heady and steady brew that adds […]
The best way to understand Tortoise is to remember that they are a group formed entirely of bassists and drummers/percussionists. With background and side projects in grunge and hardcore bands, Tortoise emerged from the need to be creatively versatile, with the musicians pursuing ambience, math-rock, and dub in a heady and steady brew that adds up to the retroactive label of “post-rock.”
Also it helps to place Tortoise among their contemporaries: Fugazi came a little bit earlier and aren’t usually associated with Tortoise, but Fugazi’s Red Medicine seems to be tapped into the same zeitgeist as both Tortoise and Slint (a member of whom left to join Tortoise in time to work on the album Millions Now Living Will Never Die). Slint seem like the paranoiac cousin to the kinder dub-math ambience of Tortoise’s earliest albums. Or to say it another way, Slint would never have named a track on their album “Ry Cooder.” Slint would also never have segued into positively Reich-ian repetitions like on the famous Tortoise track “Djed.” And it’s hard to imagine a band like Mogwai without Tortoise’s prior steps.
Tortoise’s newest album Beacons of Ancestorship remains just as intellectually gregarious as Tortoise’s earlier work (the track “Yianxianghechengqi” is a mix of what one music reviewer called “Schoenberg and hardcore”) but the music seems more immediate. They’ve stayed current with explicit explorations of dubstep ideas (on “Northern Something”), and the opening track “High Class Slim Came Floating In” even feels at times like a jaunty take on contemporary R&B instrumentals before becoming an extended jam sesh of rumbling minimalism.
For their Walker show Friday night, Tortoise will be joined onstage by the Minneapolis Jazz All-Stars: Douglas Ewart (formerly of AACM), JT Bates (of Fat Kid Wednesdays, the Pines, and Alpha Consumer), Mike Lewis (of Happy Apple, Gayngs, Alpha Consumer, Andrew Bird), Greg Lewis (trumpet guru of Redstart and elsewhere and father of Mike Lewis), and Michele Kinney (of Coloring Time, Jelloslave).
In a recent interview, the Lisps spoke at length “in defense of the musical” and about the background for their work FUTURITY, currently playing at Walker. Bandmates César Alvarez, Sammy Tunis, and Eric Farber weigh in on the roles venues have played, why FUTURITY is an “outsider musical,” and how the performance helps to create […]
In a recent interview, the Lisps spoke at length “in defense of the musical” and about the background for their work FUTURITY, currently playing at Walker. Bandmates César Alvarez, Sammy Tunis, and Eric Farber weigh in on the roles venues have played, why FUTURITY is an “outsider musical,” and how the performance helps to create peace.
I read that it took four years to develop FUTURITY. Can you talk a bit about that process, from idea germination to completion?
It started as an idea that percolated for a bit before we put it before an audience for my master’s thesis at Bard. That was in the summer of 2008, and at that point the idea had been around for almost a year. It had been a slow process of a lot of research and writing songs. And after I finished at Bard, we had gotten a call from this club, the Zipper Factory, in New York, and they had wanted us to play a show, so I told them, “We have a musical, can we play our musical?” They said, “Sure, that sounds great.” [laughs]
So really our first workshop was just a gig, which is the beginning of the non-traditional development of the show. We sort of side-stepped a lot of what people normally do when they’re workshopping musicals, in terms of table reads and closed workshops. We were out in the open with it from the very beginning. And [Senior Curator for Performing Arts] Philip [Bither] at the Walker saw that very first workshop, which was really a rag-tag…
It wasn’t! Well, it was rag-tag, but it was pretty much a fully staged show. We rehearsed for weeks, and there was choreography, and it was kind of a big show. It wasn’t just that we showed up…
There was just no budget.
Yeah, there was no budget. [laughs]
So it had a bit of that community theater vibe, but at the same time it had these complicated ideas about science and a sort-of sophisticated plot. So I think Philip really saw it as some sort of bizarre performance art at that stage, which I think was right on. As it kept moving, we started doing more concert versions and workshops, we did a lot of them at Joe’s Pub, which is a sort of cabaret-rock venue in New York, and as more people got involved we got our director Sarah Benson involved, and then Molly Rice the co-book writer, we did a more proper workshop with costumes and we raised some money—and that was at HERE Arts Center—and that’s when American Repertory Theater (ART) saw it and said we really want to bring this to our venue, which is a hybrid theater-club venue. So what was cool is that for the development of it, we were always just sharing it with our friends and family and our fans and out in the open about how it was developing. It was fun because a lot of people kind of just hitched onto the project along the way.
So have the venues played a role at all in changing the project, from Joe’s Pub to ART?
I think the biggest change has been at the Oberon [at ART] because it is such a multi-layered space. There’s a stage and then there’s a band stage, there’s an upper level and a downstairs level; you’re constantly moving when you see the show at the Oberon. We’ve always tailored the show to the space we’re in. What we did at Joe’s Pub was basically just a concert, but then, say, at Ars Nova, which is a lot bigger, we did a fully staged production. We’ve even staged this show at a bar in Louisville, Kentucky. I think part of why this show has been so successful is that we can stage it almost anywhere and in any sort of way. We can do a fully-staged production or just a concert or something in between.
We’ve never done this show at a normal proscenium theater. The Walker will be the first time we do that, which is funny, because it’s a contemporary art center, and it has a reputation for being so experimental, but then as we come to Walker we’re trying to figure out “how do we put this show in a normal theater space?” because we’ve never done that [laughs].
I was curious about Annie-B Parson’s role in the project and what it was like working with her because she was just at the Walker in November for the Big Dance Theater show Supernatural Wife.
The way this musical started was that it’s a musical made by people who don’t make musicals. And as we got more people on the creative team, we wanted to keep that feeling, and I think Sarah Benson, who is the artistic director of Soho Rep, is the perfect example of that. She’s a great and successful director who admittedly has never directed a musical [laughs]. When she wanted to work with Annie-B Parson I think it was that same idea; she’s an amazing choreographer who does tons of theatrical work, but isn’t someone who choreographs musicals per se. It’s the same with Emily Orling, our production designer, who came up with the whole visual language for the piece. She’s a visual artist not a set designer. It’s actually a huge part of how we’ve tried to keep the feeling of this piece as an outsider musical, which is what allows audience members of all different stripes to come to it and feel that they can enter into this piece even if they’re not familiar with tons of musicals. Because it was really made for them, in a way.
I think the word “outsider” is right. I’ve approached building these sonic sculptures, the kinetic percussion machines, from a completely uneducated and uninformed place… trying to tinker and find my way through and going on instinct. A lot of what the piece is about, and how the piece got raised, was really just on instinct and intuition. Following your gut always reveals something more pure and primitive then the standard, polished, commercial musical.
Also it links to the content of the musical itself, which is about someone trying to invent something who is totally ill-equipped to invent it. The piece is about imagination and the value of that attempt. Even though Julian has no resources to build a steam-powered artificial intelligence, there’s something intrinsically powerful and valuable about his impulse to do that. That’s the whole point of the piece, calculating the cost of war in imagination, and understanding the value of looking for the impossible. When we have outsiders working on this musical it’s the same process. And it’s the same valuation of the power of the imagination.
I’ve read a little bit about the literary influences for the piece, William Gibson’s novel The Difference Engine, which features FUTURITY character Ada Lovelace. But the utopian, sci-fi premise of FUTURITY also reminds me a bit of one of my favorite novels, Gob’s Grief by Chris Adrian. Do you know that book?
I don’t know it.
It’s really great; it’s about this Civil War veteran who tries to build a machine to bring back all the Civil War dead. You should check it out. Walt Whitman is a character in the novel. It’s a similar blend of historical magical realism.
Well, Walt Whitman was a resource for this piece because he was a poet who went to war, who went and served in medical units, and he experienced as a poet the horror of the Civil War and wrote about it. And then his brother was a veteran—I think he died—and for some of Julian’s letters we used Walt Whitman’s brother’s letters as a reference.
To look at what Walt Whitman wrote about the Civil War, it gives you goosebumps. To think about one of the greatest American poets witnessing that horror and then how that process plays out in his mind is definitely interesting and relevant to this piece.
Going back to Eric, and talking about a sort of outsider approach, how did the percussive brain evolve through different performances and different places, and are you still adding to the brain?
Totally. I’ve got a pile of things in my basement that are sort of half-done or don’t quite fit. The exciting thing about this project is that things break and I discover new things and I’m always looking for new things. And actually since we’ve been at ART, I’ve been playing that stuff so much through rehearsals and shows. It’s gotten a lot of beatings. A lot of wear and tear. I’ve had to look for new stuff over the past weeks, and that’s been exciting. Every day I have to come into the theater and make sure all the nuts and bolts are tightened and everything is in working order. As far as the development of the project over the course of the last few years, the impetus for building the machine and its sort of mechanical assemblages, it really came from the place logistically of trying to play that stuff as one person. I found that some things sound better with a knitting needle, some things sound better with a hammer. All the while I just want to be holding my drum sticks because at the center of it is simply a traditional drum set. Building the machine came from trying to mount the correct implement with each individual piece. Instead of picking up a metal rod to scrape a tractor seat, I built a handle for it, a hand-cranked handle out of an old meat grinder. So I can keep holding onto my drumsticks and do that quickly. I’ve used different sorts of pulleys and rope mechanisms to expedite the performance so I don’t have to worry about the implement and I can think in real time.
And then what’s exciting is you see Eric do it and it looks like someone is operating a machine. It’s a choreography of a mechanism.
I worked in collaboration over the summer with ART’s scene shop to build four larger pieces that—for the ART production—are scattered around the room. One thing that’s exciting is we’ve opened up the pre-show to allow theater-goers to actually play them, which creates a dialogue with them about the piece and imagination. It gets their juices flowing. Me and two other cast members are always out there during pre-show, and a lot of people come up to me and ask about where the pieces come from and ask me to show them how it works. I feel like that has been one of the most wonderful things about this production, getting to talk to people before the show about it.
A lot of times people will come up to me and say, “What does this thing do?” And I’ll say, “Oh, it creates peace!” [Laughs] People look at me totally perplexed, like, this doesn’t create peace, and I’ll say “Try it! It will change your life.” And I’ll say it with utter conviction and it’s actually something I believe. Thinking about the possibilities of things, instead of wasting things away and letting them die—I’m thinking about the way that technology develops and grows obsolete—I think that thinking about the possibility of obsolete technology rather than just discarding it for the next new greatest thing, having that eye towards the world can actually change our perspective and the ways we interact with the contents of our world. It can lead towards sustainability.
I’ve talked with a lot of younger kids, we’ve done a couple school groups, 7th and 8th graders, it gets them thinking about where their iPhone comes from, what the possibilities are of developing technologies in the future that have an eye towards re-purposing and rethinking objects and our relationship to them, so that’s exciting.
And it sounds like maybe the whole approach of FUTURITY is rethinking the obsolescence of the musical, or what it means for a band to re-purpose it and not let it die and have it somehow be relevant again.
Yeah, and everything in the piece is a metaphor for the piece in a way. The piece itself is a machine that creates peace. The piece itself is a dialogue about the meanings, the cost, and the reasons for war, and our relationship to that vis à vis technology. And war has always had an intimate relationship with technology, and the question becomes: how can we start building our relationship with technology around peace? And around communication and understanding with one another? I have lofty ideas about music, and beyond that art and culture, as sort of machines that create peace. Music is the opposite of war. It’s an organization and vibration of harmony. It creates harmoniousness in the world. And that’s the kind of higher value of the piece, to elevate peoples’ ideas about who they are and their relationship to the world. I think the point of all art in a way, is to lift the human spirit.
Seun Kuti may not be his father, but the musical likenesses are intentional. So if you go to the Cedar on Saturday, don’t be surprised to hear Afrobeat, or even some Fela songs. The tradition lives on.
Seun Kuti began performing onstage with his father, the legendary Fela Kuti, at the age of nine and continues to carry forward the Afrobeat mantle of extended jams, tight horn sections, political savvy, and social consciousness. And it’s perhaps his penchant for extended jams that separates him most distinctly from his brother, Femi, at least on recent recordings. Many songs recorded by Seun Kuti clock in near the eight minute mark while Femi Kuti’s latest recording avoids prolonged durations (which was more prominent in his earlier recordings). Perhaps this is due to Seun Kuti’s band, Egypt 80, which features many players who originally played with his father. Fela recorded many songs that he never was able to perform in his lifetime, and Egypt 80 keep these compositions alive, like the inimitable “Shuffering and Shmiling,” a call-to-arms critique of religion and plea for rational thinking.
Duration seems important in discussing Fela Kuti’s music, as his concerts often lasted all night and into the daylight. In that sense, his music seemed to attempt a replacement of regular life, of everyday life, with a new musical state-of-mind that could encompass all waking hours. For him, “music is the weapon.” It is interesting to compare Fela Kuti to Bob Marley, contemporaneous music stars who used their celebrity for political purposes and who also played a huge part in popularizing their respective musical traditions. Both died of terminal illnesses. Whatever their similarities, Fela was undoubtedly more aggressive with his musical visions. His vocal performances were stranger, often veering towards avant/religious glossolalia. In the wake of his explosive musical utopia, it only makes sense that two of his children would find a rich legacy to continue on and reinterpret for present times.
Seun Kuti may not be his father, but the musical likenesses are intentional. So if you go to the Cedar on Saturday, don’t be surprised to hear Afrobeat, or even some Fela songs. The tradition lives on.
10,000 followers/nearly 8,000 tweets. If composer Nico Muhly sets any Twitter records they’re unconventional ones: sheer breadth of topics, perhaps, or best comedic delivery of esotery (“Ooh I actually got to use the phrase ‘etruscan lesbianism’ as part of natural conversation”). In celebration of his performance this week with the 802 Tour—featuring Sam Amidon, Thomas […]
10,000 followers/nearly 8,000 tweets. If composer Nico Muhly sets any Twitter records they’re unconventional ones: sheer breadth of topics, perhaps, or best comedic delivery of esotery (“Ooh I actually got to use the phrase ‘etruscan lesbianism’ as part of natural conversation”).
In celebration of his performance this week with the 802 Tour—featuring Sam Amidon, Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett, and Nadia Sirota—here’s a selection of hilarious, puzzling, and flat-out brilliant tweets from the best reason to be on Twitter now that #OWS is cooling. And these are mostly from the past month or so (!):
“Without googling it who can tell me where Bemidji might be”
“Has nobody commissioned Dale Chihuly to make a Glass Cthulhu?”
“Why did you let me enter a mongolian dubstep wormhole”
“Is it franchise protocol to play loud house music at the TGI Fridays at six in the morning?”
“So by daylight it appears as if a wedge of parmesan met a grisly death by microplaner right here in the breakfast nook”
“Something v upsetting about the phrase Montezuma’s Yummy Mummy”
“Weird when people’s email signature is ‘You must do the thing you think you cannot do.’ – Eleanor Roosevelt”
“Is there a word for an erotic fixation on compressed air?”
“Open call for pictures of the ugliest sanctus bells”
“Is it a thing where people come over ur house & fix all the buttons on coats and busted seams? Am I thinking about literal Rumplestiltskin”
“I am in a very diacritical subdivision of alphabet city”
“If you make this concert happen, I will eat the meat-object of your choosing.”
“U know ur desperate when u google ‘best haemul pajun 52nd street'”
“Sometimes I aspire to that kind of manic focus a border collie has”
“I’m in that weird area of bed bath and beyond where it’s discount Bonne Maman preserves and nut milks”
“Envisioning a Jónsi/Beyoncé hybrid ‘Bjónsé'”
Marc Bamuthi Joseph is a thinking man’s activist, and to have a conversation with him is to walk away with the conviction that— as he says— “there’s something about the world of ideas that needs nurturing and help.” Starting with his grounding in hip-hop, this interview proceeds to his new directions — career and performance […]
Marc Bamuthi Joseph is a thinking man’s activist, and to have a conversation with him is to walk away with the conviction that— as he says— “there’s something about the world of ideas that needs nurturing and help.” Starting with his grounding in hip-hop, this interview proceeds to his new directions — career and performance work-wise— including curatorial intentions at his new post at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, how his current roles at Youth Speaks and Living Word Project are changing, and concluding with general thoughts on institutions/institutionality. Definitely an interview for MBJ fans, arts administrators, and the performing arts-heads!
I feel like your interest and grounding in hip-hop is well known, with your piece the break/s based on Jeff Chang’s history of hip-hop, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. Chang has said that “hip-hop is a medium …rooted in the idea of movement.” Can you talk about how hip-hop as movement has influenced your work? Or is that idea inseparable from hip-hop as music?
Marc Bamuthi Joseph:
Unfortunately, it’s getting easier and easier to make the division between movement and music, as corporate culture enacts greater influence over how people make the music, or what dominant culture hears. At the same time, that doesn’t obscure the logical connection between what we do and the kind of music that we make. So in terms of the social trajectory and social history, there’s no denying that hip-hop was important in defining an aesthetic of both youth and political vocabulary for a generation coming of age during AIDS and Reaganomics, during the abolition of Apartheid, during the fall of the Berlin Wall. I would even include President Clinton’s administration, out of that 12 years of “culture war.” So it’s impossible to strip away that history from the world events, knowing that this is the music that provided the soundtrack for urban America and multicultural America… this music that soundtracked an awakening of these folks. And physiologically, I think that the low-end theory, the way that the body responds to the low-end of the frequency, the low-end of the register, the way that the body responds to bass, is undeniable. So between the social history and the physics of the body’s reaction to the low-end, there’s no denying that there is movement in hip-hop.
Right. I’m intrigued by your idea of “energetic reciprocity,” which you’ve said is an element of the hip-hop generation. I’m wondering if there are other places, sources of inspiration, or forms of artistic practice besides hip-hop that you see “energetic reciprocity” in action?
I think you see it in the martial art of Tai Chi. I think you get it in the best educational practices, in terms of populist education — made most famous perhaps in Paulo Freire’s work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I think when democracy is working well it’s a product of energetic reciprocity. I think good romantic relationships have a high quotient of energetic reciprocity present. So there’s something about the “yes, yes, y’all ”— the call and response ethic in hip-hop — that is both metaphysical and formulaic, in terms of the cultural instruction. I think we see these things in nature, the give and take of nature. My son told me last night about a presentation he did about volcanoes, and he was really enthusiastic about geothermal energy, and how the same warming-up of gases below the earth is the phenomenon that triggers earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, you know what I mean? [Laughs]. All these things are present in our ecosystem, in nature, that also exist in the physical manifestations of the martial arts — tai chi — and in academia; it’s just that hip-hop does it with more flavor.
Switching topics, I’m also interested in the many hats you wear — the modalities within which you operate — among them now a very high-profile curator position as Director of Performing Arts at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA). Can you talk a little bit about what drew you to YBCA? I mean, I personally think it is one of the most exciting arts centers in the country, but I’d love to hear your perspective and first impressions of being there. You started in February?
I did. I basically have Philip Bither’s job but at Yerba Buena Center. Philip Bither, very honestly, along with Mark Russell [PS122‘s first artistic director], is one of my heroes in the world of curation. I think that he is one of the most dynamic and innovative and imaginative and knowledgeable curators that we have in the Unites States of America, for sure. Getting the opportunity to work with him as an artist has been one of the inspirations behind my pursuing the job as an administrator at Yerba Buena, simply because watching what he’d done in the Twin Cities with the McGuire [Theater] and at the Walker — those things are truly foundational in terms of my thinking and the kind of curator I’d like to be. So I can’t give him enough praise for what he’s meant to me.
He’s definitely an inspiring person to work with.
I believe it. And I think one of the things that he does very well, that I’d like to emulate, is reflecting his local environment back to itself through a local prism of performance. I’m living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the most diverse and politically progressive sectors of the country… For example, any time Newt Gingrich wants to make a point, he invokes Nancy Pelosi, who is our congresswoman. Nancy Pelosi represents Yerba Buena Center; literally, we’re in her congressional district. And Barbara Lee, who is the one congressperson that opposed unilateral powers in Iraq, she’s my congressperson. So that’s where I live. So reflecting those politics back but also the elegy of a time gone by, a projection of what our dissident futures may be like, an understanding of soul as reflective of intellect and not just blood and marrow: these are the things that I’m charged to do with this building, to reflect the community back to itself and also continue to make San Francisco a destination place for thought leaders across the planet. The last thing is that this too is part of my arts practice, not just putting theories on stage but creating environments; intentional community design is my arts practice, and so I look forward to making that happen at Yerba Buena.
In looking at the Life is Living festival, which brings contemporary art, performance, ecology, and community events together in public parks, you’ve said that “presenting can actually happen anywhere; we can take our ideologies and aesthetics and locate them where people are, without undermining the aesthetic quality of what we choose to present.” Are you interested in exploring something similar with Yerba Buena, in regards to off-site work?
Absolutely. I’m instituting a program called YBCAway, which is essentially is a micro-granting, micro-commissioning program where we seed 25 projects around the Bay Area that were going to happen anyway; small amounts of money, or relatively small amounts of money—somewhere between five hundred to one thousand dollars—pay for a week of rehearsal, or a week of studio rental for rehearsals, or one dancer, twenty hours of musicians’ time, etc. So part of the responsibility and accountability of the cultural ethic I’d like to institute at Yerba Buena is going to be setting aside a fairly large pool of money to make sure that the work that happens outside of our walls also gets supported: sometimes on small levels, sometimes on big levels.
The other thing too, which I’ve learned from when I do residency work in a city, is that I’m also looking for artists to have more protracted and deeper relationships with social services, youth services, and political agencies around the city. So that I think that is a self-imposed mandate as well.
Have your roles with Youth Speaks, the Living Word Project, or the Life is Living Festival changed at all now that you are full-time at YBCA? Or will they be changing?
They will be changing. I’m going to be a consultant with Youth Speaks, maybe for the next three or four months until they finish their strategic plan, but my art lives at the Living Word Project, so when I choose — and I believe it will be some years — when I choose to create a piece of scale again, it will be with the Living Word Project. And in the meantime, there are young playwrights: Rafael Casal, Dahlak Brathwaite, Chinaka Hodge, Dennis Kim, whose work I’m still interested in nurturing through the Living Word Project. And then Life is Living Festival is my baby and means probably more in the city of Oakland than it ever has, it’s on the rise, and so as much as I can contribute formally and informally I will. I won’t be at the center of the project, but I’ll offer as much as I can.
I think Life is Living is such a powerful idea; I would love to attend one of the festivals sometime because—even just from what I’ve heard about it at Walker—it’s been a reminder that there are so many different ways to approach the “environmental question.” I know I’ve sometimes felt personally disqualified to participate in environmental activism or activism in general because of the ways that it seems to require a special knowledge. It doesn’t seem allow for much on-the-job-learning. I know you’ve said part of your “message” with Life is Living and the new piece red, black & GREEN: a blues (rbGb) “is about creating a safe space for learning, which has been a problem for the Green movement.” So I was wondering if you could talk about whether you see the initial half hour of rbGb as a pedagogical moment, when you invite the audience onstage, or moreover what you’re hoping to create for your audiences at that moment or perhaps with the piece in general?
I think part of what I’m hoping to achieve with the first half hour relates to a visual art sensibility, what happens to the body and how we are prepared for viewing and absorbing in a visual art space. In a theater, you walk in and sit in the audience and find yourself in the dark until the performance is over, and it’s much more about the content, whereas I feel in the visual arts world the experience is relative and multivalent and you come into the gallery at your leisure. Maybe one object really piques your interest and that’s it; you keep going from there. So I wanted to create that kind of viewing sensibility that is present in the visual art world and take that as the softening, or preparatory agent, for getting involved or invested in the performance in a different kind of way. Also, demystifying the process of the physical architecture of performance by gaining a closer proximity: eliminating the fourth wall immediately by giving our entire audience access to it. These are things that I think make the performance that much richer.
Last question: I feel like you’re an artist with a unique relationship to institutions and the concept of institutionality because you’re invested in institutions but you also do larger work outside of them. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about what you think the role of arts institutions are and what you believe is the most or best that they can hope to accomplish?
Well, I still believe in the ritual of people gathering, in both well-lit and dark spaces, to share thoughts. Part of what you see being shared in the Republican primary season is this crazy anti-intellectual fervor. You have someone like Rick Perry or Rick Santorum or even Mitt Romney refuting the reality of climate change, the climate crisis.
When you can come this close to being the most powerful person in the world and you deny the most basic and agreed-upon science, the most critical and climactic scientific moment of our time, then really there’s something about the world of ideas that needs nurturing and help. And I think that’s what art centers do; they promote the creative intellect and the world of thought in a way that certainly isn’t being shared on the level of presidential discourse, so it has to happen somewhere.
In trying to get a clear picture of pianist Vijay Iyer, it’s hard to know which direction to look. His series at the Walker this Thursday and Friday, however, is a start. The two nights reveal a large part of the Venn diagram musical world he inhabits.
In trying to get a clear picture of pianist Vijay Iyer, it’s hard to know which direction to look. His series at the Walker this Thursday and Friday, however, is a start. The two nights reveal a large part of the Venn diagram musical world he inhabits.
Iyer came of age as a jazz musician in the Bay Area, playing with some first-wave avant-garde jazz musicians in the process. In a video for Alverno Presents last year, Iyer spoke about why he chose to be a jazz musician: “I had a lot of amazing experiences playing with elder musicians, in Oakland for example… people who had been part of the history of [jazz] music for decades already. To see the music in motion, to experience it as connected to a community, and also to feel welcome in that place, clinched it for me.”
Wadada Leo Smith, on the program Thursday night, is a professor at CalArts and very much a part of the Bay Area scene that is one part of Iyer’s musical provenance.
On the program Friday night is a duo with Parisian-based hip-hop/spoken word artist Mike Ladd, who Iyer collaborated with on the 2004 album In What Language? based on the airport detention of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (whose smuggled-to-Cannes-on-a-USB-in-a-cake This is Not a Film was Walker film curator Sheryl Mousley’s vote for best film of 2011). Pitchfork wrote:
In April of 2001, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was merely passing through New York’s JFK International Airport, in transit from a film festival in Hong Kong to another in Buenos Aires, when he was detained by the INS for refusing to be fingerprinted, and kept in a crowded holding cell for ten hours. He was ultimately returned to Hong Kong in handcuffs, famously attempting to explain himself to his fellow passengers: “I’m not a thief! I’m not a murderer! I am just an Iranian, a filmmaker. But how could I tell this, in what language?”
The Iyer+Ladd album is a powerful statement, with continuing resonance for “imagining a new moment for community in the post-9/11 world of surveillance of people of color, which has created a force for us coming together,” as Iyer told the Star Tribune Saturday.
Iyer’s experience with and envisioning of community informs his musical work and vice versa. In an interview with Toronto blog The Ethnic Aisle, Iyer said that, “In the Bay Area I connected with Asian Improv Arts. They are community organizers as well as creative musicians, so they dealt with identity in this empowering way. It wasn’t just ornamental, they had this radical sensibility that connected music to activism, so working with elements of your identity or heritage in the music was part of the whole mission and ideology. That was really inspiring; it was a way for me to be myself in the music which I’d never really seen before, at that time.”
Friday night’s show at the Walker will conclude with a set by Tirtha (pronounced THEER-tha), another Iyer trio, featuring Nitin Mitta on table/percussion and Prasanna on guitar and vox. Iyer told the Star Tribune that, “Tirtha to me is a political project because it encourages shared creativity across the South Asian diaspora.” Musically, Tirtha merges Carnatic forms with jazz and “fuse their influences through many other catalysts, including Reichian minimalism and rock,” according to the Guardian.
There was “shared creativity across the South Asian diaspora” also on Vijay Iyer Trio’s 2009 album Historicity, in their cover of M.I.A.’s “Galang.” The Vijay Iyer Trio will presumably be playing many new cuts from their forthcoming album Accelerando (which is scheduled for release March 13) on Thursday night, but I hope they revive this cover for the set.
Iyer’s place in the indie/pop sphere is one aspect of the Venn diagram that won’t be covered in the Walker two-night program. Iyer has collaborated with hip-hop group Das Racist, producing their track “Free Jazzmatazz.” The Independent Film Channel reports that Iyer will also be co-starring in a short film Dosa Hunt, still to-be-released, in which “Rostam Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend), Vijay Iyer, Ashok Kondabolu (Das Racist), Alan Palomo (Neon Indian), Amrit Singh (Stereogum), Himanshu Suri (Das Racist), and Anand Wilder (Yeasayer)… pile into a van… looking for the best dosa in New York City.” Iyer also recently contributed a remix of Meredith Monk’s “Rain” for a Meredith Monk remix album produced by DJ Spooky, which also features remixes by Björk and Nico Muhly. Thus the indie/pop connections circle back to the realm of the avant-garde; Vijay Iyer’s musical world might be better described as a Möbius strip than a Venn diagram.
And speaking of Möbius strips, Iyer could tell us a lot about them. He recently led a talk on “Music and Math” at Duke University that featured “a timbre experiment…called ‘a Möbius strip of pitch.’” Iyer completed undergraduate studies at Yale in Math and Physics, and finished his PhD in Technology and the Arts at UC-Berkeley. Thus his choice to play jazz seems significant for what he has left behind, or rather, left on the side. His many musical projects show the potential that music holds for building community and opening up a dialogue about political engagement and activism.
He has said, “Trying to do the impossible is what jazz is to me.”
In April 2011, Bill T. Jones made a video for the Human Rights Campaign’s New Yorkers for Marriage Equality Initiative. The HRC’s campaign found success in New York, with same-sex marriage approved there in June and ratified in July. Gay marriage currently finds itself in a peculiar position in Minnesota, with a proposed constitutional amendment […]
In April 2011, Bill T. Jones made a video for the Human Rights Campaign’s New Yorkers for Marriage Equality Initiative. The HRC’s campaign found success in New York, with same-sex marriage approved there in June and ratified in July. Gay marriage currently finds itself in a peculiar position in Minnesota, with a proposed constitutional amendment banning it before voters this November. The provision (explained excellently by Minnesota Public Radio in this recent primer piece) will ask Minnesotans whether they want to vote to alter the state constitution to define marriage as “between one man, one woman.” But “even if voters don’t approve the constitutional amendment,” writes MPR’s Paul Tosto, “Minnesota’s legal ban on same-sex marriage doesn’t go away. Gay marriage will still be illegal here.” Thus the ballot measure seems particularly ugly for the empty gesture of its ideology; disconnected from any concrete course of action, the Republican-sponsored bill diverts funds and attention towards an unnecessary polling of the opinions of the state’s voters. How curious in this age of pressing issues that the state Republicans find the time for such gestures, hoping to lock a door that has already been slammed shut.
For his Human Rights Campaign video, Bill T. Jones said, “We all agree that marriage is a fundamental human right, and in our country—in our society—there are no second class citizens.” His language echoes the 1967 Supreme Court ruling of Loving v. Virginia, which overturned the federal ban on interracial marriage: “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men. Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival.” Same-sex legislation often cites the precedent set by Loving v. Virginia, a case that seems to have particular relevance for aspects of Jones’ life. The public space Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane claimed for their same-sex interracial partnership, both onstage and off, seems possible in part because of Mildred and Richard Loving’s fight for recognition of their interracial marriage during the Civil Rights era. Mildred Loving likely would’ve understood Jones’ grief when he lost Arnie Zane during the first major onslaught of AIDS; she lost her husband, just as randomly, to a drunk driver.
“Part of Bill T. Jones’ advocacy has been the public nature of his relationships over the years,” say Philip Bither, the Walker’s senior curator for Performing Arts. Among Jones’ many accomplishments is the fearless transparency with which he has lived his life, “as openly, proudly gay in a way few in the highest levels of American performing arts world had been before him,” Bither adds. This public life is partly chronicled in his latest piece Story/Time, which he performs this week.
Indeed, Jones’ personal life sheds some light on the power of same-sex marriage as an issue: relationships with longevity and stability are understood as credible in the public imagination and should be recognized as such. In a January 2012 Out magazine feature about Jones and his partner of 20 years, Bjorn Amelan, Jones said, “If we get married, it’s for the legal reasons. I don’t feel a need for it emotionally. I love him with all of my heart. Marriage is a public acknowledgment. And doing this [article] is more a part of that. So, in a way, in this article, I guess we’re saying, ‘I do thee wed — in the public imagination.’”
As a gay man, I will be voting against the marriage amendment in November. What is less clear to me is the other ways I should engage with the public imagination. I have many friends who say that confining relationships in ways that the state might recognize prevents queer people from defining love on their own terms, with its various arrangements and genders that are not recognized by the state. At the center of the gay marriage debate in Minnesota is opposing views on the family, and most sacredly, fierce debate around the future of children. The conservative organization Minnesotans for Marriage has stated, “Protecting the interests of children is the primary reason that government regulates and licenses marriage in the first instance… [C]hildren do best when raised by their mother and father.” On the other side of the debate is Minnesotans United for All Families, which has stated, “We believe marriage and family are about love and commitment, working together, bettering the community, raising children, and growing old together. We believe in a Minnesota that values and supports strong families and creates a welcoming environment for all Minnesota families to thrive.”
It is disheartening the ways that homosexuals are construed as villains time and again in the lives of children. I think about Sylvia Rivera, Latina trans activist, who died 10 years ago this Sunday, February 19. According to writer Benjamin Shepard, “Sylvia Rivera is credited with throwing the first brick during the Stonewall Riots” in 1969, and she founded, along with her life partner and Andy Warhol model Marsha P. Johnson, the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in 1970, which created a homeless shelter for trans street youth: “children” who are rarely mentioned in the ongoing rhetoric about family and child. I am haunted by the image of Marsha P. Johnson’s body floating in the Hudson River (the suspicious circumstances surrounding her death 20 years ago were never investigated by the New York Police Department) and by the challenges people like her will continue to face, even when gay marriage is possible.
If Minnesotans defeat the marriage amendment this November, we will only have defeated a prohibition. Afterwards, we will still need to decide how hard we want to fight to make gay marriage a possibility. And we will need to consider the additional ways we can confront society’s entrenched homophobia and racism, issues that Bill T. Jones has fearlessly tackled throughout his life’s work.
Even if you missed the open rehearsal last summer, you can still catch a preview of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s Story/Time, which opens tonight at the Walker. Tickets are still available.
Even if you missed the open rehearsal last summer, you can still catch a preview of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s Story/Time, which opens tonight at the Walker.
Tickets are still available.