Blogs The Green Room Justin Schell

Justin Schell is a freelance writer for a number of Twin Cities publications and a grad student at the University of Minnesota's Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature Program. He's working on a dissertation and documentary on immigrant, diasporic, and refugee hip-hop within the Twin Cities and can be seen at Twin Cities rap shows regularly clutching a camera and field recorder. Some of the work so far can be seen at www.612to651.com. He originally hails from the land of beer, cheese, and Speech, the Boogie Down Brewtown, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Reel Around the Genres: Brad Mehldau and Chris Thile

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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,  filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on the the first night of Intuitive Expression: A […]

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Photo: Courtesy the artists

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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,  filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on the the first night of Intuitive Expression: A Brad Mehldau CelebrationAgree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Brad Mehldau opened his two-night set at the Walker with a wide-ranging, virtuosic duet with Chris Thile, best known for his work with Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers. Over the course of nearly two hours (including two encores), both musicians showcased not only their own genre-defying skills (while never quite leaving the hallmarks of jazz and bluegrass) but their incredible sensitivity and intimacy in performance. In addition to songs by Mehldau and Thile, they re-imagined songs by Fiona Apple, Gillian Welch, Bob Dylan, Elliot Smith, and an incredible version of the Sinatra ballad “I Cover the Waterfront” that showcased Thile’s balladeer skills. (You can find earlier performances of most of these songs from the duo on YouTube.) They also did a melodic mash up of the folk standard “St. Anne’s Reel” with a  bebop hallmark, Charlie Parker, that featured a thrilling, high-speed unison line that ranged through the entirety of both men’s instruments.

Yet I left the concert feeling like Thile, a ‘the-word-incredible-doesn’t-do-it-justice performer’ who can do things with a mandolin I didn’t think the instrument was capable of, overshadowed his bandmate. Reflecting on this afterwards, I had a nagging feeling of safeness or comfort with this concert, despite the incredible technical and emotional depth displayed by both musicians. Despite it’s genre-hopping, it wasn’t all that adventurous, except in the realm of genre-hopping itself, a musical conceit that often sets up genres as straw figures only to knock them down. In the end, and at the risk of being reductive, it seemed that Mehldau was incorporating these other musicians into his own style, while Thile was able to adapt  an incredibly different variety of musical lineages and styles, without necessarily making them his own in the same way as Mehldau. I’m keen to see how Mehldau’s second performance, with his trio of 20 years, will differ, and what other dimensions of the pianist’s work it will show.

Brad Mehldau Trio performs tonight (April 9) at the Walker as part of Intuitive Expression: A Brad Mehldau Celebration

A King’s Horizon

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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,  filmmaker and writerJustin Schell shares his perspective on Dave King’s Sound Horizon performance Thursday night. Agree or […]

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Dave King. Photo: Justin Schell

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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,  filmmaker and writerJustin Schell shares his perspective on Dave King’s Sound Horizon performance Thursday night. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Dave King opened this year’s installment of Sound Horizon, the Walker’s amalgamation of music, visual art, and space. This year’s series is curated by Jim Hodges, in conjunction with his Give More Than You Take exhibition. King, a Minneapolis native best known for his work with The Bad Plus and Happy Apple, played three sets in different parts of the gallery, first on drums, second on electronics, and third on a grand piano. (I was only able to stay for the first set.)

In a refreshing change, the first set was in the brightly lit, white-walled Perlman Gallery, as opposed to previous shows in the series, which were often dark and whose lighting went more for atmosphere than definition. The half-hour set was taken up mostly by a single piece, with a little coda at the end. The sounds of King’s drums ricocheted throughout the space, as he used nearly every inch of his Ellis set with his hands and a variety of sticks. As King bounced up and down on his stool,  melodies emerged in scattered time signatures through cymbals, bass, snare, and toms. Soon the toys came out (King mentioned one affinity between himself and Hodges is the creation of art from found objects), including the well-known apple as well as a toy megaphone dragged across the drum heads, all above a squeezing, creaking ostinato made by rubbing the floor tom with a stick. The set’s coda was a short piece that started around a more conventional brush pattern and ended with him pressing down (hard) against the floor tom head, again giving his drums that creaking sound that, this time, sounded like breathing, or perhaps moving joints, the energy and movement from King’s arms and legs transmuted into the drums themselves.

A Look Across the Sea: Olga Bell at the Walker

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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,  filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Olga Bell: Origin/Outcome. Agree or […]

Olga Bell. Photo courtesy the artist.

Olga Bell. Photo courtesy the artist.

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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,  filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Olga Bell: Origin/Outcome. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

So much media right now is about showing images of Russia, from the Sochi Olympic Opening Ceremonies to the ethnographic (and often condescending) puff pieces about “the Russian people” that form much of NBC’s Olympics coverage. Whether or not the timing of the Olympics factored into the decision to program the world premiere of Olga Bell’s Krai last night at the Walker, the ideas, sounds, words, and images of her work all seemed to deal with questions of mediated representations of faraway lands.

The first half of the performance started this theme, which comprised a set of music by Angel Deradoorian, a collaborator with Bell who was also in The Dirty Projectors. The highlight of the set came right off the bat, a premiere of Deradoorian’s Duduk for Two Voices, an unaccompanied vocal duet meant to evoke the Armenian duduk woodwind instrument. Bell and Deerodorian started in unison and drifted around various scales, filigreed melody lines that always seemed to find their way back home to unison. After this, a whole band came out and Bell took her place amongst a trio of backup singers. It was hard to understand most of Deradoorian’s lyrics, as they were delivered in a fairly low vocal range and blended perhaps too well with the other vocal and instrumental lines. However, these pieces also showed Deradoorian’s compositional skills in both her creative use of harmony (especially how she interacted with the other vocalists) and her creative use of scales in creating melody lines. As my friend put it, the music went from Armenia to the blues to the Beatles, sometimes in the span of a few phrases.

Olga Bell took center-stage for the second half of the performance, which was the world premiere of Krai. Each of the piece’s nine movements represents a specific geographic area, or krai, in Russia.

The music Bell created for Krai is fascinating. While the text is in Russian (and becomes inscrutable without the proper language knowledge), the music had wisps of melodic and other musical styles that place it within various Russian sonic traditions, including a particularly nice use of a digital octave displacer by Bell that gave her a characteristic “Russian bass” voice. Jumping between time signatures and interweaving melodic lines (sometimes a duet between Bell and guitarist Grey McMurray, others between Bell and the multiple backup vocalists), the music couldn’t be placed or pigeonholed as easily “Russian,” reflecting her own musical journey since she left Russia at an early age.

I can imagine, though, competing (and perhaps contradictory) interpretations of Krai. Sonically, the piece evokes much more complex musical histories of mixing, change, and an embrace and evocation of ideas of tradition. The poetry and visuals, however, seem pretty conventional, offering a relatively uncomplicated view of Russia. 

The visuals felt like they could’ve been part of the Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony. (Music like this, however, would never be in an Olympic Ceremony, as it’s far too adventurous.) The visuals were mostly of the “God’s Eye View” variety of mountains, cities, and landscapes. Many were sweeping time lapses, be they Koyaanisqatsi sped-up traffic flows or hyperreal HDR timelapses through the night (where the stars and the land can be seen equally illuminated). Often times the direction changed (sometimes forward, sometimes reverse, making the landscape look like it was breathing), images were overlaid upon each other (as happened in the piece’s final movement, “Kamchatka Krai”), or artfully blurred and distorted.This last point makes me think of the haziness of memory and how images of a home (whether it be a house, a city, or a country) can become distorted and changed the longer you’re away from it. 

The lyrics of Krai seem straight out of 19th century folklore traditions, with idealized figures of Cossacks riding through the countryside, poetic descriptions of the taiga, and an overall feeling of “Mother Russia” that doesn’t match the complexity of vision that Bell’s music put forth. This isn’t exactly a criticism. Really, it’s fairly common in the artistic realm of diaspora to idealize the place you left that you also call home. Bell candidly wrote in her program note that she “traveled” to these krai only through the mediated sounds and images from things like Radio Moscow tapes and RuTube videos, as well as, perhaps crucially, her mother’s words. (She was in the audience last night and, at one point, boisterously approved of her daughter’s work, eliciting a big laugh from Bell.) Works like Krai that engage with ideas of homeland and heritage always have to strike a balance, part reality and part invention. Bell’s exploration of her own (mediated) homeland perhaps tried to evoke this balance in the work’s different aesthetic components, yet the overpowering nature of the poetry and the visuals tipped the scales more towards invention than reality.

Too Composed: Jherek Bischoff at the Fitz

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Friday night’s performance by Jherek Bischoff. Agree […]

Jherek Bischoff and Members of the SPCO. Photo: Justin Schell

Jherek Bischoff and Members of the SPCO. Photo: Justin Schell

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Friday night’s performance by Jherek Bischoff. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

The first collaboration of the season between two of the more innovative music series in the Twin Cities (the Walker and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series), kicked off with Seattle’s Jherek Bischoff at the Fitzgerald Theater last Friday. The show featured drummer Greg Saunier from Deerhoof; singer and songwriter Sondra Lerche; singer Channy Leaneagh from Poliça; singer and guitarist from múm Ólöf Arnalds; and members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Bischoff, tall and rail-thin, sported a rockabilly suit, greaser hair, and shiny, shiny gold shoes. Alternating between a Hofner bass and a series of ukeleles, Bischoff, with his toothy grins, is nothing if not a showman. (During the show’s opener “DAE-2,” he serenaded the SPCO members on bended knee.) All that was missing to my eyes in his arsenal of moves was a Chuck Berry duck walk.

The first half of the show was mostly Bischoff’s material, either original songs or arrangements. These disappointingly felt like superficial pastiche, passing through various genres and styles (including a few covers) without much musical or historical foundation. Waltzes, grandiose Arvo Pärt–style string quartets, The X-Files theme, Eminem, and even lounge music all seemed right at home for Bischoff. The worst offender was “Kule Kule,” a stripped down version of Bischoff’s orchestral remix of the Konono No°1 original; their wonderfully distorted polyphonies and complex polyrhythms were reduced to repeated violin lines and drums that veered too close to “darkest Africa” drums.

The second half worked much better than the first, as it consisted mainly of arrangements of songs from Bischoff’s guests. At the risk of sounding like a homer, one of the best parts of the show was Bischoff’s arrangements of “The Maker” and “Leading to Death,” two songs by Poliça that featured Channy Leaneagh. Two things struck me during these songs. First, I never realized how Icelandic Leaneagh sounds (coming as she did directly after Ólöf Arnalds). Second, Bischoff’s string-heavy arrangement gave Leaneagh’s voice a completely different shading. Although stripped of their original percussion, the songs had their power re-channeled through Leaneagh’s voice.

The other great part of the show were the songs by Ólöf Arnalds. The visible joy and pleasure she got from being on-stage and playing these songs seemed much, much more genuine than Bischoff’s. She broke out in laughter at one point during her song “Sudden Elevation” because she was, in her words, “overwhelmed” at the musical experience she was creating. (Earlier, Bischoff gleefully said playing with these assembled guests, especially the members of the SPCO, was “like driving a Ferrari.”) And what made me even more of a fan of hers was that she took an extended amount of time to thank a woman at the Fitz for running out to get her manuscript paper.

The vast majority of the crowd, however, seemed to enjoy both halves equally and were firmly in the palm of Bischoff’s hand. In a rarity for a non-hip-hop Minnesota concert, they even participated, providing bass line support for “Eyes,” the song he co-wrote with David Byrne. Bischoff soaked up every ounce of it, dispensing gratitude to an almost unreal degree.

Yet despite the gratitude and praise, I left reminded of how ideas of musical border crossing and genre blurring are founded upon stable conceptions of what is being crossed, in this case, “classical” and “pop” music. While other shows in the Liquid Music series, such as last year’s performances by Jace Clayton, created something that sounded new and innovative from these worlds, in the end, Bischoff’s original music ended up much more derivative, more surface, perhaps too composed, rooted less in experimentation and more in a bag of compositional idioms.

Equilateral Triangles and Dymaxion Stories: Sam Green and Yo La Tengo at the Walker

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Friday night’s performance of  The Love […]

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Friday night’s performance of  The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller by Sam Green and Yo La Tengo. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

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Sam Green, R. Buckminster Fuller, and Yo La Tengo at the Walker. Photo by Justin Schell.

The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, the most recent “live documentary” by filmmaker Sam Green, is an ambitious attempt to encompass the polymath’s life, his work, and its meaning, past, present, and future. On its surface, Love Song is mostly a biography of Fuller, framed through Green’s numerous visits to the Fuller Archives at Stanford University, officially known as the “Dyamxion Chronofile.” The Chronofile was Fuller’s attempt to exhaustively document and preserve everything in his life, from receipts to lecture notes to even his iconic spectacles. (In all, it spans 1200 linear feet, the length of 90 mid-size cars end to end.)

Green uses this as a point from which to trace the patterns of failure and triumph of Fuller’s life, from his suicidal epiphany on the shores of Lake Michigan, the excitement and disappointment of the failure of inventions like the Dymaxion Car and Dymaxion House, to what he’s best known for, the geodesic dome, comprised of its many equilateral triangles.

Beyond just being a biography, however, the “live documentary” form offers audiences a much more dynamic cinematic experience. Green controlled many of the images throughout, whether clicking through a collection of geodesic domes culled from Google Images to show the proliferation of these structures past and present (even in chicken coops!), or adjusting the volume of lecture excerpts of Fuller when he wanted to further elaborate on a point. At times it was a performance, at times a film (where Green would sit down off-stage), and at times an extended TED-style presentation.

He also could “localize” the viewing experience. Starting off with various Twin Cities landmarks, he made a slightly inelegant segue from a Mall of America cronut to Stanford University, where the bulk of the film’s story begins. A more seamless integration of local knowledge and history came from his incorporation of a story from the Walker’s Bucky Fuller Night held this past Thursday, when a city planner told how he had contacted Fuller to explore building a dome over Minneapolis to keep out the harsh winter. The cost, Fuller responded, would be $6 billion dollars. The more cost-effective solution? Skyways.

One draw for many of the audience members was the live soundtrack by Yo La Tengo. At times they were minimalist strains of keyboards and guitar, other times incorporating Georgia Hubley’s drums, other times a variety of sound effects. It was only at the very end of the film, when Green told the concluding story about Fuller making people believe they could feel the earth move by standing in a certain way, that the group’s their music really felt like the love song that makes up the film’s title. It’s a nod to Green’s storytelling ability, his subject matter, and perhaps also to the oft-subservient position of music in film as simply “underscore” that I didn’t really notice Yo La Tengo’s music all that much over the course of the film.

It’s not quite right to say the The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller is a love song for Buckminster Fuller, but I felt that Green’s film didn’t quite engage with the contradictions of Fuller enough. While he nodded to Fuller as an egomaniac and shrewd image-manager (at one point Green compared him to Andy Warhol), these tended to fall by the wayside in Green’s story. Yet this is precisely where I find Fuller intriguing, his relationship to the world that he seemingly wanted to change, that many of his ideas emerged from, and even went hand-in-hand with things like advertising (“Dymaxion” comes from a wordsmith hired to name what would become the Dymaxion House, combining “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “tension”), military research, Fordist ideas of efficiency, industrial capitalism’s voracious over-development, and futurism masked as technological determinism.

The moment that brought this home wonderfully was the “Fuller Meets the Hippies on Hippie Hill” film excerpt, a TV-news special of Fuller meeting with a group of San Francisco hippies in Golden Gate Park at the height of the Bay Area counterculture movement. In the excerpts, Green captures a bizarre juxtaposition between the aging Fuller and his three-piece suit and the long-haired, unkempt hippies who regale him with acid-tripped theories of what can save the world, all framed, of course, by the almost anthropological gaze of the TV news camera and the reporter bringing it to your living room. Fred Turner characterizes Fuller as a “technocrat for the counterculture,” and that rather than faulting either Fuller or the counterculture that idolized him for their failures to transform the world, Turner shows how each are born of the paradox of technological development, embracing the incredible advancements in post-war science and technology while simultaneously facing the utter extinction of all life through the atomic bomb.

With such a tremendous collection of ideas and writings, Fuller presents opportunities for just about anyone to find something they can agree with and use for their own agenda. Green rightly frames Fuller as a utopian, and at the end of the film positions Fuller as a kind of inspiration for the badly-needed mantra of “do more with less,” twice playing Fuller’s statement that there is no reason that everyone can’t have a comfortable life given the resources available in the world. Yet this message struck me as more along the lines of a “we’re all human,” not really a call to action but more a rhetorical device to make people think about their own lives, their own consumption, etc a little bit more. In the end, though, this is Green telling his story of Fuller telling his story. For people who already have their ideas of Fuller fully-formed and cemented, The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller will confirm their beliefs, but the engagement with Fuller and what accomplished and represents shouldn’t stop with just a love song.

Sympathetic Spaces: Grouper at Sound Horizon

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Thursday’s Sound Horizon concerts by Grouper. Agree […]

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Thursday’s Sound Horizon concerts by Grouper. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

I got to the Walker a bit early for the Sound Horizon performance by Grouper (aka Liz Harris) and checked out, among other things, Abraham Cruzvillegas: The Autoconstucción Suites exhibition. On one of the walls was a quote from Buckminster Fuller (although my own research hasn’t turned up its source): “Matter should be organized by sympathy.”

That, combined with Cruzvillegas’ simultaneously overpowering and intimate structures, had me thinking about sympathetic spaces (To whom? For whom? To what?) and what makes up these spaces. The Sound Horizon series has offered a wonderful venue for such explorations in sound, held as it is in the Perlman Gallery, a space which can offer its own collaborative voices, be they sonic or visual, to an artist.

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Grouper. Photo: Justin Schell

Last night’s trio of sets by Grouper marked the end of this season’s Sound Horizon series. “Grouper,” of course, is also a type of fish, but Harris’ name choice lends a different valence to what she does. It’s a clunky name, really, but her music is anything but: it has a much more intricate, almost woven, texture to it, with the digital gauze of her guitar and vocals meshing seamlessly with the pre-recorded ambiences and drones, some of which are created through loops played on a tape recorder. While the set I saw was mostly songs linked together by beds of noise that sounded like they could have been, at some point in their sonic life, water waves, Harris conceived of the performances as a triptych, moving from structure to abstraction, with the last set comprised almost entirely of tape collages.

Truth be told, Grouper’s music was made much better by the space surrounding it, both the cavernous quality it gave to her already-reverbed sounds, but also the immersive, multi-projected videos of Bruce Nauman’s MAPPING THE STUDIO II with color shift, flip, flop, & flip/flop (Fat Chance John Cage). While the projections were nearly static, almost “night-vision” shots, what you saw were the other beings who lived in the space: a black cat, mice, bugs. These beings would dart across the screen seemingly in all directions (“flip” is an editing term for turning a piece of footage upside down, while “flop” means to make the footage perspectivally backwards). These seven screens surrounded the audience, offering a different type of immersion, simultaneously providing a sharp visual counterpoint to the music.

There wasn’t any specific stage lighting (the illumination came from the Nauman images), meaning that Harris herself was enveloped in the same light (or non-light) as the audience. There was, however, an archaic light fixture that reached out from the desk, and its luminosity swelled with specific sonic moments. My friend said it looked like a firefly, and Grouper’s music certainly had the kind of meditative, but also slightly melancholic, character of the end of a summer’s day, as if those flashes of light represented by the bugs in Nauman’s studio were carefully drawn out and set to music. In the end, I’m not sure what might have been the objects or agents of sympathy in Grouper’s organizations of sonic matter. Flipping to another meaning of the word, and away from whatever intentions she might have had, the evening was more about sympathetic resonances (sonic and otherwise) between the evening’s multiple spaces—structural, sonic, and visual.

 

If You Don’t Catch It, It’s Gone: Zorn @ 60

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Tuesday’s concert by John Zorn. Agree or disagree? […]

John Zorn at Jazz Middelheim 2012 Photo: Bruno Bollaert, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

John Zorn at Jazz Middelheim 2012
Photo: Bruno Bollaert, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Tuesday’s concert by John Zorn. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

There’s something curious about having retrospectives for music and musicians, to commemorate or, perhaps worse, memorialize this music or that musician, especially since music is the ephemeral art form par excellence. This is especially true in the case of John Zorn, the subject of last weekend’s celebrations at the Walker, who has in many ways built his musical career on the most ephemeral of musics, that of improvisation in its various guises.

Herbert Marcuse once wrote that works of art can become “neutralized as a classic.” After an audience member asked him what he thought his greatest accomplishment was, he responded curtly, “I don’t think in those terms.” There is very little sense that Zorn is worried about his works becoming neutralized, if only because of his acerbic wit personality. (He launched more f-bombs in one performance at the Walker than I think I’ve heard in all the shows I’ve reviewed, combined.) And yet Zorn is well-known for celebrations of his “decade” birthdays, and the 60th is no different, with events happening around the world.

Such a juxtaposition (at best, or at worst, a contradiction) is only one that was on display at the Walker. Zorn’s yellow-inflected camo pants with the Jewish tzitzit was perhaps the most visible, but there were deeper musical things happening on the McGuire’s stage. Having never seen Zorn live before, I was struck how the dynamics of improvisation and composition, freedom and control played out through the day’s concerts, which drew on music from his earliest game pieces (Hockey, Cobra) to more recent works (released by groups Nova Express and The Concealed).

There were only two pieces in the evening where Zorn wasn’t on stage: Marc Ribot’s performance of excerpts from The Book of Heads, where he used all manner of objects (including balloons!) on his frayed guitar that looks like it had seen many performances of this particular Zorn work, and Erik Friedlander’s gorgeous solo cello arrangements of pieces from Zorn’s Book of Angels series.

Zorn himself only played on two pieces, Hockey (an early game piece) and, one of the highlights of the entire festival, a blistering live score to Wallace Berman’s cut-up film Aleph. Zorn’s contribution was skronky-as-hell alto sax runs, Kenny Wollesen on drums (where he is equally impressive, though he spent most of the night on the vibes), and Greg Cohen. Given the applause afterwards, this was what many folks in the audience were waiting for (including one heckler who had earlier questioned Zorn as to where his sax was; the response he got from the sax’s owner was characteristically Zorn: “At home, motherfucker.”)

More often than not, though, Zorn was a conductor of the various ensembles that took the stage, even some that didn’t necessarily need a conductor. Conducting and leading for Zorn is just as much of an active role as the musicians making the sounds that make up the music. For perhaps his best-known work, Cobra, he was conductor, signal caller, and ringleader all rolled into one, holding up various cards and signaling to musicians what to play and when. Yet the musicians (which included Twin Cities improvisers Michelle Kinney on cello and Joey Schad on keyboards) could also choose who they wanted to play with (or sometimes against) and could even assume the role of conductor by donning a piece of headwear. As the musicians moved through four movements, sometimes cacophonous, sometimes luminescent, it seemed that Zorn struck an incredible melding of both the fun of the best sports moments with the intellectual exercise and reward of avant-garde improvised music.

Yet I think his presence for groups like the often-manic, Klezmer-influenced jams of the Masada Trio (comprised of Friedlander, violinist Marc Freedman, and bassist Greg Cohen), in which he sat on the ground in front of them calling out tempos and pointing at musicians for solos, backgrounds, and other musical sections, speaks more of a desire—or perhaps need—for control. Later in this same set, the larger band Bar Khokba took the stage, and again Zorn was just off to the side, sitting with score in front of him,  calling out tempos and solos much the same way he did with the Masada Trio. Yet here he was even more precise in his demands and gestures, at one point even telling what specific pattern the drummer Joey Baron should play.

In all of these instances, though, Zorn and the musicians playing his music look like they’re having the time of their life. Especially Joey Baron. The smile on Baron’s face was only eclipsed by the bulging neck muscles as his arms catapulted to the different parts of his set. One of my great joys in life is seeing really joyful musical collaboration and connection in live improvised music performance, and the relationship between Zorn, his musicians, and between the musicians themselves, was absolutely thrilling. And the person who seemed to be having the most fun on-stage was often Zorn himself.

Why do musicians like this arrangement? None of these musicians need a conductor or bandleader, at least not in any conventional sense. Perhaps it frees them to explore their own improvisational capacities without necessarily having to worry about the dynamics of the “piece,” i.e. doing this for this many bars, that for that many bars, etc. Or they can avoid deciding things like solo order, length, etc before the performance, meaning that each performance has a greater feel of spontaneity. There is also a deep sense of care from Zorn towards his musicians. At one point, Wollesen wanted one of the stage crew to get him a towel and, until that happened, Zorn kept checking on him until someone handed him that towel.

Despite so much emphasis on collaboration and creation with other people, the festival ended with Zorn having, in many ways, the ultimate exercise of musical power and control. Sitting at the organ console at St. Mark’s, an eerie blue-green light casting upwards from the music stand, he played towering block chords, Bach-like chorales, and pedal tones that barely registered as “notes” but shook the cathedral’s fixtures and pipe enclosures, making the entire building his rhythm section.

Ending the concert in a more traditionally sacred space seems to bring the juxtapositions and contradictions of the evening to a head. While what Zorn created on the organ was certainly keeping in his iconoclastic character, and most likely tones, clusters, and foundation-shaking pedal tones are not usually played on this particular organ, there still was a sense of reverence, if not for the space, than for what the music makes the space become. In conversation with curator Phillip Bither at the start of the festival, Zorn spoke of the ritual, magic, and purity of music that works—and works for—a higher plane of knowledge and truth, even if that truth might only be a fleeting moment, in a basement studio, a multimillion dollar stage, or a towering cathedral, and even after 60 years.

Flying Neutrinos and Picket Lines: Shara Worden at SPCO

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Tuesday’s concert by Shara Worden. Agree or disagree? […]

Photo by Murat Eyuboglu

Photo by Murat Eyuboglu

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Tuesday’s concert by Shara Worden. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Shara Worden has a voice that doesn’t seem like it should emanate from the body it’s housed in. Or perhaps it’s the other way around: her body can’t contain her voice. Worden and drummer Brian Wolfe played an hour long My Brightest Diamond set for a crowd gathered at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s music room, a crowd that expected to hear yMusic along with Worden. Due to the ongoing labor dispute between the SPCO and the orchestra’s management, however, yMusic was unable to perform because of union solidarity or union obstructionism, depending on your point of view.

Dressed in a white tuxedo coat, sequined black pants, and oversized bow tie, Worden cut an amalgamated figure: shades of Annie Lennox, Brian Setzer, Pee Wee Herman, and Stop Making Sense all were visible. There were so many different feels and characters to the songs, often played on different instruments (ranging from mbira to autoharp to ukulele), that it verged on performative, yet superficial, pastiche.  The best moments for me were when she was more personal than persona, such as in “I Have Never Loved Someone,” an intimate love song to her two-year old son played delicately on the SPCO’s organ.

shara2

Photo by Denny Renshaw

Beyond the songs, though, the “off-stage story,” the locked-out SPCO musicians  and their effect on the concert tonight, gave the evening an element of cognitive dissonance for me. “We Added It Up,” a song ostensibly about relationship opposites told through the zero-charge neutrino particle, rang a little hollow. Having her channel Cardew or Rzewski would’ve rang equally hollow, though. In the end, the concert was a somewhat rare instance when the labor involved in music-making is revealed, the financial and negotiated realities that get people to the stage placed front and center. Worden’s music often invoked transcendence, whether it be through her music, her words, or her other-worldly voice, effortlessly flicking to notes far above the staff, but tonight, that transcendent quality brought the issues of the musical world all the more sharply into focus.

Shamans and Wizards: Glenn Kotche at the Walker

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Saturday’s concert by Glenn Kotche. Agree or disagree? […]

Glenn Kotche. Photo: Ed Luna

Glenn Kotche. Photo: Ed Luna

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Saturday’s concert by Glenn Kotche. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

In his introduction to Saturday night’s performance by Glenn Kotche at the McGuire, Philip Bither used language of sonic exploration to describe what the audience was about to see. Though he was mainly discussing ILIMAQ, the “drum kit opera” by John Luther Adams and peformed by Kotche that comprised the evening’s second half, both parts of the evening featured explorations of sonic and physical landscapes.

The first half of the show was a long collaborative composition between Kotche and multi-instrumentalist wizard Martin Dosh. Encircled by a full studio mixer, piano, marimba, drum kit, and a number of other keyboards, Dosh created, transformed, and reversed intricate live loops that revolved around, between, and within what Kotche played. For his part, the Wilco drummer also had a conventional drumset, a marimba, xylophone (which was bowed as often as it was struck with mallets), and a pair of bass drums that were never struck, but used only as a resonating surface for spinning, vibrating robot toys. The two artists seemed to be winding their way through the geography of their creation in perpetual motion, at times solidifying and coalescing around an understated piano melody played by Dosh that somehow tied everything together. And as the piece wound down, ending as it began with found sound conversational recordings and bowed xylophone, the robots in the back kept spinning, a lovely metaphor for the 20+ minutes of music the audience experienced.

John Luther Adams has made much of his music about and amidst the landscapes of Alaska, where he has resided since 1978, and Ilimaq is his most recent work. Written for Kotche, the piece is divided into roughly three sections, with Kotche playing on three different setups: first, a side-turned bass drum; second, a greatly-expanded drum set with multiple tuned toms; and finally a vast array of cymbals and gongs, also arranged in orders of tuning. Over the course of nearly an hour, Kotche displayed his virtuosity on all of the instruments, as his sounds were delayed and channeled by sound engineer Jody Elff though the McGuire’s speakers, creating the sense of being surrounded by drums in the middle of an icy, barren landscape. (Nearly imperceptible flickering lights in the McGuire’s ceiling even gave the impression of a starry night sky.)

Glenn Kotche. Photo: Ed Luna

Glenn Kotche. Photo: Ed Luna

For Adams, the extra-musical aspect of the piece is the “spirit journey” (the English translation of the piece’s title) of an Iñupiat, or Alaskan Inuit, shaman. Without wanting to make too reductive a characterization of the piece as new age-y romanticization of shamanism, Native or otherwise, the piece’s repetitions work to relieve the listener of the musical conventions and associations of a bass drum, ride cymbal, or a gong. I likened it to saying a word over and over until it becomes more sonic than semantic. However, in this case, the repetitions went on a bit too long, leaving me to unfortunately put this in the category of “appreciating” this music for what Adams and Kotche were going for, rather than really enjoying it.

 

Rattling Ribcages and Sensibilities: Ben Frost at Amsterdam

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Saturday’s concert by Ben Frost. Agree […]

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Saturday’s concert by Ben Frost. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

I never thought I’d hear a live show as loud as Keiji Haino’s performance at the Walker back in 2006, but Ben Frost’s performance Saturday night at Amsterdam, a co-presentation of the Walker and the SPCO’s Liquid Music series, somehow made Haino’s four-amp guitar creations sound like elevator music.

Frost’s music was an amalgamation of punk, metal, noise, and minimalism, as hints of melody surrendered to squalls of sound that shook not only Amsterdam’s fixtures, but also audience members’ ribcages. The barefooted Frost was on his toes the entire night, each dramatic gesture on his guitar, laptop, or various other digital components unleashing music that was at times glitchy, other times sludgey, other times picking apart the idioms of electronic dance music and metal. You could envision any number of cinematic visuals for it: industrial wastelands, desolate winter nights, expansive glaciers, or a b-side for the Ludovico technique.

From left to right, Paul Corley, Ben Frost, and Greg Fox. Photo by Justin Schell

From left to right, Paul Corley, Ben Frost, and Greg Fox. Photo by Justin Schell

Percussionists Paul Corley and Greg Fox, who joined Frost on-stage, added their own torrents of hocketing, polyrhythmic sound, be it on a conventional drum set, congas, toms, or digital drums. As Frost’s music began to emerge from the speakers, Fox was limbering up, and soon it was clear why, as he became something akin to a speed metal drummer, sticks and double-bass drum pedals flying. At one point, both stood over the congas and toms and struck them with such force that my eyes were forced to blink along with every hit. It was visceral, aggressive, and overwhelmingly masculine music.

With music that positions itself at extremes, there will undoubtedly by extreme reactions. Some of the crustier members of the audience, many of whom lined either side of the seats, were dancing throughout the entire show. They were in the (perhaps happy) minority, though. Others looked unimpressed, to be generous. A number of folks left almost as soon as the first piece started; by the time I had finished writing “2 folks left” in my notebook, two more had left. One woman behind me had her head nearly in her lap, hands over her ears, trying to shield herself with the person in front of her. Yet another man, though, bobbed his head peacefully with his eyes closed and fingers in his ears as the music engulfed him.

Frost, however, is not without a sense of humor. The pre-show music, selected by Frost himself, was a loop of Eduard Khil’s “I Am Glad, ’cause I’m Finally Returning Back Home,” better known as the “Trololo” song. I got there around 7:30, and the show started shortly after 8, which meant this under-3-minute song looped for more at least 35 minutes. As the show concluded with a 15-minute piece whose last strains were the most minimal of percussive strokes by Fox and Corley, Khil’s song came on again to serenade people as they departed, its syrupy vocalise made all the more palatable for some as welcome relief, while for others a kitschy musical joke to be vanquished by deafening noise.

 

 

 

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