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, Mark Mahoney, host of Sound Grammar on Radio K, shares his perspective on C. Spencer […]
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, Mark Mahoney, host of Sound Grammar on Radio K, shares his perspective on C. Spencer Yeh’s Sound Horizon performance in the Walker galleries last week. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
Musician and sound artist C. Spencer Yeh offered three strikingly divergent listening experiences to those attending the final installment of this year’s Sound Horizon series Thursday night. The performances took place in the Walker’s Gallery Three, which hosts part of the ongoing Less Than One exhibit. Less Than One highlights work within the Walker collection that is “provocative, historically charged, and risk-taking,” adjectives which could very well describe Yeh’s practice.
The night began quietly. Yeh wordlessly approached the table, picked up his violin, and began to coax a rough-hewn sound from the violin’s lower register. He then settled into an unwavering drone. The drone continued as the initially modest audience expanded to include latecomers and curious passersby. The music seemed to take on an almost material presence, as though it were a stable fixture of the gallery. Then, gradually, almost imperceptibly, a series of fluttering, ethereal harmonics emerged in the extreme upper register of the violin. These spectral sounds asserted themselves with increasing intensity, swelling and occasionally crashing like waves. They seemed to suggest the presence of a destructive power on the brink of being unleashed. For the most part, however, the illusion of tranquility survived through the end of the first set.
At the beginning of the second set, Yeh set down his violin and turned his attention to the array of electronics and noisemaking equipment laid out before him. The piece began with some quiet, sporadically-spaced clicks and pops, calling to mind the gentle crackling of a worn-out vinyl record. These clicks rapidly multiplied until the effect was like that of being at a basketball practice with dozens of people dribbling at the same time.
Like a severely pixelated image, Yeh’s soundscape offered up lots of discrete bits of sonic information with no easy way for the listener to appropriate them into a coherent form. To this disorienting soundscape, Yeh then added noises generated through the creative abuse of contact mics, which he rubbed against his thigh and various resonant surfaces, thickening the texture. The piece remained diffuse and difficult to pin down, but beguiling in its own way.
I have a habit of closing my eyes when I listen to challenging music, but what I heard next made doing so almost impossible. Guttural grunts, plosives, blubbering sounds, tongue pops: Yeh was transforming his body into an instrument of fascinating and occasionally disturbing dimensions. The new sounds collided and skirmished with the previous sounds, establishing a new sonic order characterized by atomized bits of raw information in frenetic motion. Over the top of all this, Yeh continued to add new layers of bodily-generated sound, ranging from throat singing to imitations of bird songs.
For the final set, Yeh returned to his violin, but with a twist: he now manipulated two bows simultaneously, affording him a range of new extended techniques. At times he bowed vigorously across the entire length of the instrument. At other times, he allowed the bows to bounce gently across the strings, creating a quiet skittering effect. During the climactic culmination of the piece, he covered the violin fingerboard with a sympathetically resonating drum head, producing a distorted timbre that sounded more like an electric guitar than a violin.
Yeh’s art is abrasive and likely to polarize listeners, but whatever anyone in the audience might have thought of Yeh’s performance, no one could say that it was boring. The solo format is a demanding one for artists, and Yeh succeeded admirably in creating the kind of expressive variety necessary to keep the music engaging throughout.
Despite the heterogeneity of Yeh’s performance, or perhaps because of it, I struggled with formulating my own thoughts about it for this review. The sui generis nature of Yeh’s art makes it challenging to pin down. I read up on Yeh’s biography and his influences, hoping that the facts might offer a crutch where interpretation failed. Barring that, I turned to metaphor, scouring through works in the Walker galleries for a concrete analogy I might be able to draw.
At home, I flip through Joseph Brodsky’s book of essays Less Than One, after which the Walker exhibit is named. Brodsky, at the end of his essay on W.H. Auden, tells us, “You don’t dissect a bird to find the origins of its song. What should be dissected is your ear.” It’s a strangely solipsistic view of art, and, as with Yeh’s music, I’m not quite sure I fully grasp its implications. Opening my laptop, I pull up C. Spencer Yeh in my Itunes library. With the index finger of my other hand still jammed in between the pages of Less Than One, I click ‘play’ and turn the volume up, loud.
The Minneapolis-based trio RONiiA—Fletcher Barnhill (Joint Custody, FUGITIVE), Nona Marie Invie (Dark Dark Dark, Fugitive), and Mark McGee (Father You See Queen, Marijuana Deathsquads)—will release a new EP, Sisters, this Friday, March 25. Filled with richly atmospheric music, it derives its hypnotic power through its intricate dance between subtle intimation and emotional verve. On tracks […]
The Minneapolis-based trio RONiiA—Fletcher Barnhill (Joint Custody, FUGITIVE), Nona Marie Invie (Dark Dark Dark, Fugitive), and Mark McGee (Father You See Queen, Marijuana Deathsquads)—will release a new EP, Sisters, this Friday, March 25. Filled with richly atmospheric music, it derives its hypnotic power through its intricate dance between subtle intimation and emotional verve. On tracks like “Hell,” lead singer Invie’s hazy vocals seem to float, disembodied, over the noirish synthscapes created by her bandmates. In a word, this music is cinematic, which should come as no surprise to anyone who witnessed the members of RONiiA perform their Walker-commissioned original score to the silent film classic The Adventures of Prince Achmed last summer.
The band’s experience with that project has informed their latest music in ways both direct and indirect. I asked the members of RONiiA about their new EP and its relationship to their 2015 Summer Music and Movies score.
Mark Mahoney: Mark, the last time I spoke with you, you were preparing to debut your film score to the silent film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a project also featuring Nona and Fletcher Barnhill of RONiiA. What kind of impact has that project had on your work together since then?
Mark McGee: Most of the songs were heavily influenced by the score I wrote for the Walker. The song “Hell” developed purely from the score, adding lyrics to it later. “Sisters” was another song that I used most of the drum sounds and synths from the score, and we developed a more structured song out of it. Working on soundtracks is something we are all super interested in, and this project allowed us a break from the heavy tour schedule we had earlier that year. There’s no doubt the project helped us to explore new sounds and textures that we probably never would have used if we had just written an album without that experience.
Mahoney: Your band name was inspired by another fantasy film: Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter. There seems to be an element of (sometimes dark) fantasy running through your music. Do you see parallels between these films and your music?
Fletcher Barnhill: No doubt. We based our project off the character from the Astrid Lindgren novel. In the book, Ronia embodies a wild spirit who makes her own way through the world and we try to celebrate that theme in the music.
Mahoney: The three of you each come from different corners of the Twin Cities creative music scene. How do you reconcile the wide array of influences you all bring to the table? Is the strategy to find common ground, constructive difference, or to go somewhere else entirely?
Barnhill: As lovers of all types of musics, it is really a blessing to be able to work with artists who aren’t exactly on the same trip as you. Our styles balance each other out, and we each bring different strengths to the table. That being said, we found out from the start that we have a real chemistry together when it comes to writing. The outcome is really a blend of our experience and our excitement about crafting songs.
Mahoney: When you’re writing and working out the music, do you tend to start with smaller ideas and build on them, or do you start from a more formal conception of the piece?
Barnhill: We have different approaches on a song-to-song basis, but one that works well for us is writing a song and then testing it out a bunch on tour before recording the final version. The song “run” came together that way and we have some new new material right now that is going through the same process. Be on the lookout for RONiiA Mixtape Vol. III.
Mahoney: What can we expect from the new album? How do you see it in relation to your previous (self-titled debut) album?
McGee: This album has a more direct and raw sound. The vocals are not affected as much and the rhythms are up front and bigger, but the sound of RONiiA is still there. The songs are shorter and more to the point than the previous album.
Mahoney: Were there extra-musical influences or sources of inspiration for the new album? More generally, who outside the world of music has influenced or inspired the band the most?
McGee: I was living in Venice Beach when we made the album. Venice Beach and the canals was a definite influence, at least for me, when writing it. The poverty and super rich all existing together provided an eerie and sinister world for the album to breathe. Nona and Fletcher were dealing with the harsh reality of the Minnesota winter, but really, our environments typically seep through during the writing process.
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, Mark Mahoney, host of Sound Grammar on Radio K, shares his perspective on Mary Halvorson’s […]
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, Mark Mahoney, host of Sound Grammar on Radio K, shares his perspective on Mary Halvorson’s Sound Horizon performance on Thursday night. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
Guitarist Mary Halvorson presented a series of riveting solo explorations in the Walker’s Burnet Gallery (within the Andrea Büttner exhibition, as part of the 2016 Sound Horizon series) on Thursday night. On display were all the things Halvorson’s fans have come to expect from her—hairpin rhythmic turns, oblique harmonies, and crystalline melodies punctuated by occasional bouts of lacerating distortion—alongside unexpected twists and unfamiliar repertoire.
In anticipation of the show, I had revisited an essay written by Halvorson entitled “The Invented Horizon Is Free” (published in the 2012 book Arcana VI: musicians on music, edited by John Zorn). In the essay, Halvorson describes how she arrived at this title using a gradual iterative process, one that loosely parallels her process for finding new musical material:
I started with a saying from a fortune cookie that read, ‘You are free to invent your life.’ I then tinkered with the fortune cookie text a couple words at a time until finally settling upon a modified proverb, ‘The invented horizon is free.’
Initially, I had hoped that I might be able to employ this same process to arrive at some clever amalgamation of “The Invented Horizon Is Free” and “Sound Horizon,” the name of the series of which Halvorson’s Thursday performance was a part. My attempt didn’t produce any particularly interesting results, but Halvorson’s title nevertheless remained turning in my mind. It seemed to succinctly encapsulate some of the most striking constants in her otherwise radically diverse and far-reaching output: her all-pervading commitment to artistic invention and expressive freedom.
It seemed fitting, then, that Halvorson began the night with a tribute to the jazz great Ornette Coleman, identified perhaps more than any other jazz figure with the pursuit of complete creative freedom. Halvorson’s rendition of Coleman’s “Sadness” (a poignant choice, given the saxophonist’s passing last year) managed to translate the spirit of Coleman’s keening, blues-drenched sound to the guitar by employing a range of unorthodox techniques, including the use of a steel guitar slide and the progressive detuning and re-tuning of her guitar to mimic the weeping arco bass of the original.
The sound of Halvorson’s guitar attracted a growing audience. The crowd gradually filled in the chairs and meditation cushions provided until only standing room remained. Halvorson, seated with pedals under her feet as though she were driving a car, seemed unconcerned with the intermittent hubbub, focused only on coaxing an ever-expanding array of sounds and textures from her guitar.
Highlights from the first two sets included a spare, meditative take on Carla Bley’s “Ida Lupino,” and an arresting, tremolo-heavy rendition of French guitarist Noël Akchoté’s “Cheshire Hotel.” It is worth noting that, in a performance consisting entirely of covers, Halvorson drew her repertoire exclusively from tunes written by composers within the jazz tradition.
That’s not to say Halvorson’s song choices were conventional. Alongside luminaries like Duke Ellington and McCoy Tyner, she inserted the music of contemporaries like Tomas Fujiwara and Chris Lightcap. Her mesmerizing treatment of Lightcap’s “Platform” culminated in cascading torrents of distorted sound that dissipated almost as quickly as they had arisen. And her fertile imagination and keen ears allowed her to tease out the latent quirks and idiosyncrasies within even the most classic tunes. Halvorson’s bracing, angular take on Oliver Nelson’s “Cascades,” for instance, managed to transform that hard-bop classic into something like a noise rock anthem.
Halvorson delivered a kind of disclaimer towards the end of her second set: “I don’t normally play this many sets solo, so I’m going to be playing some new stuff for the third set,” she said. A pause. “I’m not sure whether I’m telling you to leave or stay.” Luckily for those who stayed, the third set offered some of the evening’s gems, among them a haunting Paul Motian tune and a shapeshifting version of Thelonious Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear.”
As I returned home after the performance, the phrase “the invented horizon is free” continued to echo in my mind. What did “invented horizon” mean?
Ralph Waldo Emerson famously observed, “It is the eye which makes the horizon.” In other words, the horizon, fixed though it may seem, is a human creation: an invention. It seems that Mary Halvorson has brought this line of thought to bear on her approach to the jazz tradition. As her choice of songs makes evident, she is not so much interested in rebelling against the jazz tradition as she is in engaging with it in contemporary and highly personal ways. As the crowd witnessed Halvorson continually invent and re-invent the horizons of her own artistry, it became clear to everyone present: the invented horizon is free.
The music of indie duo Wye Oak (Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack), which has been described as “synthpop haze with serious percussive backbone,” may not seem like the most obvious candidate for orchestral arrangement. That’s just as well, because neither Wye Oak nor composer William Brittelle are inclined towards the obvious. Together (along with special guest […]
The music of indie duo Wye Oak (Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack), which has been described as “synthpop haze with serious percussive backbone,” may not seem like the most obvious candidate for orchestral arrangement. That’s just as well, because neither Wye Oak nor composer William Brittelle are inclined towards the obvious. Together (along with special guest Michi Wiancko) they will stage, in Brittelle’s words, “a series of electro-acoustic art songs exploring secular spirituality in America” at Aria in downtown Minneapolis on October 14.
Ahead of the performance, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner discussed her songwriting process, her creative trajectory, and learning to “play [her]self like an instrument.”
How did your collaboration with William Brittelle come about?
Bill actually approached us a couple of years ago (while we were working on our last record, Shriek). He was interested in acting as a conduit between pop musicians and orchestral musicians, but his vision—a really hands-on, musically adventurous approach rather than the usual pops-style orchestra—really appealed to us. His arrangements of our songs are strange and wonderful—it’s really exciting to hear our music re-imagined in this way.
What was the process of rearranging your music for orchestra like? Has it changed how you hear and think about your own music as a duo?
Obviously playing music as a duo forces a certain amount of economy in your approach. Our physical limitations can’t help but influence our writing and arranging styles. Sharing the stage with 50-plus musicians, then, is a totally different world for us. It’s overwhelming! (In a good way.) But it’s been very encouraging to see how, even with such a maximal approach, the essence of these songs remains the same.
Shriek sounds like something of a departure from your previous work. The guitar-driven sound that helped define your earlier music has been supplanted by more bass and synth-heavy textures. What compelled you to go in this direction?
A creative spirit, probably? There’s a certain type of person that will always be interested in new sounds, new textures, and new processes (spoiler alert: I’m talking about myself here). Switching things up and taking chances is an essential part of keeping the creative juices flowing. So the aesthetics may change (knowing myself, they will continue to change), but the songs themselves have always been the heart of this project, and always will be.
You’ve said, “I like bands that you have to look a bit to find it, where you have to really listen.” Were there specific bands you had in mind when you made this comment? More generally, what are some inspirations or influences on your work that fans might not initially expect?
I don’t remember making this comment, so I can’t say I’m absolutely certain of the “it” I was referring to. I can say that I tend to be drawn to music that is able to achieve much with very little. With Shriek, I was trying to create something more subtle and nuanced than our past records—something less bombastic, that opens up slowly over repeat listens. Pop music (and, let’s be honest, we’ve always made pop music) is a more oversaturated landscape than ever, and it can be difficult to carve out one’s own space while working within such an established form. For me, of late, I tend to respond to this overwhelming reality by getting small—by reducing ideas to their simplest forms, trying to work big feelings into increasingly intimate spaces. So … maybe that’s what I meant by that phrase?
You and Andy Stack live on opposite sides of the country. How has that distance affected your creative process?
I think it’s been a huge asset, honestly. We both have home recording setups, and it’s so easy to send works in progress back and forth remotely. But I do think we both do our best work when we have our own space to think and work privately. So it’s kind of the best of both worlds!
You’ve spoken very candidly about struggling with depression and creative burnout in the wake of an exhausting tour in 2013. Has that experience changed how you currently approach music?
I know myself, and I know my limits, a lot better now. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned how to play myself like an instrument. I have certain tendencies, patterns that have followed me for my whole life, and my awareness of that fact allows me to make better decisions. I guess you could say I’m better at cultivating an environment that will provide the best results, creatively and personally. I’m still moody, anxious, and my own worst critic—but I also love what I do, and I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to share my music with others. And that thought usually is enough to get me through on the rougher days.
Wye Oak and William Brittelle will perform Spiritual America with special guest Michi Wiancko at 7:30 pm on October 14, 2015 at Aria (105 First St. N., Minneapolis). Spiritual America is copresented by the Walker Art Center and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music Series. To read more, head over to the SPCO’s Liquid Music Blog to read a recent interview with William Brittelle about Spiritual America.
Music is a birthright for Iarla Ó Lionáird. Born in the Irish-speaking town of Cuil Aodha in West Cork, Ó Lionáird comes from a long line of sean-nós (“old-style”) singers. His mother and grandmother both established themselves as bright talents, and his great aunt drew the attention of legendary folk archivist Alan Lomax, who captured […]
Music is a birthright for Iarla Ó Lionáird. Born in the Irish-speaking town of Cuil Aodha in West Cork, Ó Lionáird comes from a long line of sean-nós (“old-style”) singers. His mother and grandmother both established themselves as bright talents, and his great aunt drew the attention of legendary folk archivist Alan Lomax, who captured her singing in 1951. (Listen to a sample here.)
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Ó Lionáird himself would achieve formidable mastery over the sean-nós style. Not content to simply adhere to established conventions, however, he has brought his consummate artistry to a number of decidedly non-traditional contexts, most notably with celebrated worldbeat group Afro Celt Sound System. Over the course of his career, this penchant for mixing experimentation with tradition has helped define a body of work that is utterly sui generis.
Much of Ó Lionáird’s creative energy lately has been directed towards The Gloaming, an Irish music supergroup that will perform at the Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater on October 9, 2015. Ahead of the performance, Ó Lionáird kindly took the time to share his thoughts on tradition and creativity.
The Gloaming is often dubbed a “supergroup” because it is comprised of such distinctive artists and personalities. How do you ensure the effort remains egalitarian? Is composing and arranging something you do as individuals, or collectively?
What we do is try to impose an egalitarian ethic. Creative work is messy, and the best thing is to realize this and to be at peace with the fact that it’s not a branch of mathematics: it’s open to diverse, unpredictable energies and outcomes. I always feel very excited when writing and performing. I am by necessity more focused on the songs, but one of the pure delights of being in this band for me is being able to participate across all of the tunes also, and being present ready to give or, as is the case, learn. It’s great fun, usually, and the payback is tremendous.
The instrumentation of The Gloaming is quite unique. In particular, the piano and Hardanger fiddle are central to your sound. How did you arrive at this unusual lineup?
To be frank, my colleague Martin Hayes (fiddler) was centrally responsible for configuring the lineup. Thomas Bartlett, our piano player, was a friend of Martin’s. I remember meeting him in New York and hearing the two of them play and knowing straightaway, or rather recognizing, that together they had special chemistry and a sound that I had not heard before in any other music. Piano has been deployed before in our tradition—and surprisingly far back—but something about the way Thomas plays and his engagement with Martin’s music is unique and is one of the cornerstones of what we do as a group.
Dennis Cahill (guitarist) has said, “It’s the mark of a great piece of music when it’s bendable, and it doesn’t lose its integrity, and I think the tunes are spectacular like that, they can be played in a lot of ways.” How important is improvisation to what you do?
Improvisation has multiple roles in the band. From my own perspective, it is how I write generally with Thomas and with others too: writing on the fly, trying things out quickly, malleably, instinctively. That’s one deployment of improvisation. The other is during live performance. We draw sketches of what might occur in terms of set list pieces, sequences, etc., but we leave room always for those things which can only happen when there’s an audience. This is one of the great joys of being in this band—the unexpected happenings that the music can give if one leaves oneself open to the moment, the improvisatory moment.
People seem at a loss when trying to compare your music to other influences. I’ve seen references to everyone from Sigur Rós to Aaron Copland. Are there influences or inspirations of yours that people might not expect?
We sometimes think that we’re not so much influenced by traditional music (which is kind of analogous to the language we just happen to speak), so much as by the other non-traditional music we’ve been listening to all these years—in my own case, everything from Bob Dylan to ambient electronic music. Others among us are very given to jazz. There are strong interests in new-classical music and in the music of singular talents such as Keith Jarrett, Arvo Pärt, and others. It’s worth noting too that some of us grew up listening—indeed, living within—the tradition of Irish traditional music and we are given still to listening to very old, beautiful examples of that form, whether it be Willie Clancy, Padraig O Keefe, or Darach Ó Catháin.
The Gloaming is a remarkably spacious album, at times very quiet. That kind of dynamic range demands a certain degree of attention from the audience that isn’t always present in the kinds of venues with which traditional Irish music is most often associated. How do you hope audiences will respond to your music? Do you alter your performances depending on the venue or context you’re performing in?
The dynamics of performance are so complex. We give of ourselves, but also we listen and feel for response from the audience. Our music moves and mutates in relation to these conditions. But on the whole we do like the idea of being able to play with incredible intensity at times, whether that be frenetic intensity or an intensity born from near silence in the acute attention that this bestows on the moment. These silences, for us, are the places where all the beautiful things happen that make the experience of making music worthwhile and deep.
The President of Ireland attended your first show as a band, and you’ve won a host of awards and accolades in Ireland, including the prestigious Meteor Choice Music Prize. Some critics have suggested you are helping to revitalize interest in the music of Ireland. Is that one of your goals? Do you get the sense that there is a broader movement growing around the kind of music you are creating?
It may be the case—and I haven’t thought a whole lot about this—that Irish traditional music is undergoing some sort of churning similar to what occurred with classical music in this country beginning about 10 years ago with the emergence of new composers influenced by contemporary classical American and European music movements. It would be nice to think that what we do emboldens others. That would be the best possible outcome.
One of my favorite pieces on The Gloaming, “Freedom/Saoirse,” takes its lyrics from a poem by Seán Ó Ríordáin. Ó Ríordáin is someone who managed to beautifully integrate cutting-edge modernism with an existing folk tradition. It struck me that, in that sense, his project and his place within the cultural firmament might be considered similar to The Gloaming’s. Why did you choose that poem? More generally, do you have a particular process for choosing the poems, reels, and other elements that make up some of your source material?
Seán Ó Ríordáin actually grew up in the parish where I myself was born and reared, and he lived there until he was a teenager. The language he speaks has the same timbral fingerprint as my own, and so sonically it just feels like a great fit. But, of course, you are correct when you say that he straddles two worlds—the old Gaelic world and that of the more introspective modernism—the first poet to do so in any language to such great effect in Ireland. His legacy is on the rise, and I am very happy to have undertaken setting some of his extraordinary words to music. “Saoirse,” the specific poem to which you refer, is a mysterious examination of the complex relationship we all have with home. And it is difficult to truly understand the poet’s position on this question. The poem is quite ambiguous as it speaks about the challenge and isolation that one feels when stepping outside the group, the tribe, the original birthed location. To some extent, this work speaks very much to my own experience as an artist attempting to create outside using a combination of tools: some inherited, and some from my awareness of the outside world. And so these words speak to me in a very personal way.
In general, it could be said that I am drawn to looking back and seeking out textual treasure from our deep history. In some ways, it’s a habit. In other ways, it’s something I think I should do. But in both cases it’s something I really enjoy—bringing these long silent works into the sonic realm, into the musical experience for everyone to share.
Mark McGee, also known by his performance name, MAKR, is a Renaissance man. A Twin Cities transplant by way of Richmond, Virginia, McGee is a key creative contributor to myriad musical projects, among them Father You See Queen, Ronia, and Marijuana Deathsquads. His collaborations have extended beyond music to encompass artists of many different media. […]
Mark McGee, also known by his performance name, MAKR, is a Renaissance man. A Twin Cities transplant by way of Richmond, Virginia, McGee is a key creative contributor to myriad musical projects, among them Father You See Queen, Ronia, and Marijuana Deathsquads. His collaborations have extended beyond music to encompass artists of many different media.
Ahead of his upcoming Music and Movies performance, in which MAKR’s Coven will premiere a new score for the 1926 silent animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, I asked McGee about his inspirations and what we can expect to witness tonight.
You’ve worked with a huge range of talent in the Twin Cities and beyond. What is your relationship to the musicians assembled for this project?
The ensemble includes Nona Marie Invie and Fletcher Barnhill, all of us play in Ronia together and Aaron Baum and I have played in other projects, such as Votel and Basuketto. All of these musicians, in my opinion, are some of the most talented in the Twin Cities.
Can we expect the music to closely parallel the action on screen, or will the audiovisual connection be more oblique?
The music and sound of the piece is a little of both. The music does parallel the action on screen and this score was closely written to the film, but there are places in the film where the music and sound becomes more oblique and detached.
Is there any film score or soundtrack that you find particularly inspiring? Or a film scene?
There are so many. I guess one that comes to mind is the fox wedding/march scene in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. It is when the child spies on the foxes, peaking behind trees and fog, only to be spotted by the wedding party. Watching a fox wedding by a human is forbidden, so when the boy reaches his house, he is told by his mother that he can never come home again and in fact, should kill himself with a knife the foxes have left for him. That scene visually has always inspired me and the music is fantastic.
In addition to your musical projects, I’ve read that you’re a visual art lover. Do you see a connection between musical and visual practice? If so, does that inform how you think about this project?
Yes, very much so. Musical and visual practice is one of the same to me. Many might argue the opposite, but to me, both worlds play on one another and display as much information and content, even if the time frames of what is being presented differ. When I write music, it usually comes from a visual place, so it was very natural to create music for this project and to this film.
MAKR’s Coven will perform a newly-commissioned score alongside The Adventures of Prince Achmed tonight, Monday, August 17, at dusk (8:45 pm).
Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe met in 2005 and immediately discovered their common interests. Ten years later, as the founders and lead singers of Lucius, they dress identically, sing in unison, and maintain near-perfect symmetry on stage. In other words, Lucius is a band that revels in careful synchronization. It seemed appropriate, then, that Lucius’s arrival at the Walker […]
Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe met in 2005 and immediately discovered their common interests. Ten years later, as the founders and lead singers of Lucius, they dress identically, sing in unison, and maintain near-perfect symmetry on stage. In other words, Lucius is a band that revels in careful synchronization.
It seemed appropriate, then, that Lucius’s arrival at the Walker for Rock the Garden 2015 should offer its own opportunities for synchronicity. The Walker’s ongoing exhibition International Pop provided one such moment. One of its most iconic works, Evelyne Axell’s 1964 Ice Cream (1964), adorns the cover of Lucius’s most recent album, Wildewoman.
Before Lucius hit the stage on Saturday, the band took a personalized tour of International Pop. They clearly enjoyed the opportunity, pausing in reverent awe to examine works like León Ferrari’s iconoclastic La Civilización Occidental y Cristiana (Western Christian Civilization). Afterwards, Laessig and Wolfe agreed to an impromptu round-table conversation about music, visual art, and ice cream. Joining me for the discussion were Walker Web Editor Paul Schmelzer, Performing Arts Senior Curator Philip Bither, and Visual Arts Curatorial Fellow Mia Lopez, who helped curate the exhibition.
Paul Schmelzer: I’m curious what the role of visual art, or other disciplines of art, is on your music?
Jess Wolfe: It’s a big thing for us. Both of us come from visually artistic families, so it’s something we’re always thinking about. Obviously, our stage setup and the way that we dress are taken into consideration as far as the marriage between the visuals and the music. So, when we were looking for album artwork, we went through a bunch of stuff, Evelyne Axell’s Ice Cream initially stuck out—and we kept going back to it, and eventually we decided that was the image that was calling.
Holly Laessig: Once you see it, you can’t think of anything more iconic. The colors and the feelings you get looking at it were things we wanted to express: this playfulness, this joy, this feminine strength. And some humor. I think those things, while also being bold, were really important in our choice of album cover. And luckily, Evelyne’s son, Philippe, was so generous in offering the piece to us. We really lucked out. It seemed like fate.
We actually didn’t know much about Evelyne Axell before picking the artwork, but when we went to visit Philippe in Belgium, he brought us some books and we starting flipping through them. There were all these triptychs and groupings of paintings she’d done with symmetrical women. Many, many different pieces: it was just another “a-ha” moment. It was so fitting in every way, it felt like kismet. He thought that we knew that already, that we were aware of her fascination with the duality of women and these symmetrical figures, but we had no idea.
Schmelzer: Where did you first encounter the work?
Wolfe: A friend of ours, a graphic designer who we had been working with for a long time, had brought lots of different pieces to the table to see what stood out. And, as Holly said, we kept returning to Ice Cream. At first, I think it maybe made the boys uncomfortable.
Laessig: Which was kind of the idea.
Wolfe: We actually thought we were going to get so much more dirt for using it.
Mia Lopez: We have it on the side of our building. We have this huge phallic image on the side of the Walker.
Wolfe: And people are like, “You know that’s not really an ice cream cone, right?” That’s the comment they’ll make. [Laughter] I’m like, “It looks like an ice cream cone to me.”
Mark Mahoney: To go back for a second, I was wondering if there were particular artists that sort of turned your world upside down or influenced you as teenagers.
Wolfe: Both Holly and I grew up loving old-school soul music, the boldness and simplicity of those songs and singers. We also grew up with visual artists, so I think we were always fascinated by artists who had a strong visual representation of their music: artists like David Bowie, Björk, Prince, and even James Brown, Sam Cooke and the Supremes. When we first started working together, maybe because we weren’t completely comfortable in our stage presence at the time, I think it was a good way for us to transport ourselves into something else together, and also hopefully to transport the audience at the same time.
Philip Bither: We’re working on a festival next year with Devendra Banhart. He’s bringing together people from across disciplines: visual artists, painters, installation artists, and musicians. Do you find that to be increasingly common in independent music, that more and more people are blurring the lines between making visual culture and making music?
Wolfe: I wouldn’t say it’s new, but I definitely think it makes sense. For artistic people, that impulse comes out in all different ways. I’ve always used my hands since I was a little kid and been fascinated by visual culture. My mom worked at museums since she was a young person. That was something that was always around me, that I was always inspired by… It’s also an easy way to escape everyday life.
Bither: It’s an individual pursuit, rather than collaborative.
Wolfe: And then you go away and you find the like-minded people, and you realize you’re not alone. There are a lot of weirdos. A lot of weirdos.
Which Babes in Toyland member do you most resemble? It’s a tough question, one that has undoubtedly animated many passionate debates. Now, thanks to the work of an ardent fan, there is a BuzzFeed quiz that will finally bring us resolute answers to this question. To test the quiz’s accuracy, I asked Lori Barbero of […]
Which Babes in Toyland member do you most resemble? It’s a tough question, one that has undoubtedly animated many passionate debates. Now, thanks to the work of an ardent fan, there is a BuzzFeed quiz that will finally bring us resolute answers to this question.
To test the quiz’s accuracy, I asked Lori Barbero of Babes in Toyland to take the quiz herself. In the process, I learned her favorite color, her preferred ’90s jam, and her favorite city. Read on for her final result.
Though she spends much of her time in Austin these days, Lori wasted no time in deciding where her loyalties truly lie.
I can’t say I’m surprised by the accuracy of the result. The magic of Babes in Toyland has always stemmed from the distinctiveness of the musicians involved.
Babes in Toyland will be rocking Minneapolis hard and aggressively at Rock the Garden tonight, June 21st, at 7:15 PM.
Allan Kingdom took a moment following thestand4rd‘s tremendous Rock the Garden set to answer a few 8-Ball–style questions. What is your current musical obsession? I’ve been listening to a couple artists out of Atlanta: Uno the Activist and Playboi Carti. They’re dope. For the past few days, I’ve been listening to their music a lot. […]
What is your current musical obsession?
What is one well-kept Twin Cities secret you don’t mind sharing?
Probably the boutique BlackBlue, on Selby and Dale. It’s a good place to shop.
Finally, you’ve achieved an incredible amount of success at a young age, and it seems like part of that stems from how original and well-developed your musical concept is. When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
I think I’ve always known. Even when I was little, I would be thinking about how things would sound and look on stage. It’s the one thing I’ve always wanted to do.
Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl, who together comprise The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger (GOASTT), have a unique chemistry. As both musical and romantic partners, their collaboration has inevitably drawn comparisons to other musical couples—to Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, and especially to Sean’s legendary parents, John and Yoko. These comparisons, however, do little justice to the freshness of […]
Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl, who together comprise The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger (GOASTT), have a unique chemistry. As both musical and romantic partners, their collaboration has inevitably drawn comparisons to other musical couples—to Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, and especially to Sean’s legendary parents, John and Yoko. These comparisons, however, do little justice to the freshness of The GOASTT’s concept. Their music, steeped as it is in the sounds of ’60s and ’70s psychedelia, skillfully interweaves the whimsical and the dystopian, the pedestrian and the cosmic into something singular, adventurous, and immensely enjoyable. According to NPR’s Peter Macia, it is music that is “made for sunny summer weekends.”
Ahead of their Rock the Garden performance Sunday, I had the chance to ask Sean and Charlotte a few questions about their writing process, their history together, and the role of politics in their work.
Can you tell us how the name “The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger” came about?
It was the name of a play Charlotte wrote at seven years old.
You run the label Chimera Music. What led you to establish your own label?
Being at a major label felt so corporate and impersonal, so we created our own family-run label from our kitchen and basement. It was a lot more work than we realized, but ultimately very rewarding.
How has your relationship to one another, musically and personally, evolved over the course of the seven years since The GOASTT’s formation?
We’ve become fused at a subatomic level.
It is clear from the diversity of your output that your influences extend beyond psychedelic folk and rock. What are some influences or inspirations of yours that might be less apparent to listeners?
Prog rock, definitely. Classical. Experimental instrumentalists like Harry Partch, and even pop bands like The Beastie Boys. Also the surrealists, like [Salvador] Dalí and [Luis] Buñuel.
Your lyrics fuse autobiographical details with poetic musings and even Greco-Roman mythology. What is the writing process like for you? Do you write the lyrics collectively, or do you independently work on them?
We do every aspect together, so one of us may write a verse and the other may write the chorus. It’s a real Frankenstein of both our minds.
Sean, you have lent your talents to a remarkably wide range of projects, one of my favorites of which is your improvised duo with Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier. (That project culminated in the release of the phenomenal album Mystical Weapons.) Does that sort of improvisatory spirit figure into the initial stages of your songwriting process with The GOASTT, or do you take a different approach altogether?
Charlotte and I jam a lot of ideas together with her on bass and me on drums in the initial phase. Or else we both have an acoustic guitar in bed. But The GOASTT is a lot more composed than Mystical Weapons.
Charlotte, I read that when you began dating, Sean was unaware of your musical talent. When and how did that come to light?
He knew I loved music, but I was extremely shy (still am), so a year in he finally coaxed me to play him a song I had written called “Cold Sun.” After hearing it, he declared he wanted to be writing partners, but neither of us had any idea it would become so serious.
You have both been politically engaged, performing at Occupy Wall Street and penning op-eds in opposition to fracking. Would you say your activism informs your music?
We are not like the activists of the ’60s certainly, because that paradigm has changed a little, but we still are very involved with finding solutions to environmental and cultural issues. We research what’s happening in the world every day on as many sources of alternative and mainstream news possible. Humanity has its back to the wall right now, but we are a resilient species so it will be fascinating to see what plays out over the next 50 years. And yes, that post-apocalyptic melodrama does inspire our lyrics very much.