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Patrick Marshke on Music for Merce: Night Two

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

Music For Merce, Night two. Photo: Gene Pittman

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

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

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

So what does sonic self-actualization look like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding a Sense of Moment: Devendra Banhart and Friends, Night Two

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

pa2016db0514 Performing Arts, Music. Devendra Banhart performs Wind Grove Mind Alone in the McGuire Theater at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, May 14, 2016. (Photo by Courtney Perry) A two-evening exploration of the musical worlds of singer/songwriter/painter Devendra Banhart. The acid-folk/indie-rock leader is revered for his idiosyncratic career of defying expectations and inspiring musical trends. The program title is borrowed from Dom Sylvester Houédard’s 1974 poem “Wind Grove Mind Alone.” Copresented with the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series. Program A: Friday, May 13 Banhart performs a solo set of songs, followed with music by interactive experimenters Lucky Dragons; impressionistic folk-pop from Jessica Pratt, electronic music producer/singer Helado Negro; and sound artist/composer William Basinski. Program B: Saturday, May 14 Banhart’s full touring band opens, followed by Brazilian singer-songwriter Rodrigo Amarante; LA art-pop duo Hecuba; and iconic ambient/minimal music pioneer Harold Budd.

Devendra Banhart performing with his band at the Walker, May 14, 2016. Photo: Courtney Perry for the Walker Art Center

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, Patrick Marschke shares his perspective on Saturday night’s performance of Devendra Banhart & Friends: Wind Grove Mind Alone, a two-night engagement copresented by the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

“There is so much that ties all of these artists together, but if i had to pick one thing, it would be space…. The participatory and collaborative space they create during their performances, whether with audience members, themselves,  or, by simply improvising, the moment itself ….and the physical space in their music…even the spaced out space of their concepts…..”

On Saturday, I found my sense of moment. The quote above is taken from Devendra’s program note: it’s his conceptualization of what tied all of the artists on the two night ‘festival’ together, providing some coherence to the program that wasn’t immediately apparent upon first glance. On Saturday night, it made sense. I was repeatedly captured by “the moment itselffrom Devendra’s intimate, right-in-your-ear vocals, to Rodrigo’s narrative melodies,  Hecuba’s  writhing synths, and Harold Budd & Co’s whispery/windy ambient atmospheres – each artist created their own distinct and entrancing moments.

Devendra Banhart + Band*

Devendra is incredibly endearing. He embodies kindness, joy, and ‘fun’ (in quotations to acknowledge how weird that feels to say) in an incredibly sincere way. I felt as though nothing could go wrong, even when it did early in the set when the sound went out. Devendra’s reaction? A skip around the stage and some playful banter. Is there a word for that “everything is fine” feeling?

Devendra reminds us of the joys we have forgotten, the times when things got silly because you let them, and the idea that a distinct sound/style sometimes comes more from a distinct demeanor than clever arrangements. His band frames and lifts these qualities, setting the tone for the rest of the show: to listen and  to be in/of this moment.

There were new songs and old songs, which I could describe in a bit too much detail from my scribbled-in-the-dark notes, but in retrospect, the details of each song wasn’t what left an impression on me. The music seemed more like a vehicle to accomplish what seems to be Devendra and company’s main goal: to make you and me happy in a way that we can’t always manage ourselves; to remind us that right now–while Devendra mumbles, hums, and croons, and saunters–we are here, together in the moment, and nowhere else regardless of where our thoughts might normally take us.

“Everything that made you stronger won’t be around much longer”

“Is this a fancy thought? I’m pretty sure it’s not”

Some striking moments from the set: in the middle of “Lonely Woman,” a somber, perpetually descending dirge-like song, the band dropped out and Devendra, nearly on top of his amp, strummed a single chord like a dark bell tolling, tapping the body of the guitar while subtle screeches emerge from Greg’s cymbals. The moment arrived and departed unexpectedly; the song went on as if it never happened. You could hear the audience listening in the silence between the guitar’s rasp. It was silence punctuated.

The collective focus of this moment was reflected  in the last song of the set I will call “Celebration,” this lone word sung slowly and repeatedly, chant-like, by the entire band. It was almost as if the band was waiting for the audience to join in. The song ended. They left the stage quietly. The audience applauded, but there was a sense of rumination within.

*Band = Devendra Banhart on guitar, Rodrigo Amarante on guitar/synth, Noah Georgeson on guitar, Gregory Rogove on drums, Josiah Steinbrick on synths, and Todd Dahlhoff on bass. Everyone sang a bit as well.

Rodrigo Amarante

Rodrigo and Devendra returned to the stage to shuffle equipment and instruments. “What’s happening?” said someone behind me. Devendra left and Rodrigo meandered like a Chaplin film, over there, off stage, then back. The audience murmured, not uncomfortably. And then, in a moment, he was set. And  the stories began.

Rodrigo’s music feels like a lullaby, a fable, a wise aphorism, and a somber anecdote all at the same time. I can’t think of many people in my life that tell “good stories.” Perhaps now that stories travel through wires instead of voices part of that art has been lost. Regardless, Rodrigo has tapped into something ancient and human and completely mesmerizing – all with only a guitar, his voice, and some charm. Even whilst singing in Portuguese, French (neither of which I can parse), vocables, or humming, there is a gravitational pull into Amarante’s voice and the story it tells, lightly threaded through his guitar accompaniment with delicate, sweet melodies.

“One more?”

Hecuba

Jon Beasley emerged from the stage banks after an intermission-y stage change and entered his synth chasm, checked his web of wires, tweaked some knobs, and then placed his hand just above his rig as if warming it above a candle. Isabelle Albuquerque arose next to him. Jon motioned as if opening the lid of his synth, atonal gritty waves ascending with his gesture until they were sucked back in as his hand returned to stasis. The waves of synth continued in this pattern with increasing frequency and intensity as a subtle beat surfaced along Isabelle’s low mumbled words. I wanted it to be louder, not because it wasn’t loud enough, but because in that moment I wanted to be engulfed. Isabelle’s inward dance and Jon’s entrancing and physical undulation demanded reciprocation, but in the dark hall, we sat still. I like to imagine that given the right cue/opportunity the entire audience would have rushed the stage and gesticulated along with the duo – but perhaps because of the two contemplative sets prior, that cue never arrived.

Hecuba’s sense of moment is both heady and physical, a cerebral dance that can’t help but manifest itself outwardly. When they come back to the Cities, which I have no doubt they will, I hope to see them somewhere dark, loud, and visceral.

“I was a person, without a person…”

Harold Budd + Brad Ellis + Veda Hille

With Harold Budd, we sensed History even without being informed about his significant contribution to the world of ambient and electronic music. I’ve never seen a musician listen in such a way. With a small gesture of two or three notes,  Harold would steer Brad’s gusty electronic pads and Veda’s delicate reading of  his surreal poetry. It was cleansing, it was atonement, transmutation. It unfolded. It was a long moment; a necessary solace.

__________

Then it was quietly over. And in that moment I felt lucky to have a place like this place, with musicians like these musicians, and audiences like this audience, ready for anything, listening for the moment(s), trusting the artists and each other, and understanding that moments like these can happen outside of moments like this. It is special to have presenters – Walker and Liquid Music – and audiences that are willing to try things like this out.

We are lucky.

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