Blogs The Green Room Re:View-Overnight Observations

Feel Like This: Sam Johnson on Luis Garay’s Maneries

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, performance-based artist Sam Johnson shares his perspective on Maneries by Luis Garay in the […]

Photo: Dudu Quintanilha

Photo: Dudu Quintanilha

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, performance-based artist Sam Johnson shares his perspective on Maneries by Luis Garay in the McGuire Theater last night. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

When I enter the theater I am admittedly tired from a very long day. I woke up at six am to teach high school students modern dance, whatever that is. I agreed to write this overnight observation relatively last minute, just a couple of hours before the show, and sitting down I can already feel my nerves, can already feel the way thinking about writing about my experience is altering my own perceptions, is making me more analytical, is heightening my perceptions.

But what is happening on stage? There is nothing on most of the stage. It is dramatically, if blankly lit. Far on stage right there are two figures, one standing and shifting occasionally, the other sitting at a macbook, cords extending on the floor offstage.

I understand these conventions, the performers on stage performing casual, the exposing of the wires and lights of the theater. In my notes I scribble: “the theatricality of no theatricality.” That isn’t quite right, what I really mean is that these feel like signals of what the show will be, the lineage that it will draw from: “it will be about the body, it will be about the present moment, it will be in conversation with contemporary (read: western?) performance.” After the lights go out and the performance proper begins I realize I could read this as an overture, as both a small encapsulation of the entire performance and as a signal of how to view, and where to place, this work.

But before that Philip Bither comes on stage and tells the audience that because of Prince’s death there will be no artist meet and greet after the show. I jot down: “shadowed by the communal experience of loss.”

The show is a solo dance. One performer moving through various forms, starting in almost darkness and almost stillness (I think there are some spinal undulations going on? But this could just be my eyes adjusting to the low light?), and working through symmetrical gestures, athletic walking and running patterns, sculptural poses, and repeating gestural patterns that accelerate. The dancing is precise, rigorous, and controlled. It is impressive and full. I can get down with the amount of work it must have taken to so specifically embody this material. I can exult in how amazing bodies are, how amazing dancers are.

But as much as the control and precision of the dancing rings my embodied performer bells it also butts up against questions I have about the piece. As I mentioned earlier there is a person sitting towards the perimeter of the stage, which is also often the perimeter of the lit space, on a computer, playing the music. I read this performer as male, and the primary dancer as female. I read the choreographer as male. Throughout the piece the music and the lights frame my viewing experience. The music is either insistently atmospheric or relentlessly rhythmic. It is loud enough that I don’t feel like I can escape it (even when I try to plug my ears, its presence is still there). The lights are crisp and specific. They begin with a low spotlight on the dancer that gradually builds, and then when the dancer shifts to an upstage/downstage walking pattern there is the rectangle of light to frame her (contain her?), and then the movement shifts to take in the whole stage, and before we can register that change there are the lights flashing on and exposing the landscape for the dancer. I can’t help but tie both the music and the lights to maleness. To a male framing of a female body. There was literally a man sitting on stage watching a woman dance the entire time. And this is where the monumental control of the dancing failed me in the dramaturgy of the entire piece. I kept feeling like I was seeing a man seeing a woman. The athletic jogger; the naked, reclining, sculptural nude; the dancing muse. This incessant theatrical framing mediated my response to the performer, to the body on stage. I kept waiting for the moment when I would feel my spine moving in my seat, to feel my neurons firing in response to this beautiful dancing body, but that moment didn’t arrive for me. I kept waiting, too, for the performer to break out of the framing devices. To feel defiant, or messy, or obstinate, or cynical, or broken, or flippant. In retrospect it felt like I was watching the warm up and start of a marathon, but only through mile ten or so. That time when the runners are starting to get tired but are still going strong. I think I craved seeing the end, when the nipples start to bleed and shit is running down legs and the body breaks down in the middle of the road out of exhaustion and joy and pride. I want to know what is after this beautifully constructed dance for this beautifully proficient dancer with these technically immaculate lights and sounds.

As I left the theater I had and overheard casual conversations with several people. I heard at least three people say some variation of: “don’t you want to go the gym after that?” I did want to go to the gym, but I’m not sure if it was because I wanted to feel that way or be seen that way.

Maneries continues in the Walker’s McGuire Theater tonight (Friday, April 22) and tomorrow night (Saturday, April 23) at 8 pm.

Transcending Language: Chris Strouth on Kid Koala’s Nufonia Must Fall

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, composer, producer, writer, and filmmaker Chris Strouth shares his perspective on Kid Koala’s […]

Kid Koala and the Cecelia String Quartet performing Nufonia Must Fall in the McGuire Theater, April 2, 2016. Photo: Jayme Halbritter Photography

Kid Koala and the Cecelia String Quartet performing Nufonia Must Fall in the McGuire Theater on April 2, 2016. Photo: Jayme Halbritter Photography

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, composer, producer, writer, and filmmaker Chris Strouth shares his perspective on Kid Koala’s Nufonia Must Fall at the Walker Art Center last weekend, a performance copresented by the SPCO’s Liquid Music series. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

There are things that can’t really be described, in part because we don’t have a language that can accurately explain what it is that we have witnessed. Nufonia Must Fall is one of those things.  The simple explanation is to say it is “a motion comic animated in real time with a live soundtrack.” I fear that is about as descriptive as calling War and Peace an adventure story.

It might be easy to pigeonhole Kid Koala (Eric San). Musically he was an architect of the new alternative hip-hop/turntablist movement of the late ’90s, with a discography that is chock full of some of the high water marks of the cove where pop, rock, art, and hip-hop meet. He’s worked with Gorillaz, Peeping Tom, and Handsome Boy Modeling School and has his own bands like Deltron 3030 and Loveage. But then there is Kid Koala the author/illustrator of two graphic novels; this show, Nufonia Must Fall, is based on his 2003 book of the same name.

The live version of Nufonia Must Fall is hard to put neatly into one category: is it a film, a concert, a play, a dance? Or is it secretly a Charlie Chaplin silent film reimagined for the post-nuclear age? The story is as deceptively simple as it is ancient, though with a decidedly modern twist: robot meets girl, robot gets girl, robot loses girl, robot goes on vacation with girl. But it’s done in a way that if it doesn’t pull on your heart strings a little, you might be the one who is the robot.

The stage is set with Kid Koala upstage right with enough musical hardware to make Kraftwerk feel a little insecure. He is joined upstage left by the Cecilia String Quartet. The rest of the stage is filled with a number of small sets, four cameras, and a small army of puppeteers, cameramen, and the like, with the results of their action shown on a large screen at the back of the stage. But this basic description doesn’t come close to describing the joy of seeing magic as it’s performed and the magician’s perspective at the same time. It’s a process that serves as a metaphor for the piece itself: extraordinarily complicated but made to seem easy, almost effortless. That is one of Kid Koala’s gifts.

Puppeteers in Kid Koala's Nufonia Must Fall in the McGuire Theater, April 2, 2016. Photo: Jayme Halbritter Photography

Nufonia Must Fall puppeteers during the performance. Photo: Jayme Halbritter Photography

What makes Nufonia Must Fall really connect is that it never feels precious or dainty. It’s accessible but not cloying, smart but not pretentious. It’s the craftsmanship of an old master handled with the informality of a neighborhood shopkeeper.  It’s an attitude that takes the big invisible wall that lives between the first row of the audience and the stage and tears it down, Berlin-style.

One could argue Kid Koala is a postmodern Charlie Chaplin. More than just a performer, he becomes the architect of the experience, an auteur in the truest sense of the word. Only his version of Chaplin’s Little Tramp is a tape machine robot, always recording but not always experiencing: a piece of out of date technology we can all identify with deep down inside, a robot that is the most human.

This might be kindled from one man’s imagination, but it feels like the full group collaboration that it is. The direction by K. K. Barrett is imaginative and fun and gives real fulfillment to the idea of the motion comic. It’s handled with such subtlety and skill that it makes the whole production feel as though it’s unfolding for the first time.

Like Chaplin’s best work, Nufonia is a story that transcends language. Simple and direct, the work does not have to be seen as a metaphor, despite working as one. And that is one of its points of genius: it can be savored just as an experience, or as something more profound. The viewer simply takes from it what they would like.

In spite of Kid Koala being a musician, this isn’t a piece about the music, per se. The work is more of a digital foley: musical sounds make the soundtrack for his city, the melodic heavy lifting provided by the Cecilia String Quartet.  Never are more notes used then needed; this simplicity reinforces the sheer overall charm of the piece.

It would be so easy for this story to fall into the trap of being filled with an overblown sense of self-importance or preciousness, given the puppets and animation. Instead, the honesty of Nufonia washes away any and all pretense, and connects to our inner kid. It allows us something so rare in art today: to have a sense of wonder and delight, while at the same time pushing boundaries of stagecraft and form, all in an environment that encourages the audience to let go of intellectualism and just enjoy it. I for one had started to forget that art could be delightful… Thank you for the reminder.

Treble—Bright—Daylight Savings: Michael Gallope on Tristan Perich and Vicky Chow

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 assistant professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the […]

Photo: Jayme Halbritter Photography

Photo: Jayme Halbritter Photography

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 assistant professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota Michael Gallope shares his perspective on the performance by Vicky Chow and Tristan Perich at the Walker Art Center last Thursday, in a concert copresented by the SPCO’s Liquid Music series. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Daylight Savings Time boosts consumerism in the spring and summer months. It provides an extra hour of activity—shopping, eating out, driving, and the like—as opposed to an hour spent sitting at home, where one is economically less productive. This, of course, is the critical view; one can avail oneself of nostalgias and affirmations of all sorts that celebrate the metaphysics of backyards, the grand passage of the seasons, the poetry of long walks and dinner with sunlight, the slowed appreciation of a great cosmic rhythm.

Tristan Perich’s music made this extra hour resonate. In 1953, philosopher Susanne Langer wrote: “music spreads out time for our direct and complete apprehension, by letting our hearing monopolize it—organize, fill, and shape it, all alone.” On March 24, 2016, at 7 p.m. in the Cargill Lounge at the Walker, Perich’s Surface Image filled—spread out—the extra hour of the eleventh day of Daylight Savings Time with a downpour of hypnotic patterns. The composition is scored for pianist Vicky Chow who performed a duet with 40 channels of synthesizer playback. Chow’s piano and Perich’s synths projected a bright, high beam of minimal counterpoint in boundless arrays and combinations. It was big and affirmative, immersive; most of it is at the highest register—treble to the maximum. After twenty minutes or so, it accustomed the ear to highness, saturating one’s body with a hallucinatory flux of metallic, impersonal forms.

Perich will live only at the apex. His sounds seem to resist us like the sun resists us, as it beams in with all its power. Plato’s Socrates saw the sun as a metaphor for the truth of being qua being, though communion with its absolute heights was painful and disorienting. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra came down from a mountain and wondered: What would the sun do without us? As we heard an extra hour of sunlight as music between 7:00 p.m. and 8:10 p.m., the blazing longevity of the sun’s flames were both for us, and not for us. And like the sun, Perich’s Surface Image is not music that can be consumed and apprehended as an object. It was a vast column of patterns cast down all around us—a solar torrent, where one’s stamina becomes central to the aesthetic experience.

Photo: Michael Gallope

Do we matter amidst the towering architecture of Surface Image? Can we keep up? The actual sunset occurred halfway through the piece, at 7:31 p.m. The light through the massive gallery windows shifted to blue. Twilight set in at its conclusion. An encompassing solar cycle, made vivid by an extra hour of idle surplus, drew music toward us, even as its bright substance remained inhuman and mechanical. Surface Image was a twisted and dialectical event, a fabric of sound that connected an extra hour of economically productive consumption and pleasure to the enduring rhythmic beams of the sun. But there was no hidden significance or secret to its operations; it was empty, open, ecstatic.

Technical details and the metaphysics of numbers are recurrent themes in Perich’s ideas about music. Though instead of the age-old harmonics of Pythagoras, Perich prefers modern research by Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel in the field of theoretical computation. He is an accomplished practitioner of “1-bit” music that is exemplified by polished, homemade circuitry. Notwithstanding what may appear to be an art clothed largely in technical detail, listeners to Perich’s music discover in short order that his formalism is first and foremost exuberant. It sounds something like a child’s toy Casio with its tempo knob dialed to the maximum. It has a big impact, but in the long arc of its form, it conveys what appear to be expressive gestures, woven harmonies, counterpoint.

In the 1960s, the early minimalism pioneered by Philip Glass and his ensemble created an immersive spectacle, its audience occasionally splayed out on the floor. A gallery performance of Perich’s hypnotic Farfisa-like downpour of laser sound has a similar vibe (I sat on a cushion on the floor). Toward the center of the space, the lone live performer of Surface Image—pianist Vicky Chow—expertly performed his score to a DIY-custom-fabricated digital clock that read out passing measure numbers. In synchronicity with the electronics, Chow played minimalist modal patterns—quite stunning in their harmonic palette—with a rhythm that was incessant, remarkably synchronized, variously fluttering and hammering.

In a gallery upstairs, piano destruction was the subject of a video installation by German artist, Andrea Büttner (a brilliant mash-up of Fluxus destructions of pianos into four channels of video) that comments upon a larger shift in cultural tastes away from this once-ubiquitous musical machine of the nineteenth century. Yet Surface Image revalues the piano for a post-Fluxus age. Chow played the Walker’s polished Steinway with a painterly sensitivity. In fact, elements of the composition could feel at home in the nineteenth century. At 7:25 p.m., six minutes before sundown, Chow broke into an etude-like solo, an athletic chain of notes that required olympic stoicism. The circulating melodies, woven between two-hands, sounded both childlike and expressive, and contained shaded detail. Every line was made to sing, even if the sounds were more like rectangles and dots, not voices. At its core, it was a virtuoso’s shred session, a reconstruction and a sampling of the tradition of Liszt, Alkan, and Sorabji, and earned her an old-fashioned standing ovation. But its meaning was post-human and architectural in the soundscape of 1-bit polyphony. She was the heroic messenger of the ceremony, and gave the torrents a sense of ethical focus.

Photo: Michael Gallope

Photo: Michael Gallope

The last third of the piece plunged in register a few times, in rhythm with the setting sun. Around 7:48 p.m., a low drone emerged like a laser. It sounded like a bassoon played on an electric organ, with bright overtones. The sky turned a deep electric blue and the golden gallery lights along the walls delicately lit up. The piano became increasingly expressive. By 8:00 p.m., at twilight, Chow played a nocturne from the piano—impressionistic sonorities—while the synthesizers whirled quiet alarm clock patterns. The expressivity of Perich’s formalism has surprised some critics. Is all this formalism for the sake of returning to, what Glass once called “another look at harmony?” Of being able to lull oneself in a gorgeous sequence of chords? Millennials don’t understand the death of tonality in the same way. Perhaps there are just forgotten or latent potentials beneath the minimal experiments of the 1960s and 70s. Surface Image is a minimalism revisited, perfected, or put on hyper-drive in a way that aims to supersede its forbears.

There were over a hundred people packed into the Cargill Lounge. Some, predictably, trickle out as exhaustion sets in and the loose gallery space lets everyone meander. During gaps of loud volume in Surface Image, the crowd noise of the galleries would rush in unexpectedly from behind the seated audience. We realized, by point of contrast, the immense din that these towers of sound set in motion—these patterns were everywhere. Surface Image placed a cloak over our ears, and for a moment the humans came back in an echo, as an impersonal crowd with a dull roar. Perich and Chow de-familiarized the space of the gallery.

Sound Horizon 2016 continues with three in-gallery performances by C. Spencer Yeh on Thursday, April 28.

Laurie Anderson at the Fitzgerald Theater: Danny Sigelman on The Language of the Future

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, artist, DJ, musician, and writer Danny Sigelman shares his perspective on Laurie […]

© Laurie Anderson

Photo: © Laurie Anderson

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, artist, DJ, musician, and writer Danny Sigelman shares his perspective on Laurie Anderson’s The Language of the Future. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Laurie Anderson has had a long history of performing in the Twin Cities, dating back to 1978 when she first performed at the Walker Art Center.

Having seen her last two performances, Happiness in 2002, and Dirtday! in 2012, it was a welcome chance to hop across the river for Anderson’s always warm and calm ways of storytelling. Her ever-evolving The Language of the Future at the Fitzgerald Theater on Saturday night was another grand opportunity to witness her enlightened masterstrokes of firsthand narrative. Amidst a pulsating resonance of sound that envelops the atmosphere, Anderson places you within a womb of sorts. Allowing your mind to settle, it’s always emotionally moving, simultaneously thought-provoking and humorous.

The audience was welcomed into the Fitz by the faint sounds of birds. Unassuming electronic chirps emanated about, priming the canvas for her stories to unfold for the evening.

In dim light, Anderson approached her station of electronic devices. Pulling out her violin, she conjured up a wash of low, sweeping phrases, further developing space and mood. Subtle fog seemed to fill the air, complementing the visuals of a cityscape behind her.

Anderson eased into what would become a recurring theme of The Language of the Future: her experience as a teenager writing letters to John F. Kennedy about his presidential campaign. Looking for advice from the then-Senator for her campaign for class president, she would begin a correspondence with him that resulted in Kennedy sending Anderson a dozen roses upon her own victory.

Commenting on elections and the process, Anderson pulled the curtain away, concluding with how we inevitably vote for whomever’s story we like best. It was a fitting introduction for the audience who were immediately brought to a personal place from the artist.

Transitioning, Anderson mixed together more synth keyboards and effect washes creating loops of sound. With a heavy echoing violin she plucked staccato patterns, rounding out more electronic blips.

She stayed with her childhood for another story about a failed attempt at flipping into a pool and landing on her back on the concrete and consequently into a children’s hospital. Allowing for reflections on death among her descriptions of the other patients she remembered, she effectively dug into the emotional core of the performance. She eventually reached a comforting resolution for the audience to “always hold onto your story.”

A winter scene of slowly falling snow was soundtracked by desolate sounds with Anderson accompanying her own playing on the violin, creating sparse and deliberate harmonics. Next began a fluctuating series of strummed atmosphere that greeted images of the moon landing and Anderson’s impressions on the ideas of competition in society, the Cuban missile crisis, and and past societal obsessions with the possibility of World War 3.

A story about meeting the Prince of Bali and watching his father’s cremation ceremony on video fed further incantations about death and the afterlife. Woven beautifully together with images of trees and flight, Anderson provided comfort for the listeners, viewing from the position of a bird as she connected the theme of reincarnation.

Advancing to the present, she seemed to be improvising a piece about modern advancements in communication. Describing Google Glass and some software she created to turn her words into other words, the audience was taken on a brain-melting ride as seemingly random words danced across the screen. Observations on the complex day-to-day multitasking of smartphones and ordering basic items on the internet, Anderson brought laughs on how adults and children’s communication devolves into that “like cavemen”.

Returning to the idea of correspondence with a presidential candidate, her low, modulated voice spoke to current affairs: “Dear Donald Trump, this time of misunderstanding and for profit government […]” She continued with parallels to her past advice from Kennedy and attached his concept of “figuring out what they want and promising it” to sobering effect.

Throughout the performance I couldn’t help but marvel at the flowing of words and the way Anderson creates a stew of sounds with the various devices she employs. Though mostly obscured, her fingers gleefully dance about her keyboard, tablet computer, and laptop all the while reaching for more organic sounds from her electric violin.

Dotting the sonic palette with so many words and stories in various auditorial styles, it’s the time with Laurie Anderson that always strengthens the personal bond you feel with her work after listening to her, entranced in a dream-like state. She creates the deep connection with all these machines and her own mind, taking you for a ride within your own heart and mind.

And then before you know it, the lights and her machines go dark and she’s gone.

From Impersonation to Celebration: Penelope Freeh on The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai

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,dance artist Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on The Ghost of Montpellier Meets […]

Photo: © Orpheas Emirzas

Photo: © Orpheas Emirzas

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,dance artist Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai, which had its US premiere at the Walker this weekend. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

For Trajal’s Harrell’s newest work, The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai, it is best to go along for the ride. You can trust it.

The piece gets off to a whimsical start, with lying, impersonations, and the retelling of made-up-in-the-first-place histories. It was a slow elaboration and yet we knew that: “It will take 22 minutes to get to a dance section.” Prior to then, we heard the apology, “I’m sorry for being just a dancer.” This was a deep commentary disguised as comedy. The statement had a ring of truth, or maybe I’m just reading into that.

Despite the many and varied influences upon this work and its slow, origami-like unfolding, it is, essentially, a dance-driven piece. In other words dance is essential, it is this work’s essence.

There was a quiet confidence. A little sly, a little teasing, we were led through a process of discovery. I felt as though the bones of construction were exposed, just covered enough to be mysterious, but pale in the crescent-moonlight to read as bones, i.e. building blocks, DNA, of this piece, a long form exploration of imaginatively intersecting (shoving together) the dance forms of Dominique Bagouet (’80s French Nouvelle Danse innovator) with Tatsumi Hijikata (the founding father of butoh).

What emerged from this playful notion was by turns charming, kick-ass, virtuosic, meditative, touching, smart, and joyful. There was a fashion show that escalated into a brilliant character revelation of an old lady, doubled over yet able and hip. Five low-lying platforms plus a table and stools were well used for this passage, creating depth and verticality. There was sassy, raucous air and actual heel walking.

The stakes became hotter as an accumulation of rapid-fire, guttural dancing occurred. The seven performers soloed until they were replaced, exhausted from gyrating, vibrating and throwing their limbs around, fast yet relaxed, always upright.

Perhaps my favorite passage was a male duet that turned into a trio. It was feminine, strong, luxurious and silky-fluid. Clad in deconstructed kimonos, feet and legs disappeared leaving the concentration on arms, hands, heads, faces, experiences…

The soundtrack (by Harrell) supported the work just so, never dominating despite the loudness. Volume supported what was already going on. It, and the several ‘80s popular music choices, never dictated the action.

The end, with the audience clapping and the bows getting quite close to us, felt like a celebration. The generosity was real and sincere which strikes me as rare in work so heady. But then I remember that despite Harrell’s self imposed mandate to reference, expound upon, bring to light, and elaborate other people’s work, he ultimately ends up with a third thing. Exploratory, self-referential, and original, The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai becomes something worth celebrating for itself alone.

The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai continues in the Walker’s McGuire Theater tonight (Sunday, March 13 at 7 pm).

 

Aging Magician’s Theatrical Sleight of Hand

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, Twin Cities-based actor/singer/writer/director Todd O’Dowd shares his perspective on Aging Magican, […]

Photo: Jill Steinberg

Photo: Jill Steinberg

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, Twin Cities-based actor/singer/writer/director Todd O’Dowd shares his perspective on Aging Magican, which had its world premiere at the Walker last weekend. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Going into the McGuire Theater to see Aging Magician, the new opera co-created by Paola Prestini, Rinde Eckert, and Julian Crouch, I had a strong hunch it was going to be good. After all, the creative team is impressive as all get out. Prestini is considered one of the shining lights in modern classical music. Crouch, best known for co-founding Improbable Theatre and co-creating Shockheaded Peter, is a proven director and designer. And I have had a performance crush on Rinde Eckert for a long time; not only for being a hero of modern opera and an amazing performer but also for creating some of the best theatre I’ve seen in my life (including the brilliant And God Created Great Whales). So, as you can see, my expectations were high. What I was not prepared for was an imaginative, delicate, and soaring look into the life and death of an ordinary man that turns into a transcendent experience for him and the audience.

The plot of Aging Magician is as circuitous as it gets. The main plot of the story is about Harold (played by Eckert), a watchmaker who lives a solitary life in his drab studio where he repairs watches, fields calls from his nagging sister, and secretly works on his book, which tells the story of an aging magician who dies before finding an heir for his book of diagrams and secrets. As we see the Aging Magician (or is it Harold?) fighting for his life, we see Harold (or is it the Aging Magician?) on the F train to Coney Island (or is it to his death?) reminiscing about his past, all the while being haunted by the voices of children (played by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus).

This circuitous narrative is part and parcel of Eckert, Crouch, and Prestini’s theme of how time and memories circle back on one another. At one point, Harold laments that clocks are no longer made with gears and hands that move and orbit like planets. So too does the narrative circle back upon itself with references to the planet Neptune, Coney Island, Harold’s father’s death and his mother’s increased Catholicism (in a gorgeous sequence set at a church with the Chorus singing a prophetic bit from the classic Latin requiem mass – “Lacrimosa dis illa / dona eis requiem / Libera Domine”, which translates to “Mournful be that day / Grant them Rest / Deliver me, O God” – calling back to earlier in the opera when the chorus sings similar words in English), and a brief history of the career and death of the early 20th Century magician William Robinson, best known as Chung Ling Soo. Another haunting image that keeps repeating is the image of Harold with his hands up, which is seen in projections, in repeated gestures by the performers, and ultimately in a stage-spanning sculpture that becomes a playable instrument (created by Bang On A Can member Mark Stewart). While the dark themes and imagery could cast a pall on the proceedings, this is far from a dour show. If anything, the magic trick the show is saying is that life is both fragile and strong, depending on the outcome and how you view it.

This fragmented nature of the story gives Eckert and Prestini a chance to take the repeated bits and turn them into musical and textural leitmotivs that are built upon as the opera goes on. Prior to this, I had heard Prestini’s work compared to that of Philip Glass, and I can see it now, especially in how she writes for the string quartet that plays the score (in this case, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble). The other thing that I noticed while watching was how easy the score was for the singers; by that I mean that the Prestini’s score and Eckert’s libretto were written by people who understand how the human voice works as an instrument and built their score accordingly.

It has to be said this is a truly beautiful production; possibly one of the grandest I’ve seen on the McGuire stage. Crouch and his design team of co-scenic designer and costumer Amy Rubin, lighting and projection designer Joshua Higgason, and sound designer Marc Urselli have created a truly unique world, with everything working in perfect clockwork harmony. One of the touches that I was impressed by was that the set pieces and costumes were all black with smudges of light blue, giving the look of chalk drawings or an inverted daguerreotype. The other major defining aspect of the set is the use of paper – the stage is littered with it – as prop (morphed into various shapes, and in a stunning moment, as body of a young boy), projection medium, and both (after a projection of a train on the papers held up by the chorus, they ball it up and hurl it at Harold, singing “Wake Up Harold!”). Crouch and the cast manage to perform some spectacular feats of stage magic and object work (at one point, the cast turns the crumpled up paper into the birds of the “Trick of the 1800 Birds”) and the work is staged with so much sensitivity to Harold and his story that none of the theatrical tricks (and there are a lot of them) never call attention to themselves and – this is crucial in a work that deals with the notion of magic – never pulls you out of the story to marvel at the mechanics of the storytelling.

Of course this story lives and dies on the performers, and Eckert is brilliant as Harold. If the whole point of Aging Magician is finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, then  Eckert literally embodies that point. At first blush, he looks so non-descript in his tan jacket and pants, that were he not seated on center stage in a pool of bright light it would be hard to distinguish him as the center of the tale. But then he opens his mouth, his mighty tenor comes pouring out, and the show is transformed. It’s this dichotomy of heroic voice in an average shell that anchors the opera. He has help, of course, from the brilliant work of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, but it is his beautiful, generous performance that drives this story and keeps the audience with him on Harold’s magical mystery tour.  It’s the kind of work that evokes admirable envy and envious admiration from performers watching the show (including me).

At the end of the day, Aging Magician has many tricks that it plays on its audience. It turns an ordinary man’s life and death into a tale on time’s slippery nature. It uses theatrical sleight of hand to hide the clockwork precision that drives a seemingly intimate tale. And most importantly, it takes everyday people and objects and turns them into something beyond their normal scope in a tale that encompasses us all.

If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.

Don’t Clap, Please Dance: Rez Abbasi’s Invocation at the Walker

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, Sam Segal shares his perspective on Rez Abbasi’s Invocation. Agree or […]

Photo: Bill Douthart

Photo: Bill Douthart

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, Sam Segal shares his perspective on Rez Abbasi’s Invocation. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

At the risk of sounding like an imperious jerk who wants to tell people how they should experience live music, I would like to make a suggestion to jazz audiences everywhere: don’t clap after solos. “Why?” you ask, “Clapping lets the musician know how much I dug their solo.” I hear you, but let me explain.

On Thursday night, guitarist and composer Rez Abbasi made his third appearance in nine years in the McGuire Theater. While he has accompanied groups led by saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa in the past, this was Abbasi’s first appearance at the Walker with a group of his own. After a fiery and all too brief opening set by Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition, the Abbasi-led Invocation sextet took the stage. The band opened with a tune from their recently recorded Unfiltered Universe. Flexing their dynamic sensitivity, the group journeyed through a wide range of emotional spaces, from pastoral beauty to mathematical claustrophobia.

Next, they leapt into “Turn of Events,” another lengthy piece that felt both tightly composed and phenomenally free. Pianist Vijay Iyer led with a solo that sounded like it contained seventy years of jazz history, jumping from the acrobatics of Art Tatum to the expressive decadence of Keith Jarrett and the heady percussive weirdness of Alexander Von Schlippenbach. Predictably, the sold-out crowd clapped when Iyer’s solo reached its obvious conclusion. The applause was understandable. Iyer is known as one of the greatest living pianists in jazz, and his solo was a miraculous display of technical inventiveness.

This pattern of interaction between musicians and audience continued throughout the piece. Mahanthappa let off another one of his scorching streams of Bird-meets-the-Carnatic brilliance, and the crowd acknowledged his efforts with claps and scattered hollers. The same went for Abbasi’s own solo of immaculate, fluttering guitar work. It was after a duet by bassist Johannes Weidenmueller and cellist Elizabeth Means when this solo-clap transaction started to become a problem. Improvising together, the two jump-cut from delicate harmonic tip-toeing to an intense crescendo. The duo’s playfulness sparked a loud applause that led to a sense of confusion as to whether or not the song had actually ended. When Iyer began a percussive pattern on his hand-muted piano strings, it seemed like the band may have entered the territory of a new composition. However, as the entire ensemble joined him, and the melody that opened the song fifteen minutes earlier returned at full force, I realized we were at the song’s peak. Unfortunately, the previous moment’s confusion had robbed the song of its emotional climax.

By clapping, we the audience had imposed our own structure on the music, and that structure was unfortunately out of synch with the one envisioned by its composer. Applause creates a narrative in which individual band members take turns showcasing their talents for our approval. That’s not the kind of narrative that suits a band as communicative and daring as Rez Abbasi’s Invocation. The anticipation of applause makes us listen only to be riled up into climactic excitement by the individual soloist. When we listen in that way, we miss the many interactions occurring between the supposed accompanist and the soloist, as well as those happening between the accompanists themselves.

Throughout the evening, drummer and tabla maestro Dan Weiss was constantly trying to create counter-narratives, shifting the ground that soloists tried walk on. He would move quickly from a stable swing into a cut-up funk or a head-banging rock beat, grinning to himself as if it were part of a game between him and the other members of the band. On the night’s closer, “The Dance Number,” Weiss added thick layers of fog onto Iyer’s piano solo, skittering away on only his cymbals. When the only story we’re paying attention to is the story of the soloist’s individual virtuosity, waiting to acknowledge it with our applause, we miss these kinds of moments of interplay.

One reason why we clap after solos is that we’re looking for a way to participate. Jazz is often the ultimate genre of unfiltered self-expression, and that is something we want to take part in as an audience. Allow me to offer an alternative. Instead of clapping, try dancing. Dancing can be hard when you’re bound to a theater seat, but you don’t have to be on your feet to allow your body to move in response to music. When done right, dance is an automatic response to the stimuli of the present. There is no anticipation of a soloist’s climax, because your body is reacting to the totality of the music in the moment. It’s hardly an original point, but it is worth repeating that jazz originally arose as dance music, its improvisation often attributed as a response to the needs of dancing crowds. I believe the music of Rez Abbasi’s Invocation still bears the danceable essence that exists at the heart of the music of King Oliver and Cab Calloway. The beat may be less stable, and its dissonances may have snuck their way to the fore, but this music can still move you, if you let it.

Paul Harding Reviews Noura Mint Seymali

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, Paul Harding, the host of Foreign Currency on KFAI, shares his perspective on Noura […]

Photo: courtesy the artist

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, Paul Harding, the host of Foreign Currency on KFAI, shares his perspective on Noura Mint Seymali. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

One of Mauritania’s best known musical ambassadors, Noura Mint Seymali, performed Friday night at the Cedar Cultural Center, in a concert co-presented by the Walker.

She played her colorful ardine, a traditional harp of sorts with the base of a calabash, somewhat like a kora. It was distorted, giving it a fuzzy sound like an electric guitar, but with a very different tone and playing style. I was bummed that she only played the ardine for the first song or two, after which she set it aside and turned her focus to singing, but her voice and engagement with the audience were far from disappointing.

She was backed by electric bass, drum kit, and her husband, Jeiche Ould Chighaly, on electric guitar. His guitar playing style is based on the tidinit, a traditional lute, so despite the very western instrumentation, their overall sound is clearly immersed in the roots of Mauritanian music. Every few songs he would switch guitars and tune to one of the five Moorish modes.

Both Noura and Jeiche come from griot families, and grew up steeped in the music of their culture. Her father was a prominent professor of music who documented and modernized the traditional music of Mauritania’s Moors.

The only English she spoke during the performance was an occasional call to, “Dance with me. Aiwa!” She sings in the Hassani variety of Arabic – which has a noticeably distinct sound, even to my fairly uneducated ears. The Arab influence on the Moorish sound was apparent most in her frequently melismatic vocals that she would contrast with percussive syllables.

Anyone in the Cedar Friday night could tell you that Noura has an unusually strong voice, but I found it intriguing that the guy watching the meters – the Cedar’s veteran sound technician Eric Hohn – commented that hers was one of the most powerful voices he’s ever mixed.

I was impressed how well the concert was attended – it wasn’t a packed house, but a good sized, diverse crowd that appeared to truly enjoy the evening. Whether you were among us or not, I recommend her album, Tzenni, from last year as a great way to delve into the Mauritanian soundscape.

And the Space Will Be Transformed: Erin Search-Wells on Faye Driscoll

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, Erin Search-Wells of SuperGroup shares her perspective on Thank You For Coming: Attendance by Faye […]

Thank You For Coming: Attendance by Faye Driscoll. Photo: Photo: Maria Baranova

Thank You For Coming: Attendance by Faye Driscoll. Photo: Photo: Maria Baranova

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, Erin Search-Wells of SuperGroup shares her perspective on Thank You For Coming: Attendance by Faye Driscoll. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

These are the good times, when your body can do that.  This is what it’s like to go out and know a few people, and kind of arrive deep and known and felt.  This is what it feels like to recognize someone as who they really are.

I think I always look like that at a party, stop-motion video laughing maniacally.  I think the camera would probably catch my multiple chins though; I might not look as glamorous in the outfit I have put together.  I might feel like a real dork in this gold shower cap.  After the party I’ll notice that the shower cap left an indent on my forehead.

Everybody might expect me to join in and dance.

It is nice when you don’t realize a transition is happening.  It is nice to feel like something has gone on for a long time so it probably will start to morph soon, but then it goes on a little longer and you look back and realize it has changed.  It is nice to realize you missed the change again.  This level of transformation between sections takes meticulous crafting.  I was reminded that this type of crafting is not only about saying “no, not that,” but also “yes, yes, yes YES.”  It is nice to see something played long because it is simply so satisfying to watch.

I think I have seen another show recently where I was invited to join in the party at the end.  It was the last BodyCartography show.  And they both circled the space like a folk-dance, and dimmed the lights, and got a little bacchanal.  And I think I’ve been welcomed to a show with a song recently.  And the way clothing came off and naked parts of bodies writhed I was reminded of luciana achugar’s OTRO TEATRO.  All of these associations are not being recalled for nothing.  In fact is it performance zeitgeist? Is it our job to take the temperature of the audience and provide something that they can’t get from other art forms?  Why does contemporary performance, or dance-theater, still feel like the most necessary form to me?  Well we have to make a list of what it can do that other things cannot do.  Film can certainly create the most realistic bear fight.  So that’s done.  In fact we should probably stop trying to stage naturalistic dinner parties because none of the stage china will make the right sound when it’s broken.  But I digress.  What does this form have?  It has a live, relatively game audience.   It has willing, flexible, multi-disciplinary, practiced performers.  It has lights, props, costume, moveable seats.  It has musical capabilities ranging from acoustic, to voice, to reverberating beats.  It has microphones.  We should use these things but what is the hole in peoples’ lives that we will try to fill?  Communal experience.  Acceptance of personhood, yes.  Recognition of difference, yes.  But definitely communal ritual. Is this why we are seeing these things happen in contemporary performance?  I think mostly artists have their form and their interests and they are whittling away at it.  But it’s not like other forms where you go in a room above a garage and practice strokes.  It is completely in touch with the world.  And that is why I think there is a bigger reason we start to notice patterns in what we are seeing on stage.

The last thing I will say about this piece is that the performers are truly amazing.  I was just plain impressed by how many layers of their experience they were transmitting simultaneously.  Faye’s directions were clearly very specific, and the scores have been drilled rigorously, deeply, shaping their lived experiences so that their presences balanced delicately between alert and comfortable, tense and soft, large and small.  I was reminded of the unearthed possibilities our faces, our bodies, hold within us and right on our surfaces.

Faye Driscoll’s Thank You For Coming: Attendance  continues in the Walker’s McGuire Theater Thursday-Saturday, February 18-20, 2016 at 8pm, and Sunday, February 21 at 7pm.

Invented Horizons: Mary Halvorson in the Walker Galleries

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 […]

Photo: Mark Mahoney

Photo: Mark Mahoney

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.

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