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In the Dark in 5… Megan Mayer on Momentum Week 1

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, choreographer Megan Mayer shares her perspective on State of the […]

Hiponymous (Renée Copeland and Genevieve Muench). Photo: Gene Pittman

Hiponymous (Renée Copeland and Genevieve Muench). 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, choreographer Megan Mayer shares her perspective on State of the Moon Address by Hiponymous and Broken by Luke Olson-Elm. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Momentum: New Dance Works Festival! This series is one of my favorites, as it generously funds dancemakers venturing into new territories, cushioned by institutional support and a whole team of folks rooting for them and their work. I was thinking about how related yet distinct the skill sets of choreography and dance are; so I feel it’s important to note that in addition to directing these original dances, the choreographers featured in the first weekend of the festival gave stellar performances as dancers in their own work. If you don’t already know how challenging it is to be at once inside a work while keeping a fresh outside eye on its development, please trust that it requires extreme rigor and selflessness. Congratulations to these artists on multiple jobs well done.

Hiponymous’ set consisted of a green astroturf mound (reminding me simultaneously of the Nutcracker’s Mother Ginger, a golf course, Teletubbies, and the construction of the new I-can’t-see-downtown-anymore Minneapolis stadium), set up against one side of the Southern Theater’s arch. A lichen mini-mound adhered itself to the opposite side.

State of the Moon Address begins with a brief applause loop, serving as a preemptive favor on the audience’s behalf (more on this bit later). Evy Muench emerges on the side of the stage, shivering off a silvery tether as Renee Copeland shoots out from under the mound, and the two tilt-a-whirl and frantically spin around one another until connecting, and soften into a koala embrace. The pair scouted and explored their apparently new, foreign surroundings, working well as a team, using each other’s limbs, joints and kneepads as legos to build and compound strength and range. They seemed to be researching and building a language using the body and movement phrases to interpret their findings. The choreography was dense with clever, gestural material: a quick listening to the ground, scratching twitches, precise hands near the face, forearms sticking to the ground as if they were magnetized in a curious manner, bent forward at the waist and traversing backwards on deliberately placed hands and feet in unison, laying on their sides with their backs to us in quivering lumps.

The work’s tone fluctuated in and out of concern and anxiety. At times the choreography seemed too buoyant to be troubling in the way that seemed to interest them; leaps were at odds with the implied danger that was supposedly tethering them. The intriguing way they hung their heads, revealing only the crown to the audience, while slowly wheeling the light stands across the space, as a janitor pushes a mop bucket down a deserted hallway at night, was in stark contrast to the frontal eye contact held at other times. Their faces, side-lit by Heidi Eckwall’s evocative design during a stationary section, echoed the solitary, vulnerable time one waits in a doctor’s office on the exam table. During a slick commercial portion of the soundscore, they were able to morph their expressions in a matter of seconds: I saw Jane Fonda’s Barbarella’s confident stare, the spasmic grin of Max Headroom, Betty Boop’s smooshy pout and, Wile E Coyote’s predatory sideways glance.

After a quick blackout, the lights came up to reveal them holding large, shiny, silver gardening tools. They didn’t so much use the tools as animate them; Evy reluctantly overextended her arms and pretended to groom the astroturf mound and Renee slowly grazed the rake along her leg without actually touching the skin. Was this commentary on our culture’s disdain for women’s body hair? Or a reference to Bruce Dern’s gardener in Silent Running? The tools’ performance was short-lived.

The dominating soundscore overpowered the dance at times. There were moments when cacophony was the clear intention; there were others when the vibration was so loud I couldn’t distinguish the words and I missed hearing key clues. A few times the sound cues were late for the movement (the antennae section in particular). I questioned the choice of an initial authoritative male voiceover; it seemed to undercut the specific female strength that the performers had established with their movement. Overall I wanted more stillness, more time to settle in with these strong performers.

The piece “ended” when the stage crew walked on stiffly and immediately began dismantling the astroturf mound as Renee and Evy began a fast, tightly woven partnering section of winding torsos and furious legwork, twisting and careening their way upstage. The house lights came up and the audience shuffled in their seats. The sound bumped off early which was odd but that’s when the stage action of the strike crew got more interesting: I felt they dropped their “we had to be talked into this surprise fake ending but now that’s over and we’re really getting some shit done” personae and seemed less self-conscious, their bodies calmer and more at ease. I could also hear the drill, which helped me appreciate the work that went into the set. We didn’t get to applaud for the performers, but I grinned, remembering how they’d already snuck that in for us back at the beginning. After the mound had been completely removed I was hoping to catch one more glimpse of Hiponymous to know that they’d been just out of our sight this entire time, still spinning wildly and intricately working their way into the ether, but they were gone.

Luke Olson-Elm. Photo: Gene Pittman

Luke Olson-Elm. Photo: Gene Pittman

Luke Olson-Elm’s Broken started before it began by filling the space with a golden haze that accentuated the brick and rough texture of the Southern’s walls and invited my eye upwards. The lighting by Heidi Eckwall was gorgeous: expansive, raw, intimate with a dusty, dystopian edge and served the choreography well. The dance began with a row of downstage spotlights. The dancers walked dramatically in and out of the delineations on the floor and took turns showcasing in the spots. The movement material was a mostly frontal, aggressive mix of isolations, supple torsos, and articulate limbs with a hard edge. The choreography moved the dancers in diagonal pathways, fluidly finding the floor, falling in and out of unison to reveal solos and forming trios and duets.

The dancers were all tenacious and accomplished but I felt little connection among them as a group and didn’t learn much of anything about them as individual dancers. I’m not sure if this was a directorial choice or a missed opportunity. My eyes kept landing on Luke. You can always pick out the choreographer if they are one of the dancers because the material reads more clearly on their body. He owns this movement, it’s from within, and it pours out of him like water. I noticed his humility, his choice to not put himself center stage, to generously give the limelight to the other dancers, but he was ultimately the reluctant star of this piece. His performance was imbued with a grief not shared by the others and internalized in an intriguing way. His head bobbed at the neck, his hands reaching but never quite grasping, his eyes cast downward for much of the piece. Leaning against the archway under a light, his head hanging, I thought of Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle, broken in his own way. Luke has a curious, evocative way of articulating his hands, implying that whatever he tries to touch has already dissolved.

The soundscore was percussive, aggressive, repetitive, electronic, machinic. A factory with bits similar to the Six Million Dollar Man bionic jumping sound peppered throughout. Audible breath cues among the dancers were superfluous when the music provided a structure. At times the partnered lifts with pointed toes and outstretched limbs seemed incongruous with the rest of the material and the soundscore; virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake was not a viable currency in the world he had created.

Towards the end Luke used the spotlights in a clever way by walking straight across and through all of the spots. I then thought of him as a sort of ghost, someone who lives in-between alongside the grief and fading memories which broke my heart a little as it was such a successful way to express displacement/isolation/loss. This was a delicate, haunting image and I thought the piece could have ended there. 2 other dancers eventually walked through the spots in the same way which lessened the impact of the image for me. In the program notes Luke mentions that he’s not sure why he’s inspired by themes of community and identity. I don’t know if his intention was to isolate himself from the rest of the cast, but I found that to be the most interesting aspect.

Megan Mayer is performing this weekend in The Scraps by Angharad Davies as part of Momentum: New Dance Works 2015, Thursday through Saturday, July 16-18, at the Southern Theater.

Sounds, Sourced and Unsourced: Aki Onda 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, Walker Intern Sam Segal shares his perspective on Aki Onda’s recent […]

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, Walker Intern Sam Segal shares his perspective on Aki Onda’s recent Sound Horizon performance. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Set One

Aki Onda. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

Aki Onda. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

Composer and electroacoustic improviser Aki Onda begins Thursday night’s Sound Horizon performance soaked in the overcast light that floods through the massive eastern window in the Walker’s Medtronic Gallery.  Accompanying visual artist Liz Deschenes’s spare, meditative installation, Gallery 7, Onda sculpts a piece of equally precise and hypnotizing sound art. Equipped only with a portable radio, two guitar amps, an array of cassette players, and several cassettes, he manages to craft a soundscape of surprising depth and intensity by the end of his first thirty-minute set.

Given the unconventional nature of his instruments, it’s often difficult to see how Aki Onda is deriving some of his sounds and patterns. This inscrutability is liberating. When you see a string quartet, your brain can intuitively understand the chain reaction between the bow, the strings, and the violinist’s fingers. When you witness an Aki Onda performance, a loop of chirping tones might be the feedback bouncing between a tape player and an amplifier or it might be a field recording of a Mexican birdsong. If you understand the source of every sound, the live music experience can become a bland appreciation of virtuosity. With Onda, you quickly give up on understanding all of his sources; you allow yourself to experience the entirety of the acoustic environment as he facilitates its growth and change.

Set Two

Aki Onda. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

Aki Onda. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

Now, none of this is to give you the impression that Aki Onda is a formless technician, manipulating sounds with scientific exactitude. He is very much a performer, and he is as fearless an improviser as any of the great free music pioneers. For his second set, Onda plays for a large crowd in the long hallway that runs along Hennepin Avenue. His expanded set-up includes a larger collection of cassettes, two Kaoss Pads, multiple looping pedals, three cymbals, and a few cups of marbles.

There is a noticeable choreography to Onda’s movements. He paces methodically up and down the hallway, wrenching the tape player in his hand back and forth with a consistent rhythm, a frankly beautiful pattern of movement. The focused physicality of dance permeates Onda’s entire performance, embedding a constant human presence in his maze of disembodied sounds.

Onda’s calm demeanor may give the impression that he isn’t paying attention to the audience, but in this second set he subtly engages with his onlookers and their expectations of musical performance. On top of a brooding, ambient background, Onda sprinkles in the sounds of a soft rain by casting marbles down the hallway, letting them bounce with unpredictable rhythms down the slanted brick floor. As the marbles roll past members of the audience, they must choose whether to interact with them or not, whether to allow themselves to alter the soundscape or to let it continue on its path. Of course, this is a false choice. An audience member’s decision not to touch the marble still leads to a sound that would not have occurred if they had decided to touch it. In this way, Aki Onda enlists us all as his collaborators.

Set Three    

Aki Onda. Photo: Molly Hanse

Aki Onda. Photo: Molly Hanse

The night ends in Gallery 5, which currently houses the Walker’s Art at the Center retrospective, an exhibition that includes Nam June Paik’s hyperactive television sculpture 66-76-89 (1990) and selections from On Kawara’s TODAY series (1989), as well as Siah Armajani’s Prayer (1962), a typographical labyrinth that serves as the backdrop for Onda’s final performance.

The music resonates thoughtfully with these pieces of visual art. The screeching noise of feedback pairs perfectly with the looping chaos taking place on Paik’s televisions. Onda’s cassettes, heavily manipulated field recordings from his travels around the world, act as artifacts of memory completely cut off from their moments of origin. Kawara’s TODAY paintings, with their decontextualized calendar dates, achieve a similar feeling of detachment. Yet, both artists also open their work up to the audience’s free-associative memory. Kawara’s dates connect the viewer to their own real and imagined memories of the times he invokes. Aki Onda’s obscured sounds are equally open to individual interpretation. In just one of his tapes, depending on who you are, you might hear the squealing of a free jazz saxophone, the din of a busy street, or the terrified screaming of a human voice.

The Guitarist, the Chanteuse, and the Band: Jocelyn Hagen on Victoire/Glasser/Noveller

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 Jocelyn Hagen shares her perspective on Saturday night’s performance by Victoire/Glasser/Noveller, co-presented by the Walker […]

Noveller performs with Victoire at the Walker Art Center as part of a co-presentation with the SPCO's Liquid Music series on May 9, 2015. Photo: © Tony Nelson

Noveller performs with Victoire at the Walker Art Center as part of a co-presentation with the SPCO’s Liquid Music series on May 9, 2015. Photo: © Tony Nelson

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 Jocelyn Hagen shares her perspective on Saturday night’s performance by Victoire/Glasser/Noveller, co-presented by the Walker Art Center and the SPCO’s Liquid Music series. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments! 

Last weekend the Walker Art Center co-presented the final concert of the 2014-15 Liquid Music Series with the much-anticipated Victoire show featuring fellow female composer/performers Glasser and Noveller. Taking the stage for a solid two hours, these versatile musicians filled the room with both evolving and revolving textures created by stacked layers of sound. Victoire is led by composer Missy Mazzoli, who also played keyboards and used Ableton to manipulate sounds onstage; she prefers to refer to the group as a band instead of a new music ensemble. This approach to such boundary-defying chamber music is changing the way audiences approach the listening environment, and this is what the Liquid Music Series strives to achieve with each performance. Victoire is quite possibly the best incarnation of such a group, because of the consistency of their performers, the regularity at which they perform, and the collaborative way they bring Mazzoli’s ideas to fruition. They are at their best when showing off their virtuosity, especially the incredible playing of violinist Olivia de Prato and double bassist Eleanor Oppenheim. Victoire is unintimidated by dark, thorny, and even muddy textures, nor of filling the room with large, pulsing, loud sound.

Guitarist Noveller succeeded in bringing to life low, bubbly textures with wailing, sharp melodies, letting feedback and distortion color the textures she created by looping. The music sounded exploratory, along with the bright, glossy video imagery, but the limitations of looping made the music a bit static.

Glasser’s sensual performance with recorded tracks showcased her wispy, floaty voice against varied rhythmic textures of an ever-surprising palette. Her music came alive once the instrumentalists of Victoire joined her for the final set. If, ten years ago, I had to imagine what contemporary music would sound like in 2015, it would and would not have sounded like this ~ in the best sense ~ I don’t think I could have imagined this sound. There was a magical, futuristic characteristic difficult to describe, and this is exactly what music created in the present time should hope to achieve.

The video component of the evening didn’t always support or enhance the listening experience, and overall the music became a bit harmonically stagnant over two hours, but this final concert for Kate Nordstrum’s visionary series was overall a great success, given to a welcoming, sold-out crowd.

Off-The-Cuff Beauty: Jason Moran and Robert Glasper in Duo

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, Walker Performing Arts Intern and the host of Radio K’s jazz program Sound […]

pa2015Moran-Glasper Performing Arts; Music. Jason Moran and Robert Glasper perform in the McGuire Theater, May 2, 2015. Sponsered by Steinway & Sons; Additional support provided by Producers’ Council members Leni and David Moore, Jr. / The David and Leni Moore Family Foundation and Mike and Elizabeth Sweeney. Two of today’s most influential contemporary jazz pianists team up for a US-exclusive summit combining their artistry and virtuosity in what promises to be an unforgettable evening. Informed by the entire history of jazz as well as essential American musical forms of hip-hop, blues, gospel, and soul, Jason Moran and Robert Glasper are high school friends from Houston who have since changed the face of American jazz in the 21st century.

Jason Moran (right) and Robert Glasper (left), Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

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, Walker Performing Arts Intern and the host of Radio K’s jazz program Sound Grammar Sam Segal shares his perspective on Jason Moran & Robert Glasper at the Walker. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

I’ll admit it: my expectations for Jason Moran and Robert Glasper’s piano duet on Saturday night weren’t all that high. I adore Moran’s achingly beautiful duo album with saxophonist Charles Lloyd, Hagar’s Song (2013), as well as his subtle grace on Paul Motian’s Lost in a Dream (2010). Glasper, however, I’d never cared for very much. No, let’s try that again: Glasper, however, I’d always proclaimed not to care for very much.

After a few cursory listens to his breakthrough album Black Radio back in 2012, Glasper seemed to me to symbolize everything that was wrong with the narrative surrounding contemporary jazz. Music critics hailed the pianist’s fusion of jazz with hip-hop, soul, and R&B as the thing that would save what they perceived as a dying genre, out of touch with anything outside of its own insular world. “Slapping hurts, but at some point it’ll wake you up. I feel like jazz needs a big-ass slap,” Glasper told DownBeat a few months after the release of Black Radio. To me, the idea that jazz had stopped engaging with the world outside of conservatories and posh clubs seemed absurd, and anyone who saw it like that hadn’t really been paying attention to the fertile avant scene happening on the fringes. In my mind, Glasper was the conservative jazz world’s bland excuse to pat itself on the back and say, “We’re hip to this rap music the kids are into these days.”  Did it matter to me that I’d made this judgment after listening to one Robert Glasper album like maybe two-and-a-half times? Hell no! I was a pretentious nineteen-year-old with a point to make. So, it was with a certain amount of internal struggle on Saturday night that I finally admitted to myself that Robert Glasper truly is one of the great pianists in contemporary jazz.

pa2015Moran-Glasper Performing Arts; Music. Jason Moran and Robert Glasper perform in the McGuire Theater, May 2, 2015. Sponsered by Steinway & Sons; Additional support provided by Producers’ Council members Leni and David Moore, Jr. / The David and Leni Moore Family Foundation and Mike and Elizabeth Sweeney. Two of today’s most influential contemporary jazz pianists team up for a US-exclusive summit combining their artistry and virtuosity in what promises to be an unforgettable evening. Informed by the entire history of jazz as well as essential American musical forms of hip-hop, blues, gospel, and soul, Jason Moran and Robert Glasper are high school friends from Houston who have since changed the face of American jazz in the 21st century.

Robert Glasper, Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

Throughout the duo’s performance (I caught the first of the night’s two shows), Glasper and Moran played with incredible wit and off-the-cuff beauty. They managed to blend the playful exploration of a jam session with the unabashed emotionality of a solo recital. Glasper’s lyricism and remarkable melodic sensitivity frequently reminded me of Keith Jarrett, and at times his percussive chops rivaled those of McCoy Tyner. During a song he performed solo (composed by Herbie Hancock, although I didn’t quite catch the title), it dawned on me how much Glasper has internalized the aesthetics of hip-hop. His brand of fusion goes way beyond the acoustic hip-hop of a band like the Roots, in which live instruments simply play what would usually be sampled. Glasper approaches the piano like a DJ, treating melodies and rhythms like breaks he can sample, remixing himself constantly as he moves through a piece.

Jason Moran and Robert Glasper at the Walker Art Center, McGuire

Jason Moran and Robert Glasper, Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

Each player’s personality pushed the other into unexplored territory. After a gutbucket boogie-woogie workout inspired by Albert Ammons and Meade “Lux” Lewis warmed up the crowd, Moran gestured towards more ethereal territory, and his partner followed suit. Midway through the show, the two mounted a stunning reinterpretation of rapper Kendrick Lamar’s “How Much A Dollar Cost,” a cut from this year’s To Pimp a Butterfly, a critically-adored record that featured Glasper’s piano on a number of tracks. While Moran held down the song’s haunting melody, Glasper mimicked the rhythmic spitting of an emcee with an impromptu modification to his piano: a plastic bottle of water and a can of Folgers to mute a section of the strings. Moran took the suggestion and placed a ceramic bowl on the low-end strings of his piano, creating a clanking drone as his fingers moved furiously across the bass keys. Two prepared pianos playing a dissonant and hypnotizing version of one of the year’s darkest hip-hop songs was a far cry from the “safe” show I was afraid these two would put on.

pa2015Moran-Glasper Performing Arts; Music. Jason Moran and Robert Glasper perform in the McGuire Theater, May 2, 2015. Sponsered by Steinway & Sons; Additional support provided by Producers’ Council members Leni and David Moore, Jr. / The David and Leni Moore Family Foundation and Mike and Elizabeth Sweeney. Two of today’s most influential contemporary jazz pianists team up for a US-exclusive summit combining their artistry and virtuosity in what promises to be an unforgettable evening. Informed by the entire history of jazz as well as essential American musical forms of hip-hop, blues, gospel, and soul, Jason Moran and Robert Glasper are high school friends from Houston who have since changed the face of American jazz in the 21st century.

Robert Glasper, Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

The eight o’clock show ended with another classic hip-hop song: “My Block” by their fellow Houston-native, Scarface. After Moran announced the song, a few cheers in the audience (one of them admittedly coming from me) prompted him to dub Scarface “a great jazz composer.” On a vintage Fender Rhodes, Glasper let out bursts of gospel-inflected praise while Moran laid down different takes on the song’s soulful piano sample. The duo left the crowd on an uplifting high note, the picture of two contemporary greats joyfully nominating a new standard for adoption into the jazz cannon.

Breathing Machine Music: Holly Herndon’s Sound Gallery

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, Dylan Hester shares his perspective on Thursday night’s Sound Horizon performance by Holly Herndon. Agree or […]

Holly Herndon. Photo: Suzy Poling

Holly Herndon. Photo: Suzy Poling

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, Dylan Hester shares his perspective on Thursday night’s Sound Horizon performance by Holly Herndon. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Holly Herndon breathes into a very loud microphone. Her inhale and exhale pan across the room. Scott Nedrelow’s Movie (Black Swan), a series of six video projections shot inside a cinema screening Darren Aronofsky’s film of the same name, plays on a loop in the background. Herndon’s voice is joined by disjointed, deconstructed beats. Her sharp inhales come so suddenly that we realize we are at her mercy: anything louder than breath would surely send a jolt through the audience.

The music grows dense, and a 4/4 rhythm emerges. Suddenly, we’re awash in drum machines. I briefly wish we were dancing in a warehouse instead of sitting quietly in a gallery. Black Swan continues to loop: an audience arrives in the cinema, watches a scene of the film, the credits roll, the audience leaves.  The amplifiers shake. I wonder if the art on the other side of the wall is shaking too. She gasps. The rhythm dissipates. The focus remains on her voice, constantly manipulated, keeping us in suspense.

Holly Herndon’s work is somewhere between the academy and the club; the performance is at once confrontational and intimate.  Her second LP, Platform, is due out May 2015 on the venerable 4AD label. She is a 21st century electronic artist who sits behind an array of computers – but it is the sound of her breath that fills the room, forms sonic sculptures, and keeps us on edge.

Deceptive Magic: Noah Keesecker on The Music of Bryce Dessner, Program B

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 and multimedia artist Noah Keesecker shares his perspective on Saturday night’s program of The […]

So Percussion performing Bryce Dessner's "Music for Wood and Strings". Photo: Jayme Halbritter

So Percussion performing Bryce Dessner’s Music for Wood and Strings. Photo: Jayme Halbritter

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 and multimedia artist Noah Keesecker shares his perspective on Saturday night’s program of The Music of Bryce Dessner, co-presented by the Walker Art Center and the SPCO’s Liquid Music series. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments! 

Let’s dispense with the obvious. Bryce Dessner is a sorcerer, Buke and Gase is a griffin, Ben Lanz is a cyborg, Caroline Shaw is a unicorn, and Sō Percussion is a machine.

Great. Glad we cleared that up. So if you had bumped into me before last Saturday night and asked what I was doing that evening I could have said, in metaphorical truthiness, “I’m going to go see a sorcerer play music with a griffin and a machine. Oh, and there will also be a cyborg and a unicorn. Wanna join me?” To which you would have said “I’ll grab my wand while you pull the brooms around.”

Seriously though. There was a lot of energy in McGuire Theater on Saturday night and I am not going to say it was all good. It was certainly well crafted, well educated, and well executed but there were some elements of the evening that I just couldn’t get over. Liquid Music is one of my favorite concert series anywhere but the more I pay attention the more I wonder if this trend of the Indie/Classical interloper isn’t simply a new version of orchestra pops concerts; Indie Chamber Music for Millenials. There. I said it. We’ve got  Sufjans and Newsoms and a good line of bands working with top tier chamber ensembles and symphonies. Of course this isn’t a revelation, good old Pitchfork has tossed the Indie Classical label around for quite some time. And so what? The label is just the words we make up so we can talk about something that doesn’t have a name. And so what.

This overnight review has turned into three, four, five overnights for me. Like that old college friend that’s “just passing through” and crashes on your couch for a few too many days, I’ve been wrestling with identifying what it was about this concert that left me so, well, not impressed.

So I broke this down into my main observations (read: complaints) and a silver lining.

Your Credentials Don’t Matter

Nothing feels more like the eye-rolling snake oil call of a traveling salesman than waving credentials like a white flag of peace before you enter the hallowed white walls of contemporary art institutions. You know that scene from Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?

Do I really need to state for the millionth time that college degrees are not a magic recipe for making good art? They mean something but they do not guarantee quality. Correlation does not imply causation. I got hung up on the fact that everybody wanted me to know Dessner went to Yale for music. Yes, I just kicked that dead horse so let’s move on.

Silver Lining: The more I think about it the more I feel that my own bias is the problem here. The institution waves the academic flag because the institution needs it, not the audience, not the artist. The artist is going to make their work regardless of announcing their pedigree and the audience is going to like or dislike their music regardless of the artist’s pedigree. Dear Audience and Artist, you are free to go.

A Minimal Amount About Minimalism

Can we just admit that Minimalism is the Pop Art of the classical music world? That hocket is the audio equivalent of halftone and being functionally monophonic is an harmonic palette of just primary colors?

Silver Lining: There is some great Pop Art in the world and talented artists continue to test its boundaries.

Punch-In, Punch-Out

It’s a structural thing. It’s about the construction of the work, specifically Dessner’s work. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that he writes straight into a DAW. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I would be the last person to tell another artist that he must suffer the misery of a quill and inkwell or that you should write your canon out by hand rather than click a couple buttons, trim the fat and call it a day. But I’m not talking about canons, I’m talking about being able to hear the tool. “And how, all knowing and curmudgeonly wizard, can you hear the tool of composition? Please, enlighten us!” Well, there was an overwhelming amount of blocks. A layer begins, another layer is slapped on top, then you pull something out for a bit, then you layer it all back in. It was as if you could just see someone punching tracks in and out on a sequencer. Lines did not blend, they were jutted up against each other like a mixture of hard geometric shapes. Melody was down played in favor of textures and process, nudge a loop, get a new permutation. Nudge it again, get another permutation.

Silver Lining: Electronic dance music and a majority of popular music idioms have ingrained a very satisfying appreciation for blocky layers and abrupt change. The reason is because time is difficult to parse when things move slowly so the more you repeat with a frequent change the more you demarcate time for the listener. It’s pleasing to hear, it’s jarring, it’s well crafted, which all makes it exciting.

Dynamics

Did anyone else notice that there were very few dynamics during this concert? Ben Ganz had dynamics (but some suspiciously flat sounding audio quality at times), and Caroline Shaw wins the nuance award for the evening with her clever, delicate, and expertly balanced work for solo violin and voice.  The rest of the concert was mostly just… loud. Not uncomfortably loud but just consistently lacking in the use of softer amplitudes. This to me is something that really sets classical music apart from pop genres. It’s super hard to listen to Mahler, or Brahms, even Stravinsky in your car because the works are constructed out of a amplitude range that goes from bombast to susurration. The Saturday night show had very little whispering and felt more like any other rock show. One could argue that loud is a choice, and it can be, but when you deny yourself the expressive power of using a full dynamic range, I consider that to be a poor choice. Not to mention tiring.

Silver Lining: Loud is easy. Loud is fun. Loud keeps your attention.

Highlights

You may be wondering if I have any compassionate or happy bones in my inner ear and the answer is yes, yes I have a few. Buke and Gase proved to be a fantastically quirky duo that write some really fine songs and Arone Dyer’s voice and melodic sense cannot be overstated. For two people and a pile of invented instruments, they produce a facile capriciousness of style and an amazingly varied color palette.

As mentioned previously, Caroline Shaw performed a felicitous little piece for violin and voice. It was a simple little piece and like great simple things it was deceptively complex. I call this easy complexity and it is a mark of artistry.

Finally, we come to Dessner’s Music for Wood and Strings, a percussion piece written for a mutated sort of dulcimer created by Aron Sanchez. I’m going to be totally honest and say that the dulcimer is probably one of my least favorite musical instruments ever created and a 21st century dulcimer is still a dulcimer. The one magical moment from the work was near the climax there was a sheet of resonance hanging in the air and then like some kind of magical creature, there emerged some of the most sparkling overtones that I have heard in person for some time. And it occurred to me that no sorcerer’s apprentice is going to make this kind of ethereal sonic event happen, only a full fledged sorcerer can pull that off.

Overall, I thought I hated this concert but as I wrestled with the lingering sounds and mulled over all these pesky details I came to really enjoy how persistent the music had been. I am not an advocate for liking everything that is made. I like to dislike things because it is in taking issue with work that we are faced not just with those challenges in front of us but the challenges inside of us as well.

A Quiet Evening: Chris Campbell on The Music of Bryce Dessner, Program A

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 Chris Campbell shares his perspective on Friday night’s program of The Music […]

Left to right: Stefan Schneider, Bryce Dessner, Richard Reed Parry, Caroline Shaw, and Laurel Sprengelmeyer. Photo: Jayme Halbritter

Left to right: Stefan Schneider, Bryce Dessner, Richard Reed Parry, Caroline Shaw, and Laurel Sprengelmeyer. Photo: Jayme Halbritter

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 Chris Campbell shares his perspective on Friday night’s program of The Music of Bryce Dessner, co-presented by the Walker Art Center and the SPCO’s Liquid Music series. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments! 

The Liquid Music series, presented by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, is navigating some challenging and exciting terrain.  It’s dealing with no-genre aspirations, or what Duke Ellington once called “the music of the future..when it will be boiled down and left without a category.”  The series is concerned with the cross-pollination of ideas, scenes and personalities, and the physical draw of getting people excited to come out to concerts. The mixing of contemporary and experimental musical genres has, of course, been central to the Walker’s performing arts programming for decades.

Ultimately, last night succeeded on all these fronts. The show itself presented an obvious entry point for the audience to experience the music they came for.   It also provided, whether intentionally or unintentionally, an invitation to explore the larger world of classical music that can often be intimidating or esoteric. Audiences need more cordial entry points to that world, not less.  Which leads us to the actual concert.  The penultimate show for Liquid Music 2014-2015, copresented by the Walker Art Center, was billed as “The Music of Bryce Dessner – Program A” (Program B is tonight) but the evening felt more like a collaborative effort between equal-share friends. Composer, guitarist and curator Dessner, who is also a member of The National, had two pieces performed which bookended the main program.  Joining him were multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire and Pulitzer Prize winning composer Caroline Shaw, who each had several of their own works programmed, in addition to performing on each others’ works.

The show began with the piece Lachrimae.  Composer Dessner, who acted as an engine and a rudder throughout the night, explained and gave context to the piece afterwards.  The piece is heavily influenced by Renaissance composer John Dowland, whose works Dessner often played while studying classical guitar.  Parry’s Interruptions followed. A suite of vignettes, Interruptions is part of a larger theme Parry is exploring, connecting performers’ heartbeats and breathing to their music making.  Stethoscopes are used by the performers to link their biorhythms to the external rhythms being created.  The piece is a series of lovely miniatures, like aural 2” x 2” paintings executed with a few well-placed and fully mindful brushstrokes.  It was delicate, simple and balanced.   Parry’s Quartet followed without much of a lull and was stutter-y, organically asymmetrical, and inherently inward-looking.  Simple ideas executed well can be powerful, and Parry and crew executed well.

Dessner and Parry are both clearly interested in teasing out certain threads and tendrils that they might not be able to explore in a standard issue pop/rock song.  A particular sonic image or texture that might only last a few seconds in a certain context was zoomed-in on, explored, and repurposed in the context of the evening.

Halfway through the main program, Little Scream (Laurel Sprengelmeyer) offered a sonic palette cleanser and built up the energy in the room with a quick two song set.  Caroline Shaw’s two pieces were programmed next.  Her work was the highlight of the concert in an evening chock full of good moments.  By and By, her re-framed, stripped-of-all-varnish arrangement of gospel and bluegrass songs, took the energy of the room and transformed it upward and inward into an ethereal bloom.  Shaw’s Entr’acte spun its web using small, motivic ideas.  The piece churned along earnestly, with whispered asides and technical, snaky flourishes for punctuation.  It developed with chorale progressions that were chopped, bounced and rotated through variation.  The piece was smart and understated, with a clear and nuanced form.  I saw the audience lean in toward the stage at certain points, which points to the piece’s impact.

Dessner ended the main program with a piece called Tenebre.  It began quietly, fluttering while squeezebox clusters and chords lined up with lyric lines and gestures dancing atop. Tenebre’s language is pretty, with some sprinkles of dissonance thrown in like a well-placed swear word in a conversation.  The piece reached its climax with a pre-recorded, disembodied Sufjan Stevens singing from the rafters.  The strongest aspect of this piece was its kinetic qualities. The players gave the sound a corporeal property that moved.

After a 20 minute intermission, Parry’s new group Quiet River of Dust, which includes Laurel Sprengelmeyer, played a closing set.  It was filled with Nick Drake-ish moments, but with a different color palette.  In a song about rain and death knocking on one’s door, one of the amps started to break up and it created a weird radiating rain texture toward the end of the piece, creating a magic moment.  The amp continued to break up for the next few minutes, which wasn’t so magical, but Parry handled it like a pro and the problem resolved itself without notice.

After listening to these three composers, I kept coming back to the breadth and depth of the classical ecosystem in terms of styles, designations, motivations, and vocabularies.  If your view of serious contemporary classical music is Tristan Murail, Georg Friedrich Haas, Henry Brant, or even Heinz Hollinger (the linked piece reminds me conceptually a little of Parry’s quartet) this ain’t it, and it never will be.  Good.  The truth is, this gracious and approachable (gasp!) modality of classical music must exist as much as the most rigorous experimental classical music does.  When in expert hands, both things are equally awesome.  There’s no conflict when viewing it all as interrelating and informing one body of music.  Having different schools, scenes and micro-genres help us evolve, converse, and adapt as listeners and creators alike.  What was done last night was neither risk-taking nor groundbreaking from a certain point of view, but the music I heard challenges and pushes in important ways.  Isn’t trying to be understood a risk in itself?

The playing and performances were tight, and it was a great night of music from three talented composer-musicians.  I’m curious to hear how they develop their own musical logic and language over the next few years. Walking out of the hall, I heard a stranger next to me say to their date that they “want to learn more about string orchestras”.  Appetite whetted.  Invitation to explore accepted.  It’s Saturday now, and in the light of morning I really hope that person engages and absorbs what the many branches of the classical tradition have to offer.  I hope they get to know this awe-inspiring ecosystem better, from the most anarchic sounds, to the most whip-smart and whisper quiet. I highly recommend you go to tonight’s show and see what new magic happens.

Conceptual People-Dance: Penelope Freeh on Tere O’Connor’s BLEED

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 Tere O’Connor’s BLEED. Agree or […]

Photo: Paula Court

Photo: Paula Court

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 Tere O’Connor’s BLEED. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments! 

BLEED, Tere O’Connor’s newest work, an amalgamation of sorts of three other dances, sits well with me. About halfway through the work I remembered that this was the concept and then several mysteries were solved, for example, the austerity and import of many of the transitions. They seemed particularly loaded: introducing new dancers, breaking with the action and walking to a new location, building to a sentimental embrace, then journeying away into another choreographic land. Some of the costumes felt initially incongruous but then strangely cogent as the dance transpired. Remembering this notion of bleeding three dances into a fourth makes sense (not that I need it to make sense, but it’s satisfying to solve a mystery) and I dive deeper as a result.

BLEED begins with a woman in a green dress undulating, swirling almost, but not quite. Her balance is caught then abandoned, a constancy of the body catching up with itself. There is a quartet of onlookers who soon move into the frame. A quintet commences and I am reminded of court dancing, the roots of ballet, with handholds and tippy contortions that remain just upright enough to prioritize the vertical. Certainly the soundscape influences me here, composed and designed by James Baker, evoking the baroque.

More dancers enter and I am surprised. This is one of those previously alluded to mysteries that unto itself is jarring, but in the context of the concept makes perfect sense. There are eleven dancers total, a satisfying number. The stage feels very populated, and it is fascinating to see the many and varied stage pictures evolve with so many bodies.

There are many classical values amid the post modern: symmetry, awareness of front, a formal quality to much of the movement, all of which render outlier moments, like when all the dancers verbally shudder and stagger apart, more potent.

O’Connor is a dance-maker on the edge of discovery, investigating his own dances and previous choices to unearth something new. In the new are movements from those previous works but also subtle evocations, loaded embraces, powerful stillnesses (near the end, the dancers were in dynamic yet grounded poses holding hands in a giant s curve), and especially deliberate transitions. He is trying to reveal the negative and I see it in the mist, like Brigadoon.

The investment of these dancers is profound. They seem to reside simultaneously in the worlds of the previous dances and in this new terrain. Meaning is carried through, gathering mass like a snowball rolling downhill. This particular dance seems to be less about investigative movement than process. The vocabulary feels spare, complicating in terms of many bodies rather than in one individual. It is readable, then blurry, then discernible again.

The concept is a rich one and O’Connor’s touch is just right, just Midas enough. For me, it could have gone on longer. It takes awhile to get to know these wonderful people dancing, and just when I had my bearings, blackout.

BLEED continues in the Walker’s McGuire Theater tonight (Friday, March 20, 8 pm) and tomorrow (Saturday, March 20, 8 pm). Tere O’Connor will also teach a Master Class at the Walker on March 21 at 11 am. 

A View from the Back Row: Bill Cottman on Jack DeJohnette’s Made in Chicago

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, photographer, writer, and radio host Bill Cottman shares his perspective on […]

Left to right: Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, Jack DeJohnette, Larry Gray, and Henry Threadgill. Photo: Paul Natkin

Left to right: Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, Jack DeJohnette, Larry Gray, and Henry Threadgill. Photo: Paul Natkin

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, photographer, writer, and radio host Bill Cottman shares his perspective on the recent performance of Jack DeJohnette’s Made in Chicago at the Walker. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Jack DeJohnette’s Made In Chicago with Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill, and Larry Gray appeared on the McGuire Theater stage this past Thursday night. If you were present, you heard IT. If you were absent, you will never hear IT. The creative natures of these musicians require physical presence to fully experience their work. Depending upon your exposure to them and their music, IT was terribly terrific. IT was the beginning, or IT was the continuation, or IT was the eve of another Friday the thirteenth.

From my seat in the back row, I could see the heads of the full house audience. After several minutes into the first selection, a listener stood and clapped his hands in no discernible relationship to the music. Roscoe Mitchell’s horn was sounding a rivetingly rhythmic pattern, relentless as the passage of time. IT reminded me of a preacher’s comment to his standing congregation, “sit as you are able!” Words are unable to make you hear IT if you were not present. This IT, declared dead too many times to cut flowers for. After several minutes Mitchell was satisfied with IT and stopped and we applauded and hooted as modern audiences are prone to do.

DeJohnette lead us into the next experience. We followed, listening for familiar hooks to hang our listening baggage upon. My foot was raised, waiting for the one. Whenever it came, I had forgotten I had been waiting. I think Threadgill’s horn was the sound introducing the next movement. My listening mate asked me something about the title of IT and I had nothing to say. Call IT what you will and wait to see if IT passes this way again. In the meantime the motion continued forward.

Writing about IT is somewhere on the continuum from intellectual analysis to emotional experience. When people look at my photographs and say, “I don’t know anything about photography”, I ask them to consider three questions:

What do you see?

How does it make you feel?

What might you do as a result of what you’ve seen and felt?

On Thursday evening I felt the need for my own questions. I was in the midst of something that was demanding more than my intellect was equipped to analyze. I needed to yield to the part of my brain best equipped to deal with IT. An engineer could not say how IT worked. An artist needed to express why IT was working. So to the readers looking for words to hear IT with, you will not find them here. My words are a ramble rather than a review. Thursday’s music came from the upper room of a full house. Gaining entry required effort. Effort of the intellect, filled with knowledge of the players and their stories. Or, effort of the spirit, filled with open space available for unexpected outcomes.

From the back row of a full house you can see the silhouettes of listeners. You can see movements microseconds after hearing the sounds causing them. You can see the restless bolt at the first opportunity they perceived as freedom to get out. You can see those who stay; the great majority, moving in ways suggesting individualized acceptances and realizations. This was not music for the masses. IT was selective, but not exclusive… unless you made IT so.

Remember the failed verbal communication between Threadgill and Mitchell? Both were sitting out a solo when Threadgill looked to his right and captured Mitchell’s attention and moved his lips to send a message. Mitchell didn’t get it, so Threadgill repeated. Mitchell didn’t get it, so for a third time Threadgill repeated. He still didn’t get it. Threadgill stood and moved toward Mitchell and reached beneath his chair to lift an oversized sheet of white paper to the music stand in front of them. Both men winked, nodded, and smiled! Surely, from this point forward, IT sounded better/different/worse?!

Larry Gray never touched his cello; did he? With ears wide open, I nodded several times. Gray stood behind his double bass and raised his right foot numerous times. But it was a raising like live yeast does in correctly baked bread. IT never fell! IT contained the capacity to lift and transport one above and beyond the inequities of daily life. The ancestors said they could fly!

See how he leads from behind. How does all the credit get back there? Isn’t all the credit up front? Perhaps there is sufficient credit to cover everyone. What if credit is not the objective? What if everyone knows the destination and the journey becomes the objective?

Technology enabled bootleggers or permission granted powers that be may have recorded IT. At some point in the not too distant future, we may be cursed/blessed with an opportunity to re-view, re-visit and re-hear something called IT, but that will not be IT!

billcottmanbio

Bill Cottman is a photographer, writer, and host of Mostly Jazz on Saturday mornings at 9am on KFAI Community Radio, 90.3 FM Minneapolis and 106.7 FM St Paul. Live stream and archived programs at www.KFAI.org/mostlyjazz.

Sounds in Motion, Community in Action: Douglas R. Ewart’s Sound Horizon

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, Walker Intern Mark Mahoney shares his perspective on Douglas R. Ewart’s recent […]

Left to right: Stephen Goldstein, Mankwe Ndosi, and Douglas R. Ewart. Photo: Mark Mahoney

Left to right: Stephen Goldstein, Mankwe Ndosi, and Douglas R. Ewart. 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, Walker Intern Mark Mahoney shares his perspective on Douglas R. Ewart’s recent Sound Horizon performance. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Acclaimed local composer, improviser, and sculptor Douglas R. Ewart launched this year’s installment of the Walker’s Sound Horizon series with a far-reaching and engaging performance. Ewart’s variegated artistic practices and his propensity for finding interconnections between different media made him a natural choice for the series, which celebrates the intersection of sound, materiality, space, and community. He was joined by the similarly multifaceted Mankwe Ndosi (voice, poetry, and percussion) and Stephen Goldstein (laptops, various electronics and controllers), both longtime collaborators.

Ewart arrived at Walker Gallery Six with an impressive array of instruments both traditional and invented, among them an English horn, sopranino saxophone, and several crutches retrofitted with tiny bells. This assortment was not simply for show; Ewart’s remarkable command of these instruments opened up a vast spectrum of timbral possibilities. Goldstein proved a deft foil to these explorations, conjuring evocative textures that alternately complemented and challenged Ewart’s decisions.

The textural juxtaposition of Ewart’s acoustic instruments and Goldstein’s electronics could be read as a kind of trope, a transparent take on the motto of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future.” (Ewart served as the AACM’s president from 1979 to 1986.) Ewart’s expansive approach, however, soon complicated any reductive assumptions as to which sounds were ‘ancient’ and which belonged to the ‘future.’ When Mankwe Ndosi added her potently expressionistic vocals to the mix in the second set, the expanded palette allowed all three improvisers to stretch even further into realms of abstraction.

Walker Director Olga Viso and former Director Martin Friedman watched the affairs silently from within artist Goshka Macuga’s monumental tapestry, It Broke from Within. Twentieth-century art provocateurs Joseph Beuys and Marcel Duchamp sat elsewhere in the wall-sized image, and interposed were Tea Party protesters with signs such as, “We don’t want socialism, you arrogant Kenyan!” It would be difficult to imagine a more incongruous group of personages, yet all of them have affiliations with the Walker or the surrounding community. Macuga’s piece begged the question: what are the limits of “community”? It’s a question that seemed to animate much of what transpired Thursday night. The musicians sat at the center of this space, anchoring this improbable gathering as activity emanated outwards in all directions. The audience sat in an ad hoc semicircle around the artists. It was sometimes difficult to distinguish the audience from those who were merely passing by, further underscoring the question of community, of who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out.’

Ewart concluded the second set with an unexpected flourish, releasing a number of hand-made spinning tops onto the gallery floor. As the crowd watched, enraptured, the tops circled each other in a kind of cosmic choreography, eventually tipping over until only a single top remained: a blue sphere, eerily suspended, seemingly perfectly balanced upon its axis. The significance was difficult to miss.

When asked about his tops in an interview with Time Out Chicago, Ewart explained that tops “are magical, cosmic, mystical and beautiful.” The same set of adjectives could be applied to Ewart’s performance. Tops are imbued with further significance for Ewart because they help “to inveigle and instigate substantive engagement with families, diverse people and communities.”

This performance took place within the larger context of the Walker’s celebration of the AACM’s 50-year anniversary. Next week, AACM luminaries Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell will join Larry Gray in Jack DeJohnette’s Made In Chicago. Ewart shared his thoughts on that organization and recounted its impact on his artistic trajectory here.

Former AACM President George Lewis, a frequent collaborator of Ewart’s, has written, “In improvised music, the development of the improvisor is regarded as encompassing not only the formation of individual musical personality, but the harmonization of one’s musical personality with social environments, both actual and possible.”

Ewart’s Sound Horizon performance served as a welcome occasion to come together in celebration of these radically inventive artists in our midst, and, in so doing, to reflect on our community, actual and possible.

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