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

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

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

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

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Patrick Marschke shares his perspective on Saturday night’s performance of Devendra Banhart & Friends: Wind Grove Mind Alone, a two-night engagement copresented by the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

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

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

Devendra Banhart + Band*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rodrigo Amarante

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

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

“One more?”

Hecuba

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

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

“I was a person, without a person…”

Harold Budd + Brad Ellis + Veda Hille

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

__________

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

We are lucky.

Circuits of Saudade: Wind Grove Mind Alone, Night One

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, Jesse Leaneagh shares his perspective on Friday night’s performance of Devendra Banhart […]

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Devendra Banhart performing with Helado Negro at the Walker Art Center, May 13, 2016. Photo: Courtney Perry for the Walker Art Center

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Jesse Leaneagh shares his perspective on Friday night’s performance of Devendra Banhart & Friends: Wind Grove Mind Alone, a two-night engagement copresented by the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Walking into the McGuire Friday night the theater looked as it always does, with the small exception of the mauve zafus sprinkled near the front of the stage. Waiting across the proscenium a guitar, electric guitar, small keyboard, and multiple laptop configurations.

Pre-show not everyone was reading the program. Someone in the front row scoured local obituaries. A man in a raccoon hat read a mystery novel. Someone to my left kept folding and unfolding the New York Review of Books to get a closer look.

You could hear a pause when Devendra Banhart walked out, with many in the audience likely coveting now his exact pair of black leather slide sandals.

Banhart’s only set of the evening was solo acoustic guitar. Two songs in, one of which the classic “Carmensita”, he promptly began asking for requests. The audience yelled out song titles while he mostly shook his head or countered that he didn’t know or want to play that one. Eventually someone in the audience grokked with him and he began again.

He talked a bit about the back-to-back evenings of music that he had curated, which he titled Wind Grove Mind Alone after a concrete poem by Father Dom Sylvester Houédard. “Monks can be pretty cool, it turns out,” Banhart said. “Benedictines especially.”

Banhart said his first idea for Wind Grove Mind Alone was to have 100 bands each play for one minute. The audience laughed, but he emphasized that it’s a concept he still wants to develop. Then he explained that what unites the musicians playing both nights is that they’re interdisciplinary. They do other things.

“I’m just gonna play new songs, “ he announced. What followed were vignettes: a song about enjoying San Francisco but not being able to afford it. Several songs were in Spanish and all I could think about was why his Spanish reminds me of Portuguese. Why does one get the feeling watching him that he is Caetano’s heir?

“Thank you thank you thank you,” he said after five songs and sidled off. Tonight’s program was a tight ship, each artist clearly allotted 20 minutes.

Next up: Los Angeles–based experimental music group Lucky Dragons. Sarah Rara and Luke Fischbeck walked impassively onstage, a screen forming behind them with a white cursor blinking on grey background. They sat across from each other, poised in front of separate laptops. Rara began typing and each letter announced its pronunciation as it appeared onscreen, sometimes a flurry of burping consonants or vowels hissing together. Fischbeck meanwhile looked at some sort of graphic layout, and my friend leaned over and asked if he was checking Facebook. Rara stood up and unrolled a banner near their station, which was kept flat on the floor although its colors of red, white, and blue were visible. New loops of sound repeated as the screen paused on a stanza.

More and more I heard a bog chorus, both sunken and locomotive at the same time. Mirroring arpeggios filled the audience, a guy in the front row rocking hard in his seat like we were at the club. “Ripping to re-vegetate,” read a line onscreen, and it sounded like we were listening to the soundtrack of a community garden being born, the music undeniably naturalia. The mysterious banner was rolled up again, while Fischbeck sang alone. A buoyant set.

Next up: more music from LA, with Jessica Pratt and Greta Morgan. Jessica Pratt performed tracks off her newest album (“Game That I Play,” “Jacquelyn in the Background,” “Back, Baby,” “Moon Dude”) except for her opening song, which I couldn’t place from either album. Pratt’s music hits the ears like a high quality vintage, a sound from decades past. Her voice bends the air like a golden halo around an AM radio. I must confess I find her music beguiling to a distracting degree. I took barely any notes. People on the zafus hugged their knees and swayed as she sang. That kind of set. She is the bard of every meaningful relationship you’ve ever had, complete with strange key changes. Her final track featured Greta Morgan on the mini keys and then they walked offstage, the spell broken.

Helado Negro emerged with his silver compadres. Costumed in what appeared to be shredded disco balls, the completely silver backup dancers had no eye holes, no arm holes. When they danced they looked like pin art portraits of chickens. In other words, you couldn’t look away. “Give it up for my furry friends.” He said. Occasionally the tinsel fell off their costumes and you could hear it hit the stage.

Helado Negro heated up the night with his dancing, bringing major level hip gyrations. People on the zafus got lit. Midway through his set, Devendra Banhart came onstage for the night’s only collaboration to sing “Young, Latin and Proud.” Devendra joked about being old, but that Helado Negro was keeping it sexy with his hip moves. The two embraced and their duet was a clear highlight of the night.

The final act of the evening, William Basinski, walked out with a blast of East Coast vibe that felt like a nice change of pace from what came before.  “Minneapolis, oh, my babies,” he said. Then he clarified, “I’ve actually never been here before.” He brought up Prince, with whom he shares the same birth year.  “Let’s purple down the lights. It’s not easy to do what that bitch did…dance to the death.”

He sat down in front of his set-up: laptop flanked by reel-to-reels, and other equipment. He barely moved during his set, still to the point of sculptural. He looked the part of the supremely confident auteur.

And his sounds, the ambient soundscapes. The sound of waking up among skyscrapers, to that window view that looks out only on brick wall. Ideas surface, grow, and pass within his work. Walking fast, then turning the wrong corner. Perhaps you see a car crash or an old friend. Another car pulls up, you get in. All that matters is the narrative and where you’re taken. Onboard the ferry now no seagull in sight only fog. You find a bathroom aboard and notice in the mirror for the very first time a lipstick imprint on your neck. Dark red, maroon. Marooned? The music has stopped but you’re clapping and you remember Devendra’s words sung during the very first song the beginning of the night it all feels so long ago: “A kiss begun will never end.”

Affable Experimentation: Steve Lehman Octet 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 last Saturday’s performance by the […]

Photo: John Rogers

Photo: John Rogers

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 last Saturday’s performance by the Steve Lehman Octet. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

On Saturday night in the McGuire Theater, alto saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman made his Minnesota debut as a bandleader, fronting an octet made up of some of the baddest and brightest in contemporary jazz. It is rare that a band arrives on the jazz scene with a concept as fully-formed and a sound as original as the Steve Lehman Octet has, noted Senior Curator of Performing Arts Philip Bither in his introduction. The brilliant, high-powered performance that the band delivered served as a strong testament to Bither’s words.

Glancing at Steve Lehman’s resume, you might imagine his music to sound oppressively academic. He received an M.A. in Composition from Wesleyan University, where he studied with avant-garde luminaries like Anthony Braxton and Alvin Lucier. As a Fulbright Scholar in France, he researched the history of African-American experimental composers’ reception by French critics. He is also a noted scholar of Spectral Music, a movement of French composers that arose in the 1970s, which sought to utilize computer-generated representations of sound spectra as the primary tools for composition. Listening to a piece by Tristain Murail, the man with whom Lehman studied Spectral Music, can be a difficult, thrilling, and decidedly un-funky experience. Knowing all of this about Steve Lehman’s pedigree, some folks in the audience may have been surprised then to find themselves tapping their feet throughout the evening, maybe even feeling the urge to get out of their seats and groove. The Octet’s performance managed to marry the high-concepts of Lehman’s academic work with the visceral, bodily joys of jazz.

The group opened the evening with a piece entitled “Rudresh M,” a tribute to altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who graced the McGuire stage back in February with Rez Abbasi’s Invocation and his own Indo-Pak Coalition trio. Like Mahanthappa, Lehman’s alto attack was rapid and unrelenting, sounding like Charlie Parker filtered through the looking-glass of microtonality. On this song, and every other, drummer Tyshawn Sorey brought an unbelievable amount of energy and propulsive groove. He dropped on top of the Octet’s hypnotic spell with the furious insistence of a vintage U.K. Jungle break.

Lehman mentioned that the band hadn’t played together in this original configuration in two years, but they sounded as tight and focused as a group that had been touring for months. There were moments in the band’s second piece, “Alloy,” in which the horn section of Lehman, tenor saxophonist Mark Shim, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, and trombonist Tim Alrbright sounded as locked-in and punchy as one of Fela Kuti’s peak-era outfits.

Yet, lurking underneath was the ever-present dissonance of Chris Dingman’s vibraphone and the sneaky rhythms of Jose Davila’s tuba. These two elements lent the music a constant feeling of uneasiness that drifted between conscious and subconscious. The juxtaposition between the muddy texture of the vibes and tuba and the tight stabs of the horn section created a beautiful and menacing tension.

The highlight of the night was a tantalizingly short, unrecorded composition called “Rhythm of the Earth,” a piece that perfectly encapsulated the affable accessibility of Lehman’s experimentation. He began with an extended soprano solo, in which disjointed popping sounds alternated with breathy and delicate streams of ghost notes. Far from a mere demonstration of extended technique, the solo was as heartfelt as it was cerebral. Lehman reached his apex when he found a raw and dissonant combination of notes and began pounding on them adamantly. Then, in the most delightfully shocking mash-up of musical worlds, Sorey busted out a beat with a funkiness that can only be compared to Clyde Stubblefield’s most classic James Brown breaks. The rest of the band began to swirl wildly around Lehman’s sax line, locked into an off-kilter groove that built in intensity until it ended with crushing abruptness.

More or Less Than One: C. Spencer Yeh’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, Mark Mahoney, host of Sound Grammar on Radio K, shares his perspective on C. Spencer […]

pa2016sh0428_C Spenser Yeh Performing Arts, Music, Performances, Sound Horizon series. Target Free Thursday Nights. C. Spencer Yeh performs in Gallery 3, April 28, 2016. Part of Sound Horizon 2016 Photo by Carina Lofgren for Walker Art Center

C. Spencer Yeh performs in the Walker’s Gallery 3, April 28, 2016. Photo: Carina Lofgren

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Mark Mahoney, host of Sound Grammar on Radio K, shares his perspective on C. Spencer Yeh’s Sound Horizon performance in the Walker galleries last week. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Musician and sound artist C. Spencer Yeh offered three strikingly divergent listening experiences to those attending the final installment of this year’s Sound Horizon series Thursday night. The performances took place in the Walker’s Gallery Three, which hosts part of the ongoing Less Than One exhibit. Less Than One highlights work within the Walker collection that is “provocative, historically charged, and risk-taking,” adjectives which could very well describe Yeh’s practice.

The night began quietly. Yeh wordlessly approached the table, picked up his violin, and began to coax a rough-hewn sound from the violin’s lower register. He then settled into an unwavering drone. The drone continued as the initially modest audience expanded to include latecomers and curious passersby. The music seemed to take on an almost material presence, as though it were a stable fixture of the gallery. Then, gradually, almost imperceptibly, a series of fluttering, ethereal harmonics emerged in the extreme upper register of the violin. These spectral sounds asserted themselves with increasing intensity, swelling and occasionally crashing like waves. They seemed to suggest the presence of a destructive power on the brink of being unleashed. For the most part, however, the illusion of tranquility survived through the end of the first set.

At the beginning of the second set, Yeh set down his violin and turned his attention to the array of electronics and noisemaking equipment laid out before him. The piece began with some quiet, sporadically-spaced clicks and pops, calling to mind the gentle crackling of a worn-out vinyl record. These clicks rapidly multiplied until the effect was like that of being at a basketball practice with dozens of people dribbling at the same time.

Like a severely pixelated image, Yeh’s soundscape offered up lots of discrete bits of sonic information with no easy way for the listener to appropriate them into a coherent form. To this disorienting soundscape, Yeh then added noises generated through the creative abuse of contact mics, which he rubbed against his thigh and various resonant surfaces, thickening the texture. The piece remained diffuse and difficult to pin down, but beguiling in its own way.

I have a habit of closing my eyes when I listen to challenging music, but what I heard next made doing so almost impossible. Guttural grunts, plosives, blubbering sounds, tongue pops: Yeh was transforming his body into an instrument of fascinating and occasionally disturbing dimensions. The new sounds collided and skirmished with the previous sounds, establishing a new sonic order characterized by atomized bits of raw information in frenetic motion. Over the top of all this, Yeh continued to add new layers of bodily-generated sound, ranging from throat singing to imitations of bird songs.

For the final set, Yeh returned to his violin, but with a twist: he now manipulated two bows simultaneously, affording him a range of new extended techniques. At times he bowed vigorously across the entire length of the instrument. At other times, he allowed the bows to bounce gently across the strings, creating a quiet skittering effect. During the climactic culmination of the piece, he covered the violin fingerboard with a sympathetically resonating drum head, producing a distorted timbre that sounded more like an electric guitar than a violin.

Yeh’s art is abrasive and likely to polarize listeners, but whatever anyone in the audience might have thought of Yeh’s performance, no one could say that it was boring. The solo format is a demanding one for artists, and Yeh succeeded admirably in creating the kind of expressive variety necessary to keep the music engaging throughout.

Despite the heterogeneity of Yeh’s performance, or perhaps because of it, I struggled with formulating my own thoughts about it for this review. The sui generis nature of Yeh’s art makes it challenging to pin down. I read up on Yeh’s biography and his influences, hoping that the facts might offer a crutch where interpretation failed. Barring that, I turned to metaphor, scouring through works in the Walker galleries for a concrete analogy I might be able to draw.

At home, I flip through Joseph Brodsky’s book of essays Less Than One, after which the Walker exhibit is named. Brodsky, at the end of his essay on W.H. Auden, tells us, “You don’t dissect a bird to find the origins of its song. What should be dissected is your ear.” It’s a strangely solipsistic view of art, and, as with Yeh’s music, I’m not quite sure I fully grasp its implications. Opening my laptop, I pull up C. Spencer Yeh in my Itunes library. With the index finger of my other hand still jammed in between the pages of Less Than One, I click ‘play’ and turn the volume up, loud.

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.

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