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The Shape of Doo-Bop to Come: Steve Lehman and HPrizm

On Saturday, May 7, the Steve Lehman Octet will bring its spectral harmonies and cascading rhythms to the McGuire Theater. Lehman is a jazz stalwart, guided by algorithms and an abiding musical intuition which carried the Octet’s most recent release, Mise en Abîme, to the top spot on the 2014 NPR Music Jazz Critic’s Poll. At the same time, […]

Photos: Steve Lehman courtesy Willie Davis; HPrizm courtesy Sandra MAr Photographer

Photos: Steve Lehman (left), courtesy Willie Davis; HPrizm, courtesy Sandra MAr

On Saturday, May 7, the Steve Lehman Octet will bring its spectral harmonies and cascading rhythms to the McGuire Theater. Lehman is a jazz stalwart, guided by algorithms and an abiding musical intuition which carried the Octet’s most recent release, Mise en Abîme, to the top spot on the 2014 NPR Music Jazz Critic’s Poll. At the same time, the artist is keen to a relationship often in the periphery of the genre: jazz and hip-hop. On Thursday, May 5, Lehman will be joined by rapper/producer HPrizm (of abstract rap trio Antipop Consortium) to present a walking tour of the Walker galleries followed by a performance, giving guests the opportunity to see this complex relationship at play.

Communication between the two genres is a phone call often disconnected and redialed; jazz’s free authorship and hip-hop’s intertextuality have, historically, had a hard time meeting in the middle. ’90s Jazz-Rap gave recognition to the influence of the old on the new, but the constraints of sampling cut off spontaneity at the knees, leaving improvisation for only emcees. Jazz samples were truly that, a sample of what more jazz had to offer, and artists like Digable Planets and Guru, whose production made samples and live instrumentation indistinguishable, went silent before they could define just what more that was. On the other side, Miles Davis’ final record saw the 65-year old working with a 20-something hip-hop producer on “doo-bop,” a New Jack Swing–indebted flavor none were too eager to emulate. “Life’s a Bitch,” from Nas’s groundbreaking Illmatic, fades out on an understated trumpet solo by the emcee’s father (2:42), serving to only further illustrate the generational divide to be bridged.

As the years passed and rap began its era of commercial dominance, the paradigm was turned on its head. Rappers raised on jazz gave way to jazz players raised on rap. Robert Glasper and BADBADNOTGOOD were able to carve out their own niche, collaborating organically with emcees like DOOM, Erykah Badu, and Snoop Dogg. Contemporary stars like Vijay Iyer have been open to collaboration, albeit a bit high-concept. Roy Ayers was even featured on a Tyler, the Creator song. Most prominent is the synthesis being explored by LA’s Brainfeeder: producer (and nephew of Alice Coltrane) Flying Lotus, funk bassist Thundercat, and saxophonist Kamasi Washington, whose collaborations together and with celebrated artists like Kendrick Lamar serve to encourage the dissolution of these genre’s borders. While Washington’s sprawling The Epic placed fourth on NPR’s 2015 poll, Francis Davis took a critical tone in handing this designation out, unwilling to validate the sound’s freshness while recognizing that these malleable borders were bringing about changes not even he understood.

Lehman is still at the forefront, though, still topping polls, and his group’s employment of hip-hop isn’t all that subtle. Mise en Abîme transitions comfortably from a cerebral vibraphone solo into a riff on Camp Lo’s 1997 hit “Luchini,” and the Octet’s debut, 2009’s Travail, Transformation and Flow, concludes by covering a cut from GZA’s classic Liquid Swords. Tracks like these illuminate the visceral elements Lehman so adeptly balances with the intellectual. Regarding Antipop Consortium, Lehman once stated, “Part of what’s so compelling to me is the way that each MC establishes a distinctive and highly complex rhythmic logic while maintaining a profound connection to the underlying structure of the composition.” The same description could easily apply to Lehman’s own work.

For his part, HPrizm has always had one hand in the abstractions of jazz, be it organizing an entire collaborative album between Antipop and Matthew Shipp, forming an aptly named “Illtet” with poet Mike Ladd, Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker, and Octet drummer Tyshawn Sorey, or improvising with Iyer. Lehman and HPrizm have been developing a collaboration for years, and their work with saxophonist Maciek Lassere and Senegalese emcee Bamar Ndoye, as Sélébéyone, premiered in France a year ago, with a full album to be released in the fall. Their performance in the Walker galleries on Thursday, to that end, will serve as a preview of not only their forthcoming works, but of what is possible when genre is put to the wayside and artists are left to simply, unabashedly create.

Steve Lehman Octet performs at the Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater on Saturday, May 7 at 8 pm. Join Lehman and HPrizm for a free walking tour and performance on Thursday, May 5 starting at 6pm.

Alternate Senses of Tone and Pulse: An Interview with C. Spencer Yeh

For Sound Horizon, our series of free in-gallery music performances, we’ve invited critic and Tiny Mix Tapes editor Marvin Lin to share his perspective on each installment of this three-part program. While his first two pieces were informed responses to work by musicians Mary Halvorson and Vicky Chow / Tristan Perich, he concludes with an in-person […]

C. Spencer Yeh performs at the Museum of Modern Art Warsaw in September 2014. Photo: Bartosz Stawiarski

C. Spencer Yeh performs at the Museum of Modern Art Warsaw in March 2014. Photo: Bartosz Stawiarski

For Sound Horizon, our series of free in-gallery music performances, we’ve invited critic and Tiny Mix Tapes editor Marvin Lin to share his perspective on each installment of this three-part program. While his first two pieces were informed responses to work by musicians Mary Halvorson and Vicky Chow / Tristan Perich, he concludes with an in-person interview with Sound Horizon 2016’s final artist, C. Spencer Yeh, who performs three sets on April 28.

C. Spencer Yeh is one of my favorite artists, but I’ve always had difficulty recommending his music to newcomers. Not because I don’t think they’d like it, but because his reach is so broad, his skill set so expansive, his conceptual inquiries so varied that plucking just one or even a few examples from such a rich body of work is inherently incomplete. In fact, the work I’d feel compelled to recommend most would actually be a fleeting live set at the End Times Festival (curated in 2006 by Minneapolis hero Matthew St-Germain), at which the very heart of the world erupted impossibly out of Yeh’s mouth through a simple setup of microphone and electronics, opening my eyes to the seemingly infinite possibilities of the voice while reducing me to a complete sobbing mess.

I first came across C. Spencer Yeh in the early 2000s. At that time, Yeh was still making a name as Burning Star Core, a constantly-shifting, ever-evolving project that quickly amassed a daunting heap of albums, CD-Rs, cassettes, and more. But while the project was often heard in the context of the then-burgeoning neo-noise scene, Burning Star Core’s fearless adventures into musique concrète, drone, and psychedelia, coupled with Yeh’s frantic, idiosyncratic use of violin—the instrument that has largely articulated his modus operandi—made the whole project feel much more than just an anomaly within an oftentimes suffocating, reified framework.

In fact, Yeh has spent a lot of the last decade proving as much. While Burning Star Core is currently in hibernation, the Taiwan-born, New York-residing artist has since become a key solo artist and ensemble player in a variety of compositional and improvisational settings, collaborating with everyone from Paul Flaherty, Weasel Walter, and Nate Wooley to Okkyung Lee, Colin Stetson, and Tony Conrad (RIP). But it’s his solo works and performances that have best captured what he’s all about (as much as he can be “about” something), which include such ideas as sound as gesture, genre as compositional opportunity, and amplification as instrument, with physical and conceptual investigations into texture, narrative, and disassociation. Whether it’s through crafted albums like Solo Violin (Tone Filth, 2007), pop experiments like Transitions (De Stijl, 2012), or incredible vocal workouts like Solo Voice I-X (Primary Information, 2015), Yeh has expanded not only the sonic and performative possibilities of voice, violin, and electronics, but also what kind of feelings they can evoke, what kind of sensualities they can take on, what kind of provocations they can incite.

Covers for C. Spencer Yeh's In the Blink of an Eye / Condo Stress (De Stijl Records, 2011), Transitions (De Stijl, 2012), and Solo Voice I-X (Primary Information, 2015)

Covers for Burning Star Core’s Challenger (Plastic Records, 2008), C. Spencer Yeh’s Transitions (De Stijl, 2012) and Solo Voice I-X (Primary Information, 2015)

Ahead of his April 28 performance to cap off this year’s Sound Horizon series, Yeh takes time out of his busy schedule to talk music, art, and film, the latter of which he studied at Chicago’s Northwestern University and has explored through installations and video work. His answers are as thoughtful and stimulating as his art, with grace, humor, and so little ego that it’s no surprise that one of his conceptual inquiries involves his own physical disappearance.

Marvin Lin: You’ve talked about horizontal composition versus vertical composition in the past. Can you speak about how these modes play out in your art?

Spencer Yeh: In sound and music, I often think about these modes in terms of improvisation and the idea of avoiding the usual arcs or peaks or ways in which these things play out. Thinking about the idea of walking into a situation that’s already in progress and however long you may wish to engage with it, and being able to walk away without a resolution or ending (climax, stop, applause) to commemorate or validate the experience. This isn’t to say one way is better than another, because certainly something more horizontal, like A to B, presents its own frame and challenges to have fun with. However, it’s interesting to enter into an improvised music situation thinking that you’d already begun performing and that when you end, the music and sound will go on without you.

In the case of an installation, the reader may spend only a few seconds to a few hours with a work, so maybe the idea is to create a sort of vibe where the idea or experience is communicated relatively instantly. One can get deeper into the experience, spending more time with it—if the work is “good,” of course. But, putting that aside, one could consider the open-ended ability of a reader within an “art” context to be as constricting as a horizontal presentation (concert, screening)—I don’t consider it compromising, but rather having to think about engagement differently. I think about this in my personal attempts over the years to engage with narrative film in this nonlinear way, which I’ve had difficulty with—the idea that someone would want to just crack a beer and watch their “favorite scene” in Goodfellas or something, and have that experience be that. Though that gets into the idea of a complete work becoming these smaller units and therefore new shorter works with their own trajectory (thinking again about how “favorite movie scenes” get propagated far beyond their original context and become the more popularly known iteration of the original).

Still from C. Spencer Yeh's Travelogue: Cairo Egypt

Still from C. Spencer Yeh’s Travelogue: Cairo Egypt, 2015

So, this recent video work of mine Travelogue: Cairo Egypt had been screened a few times in its current form, a 30-minute video in four parts, A to B to C to D. However, the way those parts were set up and realized could easily become vertical—and effective, I think. Likewise, with the Solo Voice I-X record, ideas from that have been presented in installation environments recently and [that format] perhaps better realizes the ideas behind them. I’m thinking mostly the A-side, where you have these demonstrations of the ideas that are ideally free from duration because I’ve talked about removing the “brackets” around a phrase or voice. The modulations and variations within each vocal mode are part of realizing the idea effectively and aim to keep things from being too boring and looped: the installation may take 10 minutes before it loops, but you can get the gist within a minute or so. If you wanted to drive yourself crazy, you can hang around longer.

Lin: In your music, you’ve played with disassociation, and in your film work, you’ve played with the repurposing of cultural references. What interests you about disassociation and appropriation?

Yeh: I’ve spoken before about my disinterest in the act of appropriation as a political act instantly in-and-of-itself, but I should clarify that I wouldn’t consider myself, or my work, apolitical. It’s just that that isn’t the exclusive driving force behind working with existing or found material. I’m definitely interested in how works are put together, how visual and audio language are constructed, what expectations are fulfilled from the audience’s side—tropes, genres, narrative, what’s considered “abstract”—all that. But, I don’t think my work is about those concerns exclusively. I’m curious what the next step is in accepting appropriation as just another strategy to be folded into whatever we consider “original” strategies. I’d like to think that inquiry is just another lane of dialogue to play within, another element to consider. I think it’s funny when a politician appropriates some rock jam for their rally, and it just feels so off. I think it’s funny that for your kid’s birthday party you can take a snippet from The Revenant or whatever spectacle that cost millions to create and throw it into your budget iMovie video. I wish there was a word other than “funny” to best describe the feeling of something that elicits many emotions, oftentimes conflicting.

In the case of my Spectacle Theater movie trailers, it’s actually more interesting for me to think about the mode of being “within” the cultural references, to attempt to work within our own guidelines as well as the tradition of movie trailers, which has always been sensational and disruptive, and taking liberties with the original material and the promotional mission at hand. I hesitate to declare them all “improvements,” because of course they’re created under circumstances designed to encourage rough and weird results; it’s a particular texture and cadence for an intended audience, but the movie trailer form is accessible to most.

C. Spencer Yeh's trailer for the Spectacle Theater screening of American Hunter

C. Spencer Yeh’s trailer for the Spectacle Theater screening of American Hunter (1988)

Lin: Since you started making music, the predominant conception of the ever-nebulous term “avant-garde” has changed, as it always does. Do you feel any particular affinity with or antagonism toward narratives like these? Is there a narrative or lineage that you feel a part of or at home within?

Yeh: I guess I understand the function of these terms in various conversations, but at the same time find them to be difficulties that you can bend some thoughts on. I suppose I’ve been wrestling with this “sound art” term for a while, and it can get antagonistic on my end, but perhaps that’s because it’s also fun and thought-provoking to push against these things. Like, you could say “freak folk” to someone, and while they may cover their ears and run, they’ll know generally what you mean. I don’t think “avant-garde” immediately connects me to others who say those things any more than “mouthfeel” connects oatmeal to bacon. Maybe that isn’t a decent metaphor. Rather, maybe it’s a certain enthusiasm or belief in whatever it means to proclaim yourself a particular thing or part of a particular idea. I do think I’m within a lineage and/or narrative, but I’m not sure exactly what that is any more than perhaps those who helped define and expand that zone. I fucking hate the term “foodie,” for instance, but I’m also curious why I hate it so much. I’m not in denial that I enjoy a good meal. Maybe it’s something to do with the idea that if you appreciate food, then you certainly must believe in or practice certain things—like having a table at Noma being just the ultimate goal. I think it would be annoying if I were asked what I did by someone maybe not in the dialogue, and me [in response] being all squirrelly and weird about terms instead of just coming out and saying “experimental.” At the same time, your “experimental” is not my “experimental,” but I understand what it is about having to organize the world, at times. Maybe it’s just a sense of worth and currency, of privilege that is expected when someone proudly declares their work “avant-garde” that I can find troubling.

Lin: Much of your music is partly defined, if not in opposition to, then at least in the absence of conventional melody and rhythms. Even the reception for the uncharacteristically pop-driven Transitions was partly defined by this relationship. Do you feel like melody and rhythm still inform what you do and how you approach your music? When there’s no audience in front of you, what role do they play in your life?

Yeh: In the past, when there was no audience in front of me, I felt freer to play around with these elements, despite whatever was going on in the scene, which is how some Burning Star Core works got developed, and maybe why at first they were snuck out in limited runs (thinking about Wildcats or Amelia). I would say my music isn’t in opposition to conventional melody and rhythm so much as it is trying to achieve alternate senses of tone and pulse—these alternate senses are perhaps niche popularly, but they can be just as fulfilling and sensual and meaningful as it is for some people to hear an Aerosmithian jam. Things get weak when conventional melody and rhythm becomes like mayonnaise, and Mom panics that whatever “weird” non-conventional dish she’s making may not be pleasing to the guests and throws mayonnaise on top of everything. You know what I mean? A really spicy Thai papaya salad isn’t being made solely to give the finger to a Caesar salad, with or without grilled chicken on top.

Burning Star Core live

Burning Star Core performs live at New York’s Club Rehab, January 2008. Photo: Nikki Sneakers

The Transitions record—speaking of appropriation earlier—was partly a function of being curious how the music works and thinking about how I could construct something similar. However, that’s being done on an expert level by people fully working within the pop world and industry, and sometimes to dazzling results. For me, a lot about the project was also seeing what would happen if I put myself in a situation where I had the means to record a pop or songs record, just to see what would come out—a situation not dissimilar to the creation of vanity or private press records I felt inspired by. So on one hand, it was a bit of a detached exercise in looking at a process of creating songs and albums, but on the other hand, it was an engaged, almost psychoanalytic exercise. Like, what personal event am I writing cryptic lyrics about? I felt fully invested in those aspects, as well as trying to write something that I thought fun to listen to.

I’ve been thinking lately about what the model is for what ties together all these efforts, in sound, music, video, etc., and one thing I came up with was that I was creating in this backwards sense. Like, I came up a consumer, writing my own logical and emotional connections and systems from whatever I devoured—imagining, say, I encountered these formative works in some kind of future where our current histories and methods aren’t available. So I would go about figuring out how to achieve these results when all the available information was on the same level—like not having a sense of what the priority would be (most would instruct first that you should learn your instrument, right?).

Lin: A lot of what you do nowadays has continuity with your early work, but mythology and mystery seem to have receded into the background. Do you feel like they still factor into what you do these days? Why might that have changed?

Yeh: Basically, I started seeing terms like “personal mythology” popping up more frequently in many descriptions and text, and so I began to feel numb towards using such terms myself. The next step was then wondering what the heck I meant by using that term in the past—and I didn’t really have a good answer. I knew what it was supposed to do, which was hint towards this whole other system of thought and symbols and stories that I wasn’t willing to tell. No one I knew really seemed to be reading into and making connections about the bits of “personal mythology” that were scattered through recordings, track titles, etc., and it became clear to me that I didn’t really know what I was doing with all that in the end. But you run into that a lot—this intentionally obscuring thought that somehow that was exciting and alluring for an audience. You can wait around in the rain outside of a clubhouse for only so long before you wise up. It felt like some smoke and mirrors shit, and I had become increasingly bored or irritated with myself and this idea of not having to explain anything or to be able to talk about the work I was trying to do. Instead of keeping things mysterious and exciting, it felt unfocused and noncommittal, but I could get away with it by just waving “personal mythology” in the air. So I became more interested in trying to find connections between what I was trying to do musically and sonically, and also with other mediums, and in the process I found it led to more interesting narratives, which in turn led to even more stimulating thoughts that achieved what the past “myth and mystery” thing was attempting. All this being said, I do think there were some solid ideas at work in the past, and I don’t think that there was any better way to get on with whatever I’m doing now.

C. Spencer Yeh, 7, 2013

C. Spencer Yeh, 7, 2013

Lin: As sensual as it is, your work seems to spring from philosophical or theoretical frameworks, an investigation of sorts. How do you approach these investigations? Is there anything you’d like to explore that you haven’t yet?

Yeh: Well, one thing a few years ago I decided was to figure out how to basically “not be there” when presenting work. So, some of that goes into video or visual work, some of that goes into composition; it’s for some practical reasons, such as not being able to tour all the time, but it’s also where I find the work heading. Of course, I realize I had done a lot prior by mainly working on studio albums, which arguably is composition. I had tried performing as still as possible, performing obscured from the audience, being a slobbering maniac in front of an audience, etc. But I suppose the difference is that I’d like to go back and try all those again, but with more of an ability to know what I was trying to accomplish and why. To be secure in those decisions. I’m not ready to turn to what may be conventional methods of approach—I’m more interested in taking what may have been intuitively-developed working methods and then thinking about how they could grow or develop relative to themselves. A big part of that was to just accept that I was or wasn’t able to do certain things and finally move on from there. I suppose, though, that the investigation still seems very basic and similar to when I first set out doing stuff, which was creating stuff that I wanted to see and hear, to be a part of a conversation and see what I had to add to it.

In terms of things to explore, hmm, I’d have to break that into specific things. For example, this idea of “drone disco,” a term I’ve used forever; it would be interesting to actually try to fulfill that in this current climate of music. It would be a challenge to try to do another Burning Star Core record, to see what that would be like. I’ve been working to see what would happen with a committed investigation into other mediums, to see if there really is any reason for me to be there. Again, maybe these are bases which seemed like I’ve touched, but in the replay you see that maybe I only put a toe or two on.

Still from C. Spencer Yeh's video Baby Birds (2009)

Still from C. Spencer Yeh’s video Baby Birds (2009)

Lin: I’ve seen you play shows big and small, most often with collaborators, and the performances are often wildly different from each other. But in a solo context, you have much more control. Given your range as a performer, how much is your live show determined by the venue or context and how much is guided by your predominant interests at that specific time? What can we expect from your performance at the Walker?

Yeh: For the Walker, as I described to Doug Benidt there, I wanted to imagine that these shifts would be the times I would be allowed to occupy the space, that I have opportunity for any activity from whatever o’clock to whenever o’clock. I would be present and on view, of course, as attempting to obscure that would complicate things in a way I’m not desiring. But this framing helps me think about the verticality we discussed earlier and also pushes me to present performance in a way I usually don’t have the chance to. Thinking that I would start and immediately exist there as one would walking into the gallery in mid-performance. I feel a weight of “performance” expectation, the idea of doing A to C three times, and we’ll see where that goes in terms of how the audience (occupying the space as well) informs the decisions made. For example, if most people are just passing through, then that frees me up to do something less “linear,” something less about having to show all this shit I do within each shift. Maybe the only thing that would be cool would be an ability to just appear and disappear instantly, or to somehow start before any audience walks in. For now, though, I guess I’m aiming for maximum verticality and immersion—which currently would be organized by shift in varying approaches to the voice/violin/electronics formula—and if people would like to listen to the whole thing, they can, and maybe it would be an opportunity to hear the same saw sing differently. Or maybe it would be a passerby getting the impression that my life’s work is to imitate a popcorn maker and a bong.

C. Spencer Yeh performs in the Walker galleries at 6, 7, and 8 pm on Thursday, April 28, 2016.

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.

Eerie and Sinister Worlds: RONiiA on Their New, Walker-Inspired EP

The Minneapolis-based trio RONiiA—Fletcher Barnhill (Joint Custody, FUGITIVE), Nona Marie Invie (Dark Dark Dark, Fugitive), and Mark McGee (Father You See Queen, Marijuana Deathsquads)—will release a new EP, Sisters, this Friday, March 25. Filled with richly atmospheric music, it derives its hypnotic power through its intricate dance between subtle intimation and emotional verve. On tracks […]

RONiiA

The Minneapolis-based trio RONiiA—Fletcher Barnhill (Joint Custody, FUGITIVE), Nona Marie Invie (Dark Dark Dark, Fugitive), and Mark McGee (Father You See Queen, Marijuana Deathsquads)—will release a new EP, Sisters, this Friday, March 25. Filled with richly atmospheric music, it derives its hypnotic power through its intricate dance between subtle intimation and emotional verve. On tracks like “Hell,” lead singer Invie’s hazy vocals seem to float, disembodied, over the noirish synthscapes created by her bandmates. In a word, this music is cinematic, which should come as no surprise to anyone who witnessed the members of RONiiA perform their Walker-commissioned original score to the silent film classic The Adventures of Prince Achmed last summer.

The band’s experience with that project has informed their latest music in ways both direct and indirect. I asked the members of RONiiA about their new EP and its relationship to their 2015 Summer Music and Movies score.

Mark Mahoney: Mark, the last time I spoke with you, you were preparing to debut your film score to the silent film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a project also featuring Nona and Fletcher Barnhill of RONiiA. What kind of impact has that project had on your work together since then?

Mark McGee: Most of the songs were heavily influenced by the score I wrote for the Walker. The song “Hell” developed purely from the score, adding lyrics to it later. “Sisters” was another song that I used most of the drum sounds and synths from the score, and we developed a more structured song out of it. Working on soundtracks is something we are all super interested in, and this project allowed us a break from the heavy tour schedule we had earlier that year. There’s no doubt the project helped us to explore new sounds and textures that we probably never would have used if we had just written an album without that experience.

Mahoney: Your band name was inspired by another fantasy film: Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter. There seems to be an element of (sometimes dark) fantasy running through your music. Do you see parallels between these films and your music?

Fletcher Barnhill: No doubt. We based our project off the character from the Astrid Lindgren novel. In the book, Ronia embodies a wild spirit who makes her own way through the world and we try to celebrate that theme in the music.

Mahoney: The three of you each come from different corners of the Twin Cities creative music scene. How do you reconcile the wide array of influences you all bring to the table? Is the strategy to find common ground, constructive difference, or to go somewhere else entirely?

Barnhill: As lovers of all types of musics, it is really a blessing to be able to work with artists who aren’t exactly on the same trip as you. Our styles balance each other out, and we each bring different strengths to the table. That being said, we found out from the start that we have a real chemistry together when it comes to writing. The outcome is really a blend of our experience and our excitement about crafting songs.

Mahoney: When you’re writing and working out the music, do you tend to start with smaller ideas and build on them, or do you start from a more formal conception of the piece?

Barnhill: We have different approaches on a song-to-song basis, but one that works well for us is writing a song and then testing it out a bunch on tour before recording the final version. The song “run” came together that way and we have some new new material right now that is going through the same process. Be on the lookout for RONiiA Mixtape Vol. III.

RONiiA (Fletcher Barnhill, Nona Marie Invie, and Mark McGee). Photo: Serene Supreme

RONiiA (Fletcher Barnhill, Nona Marie Invie, and Mark McGee). Photo: Serene Supreme

Mahoney: What can we expect from the new album? How do you see it in relation to your previous (self-titled debut) album?

McGee: This album has a more direct and raw sound. The vocals are not affected as much and the rhythms are up front and bigger, but the sound of RONiiA is still there. The songs are shorter and more to the point than the previous album.

Mahoney: Were there extra-musical influences or sources of inspiration for the new album? More generally, who outside the world of music has influenced or inspired the band the most?

McGee: I was living in Venice Beach when we made the album. Venice Beach and the canals was a definite influence, at least for me, when writing it. The poverty and super rich all existing together provided an eerie and sinister world for the album to breathe. Nona and Fletcher were dealing with the harsh reality of the Minnesota winter, but really, our environments typically seep through during the writing process.

RONiiA’s Sisters will be released Friday, March 25, following a March 24 release show at Icehouse (Minneapolis). Listen to the full EP here

 

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.

State Changes: Marvin Lin on Vicky Chow and Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit World

For Sound Horizon, our series of free in-gallery music performances, we’ve invited critic and Tiny Mix Tapes editor Marvin Lin to share his perspective on each installment of this three-part program. Following his February piece on Mary Halvorson, he turns to Vicky Chow and Tristan Perich, whose works Surface Image and Observations will be performed March 24 in an evening copresented with […]

Sound_Horizon_2015-16_04For Sound Horizon, our series of free in-gallery music performances, we’ve invited critic and Tiny Mix Tapes editor Marvin Lin to share his perspective on each installment of this three-part program. Following his February piece on Mary Halvorson, he turns to Vicky Chow and Tristan Perich, whose works Surface Image and Observations will be performed March 24 in an evening copresented with The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series. Sound Horizon 2016 concludes April 28 with C. Spencer Yeh.

I’m thinking about electronic music. I’m thinking about how it’s dependent on the harnessing of electrons, on the manipulation of their currents in order to turn information into something musical, like a rhythm or a tone. I’m also thinking about my body—my heart, specifically—how a pharmaceutical drug has helped decrease its demand for oxygen by lowering blood volume and relaxing blood vessels. And I’m thinking about how the results of this chemical process is literally expressed through electrical currents.So when I hear music like Surface Image, a work composed by Tristan Perich and performed by a duo of pianist Vicky Chow and programmed 1-bit electronics, I’m also thinking about electricity, chemistry, particle physics. I’m thinking about the composition of music and the composition of molecules. I’m thinking about the way electrons are knocked off their valence shells to produce electric flow, about the geometry of sound waves, about the fragility of human emotions and their chemical, electrical implications.

I’m also thinking about state changes.

* * *

I first encountered Tristan Perich’s music in 2010. That year, Perich released 1-Bit Symphony, a bold collection of compositions all programmed to play a symphonic creation out of 1-bit sounds from an electronic circuit. And I mean that literally: inside the jewel case is not a CD, but a full circuit, which routes the symphony from a small microchip to the case’s right-side opening, where there’s a 1/8″ headphone jack.

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1-Bit Symphony is an incredible artistic achievement, not only for how it expands the possibilities of 1-bit sound—the rawest, most “basic” sound of electronics (think the chirp sound when an oven finishes preheating)—but also for how the medium is intimately tied to the music’s presentation, the symphony’s transition from its code state to its musical state expressed through wires and positive charge and amplification. In this context, electronic information becomes material information, with each of their conceptual regimes dissolving swiftly into each other—and into our bodies, too.

Perich has a history of blurring what it means to be “electric.” One of his more studied experiments is called Observations. In this shorter piece, Perich channels his 1-bit music across six speakers, complemented by two sets of crotales (a percussion instrument featuring a set of small, tuned cymbals). The performance of Observations is a mesmerizing technical achievement. Here, the crotales and 1-bit data unify not only through cascades of sound, but through mathematics, through physics, through an uncanny leveraging of both human and electronic precision.

Surface Image investigates on a much grander scale. While Perich continues his daring explorations into the discrete musicality of 1-bit sound, he’s joined on this minimalist composition by Vicky Chow—a virtuoso pianist for projects as diverse as Bang On A Can All-Stars, Wordless Music Orchestra, and New Music Detroit—who had commissioned Perich to form this unique, symbiotic collaboration. Witnessing the performance setup is quite the spectacle itself, with 40 individual speakers surrounding her piano like electrons around a nucleus. But it’s Chow’s marathon performance that’s especially captivating. For nearly the entirety of its hour-long runtime, Chow sustains an unimaginable amount of energy, fingers tickling the piano at breakneck speeds, arms bending and jutting out in awkward positions, her head occasionally bobbing up to glance at the notation as if coming up for air.

And yet, despite her intensely physical and wholly embodied performance, the music we hear sounds characteristically “electronic,” as if Chow’s performance was the result of thousands of quick, distinct events unfolding in a computational process.

Tristan Perich and Vicky Chow

Tristan Perich and Vicky Chow

* * *

What, then, does it mean to be electronic? If most music these days is amplified or transmitted, then is all music we hear outside the orchestra hall or bonfire considered electronic music, as Brian Eno suggested? And, on the other hand, can electronic music also be considered physical music, since it necessarily relies on the mass of electrons? And what about the materiality of the speaker? What does it say about electronic music when, as Perich notes, it must ultimately route itself to a loudspeaker, through which the generated electricity is turned into physical sound through a cone, coil, and magnet? And does this so-called physical music turn back into electronic music after it reaches our cerebral cortex through the cochlear nerve as bursts of electrical energy?

Which gets me thinking about my body and its electric currents again. It gets me thinking about the physical continuity of state change, about how representational and symbolic exchange, while inextricably connected, become subservient to these material transformations. It gets me thinking about my electronic appendages—my cellphone, my fitness tracker, my heart monitor—and how they output my body’s electric data into electronic information. It gets me thinking about how the translation of electricity into sound via speakers finds an unlikely counterpart in the electrical currents that beat my heart, or in the endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin that lead to feelings of ecstasy and euphoria.

But ultimately, it gets me thinking about the irony of these abstract concepts and aesthetic theories, how they’re byproducts of music that’s most often designed to elicit state changes not based in thinking at all.

And this is when I stop thinking.

Sound_Horizon_2015-16_05_PP

Sound Advice: Laurie Anderson

Artist and innovator Laurie Anderson’s upcoming show at the Fitzgerald—a copresentation of the Walker, the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series, and MPR Live Events—is called The Language of the Future, a name initially employed by a track on her 1984 album United States Live. Thirty years on, as the track’s ominous forecast of the digital age rings true, Anderson has continued to […]

Anderson_Laurie_2015-16_04 (1024x681)

Artist and innovator Laurie Anderson’s upcoming show at the Fitzgerald—a copresentation of the Walker, the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series, and MPR Live Events—is called The Language of the Future, a name initially employed by a track on her 1984 album United States Live. Thirty years on, as the track’s ominous forecast of the digital age rings true, Anderson has continued to share the same incisive, oft-surreal narrative that aptly earned her the Gish Prize for “outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.”

Regarding a philosophy of life, Anderson insists, “I don’t have one, and if I did, I wouldn’t make it into a film and make you watch it.” On having a message, she has said, “If I had [one], I would write it down and e-mail it to everybody.” Still, the artist has imparted her fair share of aphorisms over the years; collecting these could easily result in Anderson’s own edition of Oblique Strategies. In anticipation of her performance this Saturday, I’ve begun such a collection below.


1. “If you’re a young artist, wondering what to call yourself, consider ‘multimedia artist.’ It’s so vague. Then, no one can say, ‘Hey, how come you’re a jazz person, and you’re making a pop opera?’ Genres are for bins. ‘What bin should we put you in, so we that we can sell what you do?’ Ignore the bins.”

2. “Be as playful as possible. It’s the thing that is, in a way, the easiest to forget when you start doing things that have ‘big themes’ and you have to work in certain ways. Most of the things that I’ve made, I’ve made in the spirit of goofing around with stuff. Goofing around. So goof around with stuff. Be playful. Have a really good time and you’ll find some interesting things.”

3. “You can make a movie now with almost nothing and it will look pretty good. It’s the same with a record.” In response, Brian Eno added, “And if it doesn’t look good in a conventional way, you take advantage of the way it does look.”

4. “Sometimes, […] try to make your very, very worst work. You will learn a lot about what it is that you’re trying to do.”

5. “I think I do my work for some sadder version of myself, a woman who would be sitting in Row K. I am trying to make her laugh.”

6. “No one will ever ask you to do the thing you really want to do. […] Do not wait for this to happen. It will never happen. Things will happen to you, but this will never happen. Just think of what you’d like to do, what you dream of doing, and then just start doing it.”

7. “I’m just going to mention these three rules that Lou [Reed, her longtime partner] and I had. […] So the first one is don’t be afraid of anyone. Imagine your life if you’re not afraid of anyone. Two, get a really good BS detector and learn how to use it. Who’s faking it and who is not? Three, be really tender. And with those three, you’re set.”

8. (In response to the question, “What is the most important lesson life has taught you?”) “Love is everything.”

9. “[I]t’s always good to end with a question.”

10. “What is consciousness?”

Aging Magician’s Theatrical Sleight of Hand

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Twin Cities-based actor/singer/writer/director Todd O’Dowd shares his perspective on Aging Magican, […]

Photo: Jill Steinberg

Photo: Jill Steinberg

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Twin Cities-based actor/singer/writer/director Todd O’Dowd shares his perspective on Aging Magican, which had its world premiere at the Walker last weekend. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Sam Segal shares his perspective on Rez Abbasi’s Invocation. Agree or […]

Photo: Bill Douthart

Photo: Bill Douthart

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Sam Segal shares his perspective on Rez Abbasi’s Invocation. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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