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An Eruption of Communal Voice: Marvin Lin on Guitarist Mary Halvorson

For Sound Horizon 2016, 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: Mary Halvorson (February 11), Vicky Chow and Tristan Perich (March 24), and C. Spencer Yeh (April 28). How does an artist find her […]

Mary Halvorson. Photo: Brian Cohen

Mary Halvorson. Photo: Brian Cohen

For Sound Horizon 2016, 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: Mary Halvorson (February 11), Vicky Chow and Tristan Perich (March 24), and C. Spencer Yeh (April 28).

How does an artist find her voice?

Experts say to live life. Experts say to practice. Experts say to explore, deconstruct, appropriate, hybridize, internalize. Experts say to add your own inflection, your own cadence, your own twist. But even if an artist somehow finds her voice, what exactly is she voicing?

For musicians like Mary Halvorson, a long fixture in New York improv and experimental circles, her voice is ostensibly the guitar’s voice. Or, rather, the guitar becomes a proxy for her supposed “internal” voice. An extension, a stand-in. A substitute. But is her voice really about who she is? Is the voice ever really about who a person is?

Maybe. But when I hear Halvorson fumbling haphazardly into a chord and articulating its dissonance through arpeggios, I hear her voicing tension. When she filters the guitar through delay, splaying sound molecules on the walls, I hear her voicing the room. When she’s violently scraping the strings, I hear her voicing the guitar’s materiality. When she’s scaling the fretboard in impossibly quick, complex movements, I hear her voicing the limits of human physicality. Halvorson’s guitar is not a reflection of her voice, but an eruption of a communal voice: she gives voice, we romanticize it.

The beauty found in Halvorson’s music isn’t necessarily about her finding a voice, but about the act of voicing itself. Nowhere was this clearer for me than on 2015’s Meltframe, her first solo album after a career marked most significantly (and prolifically) as a leader or member of jazz groups of various shapes and styles (she is also a former student of Anthony Braxton, an avant-rock musician in People, and a chamber-jazz artist with violist Jessica Pavone, among others). On this album, Halvorson finds herself both alone and among friends, darting through coarse, meandering moments of solitude while appropriating lovingly from her favorites (Ornette Coleman, Duke Ellington, Carla Bley). Rather than bracketing herself off, Halvorson’s guitar-voice opens the conversation, gesturing toward the mirror while displacing itself historically, affixing itself on a continuum of an avant-garde that’s still avant-garde against many odds.

When critics say that Halvorson is the “future” of jazz guitar (a sentiment pervasive in much writing about her), they’re really saying that her guitar playing is a future for jazz guitar, one that their very proclamations are aiming to preserve and make room for. But Halvorson’s guitar work has always created its own space, its own justification for emergence beyond genre and history. Originality is everything, but originality is also bullshit—both beautiful and disgusting, an aspiration and a dead-end. The myth of originality wants us to frame our experiences in terms of uniqueness—at best to find ruptures and breaking points and the limits of “good taste”/convention, at worst to whip us into a fog of individuality and lubricate the movement of products, the latter playing like capitalism’s own poetic cadence.

But music has an ability to not only reflect, but to also embody capitalism’s most despicable outgrowths, resisting it at the same time that it critiques it. Halvorson’s politics need not be known to hear the protest in her music, even if it has nothing to do with the free market. Because the voicing itself can be heard as a protest—against silence, against assent, against coherence, against convention, against acceptance—wrought by the destructive quality in her virtuosity, the immediacy in her attacks, the subversiveness in her melodies. It’s a protest, however, that seeks commonalities and communal modes of operation, as in line with Brandon Seabrook and Marc Ribot as Mick Barr and Annette Peacock, making her no more the future of jazz guitar than the future of whatever.

This is one way for a voice to function in capitalism. Because, aesthetically, music can serve to dissolve identity, to erode borders, to wriggle free from ideological baggage in order to tap into shared experiences or feelings that don’t need language for meaning. Because, aesthetically, music can be about an ambiguous, completely irrational expansion, without having to be determined through the narrowed lens of dogma or rhetoric or a reified future.

Halvorson’s voice is not her own voice. It’s a voice that we’ve been hearing throughout history. It’s a voice that she found already entrenched in its own peculiar contexts, willfully obscured and faintly heard in the gutters. It’s a voice chirping away anachronistically on the soggy frontiers, lost and found, yet perpetually made anew. It’s actually our voice, and it continues to say something important.

OOIOO and Sumunar at the McGuire Theater

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 OOIOO last […]

OOIOO. Photo: Gene Pittman

OOIOO. Photo: Gene Pittman

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, artist, DJ, musician, and writer Danny Sigelman shares his perspective on OOIOO last night. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

The McGuire Theater hosted two amazing performances last night.

Quite different from visiting artists OOIOO, the Twin Cities-rooted Gamelan ensemble Sumunar kicked the evening off with a very traditional style under the direction of Javanese musician Joko Sutrisno.

Humbly introducing each piece, Sutrisno lead Sumunar through a handful of tunes. With his 7 person group scattered about the stage, festooned by Gamelan instruments including bells, xylophones, delicately hanging gongs, Sutrisno set the tone with a short vocal intro while playing his set of hand drums to establish a rhythm.

While the various mallets systematically danced about the bells they provided a depth of alternating, subtle melodies which became accented by stark rhythms, shifting in tone. Gradually Sutrisno picked up the tempo for a climax that ended in a sudden stop with each joyful work.

Introducing the last few pieces, Sutisno showed his gratitude, “We wish you a happy holidays and are happy to bring you together in harmony here tonight.”

With solid beats driving the final performance, the seemingly random nature of the music captured a hypnotic effect among the audience. Ultimately the musicians continued to find their stride with one another, trading off melodies and returned to a unifying theme to triumphantly finish their set.

Heavily influenced by the same style of Gamelan music, it was ironic to see the stage hands setting up for the headliners. Quickly removing the traditional instruments from the stage, Walker staff meticulously moved in the guitar amps and drums for the Japanese experimental rock group. Linking some guitar pedals together a sonic burble burst out from the bass cabinet, providing a small glimpse of what was to come from OOIOO.

Dressed in white robe-like outfits, the four women took to their instruments and immediate command of the stage. Without the rhythmic Gamelan instruments from their recordings, this was a more sparse and direct form of OOIOO that took more from No-Wave rock in their style and approach.

pa2015ooioo1203_ Performing Arts, Music, Performances. Japanese avant-tribal-noise-pop collective OOIOO (oh-oh-eye-oh-oh) perform in the McGuire Theater, December 3, 2015. Under the intrepid leadership of Yoshimi P-We (cofounder of Japanese band Boredoms and the inspiration behind the Flaming Lips’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots), the group has subverted expectations and warped perceptions of what constitutes pop and experimental music since the mid-1990s.  The concert opens with a special set by Minnesota-based Javanese musician Joko Sutrisno and his Sumunar Gamelan Ensemble.

OOIOO performing at the Walker Art Center, December 3, 2015. Photo: Gene Pittman

 

To begin, vocalizing together, the four of them stretched out a harmony that conjured feedback trough the sound system. Coalescing to a fever pitch, drummer Ai introduced a rhythm that would remain constant virtually for the entire performance.

Building up toward accents, the tribal rhythms and a meandering groove from bassist Aya laid a foundation for Yoshimi and second guitarist Kayan to repetitiously play counterpoint melodies with one another. Meeting each other along the way they’d continue to stretch the sound of their strings, often ending with one another playing a twin leads.

Yoshimi’s vocals would blend with the melodies and would weave in and out, often treated with electronic effects. Her vocals sounded conversational at times leaving the audience to feel a story of sorts as the drums stopped and started often shifting into an altogether totally different rhythm.

Continuing to ride an 80’s new wave sound, more effects were applied to the bass guitar’s sound, providing a fat groove that matched the funky rhythms Ai so seemingly effortlessly and masterfully employed. Matching one another once again later with a dub like quality, Kayan and Yoshimi dove into obtuse guitar riffs, treating their own instruments percussively with tapping and more enhanced tones.

More marching drum type beats and echoing vocals took OOIOO and the audience into prog-rock territory with Yoshimi’s child-like vocal bursts above the cacophony and entrancing sound of the band.

Sludgy bass lines and Ai performing patterns of tones on an electronic drum, the guitars rejoined with added dissonance, allowing for more spoken vocals and Yoshimi’s patented scream/singing. Evolving into a disco pattern that morphed into Math-rock it was a delight to not necessarily know where OOIOO was going to take each piece. While improvisation is certainly a part of the band’s formula, ultimately there is a pure structure that shows how well the women perform together, which was illustrated in the efforts when they’d rejoin each other with solid melodies and capturing rhythms.

Sheepishly taking bows toward the audience OOIOO left the stage and the audience, truly wanting more, gave them an elongated standing ovation. Eventually the house lights came up and as everyone was grabbing their coats and getting ready to leave, the four women returned to the stage causing everyone to laugh with joy as they stayed in their seats for a couple more tunes.

This was a really satisfying evening with OOIOO. For a group that has been around for 20 years, it’s remarkable this was the group’s Twin Cities debut. It’s been a sorrowful year for OOIOO since original founding member, Kyoko passed away in July. But as Yoshimi P-We and the band proved, the spirit of experimentation and organized chaos they so masterfully have carried on through the years continues to break new ground.

The Walker + Yoshimi: Degrees of Separation

Tonight, the Walker will play host to gamelan-infused experimental rock outfit OOIOO. The group is lead by the iconic Yoshimi P-We, who has accrued quite the resume since her career began in 1988. In anticipation of this evening’s performance, we’ve traced her career back to see how it intersects with Walker collaborators of seasons prior.

Tonight, the Walker will play host to gamelan-infused experimental rock outfit OOIOO. The group is lead by the iconic Yoshimi P-We, who has accrued quite the resume since her career began in 1988. In anticipation of this evening’s performance, we’ve traced her career back to see how it intersects with Walker collaborators of seasons prior.

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Spiritual America: Zach Cohen on William Brittelle, Wye Oak, and Michi Wiancko

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 Zach Cohen shares his perspective on Wye Oak + William Brittelle: Spiritual […]

Left to right: Lorna Dune, Aaron Roche, Charles Block, Paul Wiancko, Michi Wiancko, Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, and William Brittelle. Photo: Jayme Halbritter

William Brittelle’s Spiritual America at Aria, October 14, 2015. Left to right: Lorna Dune, Aaron Roche, Charles Block, Paul Wiancko, Michi Wiancko, Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, and William Brittelle. Photo: Jayme Halbritter

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, musician Zach Cohen shares his perspective on Wye Oak + William Brittelle: Spiritual America with special guest Michi Wiancko. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Brooklyn-based composers William Brittelle and Michi Wiancko, in collaboration with the Baltimore-based band Wye Oak, performed at Aria this past Wednesday evening in a concert copresented by the Walker Art Center and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music Series.  The performers journeyed through a wide swath of soundscapes blending musical genres—most notably electro-acoustic—bringing a group of top-notch musicians from varying backgrounds on stage together for the first time. The eclectic group of musicians included Charles Block (double bass) William Brittelle (electronics and keyboards) Lorna Dune (keyboard), Aaron Roche (vocals, guitar, bass), Andy Stack (percussion), Jenn Wasner (vocals, guitar and bass), Michi Wiancko (5-string violin), and Paul Wiancko (cello).

The Liquid Music performance series is curated by SPCO’s Kate Nordstrum and spotlights some of today’s most innovative performing artists. Artists are given the space and resources to experiment freely with their newest projects and audiences are delivered something fresh and cutting edge. Spiritual America is one of five copresentations between the Walker and Liquid Music in the 2015-16 season; this iteration of this suite of music was also commissioned by the Walker.

The first half of the show featured the talented and multi-faceted violinist and composer Michi Wiancko. Demonstrating this in action, Michi was performing as part of Spiritual America the same week she was joined the violin section of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, as well as having written a world premiere arrangement of ‘Five Melodies’ by Prokofiev for the SPCO’s program.

Some of the highlights from the first half of Wednesday’s performance at Aria included Michi Wiancko’s string arrangements, which acted as a constant thread throughout the show, bridging and blurring collaboration of the “rock” musicians with the “classical” ones. In her arrangement of Wye Oak’s song “The Tower”, string harmonic glisses and rhythmic pulsing electric bass lines doubled by the violin created unusual sonorities with fascinating outer space-like effects and textures. “Shriek” also employed these effects outlining chords in the synthesizer, cello, and violin that shimmered as indie rocker Jenn Wasner sang over it in a haunting, mellow, and throaty tone.

After intermission, composer and multi-instrumentalist William Brittelle performed selections from Spiritual America, a project which he calls “electro-acoustic orchestral art songs”. The music of Spiritual America examines Brittelle’s journey in exploring and understanding his cultural and perhaps existential feelings in moving to New York City from his native small town roots.

In songs like “Canyons Curved Burgundy”, the listener hears a collage of string sounds like that of Americana Appalachia, and later bass drum, voice, and guitar wave effects meld into one, so that all the sound came together into one trembling and vibrating pitch.

Brittelle is able to discover new sound textures amid a general feeling of melancholia which perhaps captures a glimpse of this generation’s feeling of spiritual America.

Alchemy and Slip Jigs: Todd Menton on The Gloaming

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 Todd Menton shares his perspective on Friday night’s performance by […]

Photo: Feargal Ward

Photo: Feargal Ward

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 Todd Menton shares his perspective on Friday night’s performance by The Gloaming. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Friday evening’s concert by The Gloaming was a fantastic, immersive show, providing a unique and unprecedented experience with traditional Irish music.

The Gloaming is a collaborative group founded by legendary Clare fiddler Martin Hayes, which also features Dennis Cahill on guitar, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh on viola d’amore, Thomas Bartlett on piano, and sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird singing in Gaelic and English. They have a dynamic, multi-level approach to the dance tunes and songs of Ireland; utterly new in the way the old music is assembled and presented, but always returning to the core sound of the tradition. In concert at The Walker their intuitive musical exploration was on vivid display.

Beginning with “The Pilgrim”, a song ravishingly sung by Ó Lionáird, the group employed the framework that they used all night: space, silence, the layering and trading of rhythmic gestures, and liquid, relentless build. Cahill’s bell-clear harmonics set a stately pace, and Bartlett’s jazz/classical minimalism on the piano created a bed of rippling, never-resolving chords, deliciously atypical in regards to Irish keyboard accompaniment. As the song closed, Ó Raghallaigh began a plaintive jig on his throaty instrument while Hayes played a drone on the fiddle: the tune in a dark, rasping, rattling tone, the drone a laser bright note. This was the first of many inversions of the lead/backing roles. Cahill’s guitar work was so spare as to be ghostly, but always grounded the rhythm, holding a percussionist’s place in the music. Bartlett’s sweet, restless playing urged the ensemble to a crescendo, and then… Martin Hayes, rocking, swaying, all but leaping out of his chair, unleashed a fiery reel, and the fiddle master led the group to a blasting, last-round-at-the-world’s-greatest-pub climax.

Most of their sets (medleys? ceili-chord-poems?) followed the same template: a gorgeous song opens the door to marvelously inventive rhythmic/tonal explorations centered upon the finest traditional Irish fiddling on the planet.

Throughout the evening, the ensemble’s individual personalities came to the fore and receded as the music unfolded. Impish Ó Rahallaigh’s viola d’amore (equipped with a hardanger fiddle’s sympathetic resonating strings) groaned, whistled, hissed, and sang. Together with Bartlett’s controlled mania at the piano (Glenn Gould made it to the session, lads) they lent a Charles Ives atmosphere to Ó Lionáird’s song “The Lark In the Clear Air”. Frequently, when Hayes entered the musical room created by his fellows, he would bring in only sketches and edits of a tune, staying in the background until the tune formed in full, letting the chords and rhythms swirl and coalesce before breaking into the exuberant lead with “The Old Favorite”, “Sheehan’s”, or “The Sailor’s Bonnet”, a classic jig or reel bringing the many-colored hooley to an end.

The Gloaming have done something wonderful: they’ve found a new form for the famous and venerable tradition of Irish music, a new lens through which to view the gems (“My Darling Asleep”, “Toss the Feathers”) of Ireland’s musical heritage. By all means seek out their recording and, if you can, hear them live. Theirs is an alchemy that makes you want to dance.

The Gloaming performed on Friday, October 9, 2015 in the Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater, in a concert copresented by The Cedar.

Big Feelings in Intimate Spaces: An Interview with Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner

The music of indie duo Wye Oak (Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack), which has been described as “synthpop haze with serious percussive backbone,” may not seem like the most obvious candidate for orchestral arrangement. That’s just as well, because neither Wye Oak nor composer William Brittelle are inclined towards the obvious. Together (along with special guest […]

Wye Oak. Photo by by Shervin Lainez.

Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack of Wye Oak. Photo: Shervin Lainez

The music of indie duo Wye Oak (Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack), which has been described as “synthpop haze with serious percussive backbone,” may not seem like the most obvious candidate for orchestral arrangement. That’s just as well, because neither Wye Oak nor composer William Brittelle are inclined towards the obvious. Together (along with special guest Michi Wiancko) they will stage, in Brittelle’s words, “a series of electro-acoustic art songs exploring secular spirituality in America” at Aria in downtown Minneapolis on October 14.

Ahead of the performance, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner discussed her songwriting process, her creative trajectory, and learning to “play [her]self like an instrument.”

How did your collaboration with William Brittelle come about?

Bill actually approached us a couple of years ago (while we were working on our last record, Shriek). He was interested in acting as a conduit between pop musicians and orchestral musicians, but his vision—a really hands-on, musically adventurous approach rather than the usual pops-style orchestra—really appealed to us. His arrangements of our songs are strange and wonderful—it’s really exciting to hear our music re-imagined in this way.

What was the process of rearranging your music for orchestra like? Has it changed how you hear and think about your own music as a duo?

Obviously playing music as a duo forces a certain amount of economy in your approach. Our physical limitations can’t help but influence our writing and arranging styles. Sharing the stage with 50-plus musicians, then, is a totally different world for us. It’s overwhelming! (In a good way.) But it’s been very encouraging to see how, even with such a maximal approach, the essence of these songs remains the same.

Shriek sounds like something of a departure from your previous work. The guitar-driven sound that helped define your earlier music has been supplanted by more bass and synth-heavy textures. What compelled you to go in this direction?

A creative spirit, probably? There’s a certain type of person that will always be interested in new sounds, new textures, and new processes (spoiler alert: I’m talking about myself here). Switching things up and taking chances is an essential part of keeping the creative juices flowing. So the aesthetics may change (knowing myself, they will continue to change), but the songs themselves have always been the heart of this project, and always will be.

You’ve said, “I like bands that you have to look a bit to find it, where you have to really listen.” Were there specific bands you had in mind when you made this comment? More generally, what are some inspirations or influences on your work that fans might not initially expect?

I don’t remember making this comment, so I can’t say I’m absolutely certain of the “it” I was referring to. I can say that I tend to be drawn to music that is able to achieve much with very little. With Shriek, I was trying to create something more subtle and nuanced than our past records—something less bombastic, that opens up slowly over repeat listens. Pop music (and, let’s be honest, we’ve always made pop music) is a more oversaturated landscape than ever, and it can be difficult to carve out one’s own space while working within such an established form. For me, of late, I tend to respond to this overwhelming reality by getting small—by reducing ideas to their simplest forms, trying to work big feelings into increasingly intimate spaces. So … maybe that’s what I meant by that phrase?

You and Andy Stack live on opposite sides of the country. How has that distance affected your creative process?

I think it’s been a huge asset, honestly. We both have home recording setups, and it’s so easy to send works in progress back and forth remotely. But I do think we both do our best work when we have our own space to think and work privately. So it’s kind of the best of both worlds!

You’ve spoken very candidly about struggling with depression and creative burnout in the wake of an exhausting tour in 2013. Has that experience changed how you currently approach music?

I know myself, and I know my limits, a lot better now. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned how to play myself like an instrument. I have certain tendencies, patterns that have followed me for my whole life, and my awareness of that fact allows me to make better decisions. I guess you could say I’m better at cultivating an environment that will provide the best results, creatively and personally. I’m still moody, anxious, and my own worst critic—but I also love what I do, and I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to share my music with others. And that thought usually is enough to get me through on the rougher days.

Wye Oak and William Brittelle will perform Spiritual America with special guest Michi Wiancko at 7:30 pm on October 14, 2015 at Aria (105 First St. N., Minneapolis). Spiritual America is copresented by the Walker Art Center and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music Series. To read more, head over to the SPCO’s Liquid Music Blog to read a recent interview with William Brittelle about Spiritual America.

“An Intensity Born from Near Silence”: Iarla Ó Lionáird Discusses His Creative Process

Music is a birthright for Iarla Ó Lionáird. Born in the Irish-speaking town of Cuil Aodha in West Cork, Ó Lionáird comes from a long line of sean-nós (“old-style”) singers. His mother and grandmother both established themselves as bright talents, and his great aunt drew the attention of legendary folk archivist Alan Lomax, who captured […]

The Gloaming (left to right: Iarla Ó Lionáird, Thomas Bartlett, Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill). Photo: Feargal Ward

The Gloaming (left to right: Iarla Ó Lionáird, Thomas Bartlett, Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh, Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill). Photo: Feargal Ward

Music is a birthright for Iarla Ó Lionáird. Born in the Irish-speaking town of Cuil Aodha in West Cork, Ó Lionáird comes from a long line of sean-nós (“old-style”) singers. His mother and grandmother both established themselves as bright talents, and his great aunt drew the attention of legendary folk archivist Alan Lomax, who captured her singing in 1951. (Listen to a sample here.) 

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Ó Lionáird himself would achieve formidable mastery over the sean-nós style. Not content to simply adhere to established conventions, however, he has brought his consummate artistry to a number of decidedly non-traditional contexts, most notably with celebrated worldbeat group Afro Celt Sound System. Over the course of his career, this penchant for mixing experimentation with tradition has helped define a body of work that is utterly sui generis.

Much of Ó Lionáird’s creative energy lately has been directed towards The Gloaming, an Irish music supergroup that will perform at the Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater on October 9, 2015. Ahead of the performance, Ó Lionáird kindly took the time to share his thoughts on tradition and creativity.

The Gloaming is often dubbed a “supergroup” because it is comprised of such distinctive artists and personalities. How do you ensure the effort remains egalitarian? Is composing and arranging something you do as individuals, or collectively?

What we do is try to impose an egalitarian ethic. Creative work is messy, and the best thing is to realize this and to be at peace with the fact that it’s not a branch of mathematics: it’s open to diverse, unpredictable energies and outcomes. I always feel very excited when writing and performing. I am by necessity more focused on the songs, but one of the pure delights of being in this band for me is being able to participate across all of the tunes also, and being present ready to give or, as is the case, learn. It’s great fun, usually, and the payback is tremendous.

The instrumentation of The Gloaming is quite unique. In particular, the piano and Hardanger fiddle are central to your sound. How did you arrive at this unusual lineup?

To be frank, my colleague Martin Hayes (fiddler) was centrally responsible for configuring the lineup. Thomas Bartlett, our piano player, was a friend of Martin’s. I remember meeting him in New York and hearing the two of them play and knowing straightaway, or rather recognizing, that together they had special chemistry and a sound that I had not heard before in any other music. Piano has been deployed before in our tradition—and surprisingly far back—but something about the way Thomas plays and his engagement with Martin’s music is unique and is one of the cornerstones of what we do as a group.

Dennis Cahill (guitarist) has said, “It’s the mark of a great piece of music when it’s bendable, and it doesn’t lose its integrity, and I think the tunes are spectacular like that, they can be played in a lot of ways.” How important is improvisation to what you do?

Improvisation has multiple roles in the band. From my own perspective, it is how I write generally with Thomas and with others too: writing on the fly, trying things out quickly, malleably, instinctively. That’s one deployment of improvisation. The other is during live performance. We draw sketches of what might occur in terms of set list pieces, sequences, etc., but we leave room always for those things which can only happen when there’s an audience. This is one of  the great joys of being in this band—the unexpected happenings that the music can give if one leaves oneself open to the moment, the improvisatory moment.

People seem at a loss when trying to compare your music to other influences. I’ve seen references to everyone from Sigur Rós to Aaron Copland. Are there influences or inspirations of yours that people might not expect?

We sometimes think that we’re not so much influenced by traditional music (which is kind of analogous to the language we just happen to speak), so much as by the other non-traditional music we’ve been listening to all these years—in my own case, everything from Bob Dylan to ambient electronic music. Others among us are very given to jazz. There are strong interests in new-classical music and in the music of singular talents such as Keith Jarrett, Arvo Pärt, and others. It’s worth noting too that some of us grew up listening—indeed, living within—the tradition of Irish traditional music and we are given still to listening to very old, beautiful examples of that form, whether it be Willie Clancy, Padraig O Keefe, or Darach Ó Catháin.

The Gloaming is a remarkably spacious album, at times very quiet. That kind of dynamic range demands a certain degree of attention from the audience that isn’t always present in the kinds of venues with which traditional Irish music is most often associated. How do you hope audiences will respond to your music? Do you alter your performances depending on the venue or context you’re performing in?

The dynamics of performance are so complex. We give of ourselves, but also we listen and feel for response from the audience. Our music moves and mutates in relation to these conditions. But on the whole we do like the idea of being able to play with incredible intensity at times, whether that be frenetic intensity or an intensity born from near silence in the acute attention that this bestows on the moment. These silences, for us, are the places where all the beautiful things happen that make the experience of making music worthwhile and deep.

The President of Ireland attended your first show as a band, and you’ve won a host of awards and accolades in Ireland, including the prestigious Meteor Choice Music Prize. Some critics have suggested you are helping to revitalize interest in the music of Ireland. Is that one of your goals? Do you get the sense that there is a broader movement growing around the kind of music you are creating?

It may be the case—and I haven’t thought a whole lot about this—that Irish traditional music is undergoing some sort of churning similar to what occurred with classical music in this country beginning about 10 years ago with the emergence of new composers influenced by contemporary classical American and European music movements. It would be nice to think that what we do emboldens others. That would be the best possible outcome.

One of my favorite pieces on The Gloaming, “Freedom/Saoirse,” takes its lyrics from a poem by Seán Ó Ríordáin. Ó Ríordáin is someone who managed to beautifully integrate cutting-edge modernism with an existing folk tradition. It struck me that, in that sense, his project and his place within the cultural firmament might be considered similar to The Gloaming’s. Why did you choose that poem? More generally, do you have a particular process for choosing the poems, reels, and other elements that make up some of your source material?

Seán Ó Ríordáin actually grew up in the parish where I myself was born and reared, and he lived there until he was a teenager. The language he speaks has the same timbral fingerprint as my own, and so sonically it just feels like a great fit. But, of course, you are correct when you say that he straddles two worlds—the old Gaelic world and that of the more introspective modernism—the first poet to do so in any language to such great effect in Ireland. His legacy is on the rise, and I am very happy to have undertaken setting some of his extraordinary words to music. “Saoirse,” the specific poem to which you refer, is a mysterious examination of the complex relationship we all have with home. And it is difficult to truly understand the poet’s position on this question. The poem is quite ambiguous as it speaks about the challenge and isolation that one feels when stepping outside the group, the tribe, the original birthed location. To some extent, this work speaks very much to my own experience as an artist attempting to create outside using a combination of tools: some inherited, and some from my awareness of the outside world. And so these words speak to me in a very personal way.

In general, it could be said that I am drawn to looking back and seeking out textual treasure from our deep history. In some ways, it’s a habit. In other ways, it’s something I think I should do. But in both cases it’s something I really enjoy—bringing these long silent works into the sonic realm, into the musical experience for everyone to share.

Keeping Score with Mark McGee

Mark McGee, also known by his performance name, MAKR, is a Renaissance man. A Twin Cities transplant by way of Richmond, Virginia, McGee is a key creative contributor to myriad musical projects, among them Father You See Queen, Ronia, and Marijuana Deathsquads. His collaborations have extended beyond music to encompass artists of many different media. […]

Mark McGee. Photo: Gene Pittman

Mark McGee. Photo: Gene Pittman

Mark McGee, also known by his performance name, MAKR, is a Renaissance man. A Twin Cities transplant by way of Richmond, Virginia, McGee is a key creative contributor to myriad musical projects, among them Father You See Queen, Ronia, and Marijuana Deathsquads. His collaborations have extended beyond music to encompass artists of many different media.

Ahead of his upcoming Music and Movies performance, in which MAKR’s Coven will premiere a new score for the 1926 silent animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, I asked McGee about his inspirations and what we can expect to witness tonight.

You’ve worked with a huge range of talent in the Twin Cities and beyond. What is your relationship to the musicians assembled for this project?

The ensemble includes Nona Marie Invie and Fletcher Barnhill, all of us play in Ronia together and Aaron Baum and I have played in other projects, such as Votel and Basuketto. All of these musicians, in my opinion, are some of the most talented in the Twin Cities.

Can we expect the music to closely parallel the action on screen, or will the audiovisual connection be more oblique?

The music and sound of the piece is a little of both. The music does parallel the action on screen and this score was closely written to the film, but there are places in the film where the music and sound becomes more oblique and detached.

Is there any film score or soundtrack that you find particularly inspiring? Or a film scene?

There are so many. I guess one that comes to mind is the fox wedding/march scene in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. It is when the child spies on the foxes, peaking behind trees and fog, only to be spotted by the wedding party. Watching a fox wedding by a human is forbidden, so when the boy reaches his house, he is told by his mother that he can never come home again and in fact, should kill himself with a knife the foxes have left for him. That scene visually has always inspired me and the music is fantastic.

In addition to your musical projects, I’ve read that you’re a visual art lover. Do you see a connection between musical and visual practice? If so, does that inform how you think about this project?

Yes, very much so. Musical and visual practice is one of the same to me. Many might argue the opposite, but to me, both worlds play on one another and display as much information and content, even if the time frames of what is being presented differ. When I write music, it usually comes from a visual place, so it was very natural to create music for this project and to this film.

MAKR’s Coven will perform a newly-commissioned score alongside The Adventures of Prince Achmed tonight, Monday, August 17, at dusk (8:45 pm).

Indie Pop Meets International Pop: A Conversation with Lucius

Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe met in 2005 and immediately discovered their common interests. Ten years later, as the founders and lead singers of Lucius, they dress identically, sing in unison, and maintain near-perfect symmetry on stage. In other words, Lucius is a band that revels in careful synchronization. It seemed appropriate, then, that Lucius’s arrival at the Walker […]

Lucius posing in front of Evelyne Axell's Ice Cream

Lucius with Evelyne Axell’s Ice Cream. L–R: Andrew Burri, Holly Laessig, Jess Wolfe, Peter Lalish, Dan Molad

Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe met in 2005 and immediately discovered their common interests. Ten years later, as the founders and lead singers of Lucius, they dress identically, sing in unison, and maintain near-perfect symmetry on stage. In other words, Lucius is a band that revels in careful synchronization.

It seemed appropriate, then, that Lucius’s arrival at the Walker for Rock the Garden 2015 should offer its own opportunities for synchronicity. The Walker’s ongoing exhibition International Pop provided one such moment. One of its most iconic worksEvelyne Axell’s 1964 Ice Cream (1964), adorns the cover of Lucius’s most recent album, Wildewoman.

Lucius's Wildewoman

The cover of Lucius’s album Wildewoman (2014)

Before Lucius hit the stage on Saturday, the band took a personalized tour of International Pop. They clearly enjoyed the opportunity, pausing in reverent awe to examine works like León Ferrari’s iconoclastic La Civilización Occidental y Cristiana (Western Christian Civilization)Afterwards, Laessig and Wolfe agreed to an impromptu round-table conversation about music, visual art, and ice cream. Joining me for the discussion were Walker Web Editor Paul Schmelzer, Performing Arts Senior Curator Philip Bither, and Visual Arts Curatorial Fellow Mia Lopez, who helped curate the exhibition.

Paul Schmelzer: I’m curious what the role of visual art, or other disciplines of art, is on your music?

Jess Wolfe: It’s a big thing for us. Both of us come from visually artistic families, so it’s something we’re always thinking about. Obviously, our stage setup and the way that we dress are taken into consideration as far as the marriage between the visuals and the music. So, when we were looking for album artwork, we went through a bunch of stuff, Evelyne Axell’s Ice Cream initially stuck out—and we kept going back to it, and eventually we decided that was the image that was calling.

Holly Laessig: Once you see it, you can’t think of anything more iconic. The colors and the feelings you get looking at it were things we wanted to express: this playfulness, this joy, this feminine strength. And some humor. I think those things, while also being bold, were really important in our choice of album cover. And luckily, Evelyne’s son, Philippe, was so generous in offering the piece to us. We really lucked out. It seemed like fate.

We actually didn’t know much about Evelyne Axell before picking the artwork, but when we went to visit Philippe in Belgium, he brought us some books and we starting flipping through them. There were all these triptychs and groupings of paintings she’d done with symmetrical women. Many, many different pieces: it was just another “a-ha” moment. It was so fitting in every way, it felt like kismet. He thought that we knew that already, that we were aware of her fascination with the duality of women and these symmetrical figures, but we had no idea.

Schmelzer: Where did you first encounter the work?

Wolfe: A friend of ours, a graphic designer who we had been working with for a long time, had brought lots of different pieces to the table to see what stood out. And, as Holly said, we kept returning to Ice Cream. At first, I think it maybe made the boys uncomfortable.

Laessig: Which was kind of the idea.

[Laughter]

Wolfe: We actually thought we were going to get so much more dirt for using it.

Mia Lopez: We have it on the side of our building. We have this huge phallic image on the side of the Walker.

Wolfe: And people are like, “You know that’s not really an ice cream cone, right?” That’s the comment they’ll make. [Laughter] I’m like, “It looks like an ice cream cone to me.”

Mark Mahoney: To go back for a second, I was wondering if there were particular artists that sort of turned your world upside down or influenced you as teenagers.

Wolfe: Both Holly and I grew up loving old-school soul music, the boldness and simplicity of those songs and singers. We also grew up with visual artists, so I think we were always fascinated by artists who had a strong visual representation of their music: artists like David Bowie, Björk, Prince, and even James Brown, Sam Cooke and the Supremes. When we first started working together, maybe because we weren’t completely comfortable in our stage presence at the time, I think it was a good way for us to transport ourselves into something else together, and also hopefully to transport the audience at the same time.

Philip Bither: We’re working on a festival next year with Devendra Banhart. He’s bringing together people from across disciplines: visual artists, painters, installation artists, and musicians. Do you find that to be increasingly common in independent music, that more and more people are blurring the lines between making visual culture and making music?

Wolfe: I wouldn’t say it’s new, but I definitely think it makes sense. For artistic people, that impulse comes out in all different ways. I’ve always used my hands since I was a little kid and been fascinated by visual culture. My mom worked at museums since she was a young person. That was something that was always around me, that I was always inspired by… It’s also an easy way to escape everyday life.

Bither: It’s an individual pursuit, rather than collaborative.

Laessig: Yeah.

Wolfe: And then you go away and you find the like-minded people, and you realize you’re not alone. There are a lot of weirdos. A lot of weirdos.

 

Beauty Is a Rare Thing: Philip Bither Remembers Ornette Coleman

The death of Ornette Coleman two weeks ago was a sweeping loss, the passing of one of the visionary artists of our time — like losing Cage or Duchamp, Joyce or Coltrane, Lennon or Cunningham. I was first drawn to his sound in high school when I heard recordings of his mesmerizing Prime Time band, whose stew […]

Ornette Coleman performs with the Bang on a Can All-Stars in 2005 as part of a three-day celebration of his music, The Festival Dancing in Your Head.

Ornette Coleman performing at the Walker’s McGuire Theater in 2005. Photo: Gene Pittman

The death of Ornette Coleman two weeks ago was a sweeping loss, the passing of one of the visionary artists of our time — like losing Cage or Duchamp, Joyce or Coltrane, Lennon or Cunningham. I was first drawn to his sound in high school when I heard recordings of his mesmerizing Prime Time band, whose stew of trance rhythms, acoustic jazz, and electrified rock, post-’70s hard-core funk, free harmonics, and African polyrhythms all held some seeds of punk, Afro-futurist rock, and hip-hip to come (see Slate’s useful tracing of Ornette’s influence on non-jazz music innovators). The sounds knocked me sideways, introducing me to a musical language that carried so much magnetic mystery and human emotion that my incomprehension felt inconsequential.

When I first began curating music three decades ago, an early dream was to try to do something that would honor Ornette Coleman’s enormous contribution. I sought out Ornette’s drummer-manager son, Denardo Coleman, and we began a 12-year, on-and-off-again process of planning some kind of festival. Throughout, Denardo remained as genial as he was elusive (he would fall out of touch for months or sometimes even years, but when he resurfaced he remained as encouraging as ever). I will always remember a two-hour planning meeting with Ornette, arranged with Denardo, in the East Village the year before the festival, where I sat with rapt attention listening to this sweet, gentle, but fierce philosopher-poet of music and art, grasping only every third or fourth idea — not unlike my first introduction to his music. It was a meeting I found both baffling and mysteriously transformative. Ornette Coleman thought and worked on another plane altogether, and yet there I sat, furiously trying to scribble every word in a pad. I felt like I was clearly in the presence of a profound and generous spirit.

In April 2005, Ornette, Denardo and I were finally able to mount a three-day celebration of Ornette’s work — a copresentation of the Walker and Headwaters Music — encompassing a sold-out concert at the University of Minnesota’s 1000-seat Ted Mann concert hall, featuring his then-new quartet (which six months later would record the landmark, Pulitzer Prize–winning recording Sound Grammar); and a separate evening of Minnesota-based bands (including both Happy Apple and The Bad Plus, not to mention their rare recombinant, Bad Apple), all playing their versions of Ornette tunes in the Walker’s brand new McGuire Theater. Ornette sat in the audience, listening with attentiveness and grace. I walked him through the green room after as thanked each hero-struck musician who had played, telling them how much he enjoyed and appreciated their take on his work. The final event of the festival was a 10-hour marathon of wildly diverse and innovative music, concluding with a premiere of a Walker-commissioned set of works by Ornette and the avant-classical ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars (BOAC). With so many performers, the concert ran very late. I remember Ornette warming up with great patience and generosity on our loading dock for nearly two hours. Finally hitting the McGuire stage at 1:15 am with Bang on a Can All Stars, he played a breathtaking set of new music with his inimitable, deeply mournful, timeless alto soaring above the complex BOAC-played compositions to the hundreds of intrepid Minnesotan true believers still in the house.

Ornette wrote to me later, saying, “The Walker is a harmolodic place if there ever was one!” We will forever miss you Ornette, and remain always grateful for your transformative gifts.

Philip Bither is Director and Senior Curator of Performing Arts at the Walker Art Center.

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