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Chance the Rapper Colors Outside the Lines

There is no single voice in DIY music culture making as much of an impact as Chance the Rapper. As an artist who has given away the majority of his music, without major label influence, Chance has been able to speak directly to the soul of young people without having his hand forced by the […]

Chance the Rapper at the Pemberton Music Festival, 2014 Photo: Rob Loud, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

Chance the Rapper at the Pemberton Music Festival, 2014. Photo: Rob Loud, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

There is no single voice in DIY music culture making as much of an impact as Chance the Rapper. As an artist who has given away the majority of his music, without major label influence, Chance has been able to speak directly to the soul of young people without having his hand forced by the recording industry. On his new gospel-laced mixtape Coloring Book, that soul shines through from track to track. As he states on the song “Blessings,” “I don’t make songs for free/I make songs for freedom.”

On June 18, Chance joins Poliça, The Flaming Lips, and others at Minneapolis’s Boom Island Park for what is destined to be the largest Rock the Garden street festival yet. Over the past two years we’ve seen Rock the Garden diversify its lineup with acts like golden-era MCs De La Soul and Afrobeat legend Seun Kuti, among a handful of others—and with Chance’s inclusion the event further ventures into unchartered territory. Which begs the question: where does Chance fit in a festival that has boasted a past of mostly white indie-rock giants? And what does his presence mean to this coloring book and who gets the crayons?

Let’s take a minute and talk about the often-overlooked city within the city of Minneapolis. The Twin Cities has undeniably been heavily influenced by our closest major city neighbor, Chicago, Chance’s hometown. In the late 1800s, the Chicago, St. Paul, and Minneapolis railways were consolidated to create a consistent stream of people and goods throughout the region. Simultaneously, in 1865, you had the abolition of slavery, which quickly created the largest migration of people in the history of the United States. In the 1920s, more than six million formerly enslaved people traveled North for better wages and opportunity. My grandparents on both sides of the family moved from Mississippi and Arkansas during this period. Both of my parents relocated to Minnesota in the last year of the 1970s. Being Black growing up in inner city Minneapolis, you are constantly reminded of Chicago’s influence. Transplants from that city speak with such pride and sorrow in the same sentence. They speak of struggle, pain, and, ultimately, the hope for a brighter future. A similar duality is the somber playfulness that you find in Chance’s music. This is the spirit that touches Chance’s followers in a way that many outsiders may not understand. It’s an authentic voice piercing its way through a cloud of doubt.

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Cover image for Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book mixtape

In the city that produced the likes of the Smashing Pumpkins, Styx, Earth Wind & Fire, and Chief Keef, Chance the Rapper finds a way to walk the proverbial line musically. Inside of his productions you will find both a wide range of musicality and a blunt directness that only Chicago hip hop could produce. He slips back and forth between rapping and singing within the same line of thought. He also freely moves between preproduced instrumentals and his live band, The Social Experiment, flexing skills over odd time signatures. The amount of gospel influence may sound way out of the box for the fair-weather listener but makes perfect sense with someone like the Coloring Book author. At 23, Chance has been influenced by an age of direct access to the “other.” By this I mean young people are much more free to explore their tastes and interests in the privacy of their own homes without judgment, thanks to the internet. This gives young artists more time to explore their ideas and openly create. His do-it-yourself approach to creating music allows him to easily move between tracks with his soulful live band, songs with gospel icon Kirk Franklin, and tracks like “Mixtape” with viral stars Young Thug and Lil Yachty.

All throughout Chance’s new project you find hidden messages. You have to think of what a coloring book represents. Though mass-produced, a coloring book gives every person who utilizes it an opportunity to create their own version of reality. You can choose to use lighter or darker colors. You can draw inside the lines or stray away from the format. Either way we are all given some basic outline of how to exist, and we have to fill in that space with whatever makes the most sense to your personal experience.

On “All We Got,” the first song of Coloring Book, Chance features Kanye West and the Chicago Children’s Choir. Constantly shrouded in controversy, West is arguably the biggest artist to ever represent the working poor in the city. The Chicago Children’s Choir was founded in the mid-1950s at the height of the Civil Rights movement, serving more than 4,000 youth annually. Through the choir, young people have been able to travel throughout the world and perform with acts like Beyoncé, Luciano Pavarotti, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. In the center sits Chance rhyming, “This for the kids of the king of all kings/This is the holiest thing/This is the beat that played under the Word/This is the sheep that ain’t like what it herd.” This alludes to the idea that we are all children of a higher power but do not need to be followers to anyone’s ideas. Later on in the chorus, Kanye sings, “Music is all we got/so we might as well give it all we got.” This is the metaphorical rose growing from concrete.

Chance the Rapper. Photo: Zoe Rain

Chance the Rapper. Photo: Zoe Rain

The historic brutality that has plagued the city of Chicago traces back to segregation, Al Capone’s rampant rule of the streets, police violence, and the violence inflicted by neighbors upon each other. We constantly hear the statistics about the loss of life in the city. Rapper King Louie coined the phrase “Chiraq” as a response to statistics that showed more people killed in the Chicago than in active combat in Iraq. There most certainly is a problem and everyone has their own way of dealing.

Chance states that he’s here to “clean up the streets so my daughter has somewhere to play.” That is the beauty that is rarely seen or heard in the way Chicago is portrayed. We have to ask why the most negative images of the Black community are so freely bought and sold for profit. This is at a time when young artists of color in both the Twin Cities and Chicago are literally dying because they don’t feel like they have any other way into the music industry except through displays of violence. Much of Chance’s new album sounds like a prayer for the youth of his city and proof that you can make it out of hard times when you express your best self. Don’t miss your chance to join the choir live at Rock the Garden.

Chance the Rapper performs June 18 at Rock the Garden 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devendra Banhart + Band*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rodrigo Amarante

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

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

“One more?”

Hecuba

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

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

“I was a person, without a person…”

Harold Budd + Brad Ellis + Veda Hille

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

__________

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

We are lucky.

Circuits of Saudade: Wind Grove Mind Alone, Night One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening Mix: Devendra Banhart & Friends

LISTENING MIX provides a musical preview for artists visiting the Walker. Combining their work with sounds from a variety of contextual sources, LISTENING MIX can be experienced before or after a performance. For his two-evening event this weekend, Wind Grove Mind Alone, singer/songwriter Devendra Banhart has gathered a group of collaborators, contemporaries, mentors, and friends. It wasn’t so long […]

Photo: OSK

LISTENING MIX provides a musical preview for artists visiting the Walker. Combining their work with sounds from a variety of contextual sources, LISTENING MIX can be experienced before or after a performance.

For his two-evening event this weekend, Wind Grove Mind Alone, singer/songwriter Devendra Banhart has gathered a group of collaborators, contemporaries, mentors, and friends. It wasn’t so long ago, however, that he was working with a group of artists he referred to as “The Family.” In this New Weird America movement, Banhart was cast as the key figure willing not only to sketch out the family tree but trace it back to its roots, with a constant willingness to give recognition to his influences. One could consider Wild Grove Mind Alone a sort of culmination of these efforts. As the McGuire stage is shared by Lucky Dragons, Jessica Pratt and Greta Morgan, Helado Negro, William Basinski, Rodrigo Amarante, Hecuba, and Harold Budd with Bradford Ellis, each could be said to embody a unique element of Banhart’s ever-shifting sound.

Banhart’s musical career coincided with the beginning of the century, busking around San Francisco, slowly compiling demo recordings on “shoddy and broken four tracks” and friends’ answering machines. A decade later, fellow San Franciscan Jessica Pratt found success with a similar analogue authenticity, along with a vocalic intimacy that aligns them both with unsung folk forebears like Vashti Bunyan and Linda Perhacs. Banhart’s early aesthetic also effortlessly incorporated Spanish-sung ballads and polyrhythmic samba send-ups, hearkening to his adolescence in Venezuela. Roberto Carlos Lange’s music as Helado Negro has also found a center in an effortless bilinguality, and trades off Latin influences for pop efficacy with a similar ease. These elements also unify Banhart with fellow Venezuelan Rodrigo Amarante, with whom he has collaborated throughout his last several records.

While the decade moved on and The Family grew, so did Banhart’s sound. As his guitar and vocals were integrated into songs by Anhoni, he exchanged the influence of her contemporary William Basinski, a purveyor of sonic intimacy, melancholy, and wonder. This sense of wonder saw shades of klezmer, comedy, art rock, and gospel begin to appear on his records, enacted with the same sense of conviction he had left on answering machines in years prior. Lucky Dragons seem similarly committed to rearranging commonplace sounds, pursuing strange experiments, and retaining an acoustic instrumentation to give their work a sense of distorted familiarity.

After 2009’s What Will We Be, Banhart took a break from music to focus on a love of visual art fostered by his album cover illustrations and selection of tour-mates like Hecuba, a visually-motivated LA duo whose music develops naturally alongside its choreographed, costumed, and projected elements. In 2013, Banhart released his eighth album, Mala, and last year published a book of his art, I Left My Noodle on Ramen Street. The book contains a series of paintings inspired by the minimal piano pieces of Harold Budd, which Banhart had also expressed a wish to emulate on Mala, an album equal parts intimate and ambitious.

Just as in Banhart’s career, Wind Grove Mind Alone confronts a wide spectrum of sounds. Together, they create an ambitious portrait of a family of sounds that continues to grow, and where they’ll wind up next is anyone’s guess. For this listening mix, I’ve paired songs from across Banhart’s discography with collaborators and influences alike: the minimalist soundscapes of Budd and Basinski, the Spanish-sung ballads of Helado Negro, the intimate folk of Pratt and Vashti Bunyan, the heartfelt electronics of Hecuba and Arthur Russell, the abstract experiments of Lucky Dragons, and more.


Wind Grove Mind Alone—a copresentation with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music Series—will be performed over the course of two evenings in the Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater. Devendra Banhart will perform with Lucky Dragons, Pratt and Morgan, Helado Negro, and Basinski on Friday, May 13 at 8 pm, and with his full band, Amarante, Hecuba, and Budd and Ellis on Saturday, May 14 at 8 pm. Tickets are currently sold out; a wait list will begin one hour prior to the performance at the Walker box office.

Affable Experimentation: Steve Lehman Octet at the Walker

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

Photo: John Rogers

Photo: John Rogers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More or Less Than One: C. Spencer Yeh’s Sound Horizon

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Mark Mahoney, host of Sound Grammar on Radio K, shares his perspective on C. Spencer […]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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