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Curiosity is the “Big Mother” of Invention: An Interview with Buke and Gase

As anyone who writes about Buke and Gase is obliged to do, let’s begin by explaining the New York duo’s name. The name Buke and Gase comes from the two self-made instruments that create most of the band’s sound. The buke is a baritone ukulele invented by Minnesota-born multi-instrumentalist Arone Dyer (right), and the gase, invented by Aron Sanchez […]

Bryce_Dessner_2014-15_04_PP

Buke and Gase. Photo: Grant Cornett

As anyone who writes about Buke and Gase is obliged to do, let’s begin by explaining the New York duo’s name. The name Buke and Gase comes from the two self-made instruments that create most of the band’s sound. The buke is a baritone ukulele invented by Minnesota-born multi-instrumentalist Arone Dyer (right), and the gase, invented by Aron Sanchez (left), is something of a half-guitar-half-bass. Running their instruments through an elaborate rig of homemade pedals, Dyer and Sanchez manage to achieve a seamless mixture of art-pop songwriting and experimental limitlessness.

On Saturday, April 4, Buke and Gase will join critically acclaimed percussion quartet Sō Percussion on the Walker’s McGuire Theater stage to present a new collaborative work. The performance is a part of a weekend-long mini-festival copresented with the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series celebrating the music of composer/guitarist Bryce Dessner, who has worked closely with both Buke and Gase and Sō Percussion over the years.

Ahead of next week’s performance, Performing Arts Interns Sam Segal and Mark Mahoney had the chance to ask Buke and Gase some questions about their compositional strategies, their collaborative process with Sō Percussion, and what led them to invent their own instruments.

Aron, you built instruments for the Blue Man Group for a period, and Arone, you’ve worked as a bike mechanic. It seems that one thing that characterizes all of your creative output, mechanical and musical, is a certain spirit of invention. Why have you embraced this DIY approach? What does it allow you to accomplish musically that conventional instruments and approaches couldn’t?

Aron Sanchez: Well, we’re only two people and we don’t want to play to a track; we want to perform all our sounds because it’s fun and presents us with interesting challenges both musically and technically. The “DIY approach” is just a matter of course. I think most musical projects are “DIY”—artists have to figure out how to achieve their particular musical expression. Ours logically extends to the creation of instruments and other technical devices, because other people don’t already make the kinds of tools we need to create our sound.

Arone Dyer: Having been a bike mechanic mostly speaks of my desire to do work that requires manual skill and understanding of how things work. Ultimately, this way of thinking has seeped into every millimeter of my existence, and without it as a philosophy I would be someone very different.

When many people first hear your music, they assume it’s coming from a band comprised of several people. Is that kind of expansive sound something you strive for? How does that sound get translated into a collaborative context with a group like Sō Percussion?

Sanchez: Sure it is. We like expansive. We get excited by hearing ourselves sound bigger than the two of us (we also like sounding as small as we are). With Sō, we try to blend in and not take up as much space as we do when we usually perform.

Dyer: We strive to create music that we enjoy performing and listening to, regardless of how expansive it is.

Has it ever felt like the uniqueness of your instruments has overshadowed the other elements of your music in the press?

Dyer: Yes, often, although it can be considered to be a “Chicken Vs. Egg” complex; how could we make the music we do without the instruments we use, and likewise, why would we think to create new equipment and instruments without playing and noticing the need for change or addition to our sound palette? Some say “Boredom is the mother of invention,” but perhaps for us it’s more that our curiosities are the mother. The Big Mother. At this point our instruments are quite solidified in their virginal sonic range, and most of our invention/additions are along the lines of enhancing usability and expanding post-instrument sonic expression. As far as this being the pinnacle of interview and article content, it feels likely that since instruments and inventions are such tangible, material subjects, it’s easier for the press to focus on those, rather than questions directed more toward the intangible, such as lyrical content, creative inspiration, and intended direction. It bugs me, but I also understand that some bubbles just aren’t easy or comfortable to pop.

How did the Sō Percussion collaboration first come about? What can we expect from your performance together on Saturday night?

Sanchez: In 2013, the Ecstatic Music Festival in NYC approached Sō and B&G about doing some sort of collaboration. Ecstatic usually pairs different artists together to either create something new or collaborate on existing work. B&G and Sō took the opportunity to collaboratively write new material together over the course of some months, meeting and sending files back and forth. What we will perform at the Walker is a result of that work.

In an early iteration of Buke and Gase, you guys played with a drummer. What initially led you to pare down to a duo, and why have you now decided to return to using live percussion?

Dyer: Correct. We were playing with a drummer, and then that was simply no longer the case. We made the decision to remain a duo for many reasons, starting with the discovery that our music was just fine without one. B&G and Sō Percussion remain as two separate groups who come together to perform music we had created together, and we still don’t have a drummer.

Aron, you’ve said in the past that electronic music is a huge influence on you. Did you try to give this collaboration the feeling of a piece of electronic music played on organic instruments?

Sanchez: Yes, I’ve always been interested in the translation of electronic sounds and processes into the world of hands-on instruments, and definitely this is something we try to bring to the table. Regardless, our “organic instruments” are highly electronic to begin with, taking into account all the digital processing we use to add different dimensions – they sound completely different when un-plugged. Recently we’ve been taking that some steps further, actually using computers and synthesized sounds that we control with our instruments or feet.

Arone, did you change the lyrical process at all when you knew you were writing for this collaborative effort, rather than another Buke and Gase record?

Dyer: No, although I may have subconsciously toned down the variety of the subject content. It was quite a fluid, of-the-moment process this time around.

In 2009, Bryce Dessner and other members of The National came to one of your shows in Brooklyn, and they were absolutely floored. What has your relationship with Bryce been like?

Sanchez: Yes, Bryce and Aaron Dessner came to one of our first shows that their sister Jessica had booked at a little venue in Ditmas Park called Sycamore. It was super early days for us, but they were nonetheless impressed and asked if they could help us out, which led us to releasing three records on their label. Bryce is awesome of course and working with his label Brassland has been a huge influence on our success as a project.

Finally, on the video for your NPR Tiny Desk Concert, YouTube commenter ‘travelswithcharley4’ opined, “If they collaborated with the red hot chili pepper, i think that’d be awesome.” Can you comment on this?

Dyer: Chili Peppers are spicy, and, no doubt, were we to collaborate with them, our faces would be red, beading with sweat, and our heart rates would be higher than normal due to the capsaicin receptors located on our tongues reacting to high amounts of SHU. This might not be a good idea…

….

Buke and Gase will perform with Sō Percussion as a part of the Walker’s and Liquid Music’s The Music of Bryce Dessner program in the McGuire Theater on Saturday, April 4 at 8 pm.

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

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, photographer, writer, and radio host Bill Cottman shares his perspective on […]

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

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

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, photographer, writer, and radio host Bill Cottman shares his perspective on the recent performance of Jack DeJohnette’s Made in Chicago at the Walker. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

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

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

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

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

What do you see?

How does it make you feel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

billcottmanbio

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

Greg Tate: AACM’s Greatest Hits

For newcomers, the voluminous discography of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) can seem daunting, if not overwhelming. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of this influential improvisational musicians’ group—founded in Chicago by pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams, pianist Jodie Christian, drummer Steve McCall, and composer Phil Cohran—we invited writer and Burnt Sugar […]

Greg Tate

For newcomers, the voluminous discography of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) can seem daunting, if not overwhelming. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of this influential improvisational musicians’ group—founded in Chicago by pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams, pianist Jodie Christian, drummer Steve McCall, and composer Phil Cohran—we invited writer and Burnt Sugar bandleader Greg Tate to share a brief history of AACM for the Walker website. In doing so he gave us a bonus: his “idiosyncratic selection of the AACM’s Greatest/Sui Generis Hits.”

Muhal Richard Abrams

Young At Heart/Wise In Time (1969)
Things To Come From Those Now Gone (1975)
Sightsong (1976), with Malachi Favors
Duet (1981), with Amina Claudine Myers
Blu Blu Blu (1991)

The Art Ensemble of Chicago

People In Sorrow (1969)
Les Stances A Sophie (1970)
Certain Blacks (1970)
Bap-Tizum (1972)
Fanfare For The Warriors (1973)
Urban Bushmen (1980)

Roscoe Mitchell

Sound (1966)
Nonaah (1977)
Snurdy McGurdy and Her Dancin’ Shoes (1981)

Lester Bowie

Rope-A-Dope (1976)
Fast Last (1974)
The Great Pretender (1981)
I Only Have Eyes For You (1985)
Blasé (1969), with Archie Shepp
No Agreement (1977), with Fela Kuti 
Black Tie White Noise (1993), with David Bowie

Joseph Jarman

Song For (1966)
Egwu-Anwu (1977)
Black Paladins (1979)

Henry Threadgill

Air Song (1975), with Air
Air Lore (1979), with Air
80° Below ‘82 (1982), with Cassandra Wilson
Air Show No 1 (1986), with Air
Just The Facts And Pass The Bucket (1983)
Song Out of My Trees (1993)
Makin’ A Move (1995)
Up Popped The Two Lips (2001)

George Lewis

Solo Trombone Record (1976)
Shadowgraph (1977)
Sequel (for Lester Bowie) (2006)
Voyager (1993)
News For Lulu (1988), with John Zorn and Bill Frisell
Streaming (2006), with Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell
Les Exercices Spirituels (2011)

Leo Wadada Smith

Reflectativity (1975)
Dark Lady of the Sonnets (2011)
Ten Freedom Summers (2012)

Fred Anderson

Live At The Velvet Lounge, Volumes I+II (1998)

Douglas Ewart

Angles of Entrance (1998), with Inventions Clarinet Choir
Velvet Fire (2009)
Homage To Charlie Parker (1979), with George Lewis
Velvet Drum Meditations
 (2011)

Nicole Mitchell

Xenogenesis Suite (2008)
Aquarius
 (2013)

Matana Roberts

COIN COIN Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres (2011)
COIN COIN Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile (2013)
COIN COIN Chapter Three: River Run Thee (2015)
Dear Science (2008), with TV on The Radio
Live from Minagle Falls, with Burnt Sugar
Yanqui U.X.O. (2001), with Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Rock the Garden 2015 Lineup: Modest Mouse, Belle and Sebastian, Babes in Toyland, and More

Today, the Walker and 89.3 The Current announced the lineup of Rock the Garden 2015. For the second year, the festival will span two days: Saturday and Sunday, June 20 and 21. On Tuesday, March 10 we celebrated the announcement by revealing one artist every hour live on 89.3 The Current. We liveblogged the announcement all […]

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Today, the Walker and 89.3 The Current announced the lineup of Rock the Garden 2015. For the second year, the festival will span two days: Saturday and Sunday, June 20 and 21.

On Tuesday, March 10 we celebrated the announcement by revealing one artist every hour live on 89.3 The Current. We liveblogged the announcement all day, and you can see the entire list of bands below, along with a few fun facts about them.

For more updates, follow the action on Twitter at @walkerartcenter@RockTheGarden, and @TheCurrent.

Modest Mouse, Issaquah, WA (Sunday, June 21)

Modest Mouse. Photo: Courtesy the Artists

Modest Mouse. Photo: Courtesy the Artists

  • Modest Mouse hasn’t played in the Twin Cities since 2010, and their upcoming release, Strangers to Ourselves, is their first full-length album in eight years. The album features “The Best Room,” a single based on frontman Isaac Brock’s experience of the famous Phoenix Lights UFO sighting of 1997.
  • Speaking of Modest Mouse and celestial weirdness, a meteor appeared in the sky as the band was on stage during November’s Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin. The song they were playing: “Dark Center of the Universe.”
  • Last fall, Glacial Pace Records re-released the band’s early albumsThis Is a Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About and The Lonesome Crowded West on vinyl. Along with those reissues came a handful of previously unreleased early songs. Check out Lonesome Crowded West outtake “White Lies, Yellow Teeth.”

Babes in Toyland, Minneapolis, MN (Sunday, June 21)

Babes in Toyland. Photo: Courtesy the Artists

Babes in Toyland. Photo: Courtesy the Artists

Seun Kuti and Egypt 80, Lagos, Nigeria (Sunday, June 21)

Seun Kuti and Egypt 80. Photo: Johann Sauty

Seun Kuti and Egypt 80. Photo: Johann Sauty

  • The son of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, saxophonist, singer, and bandleader Seun Kuti has been carrying on his father’s legacy with a style of West African dance music all his own. First playing with the band at the age of eight, Seun leads Egypt 80, the group of musicians who once backed up his father.
  • Kuti’s most recent album, A Long Way to the Beginning, was produced by jazz pianist Robert Glasper, who will perform at the Walker in May with pianist Jason Moran. The album also features guest rappers M1 (of Dead Prez) and Blitz the Ambassador.
  • Seun was offered the lead role in Fela!, Bill T. Jones’s hit Broadway musical about his father’s life and music, but turned it down. “It would just give ammunition to those who say I am copying my father,” he told the Guardian.

JD McPherson, Broken Arrow, OK (Sunday, June 21)

JD McPherson. Photo: Courtesy the Artists

JD McPherson. Photo: Courtesy the Artists

  • Broken Arrow, Oklahoma’s own JD McPherson makes roots music with simultaneous originality and shameless nostalgia, drawing influence from both Little Richard and Wu-Tang Clan. McPherson’s music is part Motown and part rockabilly with a little bit of the fuzzed-out blues of the Black Keys thrown in for good measure. On February 10, McPherson released his second full-length LP, Let The Good Times Roll.
  • Even though he’s not a son of the Midwest, McPherson has a huge fan base in Minnesota. When asked about this by Mary Lucia during a recent in-studio session at The Current, McPherson said, “We all know that Minnesotans are very intelligent and sensitive, artistic people, with the highest level of taste.” You flatter us, JD.
  • Before deciding to play music full time, McPherson was trained as a visual artist. He received an MFA from the University of Tulsa in Open Media. You can sense the influence of an art-school background on the literary style of his songwriting.

The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, New York, NY (Sunday, June 21)

The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger. Photo: Courtesy the Artists

The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger

  • The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger features singer-songwriter Sean Lennon along with his girlfriend and collaborator Charlotte Kemp Muhl. Their music merges the classic ’60s psych sounds of a certain world-renowned four-piece with the surrealism of more modern acts like the Flaming Lips and Ariel Pink.
  • While the two have been recording music together since 2008, they just released their debut album, Midnight Sun, last year. PopMatters called it “a near perfect album,” while Mojo praised the record’s “out-of-body transmissions that channel Bends-era Radiohead, Syd Barrett whimsy and woozy melodic weirdness.”
  • Ever wonder what Sean Lennon’s favorite flavor of ice cream is? Or what he would do if he found $46 on the ground in a parking lot? Find the answers to these and other questions in this interview with Lennon, conducted by a grade-schooler named Olivia for the website Kids Interview Bands.

Belle and Sebastian, Glasgow, Scotland (Saturday, June 20)

Belle and Sebastian. Photo: Soren Solkar

Belle and Sebastian. Photo: Soren Solkar

  • In January 2015, Belle and Sebastian dropped Girls in Peacetime Want To Dance, their first album since 2010. Nineteen years and nine albums into their career, the band is still finding new nooks and crannies of pop history to plum for inspiration. On this album, they’ve injected the danceability of ’80s synth pop without losing any of their revolutionary edge.
  • Last year frontman Stuart Murdoch made his debut as a film director and writer with the musical God Help The Girl. The film garnered a Special Jury Award at Sundance, and the soundtrack featured original songs by Murdoch and Belle and Sebastian.
  • Belle and Sebastian might not be the first band you’d expected to cover Journey, but when you’re playing a children’s hospital, you have to break out the hits. Here they are playing “Don’t Stop Believing” at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for the Songs For Kids Foundation.

Conor Oberst, Omaha, NE (Saturday, June 20)

Conor Oberst. Photo: Courtesy the Artist

Conor Oberst. Photo: Courtesy the Artist

  • The last time Omaha native Conor Oberst swung by the Twin Cities to play to a packed crowd at First Avenue, he also stopped by The Current to perform a stunning in-studio session with his tour mates Dawes.
  • In a recent interview with Noisey, Oberst revealed the existence of an unreleased collaborative album he recorded with Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis and the Postal Service’s Jimmy Tamborello in 2003 called Blood on the 4-Tracks. Unfortunately, it seems the only way they’d be interested in releasing it is as a novelty edible seven-inch on Third Man Records. Your move, Jack White!
  • Speaking of long-lost Oberst projects, he will be touring all of April with his recently reunited punk project Desaparecidos. The group will be releasing the follow-up to its 2002 record Read Music/Speak Spanish on Epitaph sometime in 2015.

Courtney Barnett, Melbourne, Australia (Saturday, June 20)

Courtney Barnett. Photo: Courtesy the Artist

Courtney Barnett

  • Singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett is a slacker-rock stream-of-consciousness poet. Her music has the dreamy languidness of a sunny June afternoon, but her lyrics employ the cutting storytelling of a master satirist. Rolling Stone has referred to her as “Jerry Seinfeld with a fuzz pedal.”
  • The music video for “Pedestrian at Best,” a single from her upcoming record Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit(due out March 23), features Barnett playing a depressed clown who just can’t seem to catch a break. Hilarity ensues.
  • Want to watch Courtney Barnett cover the entirety of INXS’s seminal 1987 album Kick? Sure you do!

Lucius, Brooklyn, NY (Saturday, June 20)

Lucius. Photo: Peter Larson

Lucius. Photo: Peter Larson

  • Described by the Guardian as “exuberant” and “relentlessly melodic,” the Brooklyn indie-rock quintet Lucius makes millennial girl-group pop with anthemic ambitions. Their live act is somewhere between a fashion show and a rock opera, featuring dual vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig singing in unison dressed in identical outfits.
  • Respected economist, New York Times columnist, and self-proclaimed “60-year-old wannabe hipster” Paul Krugman is an avowed fan.
  • The cover of Lucius’s latest album, Wildewoman, features art with a timely Walker connection: Belgian artist Evelyne Axell’s 1964 painting Ice Cream will be featured in the Walker-organized exhibition International Pop, on view from April 11 to August 29, 2015.

thestand4rd, St. Paul, MN (Saturday, June 20)

thestand4rd. Photo: Courtesy the Artists

thestand4rd

  • Made up of Twin Cities wunderkinds Allan Kingdom, Spooky Black, Bobby Raps, and Psymun, thestand4rd fuses cloudy hip-hop with R&B and ethereal electronic music. The New York Times describes their live show as an act that walks the line between “reverent church hymnal and intense backpack-rap show.”
  • Rapper Allan Kingdom recently found himself in the spotlight when Kanye West featured him on his new single “All Day” along with Theophilus London and Paul McCartney. The song debuted with an explosive live performance at last month’s Brit Awards.
  • At the tender age of fifteen, singer Spooky Black’s first single “Without You” scored mountains of Internet hype, with the song’s music video hitting the million-views mark while he was still in high school. Spooky graduates in 2016, by the way.

ROCK THE GARDEN 2015

The annual summer festival returns Saturday, June 20 and Sunday, June 21, 2015 from 2–10 pm each day, in the green space next to the Walker.

BUY TICKETS

Tickets go on sale to Walker and Current members on Thursday, March 12 at 11 am. Any remaining tickets go on sale to the general public on Tuesday, March 17, at 11 am.

Mark your calendar and make sure that your Walker membership is up to date. Walker/MPR membership ID numbers will be required for all pre-sale purchases.

Walker membership: 612.375.7655 or membership.walkerart.org.

MPR membership: 1.800.228.7123 or mpr.org/support.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I Don’t Mind a Detour”: An Interview with Douglas Ewart

Douglas Ewart is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, and past president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). He sat down with Sam Segal and Mark Mahoney, the hosts of Radio K’s jazz program Sound Grammar, for an interview ahead of his March 5 Sound Horizon performance at the Walker. You can listen to […]

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Douglas Ewart. Photo: courtesy the artist

Douglas Ewart is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, and past president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). He sat down with Sam Segal and Mark Mahoney, the hosts of Radio K’s jazz program Sound Grammar, for an interview ahead of his March 5 Sound Horizon performance at the Walker. You can listen to the interview on the Walker Channel.

My first experience with Douglas Ewart’s music came through Voice Prints, a recording he did in 2008 at the Walker with one of my musical heroes, Yusef Lateef, along with percussionist Adam Rudolph and Ewart’s AACM colleague Roscoe Mitchell. The music I discovered was deeply spiritual, a quest for serenity that never loses its intensity. In this performance alone Ewart plays sopranino saxophones, C flute, glass didgeridoo, voice, bass clarinet, gongs, bells, percussion, sirens, bass transverse flute, bamboo flutes, and something called the Ewart Hotchiku. Yet, his clear virtuosity on all of these instruments never seems to overwhelm the ensemble’s sense of collectivity, and when I had the pleasure of meeting him to record this interview, I wasn’t surprised to encounter a remarkably humble and thoughtful artist.

Ewart has lived mostly in the Twin Cities since moving up north from Chicago in the early ‘90s, and as a past president of the AACM, he has provided the local creative music scene with a connection to one of the pillars of the 20th Century avant-garde. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the AACM this year, Ewart spoke to me and my co-host Mark Mahoney about the Chicago collective’s impact on his own artistic approach, the supposed “Jazz Tradition,” and the Twin Cities artistic community.

We also went into depth on Ewart’s childhood in Kingston, Jamaica, where not only did his involvement in the Rastafarian movement in the early ‘60s put him in direct contact with the Nyabinghi drum music of the legendary Count Ossie  but he was also exposed to U.S. jazz titans like John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. We learned that as a teenager living in Chicago, it was Ewart’s vocational schooling as a craftsman that would inform his artistic practices as a sculptor and a maker of musical instruments today.

Last June, I attended The Audible Edge, an exhibition at the Nash Gallery that included one of Ewart’s sculptures, a rain stick he had crafted as a tribute to Trayvon Martin. When we asked him about the socio-political themes in his work, Ewart elaborated eloquently on his concerns over the continued dangers faced by young black men in America, as well as the issues he focuses on in his upcoming Sound Horizon piece: gender equality and water conservation.

For his Sound Horizon performance, Ewart will be playing alongside longtime collaborators, percussionist Stephen Goldstein and vocalist/poet Mankwe Ndosi. When asked what we could expect from the piece, Ewart couldn’t make too many promises. “[Performing] reminds me of going on a journey, and you journey to a particular place, maybe to see a particular item,” he said, “And someone tells you about something else, and you only have that moment to make up your mind….I don’t mind a detour….I often get lost on journeys, because I’ll take the other path.”

Listen to the entire conversation here.

Douglas Ewart performs in the Walker galleries at 6 pm, 7 pm, and 8 pm on Thursday, March 5 as a part of the Sound Horizon series.

A Love Supreme: Danny Sigelman on The Campbell Brothers

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 The Campbell […]

The Campbell Brothers. Photo: Courtesy the artists

The Campbell Brothers. Photo: Courtesy the artists

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 The Campbell Brothers’ performance of A Love Supreme last night. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

One of the more anticipated performances during the chilly Winter this year finally came to fruition as The Campbell Brothers performed a spiritually enlightened set in the William and Nadine McGuire Theater last night. The centerpiece of the evening was the American Sacred Steel family’s recently commissioned celebration of saxophonist John Coltrane’s hallmark work, A Love Supreme, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month.

Appropriately, the brothers were chosen by the Lincoln Center and Duke University to perform the classic piece, but utilizing a seemingly unlikely set of instruments, primarily the pedal steel guitar. Interestingly, the combination of the spiritually inclined instrument, commonly used in the church and the personal faith of brothers, Chuck, Darick, and Phillip Campbell, integrated beautifully with Coltrane’s original inspiration for the entire performance. While Phillip on guitar led most of the show in addressing the audience with his son Carl on drums and bassist Daric Bennett consistently holding down the rhythm, it was Chuck Campbell on pedal steel that musically shined throughout the night.

The group paced the evening by getting the audience warmed up with a series of gospel-inspired blues from their own songbook. Illustrating the origins and connection of Coltrane’s melding of the traditional forms of the blues and his own Christian beliefs, it was the perfect primer for the main course of the evening.

Taking the stage and rubbing their guitars with their fingers to warm up their strings, Phillip nodded toward the round of applause from the audience, “Thanks for the warm welcome in the cold weather.”

Showing their roots with ease, The Campbell Brothers gave the audience a slow building version of “Wade in the Water”. All the strings on stage in unison wonderfully played counterpoint to one another as melodies sprang against a chugging rhythm reflecting a true blues spirit. Finding their own groove, the audience  morphed into a sea of smiles and hand claps as Chuck took flight with a solo of rising notes that sounded like a soul singer.

Complementing the train whistle sounds from Chuck’s pedal steel, Philip provided narration on “Morning Train”. As a musical family their effortless transitions and trading of solos showed the real supportive nature of the group as the music carried the audience along for the countrified gospel number. Playing mostly rhythm, the song allowed for Philip to rise up from his chair as he charged through his own guitar solo, tearing through some serious soaring lead guitar work.

“When we go to church, we clap. We stand up. We shout along, run around the room. Whatever we need to do to show our love for the Lord. This is active music!” Philip preached, inspiring some call and response during “Hell no! Heaven yes!”

Chuck’s tone turned to a more rural blues sound, sounding like a harmonica with waning flourishes of movement across the strings of pedal steel he elicited screeching melodies atop the chugging rhythm as everyone sang along.

Calming things down, the Campbell Brothers gave grace to Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”. With Darick Campbell taking the lead melody with incredible lyricism, he made his instrument sing. Amid fluttering notes and a sustained, laid back energy that he pleasantly gave to the song, the Campbell Brothers showed the true gospel roots of Cooke.

Conjuring the true spirit of John Coltrane’s music, Chuck conceptually uplifted the feeling in the room with flurries of melodic clusters that echoed and gave a nod to Coltrane’s famous sheets of sound. After an elongated musical introduction the Campbell Brothers seemed to begin breathing life into the music. As the familiar mantra from Coltrane’s piece took musical shape on stage, the audience gleefully applauded and the rhythm section kicked in with a steady beat to support the flowing melodies between the instruments.

The bass held down an astute blues punch as the brothers led the meditative chant, “A Love Supreme” in unison, eventually inspiring the entire audience to sing along. It was a highly gratifying moment that was only a priming of the canvas the Campbell Brothers would eventually unravel as the song moved forward.

Much like Jimmy Garrison performed on record 50 years ago, bassist Daric Bennett took his turn for the “Resolution” section, holding onto the spiritual vibe of the song. For a rewarding solo that inspired shouts from the audience, even the band would shout their approval before Bennett returned to the main riff to a round of applause.

Blasting the primary melody of section, all three brothers incited an atmospheric but charging progression that coalesced in Philip’s slaying guitar solo to which Chuck brought out the gospel soul of his pedal steel.

Similarly Carl Campbell echoed Elvin Jones famous drum solo to introduce “Persuance”. Making his portion his own, he combined a steady hi-hat pattern that rapidly returned to his snare and back again. In odd time signature he attacked with sixteenth notes and aggressive bass drum that transitioned to again support the vamping his the rest of the band re-introduced with gospel coloring that lead back into the main melody. A woman in the front sang her praise with her arms lifted in the air; the rest of the audience passionately showed their own appreciation.

The frantic gallop urged the spirit of Coltrane and Philip again took another driving guitar solo that howled in devotion, as Chuck responded in standing virtually atop his lap steel, almost tipping it over entirely.

To wrap up the famous work the band brought back a steady blues. Chuck and Darick’s steel took to the sound of birds as the rhythm dissipated into cymbal washes and deep tones. The band began to sound like a gospel choir rounding out a hymn that left the exhausted audience with contentment and deep recognition. Taking in the audience’s standing ovation, the Campbell Brothers nodded humbly toward the crowd.

Acknowledging the audience, Philip sounded overwhelmed, “We’re really thankful to be here with you and we really appreciate your applause. Playing this music we really feel a connection to the music. We feel what Coltrane felt in being thankful to be in touch with the love supreme.”

Taking the room back to church, the Campbell Brothers rounded out the night with a soulful groove and encouraged everyone to clap and get up and move. Dancers bounced in the upper levels and soon the whole audience was clapping along as Darick sang, “Did you have a good time? Everyone lift your hands up in the air, wave them like you just don’t care!”

Like a true gospel revival the band kept the song going, all trading leads and keeping the audience on their feet before finally bringing the music to full throttle boil. Further displaying his abilities to make his instrument sing, Chuck ran up and down the scales with an avalanche of notes that brought the whole band to a final burst to finish off the incredible evening.

It was a fantastic night with the Campbell Brothers and well worth the wait. Anyone who was fortunate to brave the cold to come out to witness the music left the room truly uplifted. The band, genuinely kind and thankful for the response, left the stage and went out into the audience to shake hands and have pleasant exchanges that only further warmed the room and spirit of the night.

Coltrane’s Sacred Testimony: The Campbell Brothers Preach A Love Supreme

“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.” —Psalm 98:4, King James Version On February 26 in the McGuire Theater, brothers Chuck, Darick, and Phil Campbell will take the stage to set steel to steel in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the release […]

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The Campbell Brothers. Photo: Gene Tomko

“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.” —Psalm 98:4, King James Version

On February 26 in the McGuire Theater, brothers Chuck, Darick, and Phil Campbell will take the stage to set steel to steel in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the release of John Coltrane’s seminal work, A Love Supreme. The Campbell Brothers are some of the world’s foremost practitioners of the “Sacred Steel” tradition, a strain of African-American gospel in which the organ and the choir are cast aside in favor of an ensemble of wailing and preaching lap steel guitars. With countless reinterpretations of A Love Supreme already in existence—in every medium imaginable and by everyone from choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker to poet Michael S.Harper—some might be bold enough to ask, “Is there really anything left to say about A Love Supreme?” When it comes to the Campbell Brothers’ version, the question of what they can say about the music becomes irrelevant. But things get a lot more interesting when you ask, “What can the Campbell Brothers do with A Love Supreme?”

It’s been much discussed how Coltrane’s Christian background influenced him on A Love Supreme. His grandfathers on both sides were ministers in the African Methodist Episcopal church, and while the AME has a less affective and flamboyant style of worship than the House of God, Keith Dominion church that the Campbell Brothers come from, the musicality of the preachers Coltrane saw growing up no doubt had an influence on the album. As musicologist Lewis Porter notes, Coltrane’s playing on the piece’s final movement, “Psalm,” is essentially a recitation of the self-written poem he included in the album’s liner notes. Coltrane himself refers to “Psalm” in his own outline for A Love Supreme (below) as a “musical recitation of prayer by horn.” Porter points out that this recitation follows the basic “tonal system” of the chanted oral sermon1.

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Manuscript of A Love Supreme, by John Coltrane, 1964, Photo: Courtesy Smithsonian National Museum of American History via Flickr Creative Commons

The technique of preaching through the instrument has been one of the defining elements of Sacred Steel music ever since pioneering  steel guitarist Brother Willie Eason first performed “Just A Closer Walk with Thee” by “speaking the lyrics slowly while playing slurred passages on the top string of the steel guitar to make the instrument ‘talk,’” according to Sacred Steel historian Robert Stone2. These technical and structural parallels allow the Campbell Brothers to channel the Christian spirituality embedded in Coltrane’s piece.

The kinship between A Love Supreme and the music of the Sacred Steel tradition extends beyond technique. Both the House of God church service and the recording of a jazz record like A Love Supreme are occasions of structured improvisation. Just as Coltrane twists, mutates, and builds upon his composed themes in search of spiritual transcendence and knowledge, the Sacred Steel band leader will extend and improvise on sermons and spirituals while members of the congregation give personal testimony and seek the Holy Ghost3.  There is a shared balance between intensity and meditation in the music of Coltrane and the Campbell Brothers. Professor Tommy L. Lott remarks that Coltrane’s saxophone playing features the same fiery intensity of African-American church singing, “with no overriding concern for pitch or intonation”4. Yet, the space for tender, melodic beauty is also made in Sacred Steel music, as well A Love Supreme, in order to heighten the intensity later on. In an interview, Bishop Charles E. Campbell, father of the Campbell Brothers, talks about a technique he taught his sons called “the breakdown”:

When you get it in high and everybody’s jumpin’ and getting emotional with you, we say, “Break it down. Lower it down.” Put in a certain thing…something touching that people can relate to. And they start thinking about the Lord and themselves and how far they’re down, and how they need to be lifted up…5

Coltrane and his band toy with energy in the same way throughout the piece. Clearly, there a number of ways in which we can see John Coltrane and the Campbell Brothers operating within the same musical, cultural, and spiritual framework.

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John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, 1965, Photo: Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons

But the question remains: What are the Campbell Brothers doing with Love Supreme? Since Coltrane’s premature death in 1967, he has been mythologized perhaps more than any other figure in jazz. A Love Supreme is a central component of that myth, acting as a testament to Coltrane’s individual spirituality, a manifesto for his personal belief system. Coltrane himself seems to have wanted the album to be taken this way on some level. A Love Supreme is one of the only albums Coltrane ever wrote the liner notes for himself. These liner notes create a uniquely autobiographical context for the listener’s interpretation of the music6. He positions the album as a demonstration of his faith in God in the face of his struggles with drug addiction. At times, Coltrane explicitly asks us to see his music as personal testimony. In an interview with Newsweek from December 12, 1966, he said, “My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being.”

In his book Beyond A Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album, Musicologist Tony Whyton asks why we view the studio recording of A Love Supreme as the essential document of the piece, when live jazz is so often hailed as the most authentic way to experience the genre and plenty of recordings of Coltrane performing the piece live have been released. Ultimately, he concludes:

Within the studio recording of A Love Supreme, the absence of the visual and the control of Coltrane’s sound creates a context for music to be experienced as more profound and mysterious. In many ways, the album transcends its status as a physical object to become something more symbolic, a reified object and associated set of events that bring us closer to Coltrane’s dialogue with God than any live performance could7.

Again, it seems that this album is continually experienced as a piece of testimony by John Coltrane. When we listen to the December 9, 1964 studio recording of A Love Supreme, it almost feels as if we are eavesdropping on Trane as he sings his song of praise.

The Campbell Brothers, however, are less concerned with the audience witnessing their testimony. In the Sacred Steel churches, the band acts as a facilitator for the spiritual experiences of the congregation. A steel guitarist measures his success by how much he moves the congregation, not by how well he can communicate his own faith8. The Campbell Brothers manage to turn the isolated personal statement of John Coltrane into a tool for creating a more communal spiritual experience. They can turn the holy experience of listening to Coltrane’s prayer alone in a bedroom into something shared, public, and no less sacred.

 FOOTNOTES

1 Porter, Lewis. “John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’: Jazz Improvisation as Composition.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 38.3 (1985): 593–621.

2 Stone, Robert L. Sacred Steel inside an African American Steel Guitar Tradition. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2010. 75.

3 Ibid 34

4 Lott, Tommy. “When Bar Walkers Preach: John Coltrane and the Crisis of the Black Intellectual.” John Coltrane & Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music. Ed. Leonard L. Brown. New York: Oxford U, 2010. 115.

Stone, Robert L. Sacred Steel inside an African American Steel Guitar Tradition. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2010. 51.

Whyton, Tony. Beyond A Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album. New York: Oxford U, 2013. 28–29.

Ibid 33

Stone, Robert L. Sacred Steel inside an African American Steel Guitar Tradition. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2010. 50.

….

The Campbell Brothers will perform John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, along with a selection of gospel and spiritual works from their repertoire, on Thursday, February 26 at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater.   

2014: The Year According to Grant Hart

To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from graphic designer Tiffany Malakooti and artist Alejandro Cesarco to animator Miwa Matreyek and futurist Nicolas Nova—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2014. See the entire series 2014: The Year According to       […]

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To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from graphic designer Tiffany Malakooti and artist Alejandro Cesarco to animator Miwa Matreyek and futurist Nicolas Nova—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2014. See the entire series 2014: The Year According to                                 . 

Best known as a founding member of the fabled punk band Hüsker Dü (with Bob Mould and Greg Norton), Grant Hart is a drummer, songwriter, vocalist, and founder of the band Nova Mob (1989–1994). In 2013 he released his fourth solo album, The Argument, a 20-song double album inspired by John Milton’s Paradise Lost and “Lost Paradise,” a short story reinterpreting Milton’s classic, by his friend, William S. Burroughs. Next June, Hart will be featured in WISE BLOOD, an immersive second-line opera and exhibition based upon the southern gothic novel by Flannery O’Connor. The work, co-commissioned by the Walker Art Center and The Soap Factory (where it will be presented), features music by Anthony Gatto, a visual installation by Chris Larson, a cast of singers, brass bands, percussion lines, string players, and singers. Hart will play the role of blind street preacher Asa Hawks.


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William S. Burroughs, 1977. Photo: Wikipedia

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As time goes by, more young people are surprised by the fact that William S. Burroughs actually wrote books and wasn’t just a freaky old man who influenced Kurt Cobain. True, the happiest looking photos of Kurt show him at William’s home looking out from Bill’s home made orgone accumulator. William loved interaction with intelligent creative people, and to this day any gathering at a Burroughs event continues this tradition.

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Jeff Petrich

Jeff Petrich’s “Smoke and Croak”

Minneapolis’s West Bank has seen a lot over the years, but its Golden Age was long ago. During its heyday it was Mecca for jazz and folk artists who frequented the bars and cafes. A local fellow did his art there, producing an illustrated calendar for the Triangle Bar which featured photos of locals as well as notables from the outside world.

Jeff Petrich died this year. His death capped off a great year in which he showed his artwork in Finland as well as participating in a group show at the Belmore in Minneapolis.

When he suspected something was wrong, Jeff walked to Hennepin County Medical Center and was eventually told that he had cancer in more places than you can count with both hands. Treatment was as debilitating as the disease. Heroically, Jeff embarked on a project with his son William and William’s mother, Marie.  Entitled “Smoke and Croak,” this mission involved creating as much art as they could, smoking as much cannabis as he wished, and spending all of his time with the people who loved him the most. He stared death in the face, and I would not doubt if he saw death blink. There will be an exhibition of his work in 2015.

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Avjar. Photo: Ivana Sokolović, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

Ajvar

September is the beginning of Ajvar (pronounced eye-var) season in Croatia. Sometimes ajvar is called “Yugoslavian caviar.” I think the reason for this is because people love to eat it rather than due to any snob appeal it might have. It is a simple paste made from roasted peppers, eggplant, and olive oil. Simple to make but recipes for making it will stray from that simplicity and suggest adding things that don’t belong in ajvar. It is not meant to be hot, but it’s warm and savory, rich and satisfying.

Nearly every Balkan country claim it as theirs. I have had it from northern Croatia to Bulgaria and it varies little from place to place.

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Stargaze

This is a group with roughly 20 members who rotate depending on the size required and the instruments involved. Stargaze teams up with songwriters to perform their music with an orchestra who shares this dream. I had the pleasure of spending a week with these fine players rehearsing and performing two concerts and watching them working with others.

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Haldern Pop

Situated near Cologne, Germany, the town of Haldern rolls up its sleeves every August and puts on what is arguably the most pleasant music festival in the world. Three days of music every year since 1984, Haldern Pop is devoid of billboard-sized corporate logos and all of the nonsense that distracts from a good musical experience. Set in a huge equestrian park, there is a very large stage and a “spiegel tent,” an antique portable venue that collapses to fit on a semi trailer. Off site in the town center are a bar and a 12th-century church that feature music indoors. Most of the tickets for next year have already been purchased.

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The “Joan Anderson letter,” written from Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac. Photo: TIME

The Joan Anderson Letter

The very recent re-discovery of this legendary letter by Neil Cassady to a girlfriend, Joan Anderson has the world of literature flipping. Cassady was the inspiration for the Sal Paradise character in Jack Kerouak’s much overrated On the Road. For the rest of Kerouak’s life, people assumed that he was Paradise and Cassady went on and eventually was the bus driver for Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. Justice will be served by the attention this discovery brings to Cassady as the master of hip argot.

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RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic

Titanic Controversy

With each passing year, more people are coming around to the theory that the White Star liner Olympic was switched for the Titanic and sunk in her place by swindling board members of a huge multinational cabal. Much like 9/11 and JFK, the sinking that shocked the world has captivated folks who won’t believe that anything or anyone so great could be brought down by simple means or by simple men. Such is the nature of men and myth.

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Still from Heavy Rotation (2011), featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial

Whitney Biennial

This year I had the honor of attending this Super Bowl of American art with one of the featured artists, Chris Larson of St. Paul. Work by Charline von Heyl stole my heart like little else, but I was there for the shrimp.

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Union Depot, St. Paul

It was the largest building I ever saw when my family saw my brother off on his trip to Seattle in 1967 from this landmark. Back then, the gleaming brass of the William Crooks Locomotive was on display to excite the fantasy of a six year old and the ceilings looked as high as the sky. The first train in Minnesota, the Crooks is now at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth and the station in St. Paul has assumed its place as the gateway to the city once again.

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The new Vikings stadium under construction. Photo: Lars Hammar, Flickr, used under Creative Commons License

Stadium construction

Whoever thought that blackmail could be so pretty! As a lifelong believer that professional sports should house themselves and not be parasites sucking resources from the city, I was surprised to see how visually stimulating the tower cranes and skeleton of the new downtown stadium are. Stadiums are much more attractive than low income housing or new schools with good teachers. The salaries paid to pro athletes are sometimes greater than the cost of building a school, but who needs schools when you can be Champions!

The Ecstatic Celebration: Omar Souleyman at The Cedar

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

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Omar Souleyman; Photo: Molly Hanse

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

In Modern Standard Arabic, the word “Hafla (حفلة)” carries the sense of both the English words “Concert” and “Party.” It might be more accurate then to refer to Syrian singer and electro-dabke wizard Omar Souleyman’s performance to a packed crowd at the Cedar on Friday night as a hafla. Slowly traipsing back and forth across the stage, Souleyman led one of the most frenzied and ecstatic dance parties I’ve ever seen in the Twin Cities. When I saw this crowd of supposedly reserved Minnesotans losing their minds like a bunch raving club kids to Souleyman’s synthesis of traditional Levantine celebration music and Western electronic dance music, I have to say I was a bit relieved.

International pop artists like Omar Souleyman are so often positioned as mere intellectual curiosities by Western press and promoters. A lot of the discussion around Souleyman seems to amount to little more than saying, “He wears a keffiyeh  and he makes electronic dance music?! How fascinating?!” When people come to shows expecting to see some think piece of a pop performance, they’re rarely ready to dance. In July, I was lucky enough to see the legendary Ethiopian pop star Mahmoud Ahmed at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. Sadly, while Ahmed and his band were laying down the rawest gutbucket grooves, most of the people in the crowd were standing stiff, flaccidly nodding their heads, or taking Instagram photos. It took over half a set of the 73-year-old Ahmed’s desperate coaxing before the audience allowed itself to stop observing and start participating (I don’t think it helped matters that two hardly-danceable free jazz trios served as the opening acts that night). Thankfully, those who attended Omar Souleyman’s party in Minneapolis came to play.

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Vacation Dad; Photo: Sam Segal

The hyperactive cosmic slop of opening performer Vacation Dad provided a perfect entry point for the night’s festivities. Vacation Dad, the project of producer Andy Todryk, ramped up the BPMs on the spaced-out electronic exotica of his recordings in favor of lush, drop-heavy dance music. After a short set of Bernie Worrell meets Diplo magic, Vacation Dad cleared the stage for the man we were all here to see.

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Rizan Sa’id; Photo: Sam Segal

Building up the tension with the skill of a true showman, the performance began with Souleyman’s master keyboardist, Rizan Sa’id, alone on stage. Over the years, Souleyman’s band has trimmed down to the solo accompaniment of Sa’id, who somehow manages to conjure an entire dabke orchestra on two old Korgs. With a slow, somber melody emanating from the keyboard, Souleyman’s ghostly Arabic greeted the crowd from somewhere offstage. “He’s saying, ‘Goodmorning,’” a guy next to me told a child near him. The guy continued to translate Souleyman’s speech for another minute, but eventually he gave up, telling the child to “think of the words as music.”

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Omar Souleyman and Rizan Sa’id; Photo: Sam Segal

Over the years, Souleyman has replaced all traditional instrumentation with electronics, leading him to develop a totally unique style of manically sped up, overdriven dabke music. In a 2013 interview with The Guardian, he referred to this style as a sport: “The fast music is a kind of sport, it makes you move—it’s like any sport where you jump or run. And it’s the same for the audience as well; they tend to dance even more to the fast music.” Well, if this concert was a sport, then Souleyman was our haggard veteran coach, effortlessly conducting our boisterous participation with stoic hand gestures and the occasional affirmative grin. We clapped when he clapped, and we shouted back in call-and-response joy when he pointed the mic towards us (no doubt botching the Arabic phrase he was looking for).

Throughout the show, I was doing my best to try and figure out which songs Souleyman was pulling from his massive catalog, but outside of the fact that I don’t speak Arabic, I could hardly quit clapping and jumping up-and-down long enough to even try. I’d come in with all sorts of political questions: What does it mean that Souleyman is performing music that is increasingly becoming a historical artifact with the devastation caused by the civil war in Syria? Does it matter that this audience might not understand the ethnomusicological context of his music? How much will a Western audience project its stereotypes of Arab identity onto him? But when the skittering beat took over and Souleyman’s gruff voice began calling out poetry I could only understand as another musical instrument, those questions really didn’t seem relevant. What was relevant was the moment and the simple awe of watching a pop star at the height of his powers leading a crowd in communal celebration.

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