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The Inherent Elegance of superposition: Noah Keesecker on Ryoji Ikeda

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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 and multimedia artist Noah Keesecker shares his perspective on last night’s performance of superposition by Ryoji […]

superposition , 2012. © Kazuo Fukunaga / Kyoto Experiment in Kyoto Art Theater, Shunjuza

superposition, 2012. © Kazuo Fukunaga / Kyoto Experiment in Kyoto Art Theater, Shunjuza

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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 and multimedia artist Noah Keesecker shares his perspective on last night’s performance of superposition by Ryoji Ikeda. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Ryoji Ikeda doesn’t require you to care about quantum physics anymore than quantum physics require you to care about art. Which is to say that Ikeda’s superposition is not about the math as much as it is of the math and in Ikeda’s world to be of math is to have inherent elegance.

In an interview with MoMA regarding his collaborative duo Cyclo., Ikeda states that “to me, sound is a property of physics; vibrations of air. Music is, in essence, a property of mathematics; without mathematical structures, sounds are merely sounds”. Speaking to him after the performance we chatted about a major underpinning of his work which is that even without our human aesthetic values about sound the mathematical visual derivations he is drawing would still exist. He didn’t invent the sine wave, moiré patterns, Lissajous curves, or the Qubit, but he has invented an astonishingly crisp and pointed work that easily translates the vastness, precision, violence, and subtly of physics and art in a brilliantly crafted audio-visual work.

In general Ikeda’s work stands out for its extremes and superposition is no different. It doesn’t shy away from amplitude (your program comes with earplugs), it doesn’t pander to the moderate audio frequency range of your radio (you can leave your compression at home), and it doesn’t even bother with the topic of popular music idiom comparisons (it’s not about that bass, but there is plenty of bass). What is significant about these extremes is that he is working with a full palette, because if you are going to try to make a work about quantum physics you’re going to need every hertz, decibel, and pixel you can get your hands on.

But what about the show?

It’s a fast 65 minutes. The architecture is pristine, the visuals are surgical, the music is searing at one moment and cool and atmospheric the next. You are gently lulled into Ikeda’s quantum machine and then soon overwhelmed with data. Don’t try to make sense of it all, you’re not supposed to. Someone asked me about a particular section and “what it means.” The work is not narrative anymore than a mathematical theorem is narrative; the meaning determined and extracted through its practical application and relation to a body of knowledge.

Word, words, words. Ryoji isn’t into describing art with words either. Yet words are everywhere. The live performers pound out virtuosic Morse code in unison, illuminate, obscure, and then decode the principles of quantum superposition with keyboards, analog microfilm and live video feeds. In the one quirky and lighthearted section of the work the performers have a simultaneous thought stream like two computers arguing the 1’s and 0’s of the same data set, trying to grapple with humanity, science, religion, matter, life, and meaning, and there is something cute, revelatory, and terrifying about the whole segment. And then, like a text book definition of superposition, when you try to read the position and speed of a particle at the same time, the Qubits hit the fan and the result is explosive and mesmerizing.

Addendum: What Ryoji and I talked about afterwards.

The tuning forks. I overheard half a dozen people raving about the tuning forks and for good reason. I was particularly interested in this section because to me it is the most simple and magnificent execution of superposition, and the music and math that makes it. Two sound waves firing back and forth at each other, each frequency precisely chosen (Ikeda has made hundreds of custom tuning forks at peculiar and precise tunings) for the visual moiré patterns that it produces. It’s like a mathematical proof for Superposition; simple, elegant, factual, and brilliantly rendered and this, this is beautiful art.

Ryoji Ikeda’s superposition will be performed again tonight, October 25, 2014, in the McGuire Theater.

Data Swarms and Physical Sound: The Cerebral and Bodily Art of Ryoji Ikeda

“Somebody said something very interesting. That if you listen to a Ryoji Ikeda CD, you feel minimalist but if you go to see his performance you really feel he is a maximalist, physically.”—Ryoji Ikeda in a 2006 interview with David Toop in The Wire On the surface, it might appear that sound and visual artist […]

superposition , 2012. © Kazuo Fukunaga / Kyoto Experiment in Kyoto Art Theater, Shunjuza

superposition, 2012. Photo: © Kazuo Fukunaga / Kyoto Experiment in Kyoto Art Theater, Shunjuza

“Somebody said something very interesting. That if you listen to a Ryoji Ikeda CD, you feel minimalist but if you go to see his performance you really feel he is a maximalist, physically.”—Ryoji Ikeda in a 2006 interview with David Toop in The Wire

On the surface, it might appear that sound and visual artist Ryoji Ikeda only creates pieces for isolated academics hiding on the top floor of some New Music ivory tower in Switzerland, squirreling away on their next paper about the acoustic phenomenology of stereophonic subjectivity or whatever. Ikeda recently won the Prix Ars Electronica Collide competition at CERN (you know, the place where they discovered the Higgs boson), which granted him a two-year research residency at the nuclear laboratory. In 2008, he collaborated with Harvard number theorist Benedict Gross on V≠L, a series of multimedia installations investigating a mathematical concept of infinity known as the “axiom of constructability.” superposition, the audio-visual piece Ikeda presents at the Walker on Friday, October 24, and Saturday, October 25, gets its title from a principle of quantum theory.

A brief, superficial listen of any Ikeda album might lead you to the same conclusion. The ascetic tone of the sine wave is the bedrock of his sound. Melodies, rhythms, and discernible narratives are all largely absent. He seems to relish bizarre juxtapositions and tonal shifts.

Yet this portrait of Ryoji Ikeda as a totally cerebral artist can be alienating and inaccurate. Ikeda isn’t an academically trained musician or visual artist. He began his career DJing in clubs in Toyko in the early 1990s. This is perhaps where he first learned how to use music and visuals as forms of stimulation to provoke the body and create visceral spectacles. Ikeda’s ability to manipulate an audience’s physical response to his work is what makes him such a vital and accessible artist.

Shards of static tickle the insides of your ears. You can feel his impossibly heavy bass drones in the pit of your chest. Sine waves bouncing back and forth between the left and right channels increasingly disorient your sense of space. Ikeda reminds us of the very physical nature of sound. In an interview with MoMa’s Inside/Out blog, he refers to sound as “vibrations of air.” The rapidly shifting digital images that accompany these sounds also produce physical responses. Streams of data collide on-screen to create a sensory overload that can literally cause an epileptic seizure. Ikeda’s work often circumvents cognitive processing by going straight for our bodies, and you don’t need a PhD in theoretical mathematics to feel the effects.

superposition , 2012. © Kazuo Fukunaga / Kyoto Experiment in Kyoto Art Theater, Shunjuza

superposition, 2012. Photo: © Kazuo Fukunaga / Kyoto Experiment in Kyoto Art Theater, Shunjuza

superposition is Ikeda’s first piece featuring human performers since his days collaborating with the Japanese theater collective Dumb Type. For this performance, experimental musicians Stéphane Garin and Amélie Grould will act as “operator/conductor/observer/examiners,” according to his website. In the past, Ikeda has expressed distrust in his capabilities as an improviser and a desire for total artistic control. “When I create a piece, music, installation, or audio-visual concert, my vision is so clear I need control,” he told The Wire in 2006. It’s possible that, with the introduction of human agents, superposition will be even more in touch with the human body because it’s being created by sensitive performers in real time.

Walker audiences may already be familiar with the collaborative side of Ikeda. The Walker co-presented, with the Guthrie Lab, his work with Dumb Type in [OR] in 1999 and Memorandum in 2001—two early examples of the types of immersive spectacles Ikeda has become known for.  Unlike anything that had been seen before in the Twin Cities, the assaultive quality of those performances astonished and thrilled audiences.

In recent years, Ikeda has created a number of massive public art pieces that have maintained the astounding nature of his performances with Dumb Type, while shying away from the shock tactics of those earlier works. His piece spectra, which sent immense beams of white light into the sky, toured multiple major cities in Europe. Every night this October, his audio-visual work test pattern has taken over the forty-seven digital screens in Times Square from 11:57 pm to midnight. Despite the theoretical background of these pieces, their visibility suggests a growing populist sentiment in Ikeda’s work.

Now, none of this is to say that there isn’t deep intellectual complexity embedded in all of what Ryoji Ikeda does. The power of his work is that it’s able to remove truly profound and moving mathematic concepts from the stasis and inaccessibility created by academic jargon. In superposition, Ikeda makes the data that swarms around us visible, audible, and sublime.

The Walker will present Ryoji Ikeda’s superposition Friday, October 24 and Saturday, October 25, 2014 in the McGuire Theater.

superposition , 2012. © Kazuo Fukunaga / Kyoto Experiment in Kyoto Art Theater, Shunjuza

superposition, 2012. Photo: © Kazuo Fukunaga / Kyoto Experiment in Kyoto Art Theater, Shunjuza

Open Veins of Hip-Hop: Ana Tijoux at The Cedar

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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 and Radio K DJ Sam Segal shares his perspective on Ana Tijoux […]

Photo: Nacional Records

Photo: Nacional Records

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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 and Radio K DJ Sam Segal shares his perspective on Ana Tijoux and Maria Isa at the Cedar Cultural Center on October 4, 2014. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments.

The Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz was once asked whether he only writes to a Dominican or Latino audience. The interviewer, Jasmine Garsd from NPR’s Alt.Latino podcast, pointed out how much Spanish goes untranslated in his work, and she questioned whether this was a move to limit his audience to members of his community. Diaz wholeheartedly disagreed. “There’s always a space in any piece of art for a completely random person that you didn’t imagine to fall in love,” he said. I wonder if when Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux was writing the songs she performed on Saturday night at the Cedar, she imagined that a white, non-Spanish-speaker from Minnesota could connect with them so deeply.

Tijoux was accompanied by the guitar, bass, drums, and percussion of a live band, as well as samples from her percussionist’s laptop. She began the night with the title track off of her new album, Vengo (I remember enough high-school Spanish to know that means, “I come”).  Sampled pan flutes cried out on their own before the band dropped in a sharp Andean groove. Any of the audience’s previous associations between the pan flute and sterile, generic “World” music left the building. The instrument became anthemic, and Tijoux’s relentless flow locked into rhythm with it immediately.

Later in the set, she broke out “1977,” a single from 2010 that the audience may have recognized from its appearance in an episode of Breaking Bad. The beat was based on a sample that sounded straight out of a Morricone Spaghetti Western score. Tijoux seemed to be reclaiming this music from a film industry that often used it to Orientalize and demonize Latin Americans.

The packed crowd was about as enthusiastic as I’ve ever seen at the Cedar. Gone were the crossed arms, muted head nods, and desperate attempts to avoid eye contact that I was used to at indie-rock shows.  Groups of friends around me embraced and danced without shame. Hands waved in the air without any desperate prompting from the performer on stage. It made me think: when people characterize Minnesotans as shy and insular, who do they really think of as being “Minnesotan?” Maria Isa, the opening performer, referred to herself as a Sota-Rican, seeing no contradiction between her Puerto Rican and Minnesotan identities. Her music fused traditional Puerto Rican Bomba music (itself a pretty syncretic genre), R&B, and classic Twin Cities backpack rap.

Ana Tijoux grew up in France after her politically active parents were exiled during the Pinochet coup. Yet, she finds a balance between her French and Chilean identities in hip-hop. She managed to combine conscious rap, traditional Chilean folk music, the protest anthems of Victor Jara, and the feminist theory of Beauvoir. With hip-hop’s sampled beats and total lyrical freedom, it makes sense that the genre would attract artists looking to express their multiplicity.

Ultimately, though, I didn’t spend my night tallying up Tijoux’s influences; the music was too fluid and engaging for that. No, I spent my night dancing and vowing to learn how to speak Spanish again.

By Invitation: Maia Maiden on Scaffold Room

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View Series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Twin Cities dance artist Maia Maiden shares her perspective on Ralph Lemon’s Scaffold Room. Agree […]

Okwui Okpokwasili, during an Open Rehearsal of Scaffold Room at the Walker. Photo: Gene Pittman

Okwui Okpokwasili during an open rehearsal of Scaffold Room at the Walker. Photo: Gene Pittman

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View Series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Twin Cities dance artist Maia Maiden shares her perspective on Ralph Lemon’s Scaffold Room. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments.

Some of you may need an invitation for this, some of us won’t. Or some of us may need an invitation for this, some of you won’t. Whatever box you may fit into, check that one and move into the box of the Scaffold Room. Enter black art in a white space. Now take away the undertones and hidden messages of what that could mean and deconstruct. Literally, black art: black creator, black artists, black content, black structure (physical and mental). Literally, white space: white walls, white floors, white lights, white box. With permission and without definition, Ralph Lemon enters the space to tell a story of blackness. From his own mouth, he discovered something… This is why it is partially a lecture and a musical. From the lens of a black man enters the presentation of a black woman to the world. Unapologetic for his experiences and outlook, the connections between literature, music, radical politics, sexual exploration, and Beyoncé will make you question your opinions on how you entered the white space. Tap into what you know (well, maybe). Ask questions about what you don’t know (well, maybe not). Find your box… by invitation.

A Basic Guide to All Things Scaffold Room

Ralph Lemon’s new work, Scaffold Room, is truly interdisciplinary. Blurring the line between performing arts and visual arts, it exists in the white cube of the gallery but also includes ticketed, seated performances. Scaffold Room challenges the ways we usually think about and talk about art, which is part of why it’s so exciting—but it can also be […]

ralph_lemon_scaffold_room_2014-15_07_PP

April Matthis during a residency at MANCC, February–March 2014. Photo: Chris Cameron

Ralph Lemon’s new work, Scaffold Room, is truly interdisciplinary. Blurring the line between performing arts and visual arts, it exists in the white cube of the gallery but also includes ticketed, seated performances. Scaffold Room challenges the ways we usually think about and talk about art, which is part of why it’s so exciting—but it can also be difficult to describe in just a few words.

With that in mind, I thought I’d outline the different forms Scaffold Room will take in the coming week, including set performances and Refraction performances, as well as talks, discussions, and open rehearsals. Attending a combination of these events will enrich and deepen your understanding of the work as a whole.

Scaffold Room Performances, September 26–28

Friday, 7 and 9:30 pm; Saturday, 8 pm; Sunday, 7 pm

Experience Scaffold Room as a 90-minute performance within the gallery, featuring artists Okwui Okpokwasili and April Matthis, along with DJ/composer Marina Rosenfeld. These four performances are seated, ticketed, and have a limited capacity. They will have a different feel and structure from the opening kickoff event, so it’s definitely worthwhile to plan to attend both a ticketed performance as well as Scaffold Room Refraction on Thursday night.

Scaffold Room Refraction, September 25, 5–9 pm

The free opening kickoff event, Scaffold Room Refraction, takes place during Target Free Thursday Night. Refraction is a series of performances that invite a deeper examination of the performance experience, including an unpredictable mix of live music and parallel performances layered across the evening. You’ll be free to roam around the gallery space, and come and go as you please. A cash bar in the adjacent lobby will serve as a place to gather, mingle, and discuss what you’re seeing.

Related Event: Opening Night SpeakEasy Discussion, 7–9 pm

The Scaffold Room SpeakEasy takes place in Cargill Lounge, and is your chance to talk about the work with other people, or just listen in. The SpeakEasy discussion will be led by local artists Jessica Fiala, Caroline Kent, and Marcus Young.

Scaffold Room Refraction, September 27–28, afternoons

Refraction performances will continue over the weekend, with a similar format to Thursday night, but will include different parallel performances. These are free with gallery admission.

Related Event: Gallery Talk with Scaffold Room Creators, September 27, 1 pm

Local poet/performance artist Gabrielle Civil will moderate a discussion with Ralph Lemon, Okwui Okpokwasili, and April Matthis. Also free with gallery admission.

Open Rehearsals, September 19–24

Ralph Lemon and his team of artists will offer an ongoing, behind-the-scenes look at the work as it takes shape via a series of Open Rehearsals. Stop by during gallery hours any day before the opening kickoff to see the artists at work. The Open Rehearsals are free with gallery admission (note: certain times may need to be closed to the public, but feel free to call ahead to double check).

Meditation Film Installation, September 24–28

While you’re here, don’t forget to head over to the McGuire Theater to see Meditation, a 2010 film by Ralph Lemon and Jim Findlay that is now part of the Walker’s collection. Meditation screenings are ongoing, and free with gallery admission.

Exclusive Video: Dessa’s “Fighting Fish” as Remixed by The Hood Internet

For a woman bringing a distinctive voice to the male-dominated world of hip hop, Dessa says it was both “brain-scrambling” and grafifying to hear herself as a man—or, more accurately, to witness her voice slowed down so much that it sounded like that of a male rapper. That’s what Chicago’s The Hood Internet did with […]

Dessa. Photo: Hannah Hofmann

Dessa. Photo: Hannah Hofmann

For a woman bringing a distinctive voice to the male-dominated world of hip hop, Dessa says it was both “brain-scrambling” and grafifying to hear herself as a man—or, more accurately, to witness her voice slowed down so much that it sounded like that of a male rapper. That’s what Chicago’s The Hood Internet did with her single “Fighting Fish”: for an album released this June, the Minneapolis poet, writer, and Doomtree emcee shared the vocal tracks from her 2013 release Parts of Speech with other musicians and producers for reimagining. Offering The Green Room‘s readers an exclusive first look at the new video for the “Fighting Fish” remix—alongside the original—Dessa shares her thoughts, both on the remix project and on that first time listening to her voice slowed to man-like levels:

The beat for the original “Fighting Fish” was produced by my labelmate, Lazerbeak. It’s got a driving, aggressive sound; the lyrics I wrote for it are about going for the big win, even against long odds (music career, anyone?). In the Midwest, bold ambitions are often perceived as presumptuous: Who are you to think you can do or be something special? This song swims against that current.

We released “Fighting Fish” on my album Parts of Speech last year. This summer Doomtree released a remix project: we sent a cappella versions of the songs to producers around the country and asked them to build new production around the vocals. My favorite remix came from the The Hood Internet, based in Chicago. The remixed version of “Fighting Fish” is chopped and screwed, the vocals slowed down enough to sound as if they were recorded by a male artist. When I first received the file, I listened to it on repeat in my one-bedroom apartment, stunned. The new version seemed to change the emotional center of the song completely–more melancholic, an added gravitas. To hear my lyrics delivered in a man’s voice was brain-scrambling. The male voice is the featured instrument in most rap music; it’s the instrument to which I’m most accustomed as a listener and a fan. The transposition was at once gratifying (I sound like the artists I like!) and sobering as potential evidence of my own ingrained sexism (Do I grant male voices an authority that I don’t grant female voices–including my own?) After all the sociopolitical considerations subsided, however, I continue to love this remix because it kicks ass musically and it’s a big, bold departure from the original.

We recorded a music video for each version of the song. Both were directed by the team Isaac Gale and David Jensen. A big thanks to those two and to all the artists that contributed on this project. Hope you dig it, too.

Dessa, “Fighting Fish (The Hood Internet Remix)”

Dessa, “Fighting Fish” (Original)

For more from Dessa at the Walker, watch her perform “Bangarang” with Doomtree at Rock the Garden 2012; view the Rock the Garden 2014 time-lapse; see video of the October 2013 reading/book-launch party for her poetry chapbook, A Pound of Steam; or read “2013: The Year According to Dessa.” To see Dessa live, check her out on tour, starting later this week, or at Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall, where she’ll make her choral debut in October.

Rock the Garden 8-Ball: Lizzo

After the announcement that Lizzo has joined Rock the Garden 2014, she told The Current that she felt like a “gift-wrapped package with glitter coming out of the top.” Originally from Detroit and raised in Houston, Lizzo and her music have been giving steadily to the Twin Cities over the last few years, and the […]

Lizzo photographed in Minneapolis on February 8th 2014

Photo: Cameron Wittig

After the announcement that Lizzo has joined Rock the Garden 2014, she told The Current that she felt like a “gift-wrapped package with glitter coming out of the top.” Originally from Detroit and raised in Houston, Lizzo and her music have been giving steadily to the Twin Cities over the last few years, and the Twin Cities have been giving right back. She told DazedDigital.com, “Coming to Minneapolis I felt the most comfortable I have ever been . . . We all want to create art. I’m not saying it’s higher or lower, or better or worse. It’s just everyone can see eye to eye there.” Much of this local love for Lizzo came from her 2013 release of Lizzobangers, an album she made with Lazerbeak (Doomtree) and Ryan Olson (Gayngs, Marijuana Deathsquads). Her brazen verses are equally comical and combative, harkening back to some of the industry’s first female MCs, and her sound encompasses an array of influences. She told The 405 that “Beyoncé is a constant inspiration,” and that her dream collaboration would be with Bach. Lizzo’s videos are similarly wide-ranging: “Batches & Cookies” celebrates marriage equality and baked goods, while her new “Faded” video features cameos from Har Mar Superstar, Caroline Smith, and Macaulay Culkin.

Lizzo provides us with the third edition of Rock the Garden 8-Ball (following Dessa and Jeremy Messersmith) as she ponders her past life, career options, and other not-so-pressing questions.

What’s your best kept Twin Cities secret you don’t mind sharing?

Vicki at Paula’s Nails in Uptown. She’s an amazing nail artist.

What are three of your tour necessities?

Shower, panties, FaceTime.

If you had to pick another career, what would it be and why?

I’ve always wanted to be a novelist, I loved writing epic fantasies when I was 6.

Do you have a favorite park/green space in the Twin Cities?

Theodore Wirth Park! Now I’m super close to it so I love walking around the quaking bog.

Write a haiku about your current location.

Soft billowing cloud

White noise rolling steadily

My bed (is the shit).

What is your favorite sound?

French horn fanfare.

Do you think you were anyone specific in a past life?

A male diplomat.

What’s the last (or favorite) book you read?

Just read Spiral Bound, by Dessa.

Rock the Garden 2014 takes place on Saturday, June 21, and Sunday, June 22. See the full lineup and buy tickets here.

Rock the Garden 8-Ball: Dessa

Bringing the Twin Cities music scene’s definitive earnestness to a national audience, Dessa’s solo work in alternative hip hop is long overdue for a slot at Rock the Garden, where local artists have maintained a crucial presence since its inception. Dessa, though, is no stranger to the festival, performing in 2012 as a part of […]

Dessa. Photo: Bill Phelps

Dessa. Photo: Bill Phelps

Bringing the Twin Cities music scene’s definitive earnestness to a national audience, Dessa’s solo work in alternative hip hop is long overdue for a slot at Rock the Garden, where local artists have maintained a crucial presence since its inception. Dessa, though, is no stranger to the festival, performing in 2012 as a part of Doomtree, their set of homegrown hip hop energizing the sold-out crowd like none other in Rock the Garden history. Lately, she has been taking her intensely personal music around the country as a part of her Parts of Speech tour, and on Sunday, June 22, she brings her verses and melodies to the Vineland Place stage. A lover of writing from Seneca to David Foster Wallace, Dessa is an expert wordsmith herself outside of her musical life. This fall saw the release of A Pound of Steam, a poetry chapbook published by Rain Taxi Review of Books, and a visit to the Walker to read her work. Like her poetry, Dessa’s music is both intelligent and viscerally emotive, often getting to the heart through the head. “And for the most part,” she told The Rumpus in an interview, “my songs are about true lived experiences, are true stories.” We sent her an 8-Ball questionnaire, and she took the time to answer some questions about lived experiences both big and small, from working her with fear to being forced to sit through The Deer Hunter

What is your current musical obsession?

Eastern European and Indian scales. I don’t have any foundation in music theory, so I’m sort of freestyling a study regimen, but I love the sounds–dark, melancholic, a little sinister. 

What’s your best kept Twin Cities secret you don’t mind sharing?

Maybe not quite a secret, but Sugar, Sugar on Grand Avenue definitely warrants a visit–custom made exotic candies and chocolates. The chocolate bar with lime tortilla chips doesn’t sound like much, but is damn good. 

Write a haiku about your current location.

Nobody should watch

The Deer Hunter on a plane.

Window seat, crying.

What are you afraid of?

I’m afraid of falling short of my creative ambitions–afraid I might reach the limits of my talent, or become too discouraged to make brave, passionate material. Nothing to do but carry on, though. I think a career in the arts often asks a person to learn to coexist comfortably with fear and uncertainty. 

What is your favorite sound?

Human voices, in harmony. (A quarter’s worth of Reese’s pieces in a vending machine might be a close second.) 

Do you think you were anyone specific in a past life?

Nope. Hard enough trying to figure out who I am in this one. 

If you could choose your last meal, what would it be?

Half a dozen little courses: sushi; the melty, smashy sandwiches they serve in Brazil; cashews and avocados. Then a half dozen desserts: peanut butter cups, cake with buttercream frosting, maybe some marzipan. This game is making me both hungry and sad. 

What’s the last (or favorite) book you read?

Just finished Myra Breckenridge by Gore Vidal. 

Rock the Garden 2014 takes place on Saturday, June 21, and Sunday, June 22. See the full lineup and buy tickets here.

Jazz + Mine: Sally Rousse on Song of the Jasmine

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, local dance artist Sally Rousse shares her perspective on the opening night of Ragamala Dance and […]

Ragamala_Aparna_806_fusion_22014_PP

Aparna Ramaswamy of Ragamala Dance. Art and photo: Ed Bock

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, local dance artist Sally Rousse shares her perspective on the opening night of Ragamala Dance and Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Song of the Jasmine. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Five dancers in a line on the right facing five musicians to the left; several bells hang at various lengths above the dancers while subtle smoke and lights begin to warm the McGuire Theater at the Walker Art Center.  I like the lines, the minimalism. I like the small cast, the parity, the program notes that promise “feverish urgency” and “the inverted.”  A teenage female mystic poet. I might like this show more than any other Ragamala Dance performance I’ve ever seen over the past 20 years.

Song of the Jasmine – a collaboration between Minneapolis’s Ragamala Dance and New York-based jazz saxophonist/composer Rudresh Mahanthappa – cites the writings of 8th century Tamil mystic poet Andal as inspiration. Legend has it that Andal was a sort of foster child, found and raised from birth by Vishnuchitta, a Krishna-focused poet. Brought up with these poems, songs, devotional texts, it’s only natural that the girl would refuse to marry any mortal. Instead, she had a spiritual marriage with a deity of the lord Vishsnu and was consumed into light. Her Nachiyar Tirumozhi, the composition guiding Song of the Jasmine, was Andal’s second and final work, regarded as sacred text on par with the Sanskrit Vedas. She was only fifteen.

One stunning scene has the three beautiful Ramaswamy women in an extended trio that, in variations, seems to tell the story of a girl longing with all her heart to be united with her Loved One, the Divine: He makes her heart beat; He’s like a bee finding nectar in her flowering youth; there is no aroma to compare to that of the Divine; love has invaded her veins.  I think there are snakes, too. And there is compelling floor work, drawing in the sand, writing it all down.  I saw Ranee “loosening the braids of reason” and Aparna dancing the line “my vow to him courses through my body.”  Then, it turns sad, there are tears of unrequited love: “while I pine and sigh for his love, He looks on indifferent.” Teen angst.

But Andal keeps her eye on the prize. Hindu religious aspirations are intense and they do not shy away from seeing their God as Friend, Mother, Child, Self or in this case Lover. Writer Priya Sarrukai Chabbria says in The Autobiography of a Goddess “Andal sings of her individual need for spiritual and sexual congress with her chosen god and of an abundant female desire explicitly sited in the body which, too, is holy.”

The performance had the traditional Bharatanatyam costuming (jewel-colored pleated fabric, bells, red painted hands and toes), and postures (bent knees, arched lower back, slight smile, expressive roving eyes) as well as the percussive marching backwards, articulate mime, and what I like to call “Indian waltzing” in ¾ time. But Ragamala is committed to dynamically weaving their classical South Indian dance form into their American existence. And so much more. I saw some interesting extensions into contemporary movement that includes supple arms and backs and a softness that took Aparna to the floor and somehow back up again like no one else but Hijack’s Arwen Wilder can do. Whoa.

Aparna and Ranee Ramaswamy’s choreography and Mahanthrappa’s jazz-Indian music drove each other powerfully and was surprisingly sensual.  The drumming anchors the movements while the sax often leads the narrative. There are star turns by everyone: the guitarist, Rez Abassi, playing really weird stuff; solos for the always joyful Tamara Nadel and incredible lunges and balances from Jessica Fiala. The Carnatic Violinist, Anjna Swaminathan who has been working with Ragamala in recent years, makes it look easy.  (If you’re wondering, like me, whether “carnatic” has anything to do with “carnal” or “carnivorous”, it doesn’t. But Swaminathan does play the violin like she’s hungry).

When the flutist Raman Kalya takes over for a bit it’s amazing how his positions match Ashwini Ramaswamy’s arms and torso, as though she, too is holding and playing the music.

Ashwini is a gorgeous dancer, so strong and exacting with a really satisfyingly flexible, playful neck. Rock solid balance and delightful, every single moment. Aparna — what more can be said about her as a performer? She’s confident, brave, intelligent, and in her prime, yet she shares the stage generously, with a new maturity that is alluring. Ranee, who just won a prestigious Doris Duke Artist Award, is stunning: the most present and hip, just oozing natural experience and knowing. Andal should have lived such a life.

Ragamala Dance and Rudresh Mahanthappa perform Song of the Jasmine in the Walker’s McGuire Theater May 15-18.

Choreographing Music, Composing Dance: Rehearsing Song of the Jasmine

Hybridity, fusion, interdisciplinarity, globalization… the 21st century is an era of mixing, collaboration, and multiplicity in which art and identity intertwine in both innovative and time-honored ways. This week the Walker presents Ragamala Dance and saxophonist/composer Rudresh Mahanthappa in Song of the Jasmine, a Walker commission and world premiere. The work, a collaboration between Mahanthappa […]

Hybridity, fusion, interdisciplinarity, globalization… the 21st century is an era of mixing, collaboration, and multiplicity in which art and identity intertwine in both innovative and time-honored ways. This week the Walker presents Ragamala Dance and saxophonist/composer Rudresh Mahanthappa in Song of the Jasmine, a Walker commission and world premiere. The work, a collaboration between Mahanthappa and Ragamala’s artistic directors Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy (a mother-daughter team), brings together music and dance, tradition and innovation, jazz and Carnatic music, India and America, and the spaces between.

I visited Ragamala’s studio in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood a few weeks ago to observe a rehearsal of the piece with Mahanthappa and the musicians, many of whom had flown in from the east coast. I came away in awe of the talent, creativity, and collaboration I observed that morning—not to mention the incredible work they were creating.

The Dance

As the musicians practiced at the beginning of the rehearsal, the five dancers trickled in, sitting quietly at the side of the studio and listening. Often, their arms and hands would move as if of their own accord, feeling the music and channeling the movements of the dance. Aparna and Ranee listened closely, consulting each other and their notes, approximating the intricate motions of the dance with their upper bodies as they followed along with the music. Soon, they were up and dancing: slapping the ground with the soles of their feet, spinning in unison, telling intricate stories through their whole bodies—from the sharp movements of their fingertips to the expressive brightness of their eyes. I could feel their excitement at having the piece coming together, the performance approaching… during a break, dancer Ashwini rushed over to show me pictures of the set they were working on at the Walker: hundreds of bells suspended majestically over the McGuire Theater stage.

Founded by Ranee Ramaswamy in 1992, Ragamala Dance performs Bharatanatyam, a type of traditional south Indian classical dance historically performed in the temples of Tamil Nadu. Based in Minneapolis, Ragamala has an extensive history with the Walker. In 1998, Ranee Ramaswamy performed a solo, Where The Hands Go, The Eyes Follow. Presented in one of the Walker galleries, it was four performances of a collaboration with Minnesotan poet Robert Bly, Jim Moore, Janet Holmes, Mary Easter, Coleman Barks, Janet Hirshfield, and jazz musician and harmonica player Howard Levy. In 2004, Ragamala performed Sethu (Bridge) in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden with Balinese gamelan ensemble Çudamani, and collaborated again with Çudamani in 2009 to perform Dhvee (Duality). Aparna Ramaswamy has additionally performed with Penelope Freeh as part of the Walker’s Momentum: New Dance Works series in 2004, and curated Choreographer’s Evening 2012 with Patrick Scully.

Another Walker-Ragamala connection is Jessica Fiala, a Walker guest blogger and tour guide who has been dancing with the company since 2006. In a short phone interview, Fiala elaborated on the style of Bharatanatyam: based on structured positions and movements, the foundation of the dance is a grounded stance with the knees bent and the feet turned out. Some of the poses and figures in Bharatanatyam are even likened to sculptures, echoing the positions of statues of Hindu gods. But beneath all of the structure, Fiala, explained, there is an emotional basis that informs the movement and expression of the dance, involving every part of the body from the feet to the eyes.

Ragamala artistic directors Ranee and Aparna studied Bharatanatyam with dancer and choreographer Alarmél Valli, considered a master of the dance in India. But while they are committed to the style of Bharatanatyam, their art reflects the space in which it is created—as traditional Indian dance in contemporary America. In a Star Tribune article celebrating Ranee and Aparna as Artists of the Year in 2011, Aparna addressed the importance of “[preserving] custom, but with a contemporary twist,” explaining how Ragamala aims to stay true to the tradition of Bharatanatyam, while not being bound by the tradition. Similarly, Ragamala describes itself as “[exploring] the dynamic tension between the ancestral and the contemporary… [making] dance landscapes that dwell in opposition.”

Dance

Aparna Ramaswamy and Ranee Ramaswamy (both in orange) discuss choreography with dancers Tamara Nadel, Ashwini Ramaswamy, and Jessica Fiala. Photo: Lydia Brosnahan.

The Music

As I entered the studio, the musicians were running through the piece, stopping and starting to discuss certain phrases or make notes on their parts. Led by Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto saxophone, the band includes Rez Abassi on electric guitar, V. K. Raman on South Indian flute, Anjna Swaminathan on violin, and Rajna Swaminathan on mridangam, a type of south Indian drum. On occasion, the instrumentation was rounded out by a smartphone, which produced a drone mimicking a traditional instrument called a tanpura. The tone of the rehearsal was focused, but lighthearted; at one point when the musicians slowed down, Mahanthappa joked, “We all need to hit Dunn Bros early and often.”

The music of Song of the Jasmine is based in the Carnatic tradition, a style of classical music from south India (its counterpart being Hindustani music in northern India). The foundations of this style of music are talas, beat cycles that determine the rhythm, and ragas, musical modes that determine the melodic line (though with notable differences from Western musical modes). The mridangam drum brings everything together: the ragas, the talas, and the rhythms created by the dancers’ feet, which often beat in counterpoint to the music.

So what does an alto saxophonist with an MFA in jazz composition have to do with Carnatic music? For Mahanthappa, born in Italy to Indian parents and raised in Boulder, Colorado, both Indian music and jazz are integral to his art. A defining moment, he explained in an interview with NPR, came after a recital at Berklee College of Music, when his brother gave him a copy of Saxophone Indian Style by Kadri Gopalnath. Through alternative fingerings and modifications to his embouchure, Gopalnath had created an innovative way of playing the tonal modulations present in Carnatic music on an instrument that was not designed for that musical style. The CD, initially intended as a joke, provided a way for Mahanthappa to conceptualize bringing together his background in jazz saxophone with his interest in Indian music.

Mahanthappa’s compositions and performances likewise reflect the influences of jazz and Indian music on his work. In an interview with CapitalBop, Mahanthappa elaborated: “The core of my journey stems not only from musical interest but more from defining and describing my hybrid identity as an Indian-American. It’s always been important for me to treat both Indian music and jazz with the utmost integrity, as selling either short would be equivalent to selling my soul cheaply.”

Music

Rajna Swaminathan, Rez Abassi, Rudresh Mahanthappa, V. K. Raman, and Anjna Swaminathan in rehearsal for Song of the Jasmine with Ragamala Dance. Photo: Lydia Brosnahan.

“See the Music, Hear the Dance:” Bringing It All Together

The creative union of music and dance in the studio was evident in the steady back-and-forth between dancers and musicians as they composed, choreographed, and rehearsed. Bars of music were deleted and repeated, footwork clarified, and tempos adjusted—in one instance, Mahanthappa even revised a part of the composition to be played twice as fast, to match the feeling of the choreography. Throughout the rehearsal, Aparna maintained close communication with mridangam player Rajna, whose steady drumming united the rhythm of the music and the rhythm of the dancer’s feet.

“See the music, hear the dance” is a philosophy fundamental to the work of Bharatanatyam master and the Ramaswamy’s teacher Alarmél Valli (it is also the name of a show by Valli). Indeed, the raga in Ragamala’s name is no coincidence: literally translated, Ragamala means “garland of ragas”—i.e. Carnatic melodic modes. Music has always been an inextricable facet of Bharatanatyam, in which footwork and melodies, rhythm and danced shapes are closely connected, whether in concordance or opposition. Additionally, the term Ragamala describes a type of medieval Indian paintings, each of which is associated with a raga, as well as a specific poetic verse—an early example of art drawing from multiple disciplines. In its first performance as a dance company, Ragamala took inspiration from these paintings and their corresponding verses and melodies, bringing them to life through dance.

Song of the Jasmine carries on the tradition of interdisciplinary work by uniting music and dance in a productive meeting of minds and creativity. The piece, and the process through which it has been created, is exemplary of the immense creative potential of the 21st century and beyond: collaboration across disciplines, states, and countries; hybridity of genres and identities; and the symbiosis of tradition and innovation.

Ragamala Dance and Rudresh Mahanthappa will perform Song of the Jasmine Thursday-Saturday, May 15–17 at 8 pm and Sunday, May 18 at 2 pm in the McGuire Theater.

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