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Walker Cunningham Events: Meet Participating Twin Cities Musicians

During the next three months, movement and music will merge within the Walker Art Center galleries as Events, part of the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, unfold. Taking place in the Perlman Gallery February 8–9, March 30–April 2, and April 6–April 9, this Cunningham piece features dancers from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and music by Minnesota-based […]

During the next three months, movement and music will merge within the Walker Art Center galleries as Events, part of the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, unfold. Taking place in the Perlman Gallery February 8–9, March 30–April 2, and April 6–April 9, this Cunningham piece features dancers from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and music by Minnesota-based vanguard music-makers. The nature of these works will highlight the collaborations established by Cunningham between dance, music, and art.

Below, an introduction to some of the Minnesota-based music-makers featured in Events, along with their answers to the question: Why Merce?

Wednesday, February 8: Mankwe Ndosi/Nick Gaudette

Nick GaudetteRenegade bassist and composer Nick Gaudette has been playing and performing in the Twin Cities for over a quarter century. Nick began his studies of the bass at the age of 5. Studying classical and nonclassical forms of music, Nick completed Bachelors and Masters degrees in performance from the Cleveland Institute of Music. Over the last decade, he has dedicated himself to the progression of music education. You can still catch his performances and collaboration as he regularly appears with the Cherry Spoon Collective, the Maggie Bergeron & Dance Company, as well as being a co-curator of the Hear Here! Live Music and Movement Festival.

I studied Modern Dance as a musician. To me time and space in music parallels dance. I am always intrigued by the way the body can paint a picture through movement just as a musician paints through a sonic backdrop. Having the opportunity to work within the world of Merce Cunningham in the city and community that I live within is a treat and a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Mankwe bySNixon-2Mankwe Ndosi is a Twin Cities–based vocalist, improviser, and composer focused on using an expanded vocabulary of singing to express emotion, story, and spirit guidance. Ndosi regularly makes new shapes of sound with artists of all media, and living beings of all kinds.

I look forward to new collaborations and pushing to find this moment’s song and movement with Merce Cunningham Company dancers to celebrate and stretch his life through here and now.

Thursday, February 9: Michelle Kinney/Anthony Cox/Andrew Broder

Michelle Kinney is a dedicated and lifelong improviser and composer, working in nontraditional contexts. She finds much inspiration in cross-cultural and cross-genre collaborations. As Musician in Residence at the University of Minnesota’s Dance Program, she MK headshot Airbnbmines the music and kinesthetic information revealed by the body in motion, while accompanying classes with her cello, using a looping station and electronics. She has created several scores for dance, theater, and film, and performs frequently with many collaborative original music ensembles.

The biggest inspirations I get from the Cage and Cunningham collaboration are the many ways they worked together to sublimate the ego in creation and performance, as much as that is possible. I’m fascinated by this unique career-long meditation on the ego. It closes the usual doors to ego-involved self-expression, while opening endless pathways the artist couldn’t have imagined. It’s a disciplined practice, yet it leads to results that are the definition of feral, and offers the artists and audience a glimpse into the randomness of the universe.

Thursday, March 31: John Keston/Graham O’Brien

moogfest_headshot_kestonJohn Keston is a composer, sound artist, and developer who connects musicians to each other and their audience through the insertion of a mediating layer that embraces the chaotic ambiguities of environmental and sensorial influences. His music often activates what remains immutable within traditional forms of notation. He has performed and/or exhibited at Northern Spark, the Weisman Art Museum, the Montreal Jazz Festival, the Burnet Gallery, Walker’s Point Center for the Arts, the Minnesota Institute of Art, the In/Out Festival of Digital Performance, the Eyeo Festival, INST-INT, Echofluxx, and Moogfest.

I have been hooked on the work of John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, and many other innovative composers for years. What keeps me coming back is their sense of discovery. Both Cage and Oliveros excavated sonic environments, bringing attention to sound artifacts that were otherwise ignored. I am thrilled to participate in Merce Cunningham: Common Time, not to emulate the work of Cage, Tudor, or Oliveros, but to honor them through a similar spirit of exploration.

GrahamO'BrienGraham O’Brien is a drummer and electronic music producer/composer from St. Paul. His most recent work, Drum Controller, is focused on the interplay between his unique drumming and composition styles. Currently he is performing new music written especially for live performance and which utilizes a custom-made electro-acoustic drum set concept. As he puts it, “I’m exploring ways to explore spontaneous composition using the rhythmic information of my drumming to provoke surprising response from my computer, in real-time.” Graham’s electronic music work has been released on labels includingEqual Vision, Ambledown, Doomtree, and Strange Famous.

I have lately been especially interested in the concept of “surprise” in my musical creations. If I can truly surprise myself with a combination of sounds, there’s that elusive excitement and inspiration of finding an unturned stone. It’s infectious. In my experience, one way to discover surprise in music is by introducing randomness and chance to my composition or performance concept. It was through the works of Cunningham in collaboration with John Cage that I first encountered this fundamental idea. The Cunningham/Cage/Tudor work has been one of few sources of inspirations that don’t seem to fade, because I’m reminded of the idea of childlike surprise and newness. Really, it’s exciting to be a part of an event celebrating this spirit.

Friday, March 31: Douglas Ewart/Laura Harada

Douglas R. Ewart By Byron Dean11225364_10204780180889348_73866164409500806_nBorn in Kingston, Jamaica, Douglas Ewart immigrated to Chicago, Illinois in the 1960s. He is a past chairman of the world renowned Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM); board member of the Jamaica Minnesota Organization (JMO), and current co-chair of the American Bell Association, Minnesota Chapter. The polymathic Ewart has been honored for his work as a composer, improvising multi-instrumentalist, conceptual artist, sculptor, and designer of masks and instruments. Also an educator, Ewart bridges his kaleidoscopic activities with a vision that opposes today’s divided world. His culture-fusing works aims to restore the wholeness of communities and of the individuals within them, and to emphasize the reality that the world is an interdependent entity.

I have always had a great affinity for choreographers and dancers, and have collaborated with numerous practitioners in the movement field from the formative years of my life as a sonic and visual artist. Music with dance is one of the most compelling and profound confluences. The duet format has been one of my favorite ways to practice. I am looking forward to collaborating with violinist Laura Harada. She is a highly skilled, very sensitive, and dynamic artist, and she has a wonderful spirit. I am honored to be part of this project that is paying homage to Merce Cunningham, the brilliant dancer, choreographer, experimentalist, and conceptualist. Cunningham has been an inspiration and beacon to artists in all disciplines, and people from all walks of life!

Saturday, April 1: Cole Pulice/Michelle Kinney/Eric Jensen

colepuliceCole Pulice is a saxophonist, composer, and improviser based in Minneapolis, where he works with a diverse array of groups and individuals across genre and disciplinary boundaries. Cole also works with the Twin Cities–based collective 6 Families to curate and facilitate community-driven performances and projects.

I am thrilled to participate in the celebration of Merce Cunningham’s work and legacy at the Walker. He’s artist who so gracefully pushed the limits of his medium through the development of frameworks of thinking, choreography, and performing, and well as through the frequent collaboration with artists across other disciplines. It’s fitting to be celebrating Merce Cunningham with such a varied and beautiful collection of musicians and artists.

Sunday, April 2: Noah Ophoven-Baldwin/Joe Strachan

headshot_2017Noah Ophoven-Baldwin is an improvising cornetist based in Minneapolis. As well as being a cornetist he is also a member of 6 Families, a collection of musicians located in Minneapolis. As an organizer for 6 Families, he acts as an advocate for building and participating in an arts community based in patience, kindness, and love. He appreciates the chance to learn from all of his friends/loved-ones/elders/mentors.

As an improviser I think Merce Cunningham’s work is extremely attractive to investigate. His work embraces a similar chaos that so many improvising musicians tap into as performers (and listeners). In my case, Cunningham deftly refocused how collaboration between dance and music (or visual art or architecture) exist together in space.

Thursday, April 6: Toby Ramaswamy/Adam Zahller

IMG_8230Toby Ramaswamy is a Minneapolis-based composer, drummer, and member of the musicians collective 6 Families. He has been fortunate enough to work with, learn from, and be influenced by a diverse group of Minneapolis musicians and artists.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with dancers in the Twin Cities for several years now, both as an accompanist at several schools and as a collaborator with DaNCEBUMS and Kelvin Wailey. The idea of doing a dance/music piece with dancers I had never met really interested me. I’m also a fan of John Cage’s music, and the prospect of working on a project connected to the choreographer most associated with Cage was exciting.

Friday, April 7: Patrick Marschke/Tara Loeper

16299320_10155081688611414_7140549769466536358_nPatrick Marschke is a Minneapolis-based percussionist, composer, and electronic musician trying to make all of those things into one thing. He is a proud member of 6 Families and occasionally writes about music for the SPCO, the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series, and Walker Art Center.

I think this particular Cunningham “event” and the total ambiguity of the relationship between the dance and sounds being created can be incredibly instructive in a time where we are constantly bombarded with information: we don’t really have the capacity to understand and rationalize every correlation or relation being thrown at us, and a certain clarity can come from acceptance and welcoming of chaos. This work does that in a really subtle and profound way, and I’m excited to see how they all play out.

Saturday, April 8: Davu Seru/Jeremy Ylvisaker

Sunday, April 9: Cody McKinney/Leah Ottman

codymckinneyCody McKinney is a bassist, composer, improviser, and sound artist currently residing in the Twin Cities. He has been actively composing, recording, and performing since the mid 1990s. McKinney studied jazz and improvisation at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and, later, composition and process conceptualization at the New School in New York. His work straddles “a haunted space somewhere between free jazz and musique concrète,” with hallmarks that include his “liquid mastery of rhythm” and his use of graphic and text scores with indeterminacy and fixed time. Some of McKinney’s recent works have been recorded by his contemporary trio, Bloodline.

I actually studied composition in the same room where John Cage was teaching composition 50 years earlier. The “young me” was tossing around similar questions and processes when I finally came to learn of their work. That discovery became a revelation for me; both due to the brilliance of the work itself and the realization that the zeitgeist had expanded to unknowingly defending my ideas. Perhaps no other collaboration has been more important to performing arts in the 20th Century than that of Cage and Cunningham.

Cunningham Events is free with gallery admission and has the following performance schedule in the Perlman Gallery.

  • February 8–9
    Wednesday–Thursday, 5:30 and 8 pm
  • March 30–April 2
    Thursday, 5:30 and 8 pm
    Friday–Sunday, 1:30 and 4 pm
  • April 6–9
    Thursday, 5:30 and 8 pm
    Friday–Sunday, 1:30 and 4 pm

Drop by Drop, the River is Formed: Emel Sherzad on Amir ElSaffar

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, Emel Sherzad shares his perspective on Amir ElSaffar: Rivers of Sound. Agree […]

Amir ElSaffar: Rivers of Sound, performed in the Walker's McGuire Theater, October 15, 2016. Photo: Alice Gebura

Amir ElSaffar: Rivers of Sound, performed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater, October 15, 2016. Photo: Alice Gebura

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, Emel Sherzad shares his perspective on Amir ElSaffar: Rivers of SoundAgree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

I grew up listening mostly to Indian classical music and jazz. The late 60s and early 70s were a time when artists tried to bridge different cultures through music. But blending a very old tradition such as Indian classical music or the Arabic maqam with a newer style such as jazz, and to do so tastefully, is not an easy task. Older forms of traditional music can be rather rigid and hard to blend with other styles. That’s where jazz plays a crucial role. Being a much younger hybrid art form emphasizing improvisation, it works wonders as a catalyst. I think jazz lends itself better than any other genre to adapting to and adopting from other traditions.

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound, a 90 minute suite for a large ensemble of 17 musicians, flowed like water. At times it evoked droplets, other times flowing streams and rivers, and sometimes the tumultuous sea.

The music was wide in scope. Cinematic. Subtle.

The meanderings of the large ensemble were fueled by the fabulous drumming of Nasheet Waits, providing the necessary momentum throughout the evening.

The music had a wide dynamic range. From quieter sections it built up tension and gained an intense driving force. The transitions between sections were smooth.

The concert started like peaceful breathing, but soon the sound became massive via an intense bass saxophone solo by J.D. Parran, where he sounded like he was laughing and crying simultaneously through his instrument.

The concert was one of the best examples of blending genres I have ever heard. Amir ElSaffar brought elements borrowed from classical composition, interspersed with Arabic classical music, but the glue that kept everything together was the language of contemporary jazz.

At times, the music sounded like Gnawa, the Moroccan trance music. Other times I was reminded of Indonesian gamelan, particularly when the vibraphone and the santur played interlocking patterns. The early music of Terry Riley also came to mind during certain passages.

The musicians were comfortable with the microtonal system. The piano was tuned in such a way that it could produce a jazz solo or play eastern scales. The violinist and the cellist were both very comfortable playing Arabic melodies. The wind instruments played the notes with subtle inflections that imparted an eastern flavor to their phrasings.

The music evoked a different place, a different time.

Layers of sound danced together as though in a dream.

Somehow, the inclusion of the Indian double headed drum, the mridangam, helped the transitions from western moods to eastern modes and vice versa.

In time, each instrument took a solo, showcasing the mastery of each musician, but the emphasis remained on the sound of the ensemble, navigating from section to section smoothly and effortlessly.

The musicians seemed to have a great time playing. The audience in turn became intoxicated by the beauty, joy, and sadness of the music.

The different genres blended perfectly throughout the various sections of the suite.

When Amir ElSaffar put down his trumpet and sat behind the santur and started singing in the tradition of the Arabic maqam, we heard a lament, longing for a lost time. In these sections,  the plaintive sounds of the oud, oboe and Turkish ney were reminiscent of the poetry of Rumi. The whole ensemble mourned like the sigh of an orphaned child.

In these times where divisive winds blow from various directions, the work of artists bridging cultures beautifully is important.

Drop by drop the river is formed.

Colin Stetson’s Reimagining of Górecki’s 3rd Symphony

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

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Colin Stetson: SORROW, a reimagining of Górecki’s 3rd Symphony. Performed in the McGuire Theater at the Walker Art Center on September 30, 2016. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, musician Brandon Wozniak shares his perspective on last weekend’s performance of Colin Stetson: SORROW, a reimagining of Górecki’s 3rd Symphony, which was copresented by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

I’m seated in the balcony, not by default but by design. It’s near the bar, and even though I only plan on having one drink, I feel better knowing it’s close by just in case my plus one and I decide we might fancy another. Fine, I had two drinks, but come on, it’s Friday night, and I’ve been trying to sleep-train my 11 month-old daughter all week.

Colin is welcomed to the stage after it’s been announced he will begin the evening’s festivities with a surprise solo set. He removes his metal mouthpiece cap, and chucks it to the floor in an authoritative manner. It came off a bit macho for my taste, but maybe it’s not machismo after all. Maybe he knows he’s going to be suffering through a physically and mentally demanding solo set where he will play continuously for about twenty minutes on a large, heavy saxophone. He doesn’t have time to be delicate about such things. He begins by playing a long drone, slowly incorporating a variety of extended saxophone techniques before building to a 12/8 rhythm, clicking the keys under his right hand. At one point, he threw his right arm out to stretch and wiggle the fingers responsible for keeping the beat. This kind of playing is all about the slow burn.  He comes back to click the keys, adding a simple melody over the top as he keeps a steady pulse with even more intricate overtones and vocalizations until he winds back down to the drone where he began.

Although I’m not as impressed as the masses who clearly love watching someone circular breathe ad infinitum, I can certainly appreciate Colin’s level of commitment to his art. It’s obvious that he’s spent countless hours honing his craft, and while it may not be my cup of tea for, say, a whole night of music, I have to give it up to him for being able to squeeze every last ounce of sound possible from that big bastard.

Next up is Colin’s “Reimagining of Górecki’s 3rd Symphony,” and the full house in attendance is ready to be bathed in sorrow. Once the ensemble is set, Colin brings the bass line in on a contra bass clarinet. He’s not quite as fluid on the big clarinet as he is on the bass saxophone, but he works through the one or two initial hiccups and regains control quickly. I wouldn’t say it felt rushed, but the ensemble is clearly not breathing together. Most of the instrumental sections feel more like a rehearsal than a performance. It’s a talented group of busy musicians, with, I’m sure, limited time for rehearsals. And while the music they’re performing is very simple from a technical standpoint, in terms of stamina, it’s actually quite difficult due to the legato nature of the music.

I’ve played in situations like this before and I can tell you that it’s actually much harder to pull off something dirgeful like this than it is to play an up tempo piece with a lot of notes on the page. Classical orchestras have been doing this kind of thing at the highest of levels forever, and in the age of instant gratification, it can be easy to think you’re giving every note its due. But I just didn’t feel the note-to-note despair from the ensemble that I had hoped.

I read an interview on the Liquid Music blog where Colin inferred that he didn’t alter any of the notes on the page, and that the reimagining of this piece was more about the musicians, instrumentation, and electronics. However, in this performance, the winds and strings dominated the piece, making the electronic and “black metal” connotations hard to make out. Maybe it’s just the way the musicians were mic’d on that particular evening. Regardless of the reason, there was something lacking.

That is until the sublime Megan Stetson enters. She was clearly in command from the first note she sang, giving herself completely over to the mournful text. Her elevated performance was so powerful that at times it dwarfed the ensemble, making them sound as if they were coming through a portable bluetooth speaker somewhere from a galaxy far far away.

After the performance, I checked out the record, and I think it’s a great representation of Colin’s vision for the music. Thanks to The Walker for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts and thanks to Colin and the rest of the musicians for the music.

Luminous Non-Intention: John Killacky on The Selected Letters of John Cage

“I can’t understand why people are frightened by new ideas. I’m frightened by old ones.” —John Cage (September 5, 1912–August 12, 1992) One of the most singular artists of the 20th century, avant-garde composer, philosopher, visual artist, and writer John Cage transformed modernist aesthetics with his embrace of randomness, chance operations, and early adoption of technology […]

John Cage reads from Muocye at the Walker Art Center, Februrary 1980. Photo: Glenn Halvorson

John Cage reads at the Walker Art Center. Photo: Glenn Halvorson

“I can’t understand why people are frightened by new ideas. I’m frightened by old ones.”

John Cage (September 5, 1912–August 12, 1992)

One of the most singular artists of the 20th century, avant-garde composer, philosopher, visual artist, and writer John Cage transformed modernist aesthetics with his embrace of randomness, chance operations, and early adoption of technology in his artistic practice. And yes, silence. His seminal composition, 4’33” (1952), wherein musicians sit in silence and do not intentionally make sounds for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, taught us all to listen more deeply.

Our paths crossed a few times. Once, while I was on tour in the mid-1980s with the Trisha Brown Dance Company in France, I sat in a hotel lobby with him watching the French Open on television, and then shared a taxi with him to the theater. On the drive over, he repeatedly lowered and closed the window, amused by its squeaky sounds.

Then in 1990, when I worked at the Walker Art Center, I invited him to do a reading to celebrate the opening of the Jasper Johns: Printed Symbols exhibition. Cage had written about Johns earlier in their careers, and for this performance, he randomly rearranged his text utilizing his computer and presented this.

We had gotten a request for ASL interpretation. Cage was concerned, warning the interpreter the speech did not really make any linear sense. During his performance, he repeatedly stopped and watched the interpreter, who, of course, also stopped. The bemused Cage then continued reading. Afterward, Margaret Leng Tan performed Cage’s compositions on a toy piano.

While his public artistic persona was expansive, Cage was reticent about his private life. When asked about his relationship with life partner choreographer Merce Cunningham, he would often politely reply, “I do the cooking, and he does the dishes.” Although openly gay, neither of them chose to discuss their homosexuality publicly.

However, The Selected Letters of John Cage (2016, Wesleyan University Press), with more than 500 letters, brings readers intimately into his personal life, beginning in the 1930s when he was a 17-year-old dropout traveling in Europe and Algeria to shortly before his death in 1992. His affable nature resonates throughout this luminous collection and gives the reader insight into his prodigious intellectual and artistic pursuits.

When a nascent musical student, we read his pleas to study with Arnold Schoenberg, acquire expertise on Erik Satie and Virgil Thomson’s music, and build relationships with Morton Feldman, Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, and other emerging mavericks. These composers performed each other’s works in concert, and often wrote about the other, since few critics understood the new aesthetic frontiers they were fomenting.

Frustration is present in Cage’s missives to orchestral and museum directors around the world as he struggles to earn a living and be taken seriously as a composer. For decades, he was his own booking agent and asked people to help underwrite concerts. As well, he pleaded valiantly trying to establish a center for new music at Cornish School, Bennington College, and Mills College—all for naught. Tellingly, he wrote to young composer, “I never made enough money (from my music) to live on until I was fifty. Interrupted my music in order to do odd jobs in order to eat, etc.”

Throughout his life, Cage remained a cultural omnivore. Interwoven into The Selected Letters of John Cage are details as to how his study of the I Ching and Zen Buddhism, his burgeoning interest as an amateur mycologist (love of mushrooms), and his embrace of a macrobiotic diet informed his life and art. He aspired to have “all distinctions between art and life removed.” This blending of eastern and western traditions put him at the epicenter of the American avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s.

His early notes to Merce Cunningham are beautifully innocent, “I think of you all the time and therefore have little to say that would not embarrass you, for instance my first feeling about the rain was that it was like you… I would like to measure my breath in relation to the air between us.”

Cage became musical director for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and together they disrupted prevailing notions of modern music and dance. Aiding their revolution were visual artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, often collaborators on scenic and costume elements. These relationships, and the masterworks they created, are gloriously annotated throughout the book.

Cage did so much more than music for the Cunningham dance company. Early letters show him writing to festival promoters to book engagements, sending fundraising appeals to donors and funding agencies, and pleading with fellow artists to donate artwork to make up shortfalls from touring.

His persistence, entrepreneurship, and unequivocal questioning of the status quo as evidenced in this volume could in fact be a textbook for modern day artists struggling to forge a career. Ever the courageous anarchist, Cage states, “I think my activity in the arts is analogous to political activity. It gives an instance of how to change things radically.”

The Selected Letters of John Cage is revelatory, illuminating his creative processes, as well as the heart and mind of this multifaceted individual who has influenced generations of artists—essential reading for understanding 20th century American art history.

John R. Killacky is executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont.

 

The Flaming Lips at Rock the Garden: 360 Degrees of “Race for the Prize”

Smoke guns and confetti cannons were out in full force during the final set of Rock the Garden 2016—and videographer Chuck Olsen of Visual was there to capture the experience in immersive, 360-degree video. Watch as Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips perform “Race for the Prize,” off the 1999 album The Soft Bulletin. (See if […]

The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne at Rock the Garden 2016. Photo: Gene Pittman

The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne at Rock the Garden 2016. Photo: Gene Pittman

Smoke guns and confetti cannons were out in full force during the final set of Rock the Garden 2016—and videographer Chuck Olsen of Visual was there to capture the experience in immersive, 360-degree video. Watch as Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips perform “Race for the Prize,” off the 1999 album The Soft Bulletin. (See if you can spot the Walker bumpersticker—“Think about honking if you [heart] conceptual art”—on the leg of Coyne’s duct-tape pants.)

Held on Minneapolis’s Boom Island on June 18, the fourteenth edition of our annual festival featured eight bands on two stages: Plague Vendor, GRRRL PRTY, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Hippo Campus, M. Ward, Poliça, Chance the Rapper, and the Flaming Lips.

Rock the Garden 2016 was a copresentation of the Walker Art Center and 89.3 The Current.

Chance the Rapper Colors Outside the Lines

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

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

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

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

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

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

chance-1

Cover image for Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book mixtape

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

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

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

Chance the Rapper. Photo: Zoe Rain

Chance the Rapper. Photo: Zoe Rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devendra Banhart + Band*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rodrigo Amarante

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

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

“One more?”

Hecuba

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

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

“I was a person, without a person…”

Harold Budd + Brad Ellis + Veda Hille

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

__________

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

We are lucky.

Circuits of Saudade: Wind Grove Mind Alone, Night One

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

Devendra_049

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening Mix: Devendra Banhart & Friends

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

Photo: OSK

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Affable Experimentation: Steve Lehman Octet at the Walker

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

Photo: John Rogers

Photo: John Rogers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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