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Danny Sigelman on Kneebody + Daedelus = Kneedelus

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

Kneebody and Daedelus. Photo: Chris Clinton

Kneebody and Daedelus. Photo: Chris Clinton

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

It was a double dose of experimental, electronic and progressive jazz music at the Cedar Cultural Center this past weekend as the Twin Cities were treated to a reunion of sorts between producer Daedelus and the bicoastally-founded 5 piece, Kneebody. Having not performed together since unleashing and touring behind their 2015 collaboration entitled Kneedelus, saxophonist Ben Wendel acknowledged the special moment with a big smile and expression of appreciation for the rare opportunity the Walker Art Center and The Cedar presented to a full house Friday night.

Heavily sideburned and dressed in a formal shirt and tailcoat, Alfred Darlington AKA Daedelus found his way to his perch of laptop, mixers, and gizmos to set the tone for the evening’s series of performances.

Darlington wasted no time indoctrinating the audience with straight hip hop beats and a steady wash of tones and burbling bleeps. Manipulating the sound patterns and dancing atop his arsenal of electronic devices, he wildly gesticulated, physically animating the thick and dense layers of sound. Daedelus continued to test the highs and lows of the house sound system, ultimately pulling away from the obscurity of descending melodies and introduced a familiar voice: Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life. Chopping up the Purple One’s voice made for a respectful tribute to the hometown hero before Darlington craftily returned to the head-bobbing norms of thumping bass, with counterpoints of malfunctioning video game noises and a barrage of space lasers.

Virtually strangling his brilliant box of glowing orange buttons, Daedelus’ sound collage progressed into more spare, bird-like sounds and eventually made way for the five gentlemen that make up Kneebody to join him in the cacophony on their own respective instruments. To wild applause, the assembled musicians that make up “Kneedulus” made a grand transition, demonstrating the shape of music to come for the evening with just a taste of their famous joint effort.

Giving props to Daedelus, Kneebody bassist Kaveh Rastegar remarked, “Imagine tonight is going to be like a great sandwich. You just heard some peanut butter, that would make us jelly. Soon you are going to hear the whole damn sandwich!”

Currently on tour in support of Anti-Hero, released this month, Kneebody brought more timbre and a different sound to the proceedings. Swelling horns, jagged rhythms and angular bass and drums created a bed of grooves during the new record’s lead off track, “For the Fallen”.

The post rock excursions and thick tones from keyboardist Adam Benjamin stretched out amid the rhythmic foundations aptly provided by drummer Nate Wood and Rastegar, allowing for ample solo opportunities from saxophonist Ben Wendel and trumpeter Shane Endsley, who built on his own sound with several boxes and pedals of his own.

Oceanic ebbs and flows in Kneebody’s music from the electronically affected instruments, pulsing math-rock bass and drums laid way for much improvisation. Often devolving into chaotic interplay between each musician, massive downbeats and the more crunching rock of “Yes You” from Anti-Hero, Kneebody performed with a fresh tightness. The beautiful arrangements displayed the group’s precision as they managed to continually rejoin each excursion by stopping on a dime, in unison. Kneebody then wrapped up their own set with the somber tribute to an old friend (“For Mikie Lee”), once again capitalizing on their knack for composition and sweet melodies.

After a short break at The Cedar, the audience reconvened for an extensive grand finale from the joint effort, Kneedulus. Daedulus returned to stage to bring the sounds back to outer space, with giant echoes and atmosphere for the dub-like “Loops”.

Swirling repetition, affected trumpet and urgent drum breaks recalled On the Corner-era Miles Davis that continued to venture into more of an Acid-Jazz impulse. The dual rhythms between Daedelus’ clapping beats and Wood riding the beat stretched beyond typical structure and gave room for an effective drum solo that roused the audience with applause. Benjamin laid a heavy groundwork with his Fender Rhodes during “The Whole” allowing for incredible face-melting from his band mates.

“We’ll see if you can recognize this one,” suggested Wendel.

Interestingly the ensemble brought the vibe down as Daedelus triggered the familiar acoustic guitar arpeggiations that took some time to sink in. Once Kneebody introduced the delicate melody and theme to Elliott Smith’s “Angeles”, the producer brought Smith’s sampled vocal from the heavens and into the chorus, making for a sentimental moment in an otherwise musically frantic night.

The evening was a true test of musicianship; in essence we found an overall tribute to music, the spirit of composition, and improvisation as a whole. It was a truly gratifying experience to witness such vitality and camaraderie on stage.

Kneebody and Daedelus performed at The Cedar, in a concert copresented by the Walker Art Center, on Friday, March 24, 2017.

Paul Harding on Mbongwana Star with ZULUZULUU

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, Paul Harding from Foreign Currency on KFAI shares his perspective […]

Mbongwana_Star_2016-17_02_PP

Mbongwana Star. Photo: Courtesy the artists

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Paul Harding from Foreign Currency on KFAI shares his perspective on Mbongwana Star with ZULUZULUU. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Mbongwana Star brought the remarkable cacophony of Kinshasa to the Cedar Cultural Center Friday night.

Opening up was the local emerging ZULUZULUU, which struck me as an insightful pairing. Their layers of frequently gritty analog-sounding synths offered a spaced out, soulful counterpoint to the guitar-driven Congolese headliners. A sound equal parts pioneering and archetypal of the Minneapolis black sound, they foreshadowed the sonic thickness, complexity, and sense of locale that Mbongwana Star would also deliver. Both groups used multiple independent vocal parts to create depth and intricacy, reaching occasional feverish heights.

My sense of the elusive saga of Mbongwana Star took a new turn before they took the stage, when the Cedar’s Director of Operations told me their guitarist had spent the two previous nights in the hospital recovering from malaria. It was still unclear whether he’d be able to perform at this first show on their U.S. tour. Almost 6 years ago, visa problems prevented Coco Ngambali and Theo Nzonza and their band at the time, Staff Benda Bilili, from playing here. They founded that group homeless and paraplegic from childhood polio, launching into meteoric international recognition, and eventually disbanded.

Only when they took to the stage was it clear that their guitarist was able to perform, and also that Mitchell Sigurdson of Black Market Brass—called the night before and having rehearsed with them all day—would play with the band too. He added even more to their already surprisingly full sound given the simple instrumentation. Coco and Theo sang and danced excitedly in their wheelchairs alongside yet another singer, the two guitars, bass, and drums. Their energy swelled into a clamorous rhythmic force.

Mbongwana Star takes the Kinshasa sound further into the future. From Congolese rumba, through soukous, and the rumba funk sound of Staff Benda Bilili, they carry forward elements into a visionary arena. With the bubbling trance-y chaos of Konono No.1 and the groove of a Koffi Olomide tune (after a six minute prelude) with just as many individual voices fighting for your attention, they drove home their unique sound to an exuberant crowd.

Mbongwana Star and ZULUZULUU performed on Friday, March 3, 2017 at The Cedar.

Patrick Marshke on Music for Merce: 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, musician and composer Patrick Marschke shares his perspective on Music for […]

Music For Merce, Night two. Photo: Gene Pittman

Left to right: George Lewis, Zeena Parkins, Christian Wolff, Fast Forward, David Behrman, Joan La Barbara, Philip Selway, Quinta, Ikue Mori, and John King performing night two of Music For Merce, February 24, 2017, in the McGuire Theater. Photo: Gene Pittman

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, musician and composer Patrick Marschke shares his perspective on Music for Merce: A Two-Night Celebration. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

It would be easy to interpret “Music for Merce” as an answer to the question “whatever did happen to Indeterminacy?” It could have easily been a night of  “Music After Cage.” Those angles would have completely made sense within the context of Merce Cunningham: Common Time, but unlike the incredible archival materials found in the gallery or the jarringly pristine performances of Cunningham’s choreography throughout the exhibition, this night of sound making went beyond documenting a time and place, beyond putting Cage or Cunningham on (yet another) pedestal, and transcended what could have easily been billed as historical performance. The night captured what (for me and hopefully some of you) is incredibly special about experimental and improvised music: the performers completely embodied what self-actualization can look and sound like and epitomized the idea that virtuosity can be more about perceiving an incredible amount of love/compassion in the environment an artist creates rather than simply being about how skilled a performer is at a thing.

So what does sonic self-actualization look like?

For George Lewis in his piece Shadowgraph, 5 it was quadraphonic signal processing of Joan La Barbara’s tactile vocal iterations, Fast Forward’s literal kitchen of instruments, and Zeena Parkins’ sometimes extended harp techniques with subtle accompaniment by Ikue Mori’s own digital sound palette and thoughtful and subtle piano played by Quinta. Sounds whirled around, sometimes with clear correlations to what was happening on stage, other times not (a theme of the night). It sounded like what one would expect “sonic research” to sound like. What set this piece apart from the novelty of 4.1 surround sound and Lewis’s digital effects was how perceivable the performers’ listening was (another theme of the night): compassionately listening to their own sounds, Lewis’s sounds, and each others’.

The love that Zeena Parkins has for the sound of the harp is palpable. Captiva for Acoustic Harp and Processing, performed with assistance from David Behrman on the processing component, framed Parkins’ incredibly physical playing with distinct electronic landscapes. The work had a sense of direction and narrative that differentiated it from the improvisation/indeterminacy of the rest of the night.

Behrman remained at his computer for his piece Long Throw. Electroacoustic music is tricky in many ways, a primary reason being that one has access to any and all sounds: an infinite palette of sorts. Another being how to compellingly incorporate acoustic instruments. The instrumentalists in Long Throw seemed secondary to Behrman’s sonic landscapes at times, but rather than detracting from the work, the disparate and patient iterations contributed to feeling of sonic time lapse before evaporating into silence.

Ikue Mori’s subtle laptop keystrokes completely contradict the intense kinetic and frenetic sounds that her laptop produces — a sonic arsenal that is nearly impossible to keep track of, all somehow being individually triggered by the same interface one would answer an email with. The depth and complexity of timbres are astounding, which made for a bit of a shocking entrance by Christian Wolff’s slightly acontextual clapping. The duo took a moment to calibrate, but eventually the prepared piano and electronics blended and morphed into a cohesive whole.

Earle Brown’s December 1952 / November 1952 stood out as the only purely acoustic performance of the night and the only piece by a composer outside of the group. The work deserved a bit more context, either as a program note or a simple glimpse of the piece’s stark graphic score, which is interpreted by performers simultaneously. It was the most “historical” of the performances of the night, one whose sparseness was welcome.

Fast Forward’s graphic score Octopoda (for four arms) ended up being a bit indiscernible from Shadowgraph, with the only thing setting it apart being Philip Selway’s first appearance of the night. Selway seemed uncomfortable, as did his ocarina tooting ‘xylosynth’ and the queasy jangling of a coat rack tucked to the back of the stage. Perhaps this unease was made starker next to Fast Forward’s performative and aural confidence with his mass array of metallic objects being perpetually sent down Lewis’s quadrophonic rabbit hole. Forward’s take on indeterminacy invites the audience to chuckle a little, warming up a medium that can be a little more distant than it means to be.

Each individual performer’s voice had come into focus at various points throughout the night, particularly in the kaleidoscope of the large group improvisation at the end of night, but the individual personas never clouded the communal joy that perpetually radiated from the stage.

In a time when ‘individualism’ has been commodified to the point of parody it seems especially poignant that art collectivism and community is a thread that ties Music for Merce together. It pops up in the program, where many of the artists appear in each others bios and discographies. George Lewis literally wrote the book on the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and David Behrman is a founding member of the Sonic Arts Union. Notice the empathetic listening and generous sonic support that is inherent in improvised music of this caliber. Then notice the collective aesthetic of Cage, Cunningham, and Rauschenberg that is currently enlivening the Walker galleries. It keeps going — all culminating in the realization that when an artist’s work so clearly comes from a place of compassion and love it becomes natural to extrapolate that love and compassion out onto others, enriching an arts community person by person — a truly inspiring model for what a community/society can look like, all stemming from experimentation and exploring the fringes of sound/art. It could feel like a bit of a stretch, but for me, Music for Merce proved that experimental/improvisational music isn’t a fixation on the individual, but in fact a model for a society in which individualism strengthens rather than stifles community.

Music for Merce: A Two-Night Celebration was presented  February 23 -24, 2017 as part of the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, on view in the Walker galleries until July 30. 

Adam Zahller on Music for Merce, 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, composer Adam Zahller shares his perspective on the first evening […]

Left to right: Quinta, Ikue Mori, Philip Selway, Christian Wolff, David Behrman, Joan La Barbara, John King, Zeena Parkins, Fast Forward, George Lewis. Photo: Gene Pittman

Left to right: Quinta, Ikue Mori, Philip Selway, Christian Wolff, David Behrman, Joan La Barbara, John King, Zeena Parkins, Fast Forward, George Lewis. Photo: Gene Pittman

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, composer Adam Zahller shares his perspective on the first evening of Music For Merce: A Two Night Celebration. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Large swathes of the audience didn’t need John Cage’s stage backdrop to be reminded of this ancestral spirit’s presence in the room. The spotty but spunky crowd who turned out for the evening—youngsters with finger tattoos, aging arts boosters, and local emissaries of the AACM among them—clearly knew the score: Grandpa Cage is watching over us. From the look of his hauntingly beautiful etching, it would seem that Grandpa, prescient as always, had in return understood something of our present situation: others are watching, too. The intermittent black strips looming from the rafters resembled the redactions of a leaked NSA surveillance document, brought to life as titanic phantoms. I imagined Cage foreseeing that his benign timers would metastasize into iPhones, that his warmly hissing magnetic tapes, shortwave radios, and Victrolas would ossify into Macbooks. I could see him peering at us through the tiny cameras that crowded the stage, chuckling.

We chuckled, too. During curator Philip Bither’s unwitting anacrusis to Cage’s famous Indeterminacy lectures, we chuckled knowingly at the comment that the evening’s culminating EVENT would be “a world premiere every time it’s performed.” This was good; it showed esprit de corps.

Bither promised us that the concert would be “breathtakingly historic.” My inner Cageian imp tells me that so is every ascent of a sufficiently steep flight of stairs. No matter. This was a touching and unifying occasion, a jovial tribute to Merce Cunningham’s not-to-be-underestimated musical legacy, and a reminder that art makes a loving family for us at home here on the stolen prairie, just as it does for those out East, on the coastal lowlands and barrier isles.

____

Set 1: Christian Wolff’s Or 4 People

Wolff at piano, with melodica and other toys; Behrman mostly playing tenor recorder and harmonica; Lewis on trombone/mutes; King on Stratocaster

After a slightly faltering start, the players found each other in one-mind continuity, building a distended klangfarbenlullaby of gorgeous spectral harmonies, passing pitches across the stage from tonecolor to tonecolor, drip by drip, like stalagmites forming in air, occasionally punctuated by skronches, clacks, and gritty hammer-ons, articulating space. Four gray-haired men became happy little boys as they grinned to find themselves concluding together.

Set 2: Joan La Barbara’s Solitary Journeys of the Mind

La Barbara, voice and microphone

Miracles of amplification! Not just the microphone boosting the subtlest details of La Barbara’s endlessly flowering virtuosity, candle-flame upper-partials dancing above her sonorous mezzo, but her hands amplifying in gesture the spinning-out of musical ebb and flood, and her breath itself, amplifying the internal structure of its exalted chamber with each practiced inhalation, exhalation. Hearing this, one understood better what it was, centuries ago, that etched those beasts onto the cave walls at Chauvet.

Set 3: Philip Selway/Quinta: Yaasholl, One Note Arpeggio, and Of Course I Do

Mori on xylosynth (first tune only); Selway on xylosynth and piano; Quinta on synthesizer, musical saw, xylosynth; King with “assist” on synthesizer (end of last tune)

Selway’s connection to Merce Cunningham dates back to a much-hyped 2003 Sigur Ros/Radiohead collaboration with MCDC titled “Split Sides.” At the time, Laura Shapiro from New York Magazine characterized the music as “art rock on its best behavior. Mild, a bit tentative, sometimes disconcertingly reminiscent of New Age, the music was nowhere near as scary as the work of Cunningham’s usual collaborators.”

Fourteen years later, if anything, the music has tamed further. It was pleasant, in the washy sort of way that advertisers like for making soaps, pills, and software feel “inspiring.” In its finest moments, its saccharine pan-ionian harmonies and moody upper-neighbor-tones gave even my prickly heartstrings a slight tug. Quinta’s intonation on the musical saw (when she picked it up, another knowing chuckle emanated from the crowd; I’m not sure why) was revelatory. By far my favorite sound, though, was the tap of mallets against the xylosynth, slightly audible above the gentle thrumming of the music.

Set 4: John Cage’s Fontana Mix, Aria, and Indeterminacy, performed simultaneously

Mori & Behrman, laptops; La Barbara, voice; Fast Forward, narration

Enter Grandpa, radiant. Despite Fontana Mix feeling a bit hemmed in by digitization, this set came on just like the big game after a commercial break. To the kind of people that come to an event like this, this is straight-up classical music, and I, for one, am a fan.  Fast Forward gave voice to Cage’s well-worn anecdotes with the same gusto that Heifetz puts to a Brahms concerto, proving that there are still hilarious wonders in these slightly yellowed scores. The serendipitous ending: “I know you’re very busy. I won’t take a minute of your time.”

Set 5: David Tudor’s Untitled

John King on Laptop

Whippoorwills and vampire bats caught in quadrophonic black holes fluttered erratically around the theater, the volume tastefully cranked. John King, propelling these creatures from the ease and comfort of his Macbook trackpad, was clearly having fun, rocking back and forth, smirking. The whirling of these sounds around our heads provided a potent counterpoint to the far more delicate spatialization essayed in the night’s opening work (Wolff’s Or 4 People). It made me think, however, that a whole computer universe couldn’t equal the complexity or spiritual heft of a melodica, a recorder, a Stratocaster, and a trombone.

Set 6: John King’s petite ouverture en forme de mErCE CunninGHAm

Wolff/Behrmann on piano; Lewis on trombone; Quinta on violin; King on Stratocaster

This piece started out as a piano solo written for Cunningham’s 90th birthday, and has apparently been arranged for chamber ensemble by the composer. The title is a nod to Erik Satie, one of John Cage’s most touted idols. Its capitalization scheme reflects the work’s use of “musical cryptogram,” in which letters from a name create a musical motif, a longstanding practice in classical music, predating even Bach (who used it famously). In true Cunningham/Cage tradition, repetitions within the form are determined by dice throw.

If this all sounds a bit academic when explained, it does in musical realization as well. Absolutely delightful, however, was watching Wolff and Behrman share a piano bench, plodding along with the piece’s pachydermic triads, using absolutely zero pedal. Hearts beamed.

Set 7: EVENT

Full ensemble: Behrman, Forward, King, La Barbara, Lewis, Mori, Parkins, Selway, Wolff

Watching musicians old enough to be my parents or grandparents cue one another to thumb their smartphones in tandem, then proceed to punch furiously at their laptops, set me reflecting amusedly on my mother’s love for Facebook and solitaire apps. Unintended as it may have been, the presence of all these mobile devices on stage made a fitting update of Cage’s running commentary on technology in daily life—it’s here to stay, so we might as well practice listening to, even loving, it. Nonetheless, I was silently hoping that someone would receive a call and have to walk offstage.

Inevitable balance issues arose from the preponderance of digital signal paths, but on the whole the EVENT’s chaos was organized nicely. Center stage, gleefully taking the helm, was a decidedly “analog” Fast Forward, tossing handfuls of sticks at various drums. His energies were greatly appreciated. Every once in a while, one could hear an isolated plink from Christian Wolff at the piano, or Zeena Parkins at the harp (otherwise absent from the night’s program). It was wonderful to hear their voices piping up through the din.

Overall, the musicians kept things short, sweet, and cordial. Smiles abounded, onstage and in the crowd.

At the end, clapping people stood, probably trying to get up closer to wherever Merce is now.

____

 The Twin Cities crowd that appeared for this performance was visibly thrilled to be able to see so many venerable masters of the New York and London experimental scenes on one stage, in our own town. Excitement and gratitude were palpable in the room, and I was happy to be able to contribute my own. We did a great job, I think, warmly receiving our esteemed guests, who in turn offered a moving tribute to one of our city’s most welcome new residents: the legacy of Merce Cunningham, as embodied in his archives.

It was an engaging retrospective—a window into other cities, other scenes, other times. Now our task is to shift our gaze forward and carry musicking for Merce into the future. I know some local “experimentalists” who are up for the challenge.

 

Music for Merce: A Two-Night Celebration was performed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater February 23-24, 2017.

Mbongwana Star and the Changing Rhythms of Congolese Music

Rhythms pulsing like a rapid heartbeat, so infectious you can’t help but let your body be carried along; soulfully wailing vocals that call you back to a place you know; a mixed up electronically-driven funk that throws you into the bouncing night of a busy city or underground club. These are just a few of […]

Mbongwana Star. Photo: Courtesy the artists

Mbongwana Star. Photo: Courtesy the artists

Rhythms pulsing like a rapid heartbeat, so infectious you can’t help but let your body be carried along; soulfully wailing vocals that call you back to a place you know; a mixed up electronically-driven funk that throws you into the bouncing night of a busy city or underground club. These are just a few of the feelings evoked by From Kinshasa, the debut album from Mbongwana Star that landed on many of the top-50 charts for 2015, including the New York Times, NPR, and SPIN.

The two central figures of Mbongwana Star, Yakala “Coco” Ngambali and Nstuvuidi “Theo” Nzonza, were originally key members of the legendary band Staff Benda Bilili, which began on the streets of Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Soon after achieving major international success, Staff Benda Bilili disbanded. Now, Mbongwana Star offers a fresh, new look into Coco and Theo’s hometown, which boasts one of the most lush histories of music to be found anywhere in the world.

Western media perpetuates unfavorable impressions of the Congo by latching onto news about political issues like child soldiers and violent warfare. Yet underneath this one-sided perception, a rich and vibrant branch of Congolese music history has shaped popular music throughout the continent, and the broader world.

The perceived inaccessibility of the Democratic Republic of Congo, with its extreme poverty, ongoing conflicts, corruption and lack of basic public facilities, provides a barrier to musical tourists. The irony is, of course, that the music is joyful and uplifting; anything but dark— although there is also a rich tradition of social and political commentary in Congolese music.
                                                                                                                    —The Guardian

Dating back to the 1930s when Afro-Cuban rumba traveled back across the Atlantic, Congolese music has been at the forefront of innovating new sounds and musical culture. Driven by the influx of jazz from Europe along with the rhythms of rumba, musicians in the Congo became masters of combining different elements to create their own style. Today the most popular, lasting form of the rumba is known as soukous, derived from the French word secouer—”to shake.” It is defined by its syncopated rhythms and intricate contrasting guitar melodies, which the Congolese adapted from the rumba’s drumbeats.

Before the rise of popular bands like Mbongwana Star and Staff Benda Bilili, Franco Luambo Makiadi—the king of Congelese Rumba”—ruled the airwaves, producing 100 albums and close to a thousand songs. “His style of music, a blend of Cuban rumba and authentic Congolese rhythms, wowed both the old and young. His influence can still be heard in Congolese music, which remains popular in nightclubs all over the continent” (BBC). Franco’s popularity reached across international borders and helped solidify Kinshasa’s prominence in pop music. In addition to being a masterful musician, Franco used his talents for political advocacy. Franco’s way of creating music that speaks to the community resonates with the work of Mbongwana Star today; clearly this is a band that plays homage to its origins.

Combining electro-funk sounds and distorted grooves to the classic rhythms of rumba has helped skyrocket Mbongwana Star to fame. From Kinshasa doesn’t just bring sounds from Africa, but influences from Cuba, Paris, American Jazz, punk, rock n’ roll, and beyond—defying traditional genres and appealing to a broad spectrum of people from around the world.

While many challenges still face the Democratic Republic of Congo, with looming political issues and the rise of combatants and rebel militias, Mbongwana Star continues to persevere with a message of hope and a desire for change (mbongwana is a Lingala word meaning change). The band’s popularity and critical acclaim has changed the way many view their home country, bringing awareness and recognition to the realities of contemporary life in the Congo, and illustrating the fact that even when faced with hardship, music and history can be shared.

This Friday, Minneapolis will welcome Mbongwana Star for the first time. The Walker planned to present Staff Benda Bilili in 2011 as a part of Despair Be Damned: New Music and Dance from the Congo, but unfortunately that tour was canceled due to Visa complications. Our current political climate makes opportunities to embrace artists like Mbongwana Star more important than ever.

Mbongwana Star performs with Minneapolis-based Afrofuturist band ZULUZULUU on Friday, March 3, 2017 at 8 pm at The Cedar.

Collaboration and Inspiration in Joan La Barbara’s Creative Process

Joan La Barbara has created more than 120 compositions throughout her career as a groundbreaking composer and performer, and she has worked with some of the most notable names in contemporary music. A pioneer of vocal exploration, she’s known for her remarkable and distinctive vocabulary of sounds and compelling sound experiments. Across her career her work contains […]

Joan La Barbara with Plato, January 2009 photo: © 2009, Mark Hahaney

Joan La Barbara with Plato, January 2009. Photo: © 2009 Mark Mahaney

Joan La Barbara has created more than 120 compositions throughout her career as a groundbreaking composer and performer, and she has worked with some of the most notable names in contemporary music. A pioneer of vocal exploration, she’s known for her remarkable and distinctive vocabulary of sounds and compelling sound experiments. Across her career her work contains an expansive range of diversity in its form, content, and presentation—driven, at least in part, by her infectious curiosity. La Barbara—along with fellow Merce Cunningham collaborators John King, David Behrman, Fast Forward, George Lewis, Ikue Mori, Zeena Parkins, Philip Selway, Quinta, and Christian Wolff—will perform at the Walker this week in Music for Merce, a two-day celebration honoring the important musical influence of Cunningham and his lifelong partner John Cage.

Like Cunningham himself, La Barbara’s work demonstrates a deep appreciation and interest in other art forms. Whether it is working collaboratively with her contemporaries or taking inspiration from something seen in a gallery, she channels ideas from other mediums into her own work. In a recent interview, La Barbara spoke about some of these inspired works and reflected on the value of working beyond one discipline.

A selection of Joan La Barbara's Scores photo: © 2009 Mark Mahaney

A selection of Joan La Barbara’s scores. Photo: © 2009 Mark Mahaney

On Sound Painting

I’ve done a series of works that I call sound paintings. Essentially, I tend to see sound when I make it, so a lot of my scores include graphics as well as musical notation (depending on what I need). If I need to communicate particular pitch information, then I’ll use musical notation. If what I’m interested in is more a kind of gesture—a sonic gesture—then oftentimes I’ll draw a graphic into the score. When I look at works of visual art, I stand, sometimes sit, and spend time with the painting. Whether it’s looking at its form, looking at color, or just absorbing what you’re getting from it… some people will walk closer to the painting to see details, some will walk back from it. I know Philip Guston felt there was a particular distance from a painting that was the “perfect” spot. I don’t know that we can all find that perfect spot, but each of us tries to understand a work of visual art by moving to it, moving away from it—looking at brushstrokes, looking at the thickness of the paint, as well as looking at the whole structure and construct of what we’re receiving. I look at a great deal of contemporary art, but I think it is very similar with classical works of art: you’re looking at structure; you’re looking at the hue, the particular color scheme that the painter used and why; you’re looking at how the painting is structured. We do similar things when we listen to music (and sometimes when we perform): we will sometimes listen for melody, we will sometimes listen for the expertise of the musicians playing the work—so we listen to things in different ways just as we look at paintings in different ways. And sometimes we’ll sit there and let it wash over us. We’ll sit there and have an experience. I think composers like Bach and Morton Feldman are very much like that; you’re listening to a kind of overall experience and sometimes then you’re also listening to detail. These are the things I think we have in common when we experience a work of visual art and when we experience a work of music.

On the Sound Painting, Klee Alee

There have been several [of my sound paintings] inspired by very specific paintings, like the [Paul] Klee painting that I was inspired by was a work called Hauptweg und Nebenwege (Highways and Byways). What I try to do when I’m inspired by a particular work of art… it’s not exactly translating, but it’s expressing what I feel in experiencing the work of art, using the tools I have—my musical tools. With Klee Alee, what I saw was almost like a wall of color blocks, so what I created on multi-track tapes (I was working on analogue tapes at that time, but it could also done be easily in digital) was what I considered to be blocks of sound. The painting has a lot of blues and greens in it, so I was altering the vocal sound that I was making to create a kind of sound that I would consider blue or green. Not that I necessarily see color when I see sound—some people who have perfect pitch actually see colors when they hear specific pitches—but what I was creating was a kind of color wall. What Klee had done was to paint very thickly onto the canvas, and then obviously he used a sort of sharp tool to etch into the thickness of the paint. I then used a different vocal technique to, as it were, “etch” into the vocal sound blocks that I had previously made. So in a work like that I’m using a very specific technique and building a sonic painting based on an actual visual painting. In other cases, I’m dealing more abstractly and I create sound paintings that I want people to experience in the way they come and look at a work of art. [In these works] what I’m doing as the composer is to record all of the material that I want and then, in the mix (in post-production), I go in and I will mix it, edit it, layer it, so that I’m drawing the listener’s ear to a particular aspect of the overall work. In other words, I’m directing where you stand and look at the painting—I’m directing what you are actually hearing, very specifically. With that what I’ve tried to do is to create…I won’t say stasis, but I create a work where everything exists from the very first moment to the last moment. Where there’s nothing like development. It is all of the sound material that I use in that particular work, then what I do is bring certain elements forward and bring other elements into the background. So I’m directing how you hear that work.

Label text for Agnes Martin, Untitled No. 7 (1977), from the exhibition Art in Our Time: 1950 to the Present, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, September 5, 1999 to September 2, 2001. Copyright 2000 Walker Art Center

Agnes Martin, Untitled No. 7 (1977). Photo: © 2000 Walker Art Center

On the Sound Painting, In Solitude This Fear Is Lived

I first saw [Agnes Martin‘s] work in around 1976. I was doing a concert in northern Italy for a gallerist, and he had some of her works. [They were] small, sometimes graphite on canvas work, and I was just completely overwhelmed with the simplicity, the focus, the kind of quiet energy that was in those works. Sometime later I picked up a catalogue that had a lot of those works in it— works from the sixties. A lot of them are very, very simple—just lines. I wouldn’t exactly call them grids, but just a lot of horizontal lines. Very, very thin, sometimes painted on canvas, sometimes graphite and paint. I wanted to do a work that was inspired by those paintings in particular, and it seemed to me that it would be a wonderful work to do with orchestra, because the orchestra is so vast in its potential but it also has the ability to make very fine, very intricate sounds—which is what I felt about her paintings and her work. She had the ability to do very large works, but she also had the ability to focus into this very delicate work. It took quite a while, but in 2010 I was commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra to write a work (they were doing a series of concerts of nontraditional orchestra works), and what I wanted to do for this piece was to place the musicians around the audience—and actually place some of the them in the audience—so that the audience was actually in the center of the orchestral sound. A lot of times visual artists will prepare the canvas by putting a wash of some sort over the canvas, so what I did was prepare a kind of wash of sound. [In addition to the musicians] I had audio speakers around the audience, and the wash consisted of breath sounds from the voice, instrumentalists breathing into their instruments, the pianist just rubbing his open palms over the strings inside the instrument, and the harpist doing the same thing. It was a very airy, non-tonal sound, which is what I feel the wash is. Kind of a way of neutralizing the canvas, so that when you start to put whatever you put on it—whether it’s color, big splashes of color, or simple lines—that it goes onto the canvas in a certain way. [After I prepared the] wash, I added one instrument at a time—and I started with the string instruments (the violins)—they just played a single note, and I separated them out so you didn’t have a section. You had them as individual soloists, and they were around the sides of the concert hall. So back and forth you would get a kind of call and response of a single pitch, being drawn or played very very delicately. Essentially what I was doing was not only placing the audience inside the orchestra, but I was also placing the audience as if they were beneath the canvas, and that canvas was actually being drawn on in space above them. The idea was [to imitate] doing individual strokes on the canvas, and the technique that I used with strings is something called flautando, which means that they just very, very lightly draw the bow over the strings to create the note—non-vibrato—so it imitates in a way, in sound, what I felt she was doing with the graphite (or the ink, or oil, whichever it was). It had the delicacy. Gradually I began to create a very very minimal melodic line that developed, but the initial gestures were as close as I could get to these just very simple gestures on the canvas.

On Sounddances and Cunningham

I also have done “sounddances,” and they were very much influenced by the work of Merce Cunningham. Because of my association with John Cage, I started working with the Cunningham company in the early ’70s [at the same time] I started working Cage. So I saw a lot of Cunningham dance over the years, and what struck me about Cunningham’s work is that as an audience member you make choices: you could look at individual dancers and the specific movements they were making, or you could take a wider view and look at everything that was going on and try to get a sense of the form. So again it’s this kind of large perspective as opposed to a detailed perspective. I was also fascinated with how Cunningham felt that whatever way the dancer was facing was forward. It didn’t matter whether they were facing upstage or downstage: wherever they were facing, they were performing their action. I thought of that as I mixed certain specific pieces. There’s a work of mine called Autumn Signal, and another work called quatre petites betes, and with each of them I thought of sound almost like characters—or dancers, or figures—and moved them around [as such]. In the case of both of these works they were done in quadraphonic sound (four speakers, around the audience), so I was able to move the sounds around. As one particular kind of sound is walking around the periphery, then different kinds of sounds were flying overhead. In the case of quatre petites betes I created a kind of clearing in a field with four little beasts, each of whom had their own language. They made their own particular statement, then countered each other and had this little battle in the middle of the field, and then flew off into the sonic atmosphere. So I don’t think traditionally as a composer. I really am very affected by different art forms, different mediums, and what I try to do is to try to use my interest and my fascination with different kinds of art—use my understanding of them, use my way of translating them—into a sound art.

On Medical Phenomenon and Inspiration

There are also pieces that I have done that are, let’s say, more traditional—that do start out with melodic ideas and then develop melodic ideas—but I’m influenced by a number of different things. I did a work called Awakenings for chamber ensemble that was inspired by the book by Oliver Sacks [of the same title], about the people who, during a flu epidemic, had fallen into a coma and were kept alive in a vegetative state. At some point their doctor used a particular medicine and it woke them up—unfortunately for only a limited period of time—and it was almost like a Rip Van Winkle thing, where they went to sleep in a particular time and woke up some 20 or 30 years later with the world having changed. They had to then experience the world that way, and then they gradually drifted back into the coma. In this work I’m using a phenomenon, a medical phenomenon, to inspire a musical work. And the way I translate it is by translating [their experience] into sound: starting from a kind of meditative or sleep state, to [moving to] a point of more discovery/energy/activity, and returning into this kind of solemn/calm/meditative state. It’s just a way of working… We could talk for hours about what inspires people: why one writes a certain kind of work. Wagner, he was enamored by Norse legends. Other composers work with texts or poetry, while opera composers deal with stories and how you tell that story both through voice and text and orchestration.

Joan La Barbara and John Cage playing chess before a rehearsal at his loft photo: © 1976 Michael McKenzie

Joan La Barbara and John Cage playing chess before a rehearsal at his loft. Photo: © 1976 Michael McKenzie

On Collaboration and Simultaneities

I’ve done a number of collaborations with other artists, and they’ve been very different one from the next. I’ve done a lot of work with choreographers. In most cases it’s been more real-time, back-and-forth exchange. But, I worked with a filmmaker one time, Aleksandar Kostic, and we applied the Cage/Cunningham principle, where I said, “OK, we’re going to work for 30 minutes, and the name of the piece is Persistence of Memory.” We did not work out the form; the only thing that I did stipulate, since he oftentimes does a lot of realistic storytelling, is I said, “I don’t want realism in this”—that I would prefer it much more abstract. And I did say what I was dealing with are extremes of weather. Extreme events. I didn’t tell him specifically what I was dealing with, but I was dealing with avalanches, cyclones, and car crashes—events that would happen and then ricochet. We performed it in Berlin in 2012, at the opening of the Berliner Festspiele. We actually put it together, in the Cage/Cunningham tradition, in the dress rehearsal. I had my ensemble with me—the seven musicians of Ne(x)tworks—and he had the film. The film was simply projected and we performed.

What was astonishing, which is something that happens very often in the Cage/Cunningham simultaneities, is that you get things happening that seem so absolutely right, seem absolutely to have to have been planned, but they weren’t. It’s a kind of magic, and I don’t know if it’s something that’s because of our perception that we deal with it that way, or if it’s this kind of magic [that happens] when two artistic collaborators are true to their own art form, their work flowing together in a remarkable way. Also, when I did an Events performance with the Cunningham company in ’76, there were a number of remarkable things that happened. Merce told me what the time was that we were dealing with, and I had planned several of my works accordingly. One of them was a work called Circular Song, which is for solo voice, inhaled and exhaled vocalizing. Just as a matter of coincidence, at the moment that I started Circular Song, Merce came out with a solo of his own. And it so remarkably mirrored the form and, for me, the shapes that he was making. It was one of those dances where he moves his foot forward and then part way back, and then another foot forward and part way back, and that mirrored for me the sound that I was making. I also had a work of mine called Thunder [performed with Cunningham’s company]which was for six tympani and voice with electronics—and the dancers told me afterwards that it was a really remarkable influence. The work that they were doing at that particular moment in time was Summerspace (which was originally done to very sparse and quiet music of Morton Feldman), and they said when they did it [with Feldman’s music] they were sort of fawns in a field or something, but when my work was played with the same dance it was more like a jungle, because my work was so much louder and more reactive.

On Going On

I’m working right now on developing an opera. It’s inspired by the work of Virginia Woolf and by Joseph Cornell—two very different artists, obviously one dealing with words one dealing with visuals. But Cornell also worked from his dreams and kept written journals, and Woolf said that she heard her work first as music and then translated it into text—so you know it’s just this is sort of an ongoing experience I have of working. And it will go on.

Joan La Barbara will perform at the Walker Art Center on February 23 and 24, 2017, and at MCA Chicago, February 25 and 26, 2017 as part of Music for Merce: A Two-Night Celebration.

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 […]

pa2016_colin-stetson_0930_033

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.

 

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