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Sounds, Sourced and Unsourced: Aki Onda 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, Walker Intern Sam Segal shares his perspective on Aki Onda’s recent […]

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

Set One

Aki Onda. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

Aki Onda. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

Composer and electroacoustic improviser Aki Onda begins Thursday night’s Sound Horizon performance soaked in the overcast light that floods through the massive eastern window in the Walker’s Medtronic Gallery.  Accompanying visual artist Liz Deschenes’s spare, meditative installation, Gallery 7, Onda sculpts a piece of equally precise and hypnotizing sound art. Equipped only with a portable radio, two guitar amps, an array of cassette players, and several cassettes, he manages to craft a soundscape of surprising depth and intensity by the end of his first thirty-minute set.

Given the unconventional nature of his instruments, it’s often difficult to see how Aki Onda is deriving some of his sounds and patterns. This inscrutability is liberating. When you see a string quartet, your brain can intuitively understand the chain reaction between the bow, the strings, and the violinist’s fingers. When you witness an Aki Onda performance, a loop of chirping tones might be the feedback bouncing between a tape player and an amplifier or it might be a field recording of a Mexican birdsong. If you understand the source of every sound, the live music experience can become a bland appreciation of virtuosity. With Onda, you quickly give up on understanding all of his sources; you allow yourself to experience the entirety of the acoustic environment as he facilitates its growth and change.

Set Two

Aki Onda. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

Aki Onda. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

Now, none of this is to give you the impression that Aki Onda is a formless technician, manipulating sounds with scientific exactitude. He is very much a performer, and he is as fearless an improviser as any of the great free music pioneers. For his second set, Onda plays for a large crowd in the long hallway that runs along Hennepin Avenue. His expanded set-up includes a larger collection of cassettes, two Kaoss Pads, multiple looping pedals, three cymbals, and a few cups of marbles.

There is a noticeable choreography to Onda’s movements. He paces methodically up and down the hallway, wrenching the tape player in his hand back and forth with a consistent rhythm, a frankly beautiful pattern of movement. The focused physicality of dance permeates Onda’s entire performance, embedding a constant human presence in his maze of disembodied sounds.

Onda’s calm demeanor may give the impression that he isn’t paying attention to the audience, but in this second set he subtly engages with his onlookers and their expectations of musical performance. On top of a brooding, ambient background, Onda sprinkles in the sounds of a soft rain by casting marbles down the hallway, letting them bounce with unpredictable rhythms down the slanted brick floor. As the marbles roll past members of the audience, they must choose whether to interact with them or not, whether to allow themselves to alter the soundscape or to let it continue on its path. Of course, this is a false choice. An audience member’s decision not to touch the marble still leads to a sound that would not have occurred if they had decided to touch it. In this way, Aki Onda enlists us all as his collaborators.

Set Three    

Aki Onda. Photo: Molly Hanse

Aki Onda. Photo: Molly Hanse

The night ends in Gallery 5, which currently houses the Walker’s Art at the Center retrospective, an exhibition that includes Nam June Paik’s hyperactive television sculpture 66-76-89 (1990) and selections from On Kawara’s TODAY series (1989), as well as Siah Armajani’s Prayer (1962), a typographical labyrinth that serves as the backdrop for Onda’s final performance.

The music resonates thoughtfully with these pieces of visual art. The screeching noise of feedback pairs perfectly with the looping chaos taking place on Paik’s televisions. Onda’s cassettes, heavily manipulated field recordings from his travels around the world, act as artifacts of memory completely cut off from their moments of origin. Kawara’s TODAY paintings, with their decontextualized calendar dates, achieve a similar feeling of detachment. Yet, both artists also open their work up to the audience’s free-associative memory. Kawara’s dates connect the viewer to their own real and imagined memories of the times he invokes. Aki Onda’s obscured sounds are equally open to individual interpretation. In just one of his tapes, depending on who you are, you might hear the squealing of a free jazz saxophone, the din of a busy street, or the terrified screaming of a human voice.

Found Sounds and Lost Memories: A Glimpse into the Synaesthetic World of Aki Onda

Aki Onda is an accidental musician. “To begin with, it was not like I understood music,” he told the British music magazine The Wire in 2013. “When I was a kid, I could barely play a harmonica, nor was I able to get a handle of the theories of music no matter how hard I […]

Aki Onda. Photo: Fridolin Schoepper

Aki Onda. Photo: Fridolin Schoepper

Aki Onda is an accidental musician. “To begin with, it was not like I understood music,” he told the British music magazine The Wire in 2013. “When I was a kid, I could barely play a harmonica, nor was I able to get a handle of the theories of music no matter how hard I tried to instill them in my head. So, early on, I gave up on music.”

Instead, he found an expressive outlet in photography. It seemed like a natural fit for Onda, who was born into a family of artists. His mother was a painter, and his father used to document his travels with a Super 8 camera. The grainy images captured Onda’s childhood imagination. As a teenager, Onda began taking photographs of musicians, leading to magazine commissions and photographic encounters with the likes of John Zorn and Arto Lindsay. Inspired by the new currents in art and music represented by these artists, Onda soon left his native Japan, traveling widely. While in London in the late 1980s, his camera broke. “I did not have enough saved for a new camera… I settled for a cassette Walkman…”

Cassette Memories

His decision to settle would prove auspicious: the Walkman has become his trademark instrument. For more than 20 years, he has used the Walkman to document the sonic contours of his daily life, accumulating a vast archive of personal field recordings. This archive has become the foundation for his much-lauded Cassette Memories project, an ongoing engagement with personal memory in which he fragments and layers his own recordings to obliquely reconstruct his memories.

Reading through Onda’s biography brought to mind a passage in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (1930) that postulates a relationship between recording technologies and memory: “In the camera, man has created an instrument that captures evanescent visual impressions, while the gramophone does the same for equally fleeting auditory impressions; both are essentially materializations of his innate faculty of recall, of his memory.”

This idea of materializing memory is central to Onda’s working practice. Through its attentiveness to spatiality and its relentless temporal abstraction, Onda’s music, often devoid of any metric pulse, seems to embody a distinct material presence. He wrote in his Cassette Memories project description, “What emerges from my sound memories is a sonic collage of ritualistic tape music.”

Aki Onda. Photo: courtesy Sandrine Marc

Aki Onda. Photo: Sandrine Marc

The phrase “sonic collage” underscores Onda’s interdisciplinary conception of music. It has become a cliché to describe texturally inventive music as “painterly,” but in Onda’s case such visual metaphors are almost unavoidable. He told The Wire, “The truth is, although I am labelled a musician, my musical influences are few and far between and I pull most of my ideas from other media.”

Perhaps a more fitting visual analogue to Onda’s music than collage would be the three-dimensional assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg. Like one of Rauschenberg’s assemblages, Onda’s music reaches out beyond the frame, beckoning to the listener even as it maintains its distance. It seems to teeter at the threshold between comprehensibility and inscrutability, the secret memories it contains hovering elusively, just beyond our reach.

Onda’s intent is not to retrace his memories indexically, but to lay bare their underlying morphology, their imperfect architecture. His sonic excavations seem to exist in the folds of memory, conjuring evocations that can’t be placed, indistinct somehow in their sensuous particularity. He told Tiny Mix Tapes, “I have to cut the bond with the original meanings first. Then, I’ll be able to use them for re-creating the other meanings. So it’s not like telling you about my personal history, which I’m not interested in at all. I’d like to make it abstract and open to the others.” What Onda is describing amounts to an auditory palimpsest. The original meaning and context of the audio is erased, but the audio itself remains as a trace upon which Onda and the listener can inscribe new meanings. Onda actively cultivates this intersubjective process of making meaning, telling The Wire, “My music exists where [the audience’s] gaze and my gaze cross.”

One question that remains is: why does Onda continue to use a cassette Walkman when there are a host of more modern gadgets available to him? Onda has said that he likes the characteristic imperfections of the cassette sound. “I just like things that are damaged, destroyed, scratched, ruined, wrecked, and not perfect,” he told Tiny Mix Tapes. This wabi-sabi ideal permeates nearly all of Onda’s work. Brian Eno captured the allure of damaged, lo-fi aesthetics in A Year with Swollen Appendices (1996) when he wrote, “The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”

Onda’s music is indeed momentous, but it is rooted in the mundane. In one of Onda’s soundscapes, birds chirping might give way to cars honking. It’s a familiar mixture of sounds to most people, but Aki’s careful curation and cultivation renders it unfamiliar.

Theorist Shuhei Hosokawa famously examined the Walkman’s capacity for defamiliarization in his piece “The Walkman Effect.” Writing in 1984, four years after the Walkman’s original release in Japan, he concluded, “the practical meaning of the Walkman is generated in the distance it poses between the reality and the real, the city and the urban, and particularly between the others and the I.”

Hosokawa saw this distancing effect as inevitable, a product of the private, hermetic nature of listening to a Walkman. Onda, however, by rebroadcasting his private soundscapes into a shared public space, seems to suggest the possibility of traversing the distance between “the others and the I.” After all, the Walkman’s very name implies an act of traversal. For that reason, Onda could not have selected a tool better suited to his art.

….

Aki Onda will perform live in the Walker galleries on Thursday, May 14 at 6, 7, and 8 pm.

The Guitarist, the Chanteuse, and the Band: Jocelyn Hagen on Victoire/Glasser/Noveller

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 Jocelyn Hagen shares her perspective on Saturday night’s performance by Victoire/Glasser/Noveller, co-presented by the Walker […]

Noveller performs with Victoire at the Walker Art Center as part of a co-presentation with the SPCO's Liquid Music series on May 9, 2015. Photo: © Tony Nelson

Noveller performs with Victoire at the Walker Art Center as part of a co-presentation with the SPCO’s Liquid Music series on May 9, 2015. Photo: © Tony Nelson

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 Jocelyn Hagen shares her perspective on Saturday night’s performance by Victoire/Glasser/Noveller, co-presented by the Walker Art Center and the SPCO’s Liquid Music series. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments! 

Last weekend the Walker Art Center co-presented the final concert of the 2014-15 Liquid Music Series with the much-anticipated Victoire show featuring fellow female composer/performers Glasser and Noveller. Taking the stage for a solid two hours, these versatile musicians filled the room with both evolving and revolving textures created by stacked layers of sound. Victoire is led by composer Missy Mazzoli, who also played keyboards and used Ableton to manipulate sounds onstage; she prefers to refer to the group as a band instead of a new music ensemble. This approach to such boundary-defying chamber music is changing the way audiences approach the listening environment, and this is what the Liquid Music Series strives to achieve with each performance. Victoire is quite possibly the best incarnation of such a group, because of the consistency of their performers, the regularity at which they perform, and the collaborative way they bring Mazzoli’s ideas to fruition. They are at their best when showing off their virtuosity, especially the incredible playing of violinist Olivia de Prato and double bassist Eleanor Oppenheim. Victoire is unintimidated by dark, thorny, and even muddy textures, nor of filling the room with large, pulsing, loud sound.

Guitarist Noveller succeeded in bringing to life low, bubbly textures with wailing, sharp melodies, letting feedback and distortion color the textures she created by looping. The music sounded exploratory, along with the bright, glossy video imagery, but the limitations of looping made the music a bit static.

Glasser’s sensual performance with recorded tracks showcased her wispy, floaty voice against varied rhythmic textures of an ever-surprising palette. Her music came alive once the instrumentalists of Victoire joined her for the final set. If, ten years ago, I had to imagine what contemporary music would sound like in 2015, it would and would not have sounded like this ~ in the best sense ~ I don’t think I could have imagined this sound. There was a magical, futuristic characteristic difficult to describe, and this is exactly what music created in the present time should hope to achieve.

The video component of the evening didn’t always support or enhance the listening experience, and overall the music became a bit harmonically stagnant over two hours, but this final concert for Kate Nordstrum’s visionary series was overall a great success, given to a welcoming, sold-out crowd.

Noveller’s intricate soundscapes: an interview with Sarah Lipstate

A musical force is set to descend upon the Walker Art Center this Saturday, when Glasser, Noveller, and Victoire take the McGuire stage  for a special performance co-presented by the SPCO’s Liquid Music series. All three bands (Glasser and Noveller are solo artists, and Victoire is a quintet led by composer Missy Mazzoli) manipulate musical structures, […]

Victoire_Glasser_Noveller_2014-15_11_PP

Noveller. Photo: Alex Marks

A musical force is set to descend upon the Walker Art Center this Saturday, when Glasser, Noveller, and Victoire take the McGuire stage  for a special performance co-presented by the SPCO’s Liquid Music series. All three bands (Glasser and Noveller are solo artists, and Victoire is a quintet led by composer Missy Mazzoli) manipulate musical structures, warping human and technology into stunning sonic shapes. I had the chance to talk with experimental guitarist/composer Noveller (a.k.a. Sarah Lipstate) about the evolution of her project and the process of building her entrancing soundscapes. Noveller pulls notes from their stuffy staff lines to evolve and meld together with today’s machines: pedals, feedback, guitar, and a bow. When I talked with Lipstate on Wednesday, she had just finished a set on Radiolab at WNYC the night before and was ready for the next performance at hand, saying: “tonight I have rehearsal for Victoire. Starting tomorrow, I have performances every night. So, you know it’s exciting, it’s the best I could imagine for myself as a musician, but I also have to keep my head together.”

Abbie Gobeli: How did Noveller begin?

Sarah Lipstate: Noveller began when I was living in Austin at the University of Texas. When I started playing guitar, it was very much a solitary activity. None of my friends I’ve grown up with were really interested in the type of music that I was interested in, so it was something I did for fun by myself. I had a feeling that when I moved to Austin, which to me at the time seemed like a big city,  when I started college, I hoped I would meet other people I could play with and at the very least share the same musical taste as me. So that does happen, and I start playing with other people. I had a duo called One Umbrella. We would record improvised guitar and synth pieces and we self-released them.  That was the first time I was able to connect with someone else, make a recording, and get music out there into the world.

I was contacted by these women in Oakland that were doing a compilation called, Women Take Back the Noise, and it was all women in the realm of experimental music. I really wanted to be a part of this, but my duo was me with a guy. They said, “This is only for women, so why don’t you send us something you create on your own?” That was how I started: I recorded a piece and submitted it to them and they said, “This is great, so what is your project called?” I came up with Noveller, and that’s what encouraged me to make music on my own. I realized I really like recording on my own. Performing came later.

Gobeli: I was listening to one of your early records, Red Rainbows, and found it was noisier than the more cinematic tracks on your latest release, Fantastic Planet. How has Noveller evolved over time?

Lipstate: In the first recording (“Signal”) from Women Take Back the Noise, guitar wasn’t used at all. I used a Theremin and manipulated feedback through guitar pedals I had at the time. The very beginning of Noveller was very noisy, and when I started performing live, I had to figure out what I wanted to do in a live setting. That’s when the guitar became the primary instrument, but at the time I was using this double-neck guitar: one neck had 12 strings; the other had 6 strings. Because it was very heavy, I didn’t wear it. I laid it flat on a keyboard stand because it was a different orientation. I didn’t really play it in a melodic sense, but to create sounds I could manipulate through the pedals.

The biggest evolution with Noveller is viewing the guitar as a sound source, and now in present day, viewing the guitar as an instrument that I can actually craft melodies with in a more nuanced way to create soundscapes. There’s an early piece called “St. Powers” where I was plucking the strings, and it was very melodic, very pretty. That helped shape my live performance; I would play that piece and two short noisier pieces. I remember playing this show at a place in Williamsburg, which actually became 285 Kent, which doesn’t even exist anymore.  It was cold. I had to play with my leather jacket zipped up. After I played, [a guy who lived there] said, “Anyone can make noise. When you played that piece…that was very beautiful. That’s where you should focus your attention,” and that’s stuck with me. Things always feel organic with this project. I’m not a skilled guitarist in the traditional sense, but I want to figure out how I want to play it and give it its due.

Gobeli: How do you approach building one of your compositions?

Lipstate: I’ll start by playing the guitar completely unamplified; not plugged into anything. If I come up with several ideas, eventually I’ll set up everything: amp, pedals, everything and try to bring those ideas into the realm of effects, where things can really take shape. So, if I start that way, then I have some sort of foundation of melodies or structure that I like. Then, I can let effects take that to the next level. Recording a song, especially as a solo performer, I can record many different things I want, but translating it to a live setting takes some time to figure out. When I’m recording, I think I just can’t wait to play this live! It definitely takes some preparation to figure out when you have two hands and one instrument.

Gobeli: Do you craft each layer individually?

Lipstate: I have a cool looping pedal that has three different loopings available to me. I have three going live and I play on top of that. That’s how I’m able to create these compositions that don’t seem static. They evolve and build—that’s my goal. It’s taken a long time to assemble all these different pedals, but the set up I have now is great to create these compositions live. It can be a pain to have all these pedals as opposed to a laptop. But I think having the pedals gives the audience something to engage with to see what’s happening, to see who’s building these things. That’s really fun for me. I love when people come up after the show and ask about the pedals.

Gobeli: How many pedals do you have and do you have a favorite?

Lipstate: I have eight in my current set-up, but I’m constantly swapping things out. I try not to add any, because I’m trying to be as compact and efficient as possible. Recently, I got the Eventide H-9, and it’s a square, white pedal with an LED screen. It’s really awesome; it allows me to access any preset Eventide has ever created and it can do reverb, delay, pitch shifting, harmonizing, it can do all these crazy things. It’s a compositional tool in itself.

Gobeli: What’s the most challenging and what’s the most rewarding part of crafting your compositions?

Lipstate: Getting to compose and play music all day is rewarding. Even if I’m writing or composing something that won’t be recorded, it’s the most pure satisfaction; it’s my life.

Gobeli: What do you like about manipulating technology in music?

Lipstate: It broadens the possibilities.  We’ve been playing the guitar so long, but we can make new sounds with it. For me, personally, the pedals give me more options to push boundaries.

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Glasser, Victoire, and Noveller take the McGuire stage this Saturday, May 9th at 8pm.

In addition, there is a free Composer Conversation with Missy Mazzoli of Victoire on Friday, May 8th at 6pm at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall in St. Paul. 

Off-The-Cuff Beauty: Jason Moran and Robert Glasper in Duo

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Walker Performing Arts Intern and the host of Radio K’s jazz program Sound […]

pa2015Moran-Glasper Performing Arts; Music. Jason Moran and Robert Glasper perform in the McGuire Theater, May 2, 2015. Sponsered by Steinway & Sons; Additional support provided by Producers’ Council members Leni and David Moore, Jr. / The David and Leni Moore Family Foundation and Mike and Elizabeth Sweeney. Two of today’s most influential contemporary jazz pianists team up for a US-exclusive summit combining their artistry and virtuosity in what promises to be an unforgettable evening. Informed by the entire history of jazz as well as essential American musical forms of hip-hop, blues, gospel, and soul, Jason Moran and Robert Glasper are high school friends from Houston who have since changed the face of American jazz in the 21st century.

Jason Moran (right) and Robert Glasper (left), 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, Walker Performing Arts Intern and the host of Radio K’s jazz program Sound Grammar Sam Segal shares his perspective on Jason Moran & Robert Glasper at the Walker. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

I’ll admit it: my expectations for Jason Moran and Robert Glasper’s piano duet on Saturday night weren’t all that high. I adore Moran’s achingly beautiful duo album with saxophonist Charles Lloyd, Hagar’s Song (2013), as well as his subtle grace on Paul Motian’s Lost in a Dream (2010). Glasper, however, I’d never cared for very much. No, let’s try that again: Glasper, however, I’d always proclaimed not to care for very much.

After a few cursory listens to his breakthrough album Black Radio back in 2012, Glasper seemed to me to symbolize everything that was wrong with the narrative surrounding contemporary jazz. Music critics hailed the pianist’s fusion of jazz with hip-hop, soul, and R&B as the thing that would save what they perceived as a dying genre, out of touch with anything outside of its own insular world. “Slapping hurts, but at some point it’ll wake you up. I feel like jazz needs a big-ass slap,” Glasper told DownBeat a few months after the release of Black Radio. To me, the idea that jazz had stopped engaging with the world outside of conservatories and posh clubs seemed absurd, and anyone who saw it like that hadn’t really been paying attention to the fertile avant scene happening on the fringes. In my mind, Glasper was the conservative jazz world’s bland excuse to pat itself on the back and say, “We’re hip to this rap music the kids are into these days.”  Did it matter to me that I’d made this judgment after listening to one Robert Glasper album like maybe two-and-a-half times? Hell no! I was a pretentious nineteen-year-old with a point to make. So, it was with a certain amount of internal struggle on Saturday night that I finally admitted to myself that Robert Glasper truly is one of the great pianists in contemporary jazz.

pa2015Moran-Glasper Performing Arts; Music. Jason Moran and Robert Glasper perform in the McGuire Theater, May 2, 2015. Sponsered by Steinway & Sons; Additional support provided by Producers’ Council members Leni and David Moore, Jr. / The David and Leni Moore Family Foundation and Mike and Elizabeth Sweeney. Two of today’s most influential contemporary jazz pianists team up for a US-exclusive summit combining their artistry and virtuosity in what promises to be an unforgettable evening. Informed by the entire history of jazz as well as essential American musical forms of hip-hop, blues, gospel, and soul, Jason Moran and Robert Glasper are high school friends from Houston who have since changed the face of American jazz in the 21st century.

Robert Glasper, Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

Throughout the duo’s performance (I caught the first of the night’s two shows), Glasper and Moran played with incredible wit and off-the-cuff beauty. They managed to blend the playful exploration of a jam session with the unabashed emotionality of a solo recital. Glasper’s lyricism and remarkable melodic sensitivity frequently reminded me of Keith Jarrett, and at times his percussive chops rivaled those of McCoy Tyner. During a song he performed solo (composed by Herbie Hancock, although I didn’t quite catch the title), it dawned on me how much Glasper has internalized the aesthetics of hip-hop. His brand of fusion goes way beyond the acoustic hip-hop of a band like the Roots, in which live instruments simply play what would usually be sampled. Glasper approaches the piano like a DJ, treating melodies and rhythms like breaks he can sample, remixing himself constantly as he moves through a piece.

Jason Moran and Robert Glasper at the Walker Art Center, McGuire

Jason Moran and Robert Glasper, Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

Each player’s personality pushed the other into unexplored territory. After a gutbucket boogie-woogie workout inspired by Albert Ammons and Meade “Lux” Lewis warmed up the crowd, Moran gestured towards more ethereal territory, and his partner followed suit. Midway through the show, the two mounted a stunning reinterpretation of rapper Kendrick Lamar’s “How Much A Dollar Cost,” a cut from this year’s To Pimp a Butterfly, a critically-adored record that featured Glasper’s piano on a number of tracks. While Moran held down the song’s haunting melody, Glasper mimicked the rhythmic spitting of an emcee with an impromptu modification to his piano: a plastic bottle of water and a can of Folgers to mute a section of the strings. Moran took the suggestion and placed a ceramic bowl on the low-end strings of his piano, creating a clanking drone as his fingers moved furiously across the bass keys. Two prepared pianos playing a dissonant and hypnotizing version of one of the year’s darkest hip-hop songs was a far cry from the “safe” show I was afraid these two would put on.

pa2015Moran-Glasper Performing Arts; Music. Jason Moran and Robert Glasper perform in the McGuire Theater, May 2, 2015. Sponsered by Steinway & Sons; Additional support provided by Producers’ Council members Leni and David Moore, Jr. / The David and Leni Moore Family Foundation and Mike and Elizabeth Sweeney. Two of today’s most influential contemporary jazz pianists team up for a US-exclusive summit combining their artistry and virtuosity in what promises to be an unforgettable evening. Informed by the entire history of jazz as well as essential American musical forms of hip-hop, blues, gospel, and soul, Jason Moran and Robert Glasper are high school friends from Houston who have since changed the face of American jazz in the 21st century.

Robert Glasper, Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

The eight o’clock show ended with another classic hip-hop song: “My Block” by their fellow Houston-native, Scarface. After Moran announced the song, a few cheers in the audience (one of them admittedly coming from me) prompted him to dub Scarface “a great jazz composer.” On a vintage Fender Rhodes, Glasper let out bursts of gospel-inflected praise while Moran laid down different takes on the song’s soulful piano sample. The duo left the crowd on an uplifting high note, the picture of two contemporary greats joyfully nominating a new standard for adoption into the jazz cannon.

Finding a Common Language in Jazz: Jason Moran and Robert Glasper Part II

As we get closer to jazz pianists Jason Moran and Robert Glasper’s performances at the Walker on Saturday night, I continue to explore their artistic careers as they both embrace and challenge the establishment of jazz. Their concert will pay homage to the giants of black music that have influenced them, while also presenting original compositions pulled from each […]

Robert Glasper, Photo: Janette Beckman

Robert Glasper, Photo: Janette Beckman

As we get closer to jazz pianists Jason Moran and Robert Glasper’s performances at the Walker on Saturday night, I continue to explore their artistic careers as they both embrace and challenge the establishment of jazz. Their concert will pay homage to the giants of black music that have influenced them, while also presenting original compositions pulled from each of their extensive catalogs. Their historic jazz renditions will pick up where the old guard left off, gesturing to artistic legacies but never lingering. By traversing new terrain through their own compositions, both hold an inspiring capacity to respond to and expand upon the contemporary jazz milieu. Embracing the amorphous nature of genre, their music is a fresh look at the interdisciplinary history of jazz in the making.

Following last week’s profile of Jason Moran, we now spotlight the acclaimed jazz musician and two-time Grammy award winner Robert Glasper. Glasper also arrives at the Walker with a robust musical sensibility and international acclaim. While both artists attended Houston’s High School for Performing Arts, Moran graduated just before Glasper enrolled. Although they were not classmates, Glasper is quick to recall the influence Moran played throughout his high school career. He remembers teachers saying to him, “you might be able to be the next Jason Moran!” In a WBGO interview last year, Moran responds with equal humility to Glasper’s compliment by describing the incredible technicality and talent that Glasper possesses when playing the piano. Moran describes how he commands a “dizzying, rapid-fire precision,” when playing, as if the record was intentionally sped up.

Glasper identifies his mother, Kim Yvette Glasper, the powerful jazz, blues, and gospel singer, as his main musical influence. By age 12, he was already accompanying her on the piano at church and local Houston clubs. After high school Glasper studied at the The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Art in New York City where he began composing songs and developing his musical network. Like Moran, Glasper has never limited himself to the confines of straight-ahead jazz. In an interview with DownBeat, he refers to himself as “a big house of many rooms” with jazz being just one of them. “There’s a lot of other stuff in there,” he continues, “This is my way of putting all my rooms together and making a thought, and whatever you determine that thought should be called, I don’t really care. I’d rather somebody not be able to totally define stuff that I do, because that brings a certain normalcy to it. And jazz could use some abnormal shit, to be honest.” Synthesizing jazz, R&B, and hip-hop, Glasper translates multiple musical genres into formats that actively resist any definition and enable him to collaborate with songwriters, poets, vocalists, spoken word artists, and actors.

When collaborating with other musicians, Glasper privileges the collective over the individual musician. Moran agrees and notes the importance of finding ways to “maintain your identity” through other avenues besides solos. Remarking on the collaborative nature of Glasper’s live performances, Moran states, “Robert has taken [the Robert Glasper Experiment] to a place where the options that each musician has is really just to support each other, it’s not just to be the backup for the solo. And the solo is barely existent, and it was a really nice thing to hear. [It was] really generous, but fulfilling at the same time for all of us in the audience.”

While he has a definite fluency in the jazz idiom, Glasper also maintains a rigorous interdisciplinary approach to his work. He welcomes the diversity of talents that each contributor can bring. His critically acclaimed 2012 album Black Radio by the Robert Glasper Experiment stands as a testaments to this commitment. Black Radio (featuring collaborators Erykah Badu, Bilal, Lalah Hathaway, Yasiin Bey, Musiq Soulchild, Chrisette Michele, and more) won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Album. Through this multifaceted, creative exchange, Glasper presents a soulful critique of mainstream musical standards. Overcoming entrenched divides between musical genres, Glasper invents a new stage to proclaim the personal and political through his music.

Earlier this year, the 12-track album Black Radio 2 (featuring Jill Scott, Dwele, Luke James, Common, Marsha Ambrosius, Patrick Stump, Faith Evans, Norah Jones, Snoop Dogg, Lupe Fiasco, Emeli Sandé, Lalah Hathaway, Brandy, Anthony Hamilton), won the award for Best Traditional R&B Performance. Robert Glasper Experiment’s reinterpretation of Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children Of America” commemorates the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that occurred in December of 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. The actor and poet Malcolm-Jamal Warner contributed an original spoken-word poem to the song, and singer Lalah Hathaway provided the vocals. Glasper recalls the personal significance of this moment: “The very first time I performed that song live was during a Stevie Wonder tribute on the day the Sandy Hook tragedy took place…I’d also found out that a close friend lost his daughter in the tragedy. So when we did the Stevie song, I almost lost it. It hit close to home, because I have a four-year-old son.” Glasper manages to use his multidisciplinary aesthetic not only to expand cultural definitions of jazz, but to make statements of great personal and political import.

Just as Moran discusses the feeling of a “persistent jabbing” after viewing Adrian Piper’s work and a powerful “wake up” to make use of his personal history, Glasper expresses a similar need to intertwine the personal and the political into his music. He maintains an acute awareness of the social undertones of his music. Glasper notes, “Jazz musicians are becoming more comfortable with music that speaks to them personally. I think it’s very important that musicians feed off the fruit of the music that actually is the soundtrack of their lives. The only way to keep something relevant is to renew it from history and let it grow and change. When that happens, you start getting stuff like Black Radio 2.” He adds, “Black people have invented so many dope genres that everyone loves: Jazz, blues, gospel, R&B, rock, hip-hop, and the list goes on. I’m just visiting all those rooms. It’s my mansion; it’s our mansion. I don’t have to exclude anything.” Moran and Glasper’s music interrogates traditional musical forums and demonstrates how they hold all the more relevancy when placed in the context of the social and political terms of our times.

Glasper made his opinion of the contemporary jazz scene quite clear when he told DownBeat, “I’ve gotten bored with jazz to the point where I wouldn’t mind something bad happening. Slapping hurts, but at some point it’ll wake you up. I feel like jazz needs a big-ass slap.” In a similar vein, Moran spoke to his impatience with what he perceives as jazz’s limiting performance format. While the music grows from creativity and passion, the performance can often be presented in a rigid space. Moran and Glasper both manipulate the music, reconstructing jazz history in order to alter any expectations the audience may harbor. Or, as Moran phrases it, he wants to “wipe the slate clean” by beginning a performance with something you wouldn’t expect.

The collaboration between Moran and Glasper will be unpredictable; the musicians will take you into the folds of their compositions, both rigorous in approach and brave in its improvisation. Riding and resisting the rhythm, the two artists remain stronger together. Their music enriches the audience’s understanding of the living legacy of the historic figures in not just jazz, but also R&B, soul, gospel, blues, boogie-woogie, rap, and classical. The synchronicity and disjuncture of their chords creates an effortless relational composition that harks on the momentous movement of Glasper and Moran’s music. They will punctuate the room with recognizable melodies and rhythms, only to whisk the audience away in anticipation of a new kind of jazz in the making. Speaking the same language through their pianos, together they leave their mark on both music and culture. But let their music speak for itself.

Jason Moran and Robert Glasper perform at the Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater on Saturday, May 2nd at 8:00 pm (sold out) and 10:30 pm (limited tickets available).

Listening Mix: Jason Moran and Robert Glasper

Two titans of 21st-century jazz piano will join forces at the Walker’s McGuire Theater this Saturday. The audience is in for the rarest of treats: a meeting of equals that promises to break new ground even as it revisits shared history. The commonalities between Jason Moran and Robert Glasper extend beyond their instrument. Both artists attended Houston’s […]

Robert Glasper & Jason Moran, Blue Note Records’ 75th Anniversary Tribute at Winter Jazz Fest, January 8, 2014. Photo: Lesley Keller

Robert Glasper & Jason Moran, Blue Note Records’ 75th Anniversary Tribute at Winter Jazz Fest, January 8, 2014. Photo: Lesley Keller

Two titans of 21st-century jazz piano will join forces at the Walker’s McGuire Theater this Saturday. The audience is in for the rarest of treats: a meeting of equals that promises to break new ground even as it revisits shared history.

The commonalities between Jason Moran and Robert Glasper extend beyond their instrument. Both artists attended Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and they have both since refined distinctive languages characterized by an openness to a vast range of stylistic impulses. The breadth and depth of their respective visions would be impossible to encapsulate in a single playlist. What follows, then, is not intended as a representative selection, but as a freely associative dive into their multifarious artistry.

Track One: Jason Moran & The Bandwagon — “Break Down” — Artist in Residence (2006)

“Break Down” originated as part of Moran’s Milestone, a Walker-commissioned suite. The voice you hear belongs to legendary conceptual artist Adrian Piper. Piper’s original speech enjoined artists to make their processes public and transparent:

Piper: “Artists ought to be writing about what they do, and what kinds of procedures they go through to realize a work, what their presuppositions in making the work are, and related things. If artists’ intentions and ideas were more accessible to the general public, I think it might break down some of the barriers of misunderstanding between the art world and artists and the general public. I think it would become clear the extent to which artists are just as much a product of their society as anyone else with any other kind of vocation.”

In a playfully reflexive gesture, Moran heeds Piper’s suggestion to “break down” ideas by breaking down and rearranging her commentary itself. By rendering this rearrangement so transparent–we hear the unaltered source speech in its entirety later in the album–Moran alerts us to the constant deconstruction and reconstruction of meaning that characterizes his artistic process. Moran’s layered musical statement interacts with Piper’s original statement, and the resultant profusion of intertextual meaning invites the listener to take part in the interpretive fun.

In the span of just three minutes, Moran has laid out an ambitious array of artistic aspirations: to make art that is both abstract and accessible and to ‘break down’ barriers between artist and audience, form and process, and language and music. Over the course of his career, Moran has done remarkably well on each of these fronts, garnering critical acclaim and an ever-expanding audience.

Moran’s decision to mine Piper’s speech for its cadences and melodic contours as well as its semantic content points towards one of Jason’s early and ongoing influences: hip hop.

Track Two: Q-Tip — “Life Is Better” — The Renaissance (2008)

The honeyed tones of this Q-Tip cut come from none other than Robert Glasper. Glasper has an extensive history of collaboration with pre-eminent hip-hop artists, and there are few rappers/producers more venerated than Q-Tip. A founding member of A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip also offers a link to a seminal time in the admixture of jazz and hip hop.

Q-Tip’s rhymes clue us into his keen awareness of his own aesthetic lineage:

One step at a time, a man walked on the moon
One record got played, Kool Herc said boom

Playlist setting: Cold Crush, Furious Five, and the Masterdon
Cosmic Force, Bammbaataa, Jazzy 5

His lyrical reference points provide a glimpse into his listening history as well as the history of hip hop at large. (Norah Jones even intones earlier in the song, “I’m so into your rich history.”)

Moran and Glasper share this ideal of crafting autobiographical and cultural narrative through music. In Downbeat Magazine, Moran mused,

“Which songs do we play that really tell our narrative? Looking at songs, even song titles or song composers, expresses where I am, or who I am … That sets up this place where we sit in current jazz piano, a place where you are able to tell these narratives, which are your personal ones. Somebody might say they’re open for criticism, but it’s open more for discussion. It’s trying to find that place where you can tell your story freely. Black people weren’t able to tell their story here, and some are still coming to grips with how to tell that story.”

Track Three: Jason Moran — “Gentle Shifts South” — The Bandwagon (2003)

Discussing “Gentle Shifts South,” Moran told Nate Chinen, “One piece is my grandparents talking; that’s my family history when I play that piece.”

Jason’s plangent playing here creates a wonderfully evocative atmosphere. The piano’s rich overtones seem to hover in the air, enveloping the listener in the bittersweet warmth of remembrance.

Track Four: Robert Glasper Trio — “Think of One” — Double Booked (2009)

Within the first 45 seconds of this track alone, we can hear traces from across the history of jazz piano: the rapid-fire barrages of Bud Powell, the left-hand stride patterns of the early pioneers, and the joyous, jagged dissonances of Thelonious Monk, who composed the tune. More than a simple homage to his forebears, the voice that emerges is unmistakably Glasper’s own. The trio’s take on the song has a playful persistence to it, dancing around the theme again and again until it explodes into something rapturous.

Monk’s music is a touchstone for both Glasper and Moran, as is the music of the early stride piano masters, but they share a preference for addressing these legacies obliquely rather than as linear influences.

Track Five: Muhal Richard Abrams & Amina Claudine Myers — “Swang Rag Swang” — Duet (1981)

This swinging jaunt from celebrated AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) pianists Muhal Richard Abrams and Amina Claudine Myers showcases the piano duo format at its finest. The melodic thread holding the piece together seems to be a single motif that sounds vaguely like an inversion of Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy.” From that germinal material, Myers and Abrams pull and push against one another, spinning the idea through every wondrous permutation imaginable.

The AACM’s impact on the current generation of forward-looking jazz artists would be hard to overstate. Moran has worked to shine a spotlight on this still-vibrant collective, spearheading a celebration of the work of AACM member Henry Threadgill in Harlem last year and covering a Muhal Richard Abrams composition on his inventive solo album, Modernistic. (Threadgill and Abrams performed on the Walker stage in March as members of an all-star quintet.)

Track Six: Jason Moran & Robert Glasper, “Retrograde” Live

Here, Moran and Glasper fulfill the tremendous promise of their collaboration. Their interplay sounds comfortable but not complacent. It’s a pleasure to hear them alternate between digging into their shared vocabulary and pushing each other to new heights. The two artists make use of the full spectrum of pianistic possibilities, shifting from comping to soloing, from rhythmic ideas to lyrical ones, all fluidly and seemingly effortlessly.

Moran composed the tune they are playing, or, more precisely, arranged it; “Retrograde” is the product of his experiments with playing “Smoke Stack,” a song composed by his mentor Andrew Hill, in reverse. It seems to me that this provides the perfect metaphor for Moran and Glasper’s approach to music history: looking backward in order to move forward.

As these two masters play in tandem, their collaboration takes on the quality of a dance: moving forward and back, side to side, across the space and history of the piano, and ultimately reaching what feels like consummation, only for us to be reminded that at some point it will end.

We’re lucky to be invited to the dance party.

Finding a Common Language in Jazz: Jason Moran and Robert Glasper Part I

Esteemed jazz pianists and composers Jason Moran and Robert Glasper take the stage at the Walker’s McGuire Theater on Saturday, May 2 at 8 pm and 10:30 pm for two exclusive US performances. Showcasing collaborative talent through an energized repertoire of jazz history, their duets pay tribute to a number of influential jazz geniuses. Honoring […]

Robert Glasper & Jason Moran, Blue Note Records’ 75th Anniversary Tribute at Winter Jazz Fest, January 8, 2014. Photo: Lesley Keller

Robert Glasper & Jason Moran, Blue Note Records’ 75th Anniversary Tribute at Winter Jazz Fest, January 8, 2014. Photo: Lesley Keller

Esteemed jazz pianists and composers Jason Moran and Robert Glasper take the stage at the Walker’s McGuire Theater on Saturday, May 2 at 8 pm and 10:30 pm for two exclusive US performances. Showcasing collaborative talent through an energized repertoire of jazz history, their duets pay tribute to a number of influential jazz geniuses. Honoring the contributions of artists such as Thelonious Monk, Sam Rivers, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ammons, and Meade Lux Lewis, the duo’s compositions and improvisations reflect the ever-changing landscape of contemporary jazz. Although they acknowledge the rich legacy of their jazz forebears, they also catalyze a fresh conversation about the very state of the genre. Through extreme virtuosity, humor, and poise, Moran and Glasper launch jazz into a new realm.

Moran and Glasper both attended Houston’s High School for Performing and Visual Arts, but only recently did they decide to fuse their individual musical inclinations into one performance. The pair made their debut at the 713–212 —> Houstonians in NYC concert in 2011. They came together again with force at last year’s 75th anniversary celebration of Blue Note Records in New York City. Through solos, duets, and improvisation, they alternate back and forth until the culminating moment when their music becomes one. You can still expect their individual personalities to emerge next Saturday night, as both hold acclaimed musical careers in their own right. Their divergent paths make the pair an unlikely but impeccable duo. They share a similar ambition: to take jazz in new directions.

As part of a two part series on their upcoming collaboration, I first delve into the artistic career of Jason Moran. Another post will follow next week highlighting the work of Robert Glasper.

Jason Moran, Photo: Clay Patrick McBride

Jason Moran. Photo: Clay Patrick McBride

As a Houston native, Jason Moran began playing the piano at age six, later moving to New York to study jazz at the Manhattan School of Music. While he cites Monk as his first inspiration, Moran’s oeuvre continues to break down boundaries that once divided jazz from other artistic disciplines. A 2010 recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award and the Artistic Director for Jazz at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., his formidable artistic achievements continue to reach audiences around the world.

Moran is no stranger to the Walker. Since 2001, he has participated in a variety of distinctive performances here, including his collaboration with legendary saxophonist-flutist Sam Rivers; an evening with his trio The Bandwagon (drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Tarus Mateen); and a postmodern jazz tribute to Thelonious Monk. In addition, his residency at the Walker resulted in the acclaimed 2005 Walker-commissioned piece, Milestone. While at the Walker, Moran did not limit himself to the McGuire Theater. He ruminated on the artworks in the Walker’s permanent collection, including performance and visual artist Adrian Piper’s The Mythic Being; I/You (Her) (1974). His intensive research into Piper’s work, and other works in the Walker’s collection, resulted in a new concert form and evening of music. Throughout his composition of Milestone, Moran maintained close contact with Adrian Piper. He adopted her consciousness for the personal, political, and performative dimensions of art, later synthesizing this philosophy into his compositional strategy. He comments on how reframing traditional compositions within this collaboration allowed him to “tamper with the form [of jazz].” Milestone remains just one of many instances when Moran decided to push the boundaries of jazz.

Adrian Piper, The Mythic Being; I/You (Her), 1974 (detail) T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1999

Adrian Piper, The Mythic Being; I/You (Her), 1974 (detail) T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1999

As seen from his exchange with Piper, Moran does not limit his musical ambitions to individual acclaim. Instead, he takes unprecedented effort to foster collaborations with artists, musicians, poets, curators, and choreographers across disciplines. These include performances and compositions with Glenn Ligon, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, and Lorna Simpson, as well as a decade-long, ongoing collaboration with Joan Jonas. Moran has also worked with renowned contemporary visual artist Kara Walker, celebrated for the intricate silhouettes she affixes to gallery walls to create a landscape that interrogates racism in past and present. Walker illuminates a history embedded with enslavement, exploitation, and sexual violence. She performed with Alicia Hall Moran and Jason Moran in their multimedia work Bleed at the 2012 Whitney Biennial.

Moran forges thoughtful collaborations with contemporary artists that deal with charged interpretations of identity and society. His Hollywood debut earlier this year composing the score for the groundbreaking film Selma, with director Ava Duvernay, earned him a nomination for an Oscar. His work warrants consideration in the context not just of music, but also the pressing social and political issues of this century. In an interview with Daniel Schweiger following the release of Selma, Moran describes how he views the relationship between jazz and social practice:

Jazz and activism are so integral to each other, whether we think about the music of Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, the music of the vaudeville performer Bert Williams in the early 1900′s, or the music of Paul Robeson. That link, that defiance, that comes out of the origins of jazz and blues are what we know of black music in American. It has that kind of tension and history built in to it, a process of exploring sounds from James Brown to today’s artists like John Legend and Common, who perform Selma’s end song, “Glory”. So when I study jazz, I don’t just study just the music. I study its relationship where it was in the history. (Full interview found here).

Remaining cognizant of this momentous history and never losing sight of the trailblazers of jazz, Moran challenges the status quo of 21st-century music. His astute awareness of relevant events informs the bold collaborations he sparks with contemporary artists. Moran’s music carries underlying narratives of personal history; the power that emanates from his compositions allows sonic concepts to resonate with listeners. In a recent interview with Franz A. Matzner, Moran puts it well: “So for me via my relationship with musicians who have taught me so well over all of these years, there’s never been a demarcation between the music and the culture. Never!”

Radiclani Clytus, Gregg Conde, and Tony Gannon, Jason Moran:Looks of A Lot, 2014 Photo: courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York

Radiclani Clytus, Gregg Conde, and Tony Gannon, Jason Moran: Looks of A Lot, 2014
Photo courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York

The much-anticipated documentary Looks of a Lot explores the shifts that Moran proposes for how we define jazz in 2015. Directors Radiclani Clytus, Gregg Conde, and Tony Gannon set out to complicate narrow interpretations of jazz by displaying the interdisciplinary sound Moran has created through his extensive collaborative efforts. Looks of a Lot provides a window into the far reaching impact of Moran’s artistic connections. The film explores Moran throughout the preparation of his multimedia presentation, Looks of a Lot, as seen at the Symphony Center in Chicago in 2014. His collaborators include the Bandwagon and Chicago sculptor Theaster Gates, reedist Ken Vandermark, Katie Ernst, and the Kenwood Academy High School Jazz Band. Looks of a Lot will be screened at the Walker Cinema on Thursday, April 30.

Stay tuned for part two of this series, on Robert Glasper, early next week.

Jason Moran and Robert Glasper perform at the Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater on Saturday, May 2nd at 8:00 pm (sold out) and 10:30 pm (limited tickets available). The documentary Looks of a Lot will be screened during Target Free Thursday Night on Thursday, April 30th at 6:30 pm and 8:00 pm in the Walker Cinema.

Dance in the Future: Emmanuel Iduma on Danspace Project’s Platform 2015

As the Walker’s senior curator of Performing Arts, I have followed with great interest Danspace Project’s distinctive curatorial approach to building dance/research Platforms. These rich—and, at times, provocative—multi-week guest-curated structures mix dance presentations, discussions, and related events centered around a single curatorial inquiry and accompanied by a print catalogue. In a few short years, the Platform […]

Emily Coates, Yvonne Rainer's Trio A, Part 1 Workshop. Danspace Project, March 13, 2015. Photo: Ian Douglas

Emily Coates, Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A, Part 1 Workshop. Danspace Project, March 13, 2015. Photo: Ian Douglas

As the Walker’s senior curator of Performing Arts, I have followed with great interest Danspace Project’s distinctive curatorial approach to building dance/research Platforms. These rich—and, at times, provocative—multi-week guest-curated structures mix dance presentations, discussions, and related events centered around a single curatorial inquiry and accompanied by a print catalogue. In a few short years, the Platform series has added such vitality and spirit, scholarship and debate to the dance scene of New York City, which despite its challenges, continues to be the urban nexus of movement art and critical discourse in the United States. Two longtime colleagues I respect greatly, Judy Hussie-Taylor (Danspace’s executive director and instigator of its Platform structure) and poet, critic, and now curator Claudia La Rocco, teamed up to create the ninth installment of the series, Platform 2015: Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets, which ran from February 14 to March 28, 2015. La Rocco’s sources of inspiration for her Platform were the writings of Edwin Denby and the poet-as-critic tradition; the overlapping dance lineages of George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, and Judson Dance Theater; and the ways these traditions are relevant today. While I was so pleased to attend the kick-off event—a memorable evening of Denby-inspired readings, hosted by La Rocco and featuring a number of great poets (and a few dancers)—I was not able to return for the rest of the series.  Instead, I got the next best thing: written reflections from this Platform’s writer–in-residence, Emmanuel Iduma, one of which we are lucky enough (thanks to Claudia and our friends at Danspace Project), to share with you below, in a post exclusive to the Walker website.

—Philip Bither, Senior Curator of Performing Arts

. . . . .

I remember glancing repeatedly at Yvonne Rainer while she watched one of the Dance Dialogues at Danspace Project’s ongoing Platform. She had a notebook open on her lap, which she occasionally wrote in, leaving what seemed to me like giant scrawls. It struck me that each note-taking was preceded by a confirmatory nod. But since I could only see her through the corner of my eyes, her notes might have contradicted her gestures. I do not recall seeing her smile, although audience members were sometimes upbeat and sanguine—she might have, when I wasn’t watching. She seemed at once serious and dedicated to her seriousness. In her manner of observation, in the repeated nods and scribbling, she became one who scrutinized appearances within a stage or outside it.

I imagine from afar. I reflect on the workshops I have observed—Adrian Daching-Waring on Cunningham technique and composition, Kaitlyn Gilliland on Balanchine’s Serenade, and Emily Coates on Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A—aware of a distance created by non-participation. Amateurs (like me) could benefit from an opportunity to be taught a dance that would never be presented before a live audience. Yet I maintain a distance in order to write about what I observe. It’s a posture of criticality: but this could fail me. Is the mind put to work by the body? Are there insights I have missed by the stiffness of my muscle?

Each workshop, like a story without plot, could unfold as an occurrence with manifold motions. While Emily Coates taught hers, she said, “I’m going to talk you through the dance.” But the responses to this, during the course of three hours, were various attempts to subvert the difficulty and rigor of Trio A. I remember a black woman. When she spoke, her accent was as thick as mine. When there was a pause, I noticed she was dancing to something else, perhaps a song she recalled suddenly. She saw me looking, and then we smiled as if we had shared the same thoughts: the workshop brought to mind extraneous rhythms, other forms of grace.

One woman complained of dizziness. Coates responded, “It will start to get better as it gets into your body.” “Maybe,” the woman replied. Echoing Rainer, Coates emphasized a rigor of minds as well as bodies. In 1966, The Mind is a Muscle was the title of the series of dances Trio A was included in. “If you stare at anyone watching,” the dancers were told, “you are wrong. It is important to know where your gaze is at every moment.” As they progressed in learning the dance, they were asked to stand with their sides to the audience, and were taught moves that required gazing to the ceiling, towards clasped palms, and with closed eyes.

These motions, with certain variations, have been repeated since 1966 by dancers and non-dancers alike. There were up to 22 dancers being taught by Coates at St. Mark’s Church. They had been asked to sign waivers, following an instruction by Rainer, in order to control the proliferation of Trio A. On many occasions, we were told, she had the videos of the performance taken down from YouTube. In the intervening time between its first and subsequent iterations, certain motions might have been altered. The present form of the dance is one chiseled to specificity. New dancers would learn to add their individual flourishes, building on their instructor’s muscle memory. I am not inclined to believe Rainer gives a handful of people license to teach Trio A because of an overprotective instinct, nor from an obsession with a scrupulous performance. But a question: how does the passage of time affect the marriage of mind and muscle?

Each workshop in Platform 2015 wrestled with the evolution of the dance being taught. A performance, unlike a photograph, has a less tenuous relationship with its original. Those who argue, for instance, that today’s Serenade is infused with newer variations, hold on to a vision of how the ballet was performed before Balanchine’s death. Yet a performance is not a reproducible object. It has a being, and this suggests a movement toward mastery, as well as meaning. The three workshop tutors confessed to a renewed love for the dances they taught.

One of the first things Emily Coates said to the workshop class was: “I’m expecting.” A congratulatory cheer followed, her pregnancy already beginning to show. When Trio A required the dancer to lie with the belly on the floor, she simply sat, talking others through the motion. There was an unborn child in the room, feeling its mother teach a dance, dancing in the future.

Read more of Emmanuel Iduma’s reflections on Platform 2015 on Danspace Project’s Tumblr.

Breathing Machine Music: Holly Herndon’s Sound Gallery

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, Dylan Hester shares his perspective on Thursday night’s Sound Horizon performance by Holly Herndon. Agree or […]

Holly Herndon. Photo: Suzy Poling

Holly Herndon. Photo: Suzy Poling

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, Dylan Hester shares his perspective on Thursday night’s Sound Horizon performance by Holly Herndon. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Holly Herndon breathes into a very loud microphone. Her inhale and exhale pan across the room. Scott Nedrelow’s Movie (Black Swan), a series of six video projections shot inside a cinema screening Darren Aronofsky’s film of the same name, plays on a loop in the background. Herndon’s voice is joined by disjointed, deconstructed beats. Her sharp inhales come so suddenly that we realize we are at her mercy: anything louder than breath would surely send a jolt through the audience.

The music grows dense, and a 4/4 rhythm emerges. Suddenly, we’re awash in drum machines. I briefly wish we were dancing in a warehouse instead of sitting quietly in a gallery. Black Swan continues to loop: an audience arrives in the cinema, watches a scene of the film, the credits roll, the audience leaves.  The amplifiers shake. I wonder if the art on the other side of the wall is shaking too. She gasps. The rhythm dissipates. The focus remains on her voice, constantly manipulated, keeping us in suspense.

Holly Herndon’s work is somewhere between the academy and the club; the performance is at once confrontational and intimate.  Her second LP, Platform, is due out May 2015 on the venerable 4AD label. She is a 21st century electronic artist who sits behind an array of computers – but it is the sound of her breath that fills the room, forms sonic sculptures, and keeps us on edge.

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