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Eerie and Sinister Worlds: RONiiA on Their New, Walker-Inspired EP

The Minneapolis-based trio RONiiA—Fletcher Barnhill (Joint Custody, FUGITIVE), Nona Marie Invie (Dark Dark Dark, Fugitive), and Mark McGee (Father You See Queen, Marijuana Deathsquads)—will release a new EP, Sisters, this Friday, March 25. Filled with richly atmospheric music, it derives its hypnotic power through its intricate dance between subtle intimation and emotional verve. On tracks […]

RONiiA

The Minneapolis-based trio RONiiA—Fletcher Barnhill (Joint Custody, FUGITIVE), Nona Marie Invie (Dark Dark Dark, Fugitive), and Mark McGee (Father You See Queen, Marijuana Deathsquads)—will release a new EP, Sisters, this Friday, March 25. Filled with richly atmospheric music, it derives its hypnotic power through its intricate dance between subtle intimation and emotional verve. On tracks like “Hell,” lead singer Invie’s hazy vocals seem to float, disembodied, over the noirish synthscapes created by her bandmates. In a word, this music is cinematic, which should come as no surprise to anyone who witnessed the members of RONiiA perform their Walker-commissioned original score to the silent film classic The Adventures of Prince Achmed last summer.

The band’s experience with that project has informed their latest music in ways both direct and indirect. I asked the members of RONiiA about their new EP and its relationship to their 2015 Summer Music and Movies score.

Mark Mahoney: Mark, the last time I spoke with you, you were preparing to debut your film score to the silent film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a project also featuring Nona and Fletcher Barnhill of RONiiA. What kind of impact has that project had on your work together since then?

Mark McGee: Most of the songs were heavily influenced by the score I wrote for the Walker. The song “Hell” developed purely from the score, adding lyrics to it later. “Sisters” was another song that I used most of the drum sounds and synths from the score, and we developed a more structured song out of it. Working on soundtracks is something we are all super interested in, and this project allowed us a break from the heavy tour schedule we had earlier that year. There’s no doubt the project helped us to explore new sounds and textures that we probably never would have used if we had just written an album without that experience.

Mahoney: Your band name was inspired by another fantasy film: Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter. There seems to be an element of (sometimes dark) fantasy running through your music. Do you see parallels between these films and your music?

Fletcher Barnhill: No doubt. We based our project off the character from the Astrid Lindgren novel. In the book, Ronia embodies a wild spirit who makes her own way through the world and we try to celebrate that theme in the music.

Mahoney: The three of you each come from different corners of the Twin Cities creative music scene. How do you reconcile the wide array of influences you all bring to the table? Is the strategy to find common ground, constructive difference, or to go somewhere else entirely?

Barnhill: As lovers of all types of musics, it is really a blessing to be able to work with artists who aren’t exactly on the same trip as you. Our styles balance each other out, and we each bring different strengths to the table. That being said, we found out from the start that we have a real chemistry together when it comes to writing. The outcome is really a blend of our experience and our excitement about crafting songs.

Mahoney: When you’re writing and working out the music, do you tend to start with smaller ideas and build on them, or do you start from a more formal conception of the piece?

Barnhill: We have different approaches on a song-to-song basis, but one that works well for us is writing a song and then testing it out a bunch on tour before recording the final version. The song “run” came together that way and we have some new new material right now that is going through the same process. Be on the lookout for RONiiA Mixtape Vol. III.

RONiiA (Fletcher Barnhill, Nona Marie Invie, and Mark McGee). Photo: Serene Supreme

RONiiA (Fletcher Barnhill, Nona Marie Invie, and Mark McGee). Photo: Serene Supreme

Mahoney: What can we expect from the new album? How do you see it in relation to your previous (self-titled debut) album?

McGee: This album has a more direct and raw sound. The vocals are not affected as much and the rhythms are up front and bigger, but the sound of RONiiA is still there. The songs are shorter and more to the point than the previous album.

Mahoney: Were there extra-musical influences or sources of inspiration for the new album? More generally, who outside the world of music has influenced or inspired the band the most?

McGee: I was living in Venice Beach when we made the album. Venice Beach and the canals was a definite influence, at least for me, when writing it. The poverty and super rich all existing together provided an eerie and sinister world for the album to breathe. Nona and Fletcher were dealing with the harsh reality of the Minnesota winter, but really, our environments typically seep through during the writing process.

RONiiA’s Sisters will be released Friday, March 25, following a March 24 release show at Icehouse (Minneapolis). Listen to the full EP here

 

Laurie Anderson at the Fitzgerald Theater: Danny Sigelman on The Language of the Future

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 Laurie […]

© Laurie Anderson

Photo: © Laurie Anderson

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 Laurie Anderson’s The Language of the Future. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Laurie Anderson has had a long history of performing in the Twin Cities, dating back to 1978 when she first performed at the Walker Art Center.

Having seen her last two performances, Happiness in 2002, and Dirtday! in 2012, it was a welcome chance to hop across the river for Anderson’s always warm and calm ways of storytelling. Her ever-evolving The Language of the Future at the Fitzgerald Theater on Saturday night was another grand opportunity to witness her enlightened masterstrokes of firsthand narrative. Amidst a pulsating resonance of sound that envelops the atmosphere, Anderson places you within a womb of sorts. Allowing your mind to settle, it’s always emotionally moving, simultaneously thought-provoking and humorous.

The audience was welcomed into the Fitz by the faint sounds of birds. Unassuming electronic chirps emanated about, priming the canvas for her stories to unfold for the evening.

In dim light, Anderson approached her station of electronic devices. Pulling out her violin, she conjured up a wash of low, sweeping phrases, further developing space and mood. Subtle fog seemed to fill the air, complementing the visuals of a cityscape behind her.

Anderson eased into what would become a recurring theme of The Language of the Future: her experience as a teenager writing letters to John F. Kennedy about his presidential campaign. Looking for advice from the then-Senator for her campaign for class president, she would begin a correspondence with him that resulted in Kennedy sending Anderson a dozen roses upon her own victory.

Commenting on elections and the process, Anderson pulled the curtain away, concluding with how we inevitably vote for whomever’s story we like best. It was a fitting introduction for the audience who were immediately brought to a personal place from the artist.

Transitioning, Anderson mixed together more synth keyboards and effect washes creating loops of sound. With a heavy echoing violin she plucked staccato patterns, rounding out more electronic blips.

She stayed with her childhood for another story about a failed attempt at flipping into a pool and landing on her back on the concrete and consequently into a children’s hospital. Allowing for reflections on death among her descriptions of the other patients she remembered, she effectively dug into the emotional core of the performance. She eventually reached a comforting resolution for the audience to “always hold onto your story.”

A winter scene of slowly falling snow was soundtracked by desolate sounds with Anderson accompanying her own playing on the violin, creating sparse and deliberate harmonics. Next began a fluctuating series of strummed atmosphere that greeted images of the moon landing and Anderson’s impressions on the ideas of competition in society, the Cuban missile crisis, and and past societal obsessions with the possibility of World War 3.

A story about meeting the Prince of Bali and watching his father’s cremation ceremony on video fed further incantations about death and the afterlife. Woven beautifully together with images of trees and flight, Anderson provided comfort for the listeners, viewing from the position of a bird as she connected the theme of reincarnation.

Advancing to the present, she seemed to be improvising a piece about modern advancements in communication. Describing Google Glass and some software she created to turn her words into other words, the audience was taken on a brain-melting ride as seemingly random words danced across the screen. Observations on the complex day-to-day multitasking of smartphones and ordering basic items on the internet, Anderson brought laughs on how adults and children’s communication devolves into that “like cavemen”.

Returning to the idea of correspondence with a presidential candidate, her low, modulated voice spoke to current affairs: “Dear Donald Trump, this time of misunderstanding and for profit government […]” She continued with parallels to her past advice from Kennedy and attached his concept of “figuring out what they want and promising it” to sobering effect.

Throughout the performance I couldn’t help but marvel at the flowing of words and the way Anderson creates a stew of sounds with the various devices she employs. Though mostly obscured, her fingers gleefully dance about her keyboard, tablet computer, and laptop all the while reaching for more organic sounds from her electric violin.

Dotting the sonic palette with so many words and stories in various auditorial styles, it’s the time with Laurie Anderson that always strengthens the personal bond you feel with her work after listening to her, entranced in a dream-like state. She creates the deep connection with all these machines and her own mind, taking you for a ride within your own heart and mind.

And then before you know it, the lights and her machines go dark and she’s gone.

State Changes: Marvin Lin on Vicky Chow and Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit World

For Sound Horizon, our series of free in-gallery music performances, we’ve invited critic and Tiny Mix Tapes editor Marvin Lin to share his perspective on each installment of this three-part program. Following his February piece on Mary Halvorson, he turns to Vicky Chow and Tristan Perich, whose works Surface Image and Observations will be performed March 24 in an evening copresented with […]

Sound_Horizon_2015-16_04For Sound Horizon, our series of free in-gallery music performances, we’ve invited critic and Tiny Mix Tapes editor Marvin Lin to share his perspective on each installment of this three-part program. Following his February piece on Mary Halvorson, he turns to Vicky Chow and Tristan Perich, whose works Surface Image and Observations will be performed March 24 in an evening copresented with The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series. Sound Horizon 2016 concludes April 28 with C. Spencer Yeh.

I’m thinking about electronic music. I’m thinking about how it’s dependent on the harnessing of electrons, on the manipulation of their currents in order to turn information into something musical, like a rhythm or a tone. I’m also thinking about my body—my heart, specifically—how a pharmaceutical drug has helped decrease its demand for oxygen by lowering blood volume and relaxing blood vessels. And I’m thinking about how the results of this chemical process is literally expressed through electrical currents.So when I hear music like Surface Image, a work composed by Tristan Perich and performed by a duo of pianist Vicky Chow and programmed 1-bit electronics, I’m also thinking about electricity, chemistry, particle physics. I’m thinking about the composition of music and the composition of molecules. I’m thinking about the way electrons are knocked off their valence shells to produce electric flow, about the geometry of sound waves, about the fragility of human emotions and their chemical, electrical implications.

I’m also thinking about state changes.

* * *

I first encountered Tristan Perich’s music in 2010. That year, Perich released 1-Bit Symphony, a bold collection of compositions all programmed to play a symphonic creation out of 1-bit sounds from an electronic circuit. And I mean that literally: inside the jewel case is not a CD, but a full circuit, which routes the symphony from a small microchip to the case’s right-side opening, where there’s a 1/8″ headphone jack.

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1-Bit Symphony is an incredible artistic achievement, not only for how it expands the possibilities of 1-bit sound—the rawest, most “basic” sound of electronics (think the chirp sound when an oven finishes preheating)—but also for how the medium is intimately tied to the music’s presentation, the symphony’s transition from its code state to its musical state expressed through wires and positive charge and amplification. In this context, electronic information becomes material information, with each of their conceptual regimes dissolving swiftly into each other—and into our bodies, too.

Perich has a history of blurring what it means to be “electric.” One of his more studied experiments is called Observations. In this shorter piece, Perich channels his 1-bit music across six speakers, complemented by two sets of crotales (a percussion instrument featuring a set of small, tuned cymbals). The performance of Observations is a mesmerizing technical achievement. Here, the crotales and 1-bit data unify not only through cascades of sound, but through mathematics, through physics, through an uncanny leveraging of both human and electronic precision.

Surface Image investigates on a much grander scale. While Perich continues his daring explorations into the discrete musicality of 1-bit sound, he’s joined on this minimalist composition by Vicky Chow—a virtuoso pianist for projects as diverse as Bang On A Can All-Stars, Wordless Music Orchestra, and New Music Detroit—who had commissioned Perich to form this unique, symbiotic collaboration. Witnessing the performance setup is quite the spectacle itself, with 40 individual speakers surrounding her piano like electrons around a nucleus. But it’s Chow’s marathon performance that’s especially captivating. For nearly the entirety of its hour-long runtime, Chow sustains an unimaginable amount of energy, fingers tickling the piano at breakneck speeds, arms bending and jutting out in awkward positions, her head occasionally bobbing up to glance at the notation as if coming up for air.

And yet, despite her intensely physical and wholly embodied performance, the music we hear sounds characteristically “electronic,” as if Chow’s performance was the result of thousands of quick, distinct events unfolding in a computational process.

Tristan Perich and Vicky Chow

Tristan Perich and Vicky Chow

* * *

What, then, does it mean to be electronic? If most music these days is amplified or transmitted, then is all music we hear outside the orchestra hall or bonfire considered electronic music, as Brian Eno suggested? And, on the other hand, can electronic music also be considered physical music, since it necessarily relies on the mass of electrons? And what about the materiality of the speaker? What does it say about electronic music when, as Perich notes, it must ultimately route itself to a loudspeaker, through which the generated electricity is turned into physical sound through a cone, coil, and magnet? And does this so-called physical music turn back into electronic music after it reaches our cerebral cortex through the cochlear nerve as bursts of electrical energy?

Which gets me thinking about my body and its electric currents again. It gets me thinking about the physical continuity of state change, about how representational and symbolic exchange, while inextricably connected, become subservient to these material transformations. It gets me thinking about my electronic appendages—my cellphone, my fitness tracker, my heart monitor—and how they output my body’s electric data into electronic information. It gets me thinking about how the translation of electricity into sound via speakers finds an unlikely counterpart in the electrical currents that beat my heart, or in the endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin that lead to feelings of ecstasy and euphoria.

But ultimately, it gets me thinking about the irony of these abstract concepts and aesthetic theories, how they’re byproducts of music that’s most often designed to elicit state changes not based in thinking at all.

And this is when I stop thinking.

Sound_Horizon_2015-16_05_PP

Sound Advice: Laurie Anderson

Artist and innovator Laurie Anderson’s upcoming show at the Fitzgerald—a copresentation of the Walker, the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series, and MPR Live Events—is called The Language of the Future, a name initially employed by a track on her 1984 album United States Live. Thirty years on, as the track’s ominous forecast of the digital age rings true, Anderson has continued to […]

Anderson_Laurie_2015-16_04 (1024x681)

Artist and innovator Laurie Anderson’s upcoming show at the Fitzgerald—a copresentation of the Walker, the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series, and MPR Live Events—is called The Language of the Future, a name initially employed by a track on her 1984 album United States Live. Thirty years on, as the track’s ominous forecast of the digital age rings true, Anderson has continued to share the same incisive, oft-surreal narrative that aptly earned her the Gish Prize for “outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.”

Regarding a philosophy of life, Anderson insists, “I don’t have one, and if I did, I wouldn’t make it into a film and make you watch it.” On having a message, she has said, “If I had [one], I would write it down and e-mail it to everybody.” Still, the artist has imparted her fair share of aphorisms over the years; collecting these could easily result in Anderson’s own edition of Oblique Strategies. In anticipation of her performance this Saturday, I’ve begun such a collection below.


1. “If you’re a young artist, wondering what to call yourself, consider ‘multimedia artist.’ It’s so vague. Then, no one can say, ‘Hey, how come you’re a jazz person, and you’re making a pop opera?’ Genres are for bins. ‘What bin should we put you in, so we that we can sell what you do?’ Ignore the bins.”

2. “Be as playful as possible. It’s the thing that is, in a way, the easiest to forget when you start doing things that have ‘big themes’ and you have to work in certain ways. Most of the things that I’ve made, I’ve made in the spirit of goofing around with stuff. Goofing around. So goof around with stuff. Be playful. Have a really good time and you’ll find some interesting things.”

3. “You can make a movie now with almost nothing and it will look pretty good. It’s the same with a record.” In response, Brian Eno added, “And if it doesn’t look good in a conventional way, you take advantage of the way it does look.”

4. “Sometimes, […] try to make your very, very worst work. You will learn a lot about what it is that you’re trying to do.”

5. “I think I do my work for some sadder version of myself, a woman who would be sitting in Row K. I am trying to make her laugh.”

6. “No one will ever ask you to do the thing you really want to do. […] Do not wait for this to happen. It will never happen. Things will happen to you, but this will never happen. Just think of what you’d like to do, what you dream of doing, and then just start doing it.”

7. “I’m just going to mention these three rules that Lou [Reed, her longtime partner] and I had. […] So the first one is don’t be afraid of anyone. Imagine your life if you’re not afraid of anyone. Two, get a really good BS detector and learn how to use it. Who’s faking it and who is not? Three, be really tender. And with those three, you’re set.”

8. (In response to the question, “What is the most important lesson life has taught you?”) “Love is everything.”

9. “[I]t’s always good to end with a question.”

10. “What is consciousness?”

From Impersonation to Celebration: Penelope Freeh on The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai

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,dance artist Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on The Ghost of Montpellier Meets […]

Photo: © Orpheas Emirzas

Photo: © Orpheas Emirzas

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,dance artist Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai, which had its US premiere at the Walker this weekend. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

For Trajal’s Harrell’s newest work, The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai, it is best to go along for the ride. You can trust it.

The piece gets off to a whimsical start, with lying, impersonations, and the retelling of made-up-in-the-first-place histories. It was a slow elaboration and yet we knew that: “It will take 22 minutes to get to a dance section.” Prior to then, we heard the apology, “I’m sorry for being just a dancer.” This was a deep commentary disguised as comedy. The statement had a ring of truth, or maybe I’m just reading into that.

Despite the many and varied influences upon this work and its slow, origami-like unfolding, it is, essentially, a dance-driven piece. In other words dance is essential, it is this work’s essence.

There was a quiet confidence. A little sly, a little teasing, we were led through a process of discovery. I felt as though the bones of construction were exposed, just covered enough to be mysterious, but pale in the crescent-moonlight to read as bones, i.e. building blocks, DNA, of this piece, a long form exploration of imaginatively intersecting (shoving together) the dance forms of Dominique Bagouet (’80s French Nouvelle Danse innovator) with Tatsumi Hijikata (the founding father of butoh).

What emerged from this playful notion was by turns charming, kick-ass, virtuosic, meditative, touching, smart, and joyful. There was a fashion show that escalated into a brilliant character revelation of an old lady, doubled over yet able and hip. Five low-lying platforms plus a table and stools were well used for this passage, creating depth and verticality. There was sassy, raucous air and actual heel walking.

The stakes became hotter as an accumulation of rapid-fire, guttural dancing occurred. The seven performers soloed until they were replaced, exhausted from gyrating, vibrating and throwing their limbs around, fast yet relaxed, always upright.

Perhaps my favorite passage was a male duet that turned into a trio. It was feminine, strong, luxurious and silky-fluid. Clad in deconstructed kimonos, feet and legs disappeared leaving the concentration on arms, hands, heads, faces, experiences…

The soundtrack (by Harrell) supported the work just so, never dominating despite the loudness. Volume supported what was already going on. It, and the several ‘80s popular music choices, never dictated the action.

The end, with the audience clapping and the bows getting quite close to us, felt like a celebration. The generosity was real and sincere which strikes me as rare in work so heady. But then I remember that despite Harrell’s self imposed mandate to reference, expound upon, bring to light, and elaborate other people’s work, he ultimately ends up with a third thing. Exploratory, self-referential, and original, The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai becomes something worth celebrating for itself alone.

The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai continues in the Walker’s McGuire Theater tonight (Sunday, March 13 at 7 pm).

 

Talk Dance: Trajal Harrell on The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai

Talk Dance is a podcast series devoted to in-depth conversations with dance artists produced and hosted by local dancer, educator, and commentator Justin Jones. In this installment, Jones speaks with Trajal Harrell, whose work The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai will be performed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater March 11-13, 2016.  You can listen to […]

Photo: © Orpheas Emirzas

Photo: © Orpheas Emirzas

Talk Dance is a podcast series devoted to in-depth conversations with dance artists produced and hosted by local dancer, educator, and commentator Justin Jones. In this installment, Jones speaks with Trajal Harrell, whose work The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai will be performed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater March 11-13, 2016.  You can listen to the full podcast on the Walker Channel 

***

Justin Jones: “Where do you call home?”

Trajal Harrell: “… Home for me is in many places I guess would say. I certainly call home where my mother is, my mother is in Douglas, Georgia. One of my homes is New York, and that will probably always be because I spent so many years there. Because I’m touring so much … I do have a place here in Athens that I sublet. And I also spend quite a bit of time in Vienna. … But … when you’re on the road as many weeks as I am you kind of, the internet can be your home too because that’s where you … have your continuity of relationships and friendships. … I don’t have a answer but I know that its certainly not singular for me.”

… 

Jones: “…before we finish our interview. Would you mind just saying your name once.”

Harrell: “No, because, now I’m realizing it’s a funny question because people pronounce my name a lot of different ways you know and I answer to them all. … And you’re the first person to ask me that question … I’m reluctant to have one pronunciation.” 

Something about these two exchanges from my recent interview with Trajal Harrell speaks volumes about his mercurial choreography. Yes, he creates dances, and they are very much located in the body, but the work is as much theater and performance art and runway show and voguing ball as it is proscenium dance. The notion of identity plays strongly in his work. Who is who, Are they runway models or are they dancers? Are they characters from a Greek drama?  Are the performers themselves or are they “themselves”?

Trajal is well-known as the creator of the “Twenty Looks…” series, a collection of dances that imagine a fictional collision between the Harlem voguing balls (watch Paris is Burning now if you haven’t) and the Judson Church postmodern dance scene of the 1960s. As in a fashion collection, each piece was created with a different size (XS, S, M, L, M2M, XL). The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai  takes the idea of size and audience to another place. As he said, “the Twenty Looks… project had this important idea around the sizes of the pieces and how they were […] enlarging the audience through each size […] I really wanted to enlarge the audience even further with Ghost… I wanted to make this for a kind of mainstream audience. And I felt that none of the pieces before had gone that far. I mean mainstream is a strange word, but I’m gonna use it.”

Trajal and I also spoke about what feels new about this piece, which centers around the work of French choreographer Dominique Bagouet and Tatsumi HIjikata, two relatively un-famous artists who died young before their work was done. Trajal went on, “You know we have this fascination with people who died young somehow. But, because they were in very unknown fields, we didn’t have a kind of cultural mourning around them… I didn’t know how you take something that’s tragic or mournful in a way, and by the end get the audience to to sense, to have this great appreciation for life and the joy that we’re here together even though we mourn. And so that was very new for me.”

Though Trajal’s work is about history and springs forth from intense research, what I find fascinating is how that research influences the work. In no way does he attempt to recreate, rather, he uses his research to, as he said, “generate a language on the stage, and a movement practice… informed by operations that may be in those forms.” He went on, “Bagouet was very well-known for his very specific use of the hands and there’s a lot of that in ‘Ghost…’ We don’t try to make Bagouet movement, but there’s this sense of the hands being very important… It’s only a way to generate and get closer to what I want to make as myself.”

Though home for Trajal is not as he said, “singular,” he is an American, and I wanted to hear from him about what it meant to work so closely with the choreography and biography of two non-American artists, working outside of American culture. His response: “American culture has really exported itself into a lot of cultures… and certainly both [Bagouet and Hijikata] have been influenced by American culture and by American artistic creation. And, how do we draw those lines? How we write history and how we think about culture? I’m suspicious of that. In the best sense.”

I look forward to seeing how those suspicions manifest in The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai.

Aging Magician’s Theatrical Sleight of Hand

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, Twin Cities-based actor/singer/writer/director Todd O’Dowd shares his perspective on Aging Magican, […]

Photo: Jill Steinberg

Photo: Jill Steinberg

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, Twin Cities-based actor/singer/writer/director Todd O’Dowd shares his perspective on Aging Magican, which had its world premiere at the Walker last weekend. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Going into the McGuire Theater to see Aging Magician, the new opera co-created by Paola Prestini, Rinde Eckert, and Julian Crouch, I had a strong hunch it was going to be good. After all, the creative team is impressive as all get out. Prestini is considered one of the shining lights in modern classical music. Crouch, best known for co-founding Improbable Theatre and co-creating Shockheaded Peter, is a proven director and designer. And I have had a performance crush on Rinde Eckert for a long time; not only for being a hero of modern opera and an amazing performer but also for creating some of the best theatre I’ve seen in my life (including the brilliant And God Created Great Whales). So, as you can see, my expectations were high. What I was not prepared for was an imaginative, delicate, and soaring look into the life and death of an ordinary man that turns into a transcendent experience for him and the audience.

The plot of Aging Magician is as circuitous as it gets. The main plot of the story is about Harold (played by Eckert), a watchmaker who lives a solitary life in his drab studio where he repairs watches, fields calls from his nagging sister, and secretly works on his book, which tells the story of an aging magician who dies before finding an heir for his book of diagrams and secrets. As we see the Aging Magician (or is it Harold?) fighting for his life, we see Harold (or is it the Aging Magician?) on the F train to Coney Island (or is it to his death?) reminiscing about his past, all the while being haunted by the voices of children (played by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus).

This circuitous narrative is part and parcel of Eckert, Crouch, and Prestini’s theme of how time and memories circle back on one another. At one point, Harold laments that clocks are no longer made with gears and hands that move and orbit like planets. So too does the narrative circle back upon itself with references to the planet Neptune, Coney Island, Harold’s father’s death and his mother’s increased Catholicism (in a gorgeous sequence set at a church with the Chorus singing a prophetic bit from the classic Latin requiem mass – “Lacrimosa dis illa / dona eis requiem / Libera Domine”, which translates to “Mournful be that day / Grant them Rest / Deliver me, O God” – calling back to earlier in the opera when the chorus sings similar words in English), and a brief history of the career and death of the early 20th Century magician William Robinson, best known as Chung Ling Soo. Another haunting image that keeps repeating is the image of Harold with his hands up, which is seen in projections, in repeated gestures by the performers, and ultimately in a stage-spanning sculpture that becomes a playable instrument (created by Bang On A Can member Mark Stewart). While the dark themes and imagery could cast a pall on the proceedings, this is far from a dour show. If anything, the magic trick the show is saying is that life is both fragile and strong, depending on the outcome and how you view it.

This fragmented nature of the story gives Eckert and Prestini a chance to take the repeated bits and turn them into musical and textural leitmotivs that are built upon as the opera goes on. Prior to this, I had heard Prestini’s work compared to that of Philip Glass, and I can see it now, especially in how she writes for the string quartet that plays the score (in this case, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble). The other thing that I noticed while watching was how easy the score was for the singers; by that I mean that the Prestini’s score and Eckert’s libretto were written by people who understand how the human voice works as an instrument and built their score accordingly.

It has to be said this is a truly beautiful production; possibly one of the grandest I’ve seen on the McGuire stage. Crouch and his design team of co-scenic designer and costumer Amy Rubin, lighting and projection designer Joshua Higgason, and sound designer Marc Urselli have created a truly unique world, with everything working in perfect clockwork harmony. One of the touches that I was impressed by was that the set pieces and costumes were all black with smudges of light blue, giving the look of chalk drawings or an inverted daguerreotype. The other major defining aspect of the set is the use of paper – the stage is littered with it – as prop (morphed into various shapes, and in a stunning moment, as body of a young boy), projection medium, and both (after a projection of a train on the papers held up by the chorus, they ball it up and hurl it at Harold, singing “Wake Up Harold!”). Crouch and the cast manage to perform some spectacular feats of stage magic and object work (at one point, the cast turns the crumpled up paper into the birds of the “Trick of the 1800 Birds”) and the work is staged with so much sensitivity to Harold and his story that none of the theatrical tricks (and there are a lot of them) never call attention to themselves and – this is crucial in a work that deals with the notion of magic – never pulls you out of the story to marvel at the mechanics of the storytelling.

Of course this story lives and dies on the performers, and Eckert is brilliant as Harold. If the whole point of Aging Magician is finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, then  Eckert literally embodies that point. At first blush, he looks so non-descript in his tan jacket and pants, that were he not seated on center stage in a pool of bright light it would be hard to distinguish him as the center of the tale. But then he opens his mouth, his mighty tenor comes pouring out, and the show is transformed. It’s this dichotomy of heroic voice in an average shell that anchors the opera. He has help, of course, from the brilliant work of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, but it is his beautiful, generous performance that drives this story and keeps the audience with him on Harold’s magical mystery tour.  It’s the kind of work that evokes admirable envy and envious admiration from performers watching the show (including me).

At the end of the day, Aging Magician has many tricks that it plays on its audience. It turns an ordinary man’s life and death into a tale on time’s slippery nature. It uses theatrical sleight of hand to hide the clockwork precision that drives a seemingly intimate tale. And most importantly, it takes everyday people and objects and turns them into something beyond their normal scope in a tale that encompasses us all.

If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.

Don’t Clap, Please Dance: Rez Abbasi’s Invocation at the Walker

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

Photo: Bill Douthart

Photo: Bill Douthart

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

At the risk of sounding like an imperious jerk who wants to tell people how they should experience live music, I would like to make a suggestion to jazz audiences everywhere: don’t clap after solos. “Why?” you ask, “Clapping lets the musician know how much I dug their solo.” I hear you, but let me explain.

On Thursday night, guitarist and composer Rez Abbasi made his third appearance in nine years in the McGuire Theater. While he has accompanied groups led by saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa in the past, this was Abbasi’s first appearance at the Walker with a group of his own. After a fiery and all too brief opening set by Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition, the Abbasi-led Invocation sextet took the stage. The band opened with a tune from their recently recorded Unfiltered Universe. Flexing their dynamic sensitivity, the group journeyed through a wide range of emotional spaces, from pastoral beauty to mathematical claustrophobia.

Next, they leapt into “Turn of Events,” another lengthy piece that felt both tightly composed and phenomenally free. Pianist Vijay Iyer led with a solo that sounded like it contained seventy years of jazz history, jumping from the acrobatics of Art Tatum to the expressive decadence of Keith Jarrett and the heady percussive weirdness of Alexander Von Schlippenbach. Predictably, the sold-out crowd clapped when Iyer’s solo reached its obvious conclusion. The applause was understandable. Iyer is known as one of the greatest living pianists in jazz, and his solo was a miraculous display of technical inventiveness.

This pattern of interaction between musicians and audience continued throughout the piece. Mahanthappa let off another one of his scorching streams of Bird-meets-the-Carnatic brilliance, and the crowd acknowledged his efforts with claps and scattered hollers. The same went for Abbasi’s own solo of immaculate, fluttering guitar work. It was after a duet by bassist Johannes Weidenmueller and cellist Elizabeth Means when this solo-clap transaction started to become a problem. Improvising together, the two jump-cut from delicate harmonic tip-toeing to an intense crescendo. The duo’s playfulness sparked a loud applause that led to a sense of confusion as to whether or not the song had actually ended. When Iyer began a percussive pattern on his hand-muted piano strings, it seemed like the band may have entered the territory of a new composition. However, as the entire ensemble joined him, and the melody that opened the song fifteen minutes earlier returned at full force, I realized we were at the song’s peak. Unfortunately, the previous moment’s confusion had robbed the song of its emotional climax.

By clapping, we the audience had imposed our own structure on the music, and that structure was unfortunately out of synch with the one envisioned by its composer. Applause creates a narrative in which individual band members take turns showcasing their talents for our approval. That’s not the kind of narrative that suits a band as communicative and daring as Rez Abbasi’s Invocation. The anticipation of applause makes us listen only to be riled up into climactic excitement by the individual soloist. When we listen in that way, we miss the many interactions occurring between the supposed accompanist and the soloist, as well as those happening between the accompanists themselves.

Throughout the evening, drummer and tabla maestro Dan Weiss was constantly trying to create counter-narratives, shifting the ground that soloists tried walk on. He would move quickly from a stable swing into a cut-up funk or a head-banging rock beat, grinning to himself as if it were part of a game between him and the other members of the band. On the night’s closer, “The Dance Number,” Weiss added thick layers of fog onto Iyer’s piano solo, skittering away on only his cymbals. When the only story we’re paying attention to is the story of the soloist’s individual virtuosity, waiting to acknowledge it with our applause, we miss these kinds of moments of interplay.

One reason why we clap after solos is that we’re looking for a way to participate. Jazz is often the ultimate genre of unfiltered self-expression, and that is something we want to take part in as an audience. Allow me to offer an alternative. Instead of clapping, try dancing. Dancing can be hard when you’re bound to a theater seat, but you don’t have to be on your feet to allow your body to move in response to music. When done right, dance is an automatic response to the stimuli of the present. There is no anticipation of a soloist’s climax, because your body is reacting to the totality of the music in the moment. It’s hardly an original point, but it is worth repeating that jazz originally arose as dance music, its improvisation often attributed as a response to the needs of dancing crowds. I believe the music of Rez Abbasi’s Invocation still bears the danceable essence that exists at the heart of the music of King Oliver and Cab Calloway. The beat may be less stable, and its dissonances may have snuck their way to the fore, but this music can still move you, if you let it.

Invocation: An Interview with Rez Abbasi

Rez Abbasi’s Invocation represents a distinctly South Asian-influenced voice in contemporary jazz, thanks in no small part to notable members such as Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa. Their most recent work explores the Carnatic classical music tradition of Southern India. In advance of their performance in the McGuire Theater this Thursday, we’re sharing a recent interview between Abbasi […]

Photo: John Rogers

Photo: John Rogers

Rez Abbasi’s Invocation represents a distinctly South Asian-influenced voice in contemporary jazz, thanks in no small part to notable members such as Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa. Their most recent work explores the Carnatic classical music tradition of Southern India. In advance of their performance in the McGuire Theater this Thursday, we’re sharing a recent interview between Abbasi and Aaron Greenwald, Executive Director of Duke Performances.

Aaron Greenwald: Describe the evolution of Invocation from Hindustani music to Qawwali to Carnatic music? How do you write jazz that incorporates these South Asian influences?

Rez Abbasi: The group was formed in 2008. My concept for the trilogy came naturally as I played more with the group. The debut release, Things To Come, magnified elements of Hindustani music, in large part through the contribution of Indian vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia. The follow up, Suno Suno, emphasized Pakistani, Qawwali music, a sound that I’ve admired for most of my life. On this recording, the hybridity came from capturing a spirit as opposed to using specific techniques or theory. The trilogy, Unfiltered Universe, will be recorded this year and has its footing in Carnatic, South Indian music.

My approach to creating new jazz music while employing elements of South Asian music has changed over time. My initial, overt project came in 2003 with the album, Snake Charmer. Prior to that I had a natural inclination of doing a hybrid project but since I had never heard a viable, strong example within jazz history, was very hesitant. I was well aware of John Coltrane’s dealings and John McLaughlin’s assimilation but as much as I loved that music, never thought it actually captured the nuance of a true hybrid between Indian and jazz music. So I knew it would be a long term project. Since recording Snake Charmer, my compositions have slowly departed from an overt style of employing Indian-Pakistani music to a more natural or intuitive way. I haven’t used the sitar-guitar for example, haven’t employed tabla or any Indian percussion – Indian sounds that can be found on Snake Charmer and its 2005 follow up, Bazaar. What has influenced my compositions over the years is more affective listening and playing with Indian musicians of many types – a rote process.

For most listeners, my music will come off as modern jazz, which is fine with me. They’ll hear something that may sound fresh and really, that’s all that counts. For fans of Indian music, it’s very likely they’ll catch the nuance of a rhythm or melody or an inflection of a phrase that can be called “Indian”.

Greenwald: [Can you] talk about what each of the players in the ensemble brings to music [and] your long associations with Johannes, Dan, Vijay and Rudresh?

Abbasi: I chose this specific core band because each of them have something to offer within the framework of hybrid music, specifically Indian and jazz. For instance, Dan Weiss is a professional tabla player as well and brings an enormous rhythmic prowess to the music. In fact, all the members here are drummers; they have dealt in complex rhythms and shifty-pulse oriented music. I’ve had relations with all in various ways, however, Dan and Rudresh have been musical partners for over a decade partly due to Rudresh’s project, Indo-Pak Coalition. We’ve toured a lot and will record our second album soon.

Greenwald: What does an ensemble of this size and scope allow you to do that a smaller ensemble might not?

Abbasi: The piano and cello open up a lot of textural possibilities. I’ve studied western classical music and have a sweet spot for cello. One day I hope to write for a string quartet. With this ensemble I like the singularity of the cello because I use it akin to another voice in the music as opposed to part of a section. The combination of the piano and cello provides a mini orchestra within a jazz group. The orchestration that’s chosen for a given melody has a lot to do with what’s perceived so if a composer weighs their options well, the results can be truly breathtaking. Of course, the idiosyncrasies of the players also provides much in the sense of subtlety and scope.

Greenwald: How does your study of tabla and Carnatic music impact the manner in which you approach guitar?

Abbasi: One word: rhythm… although I’ve also been very inspired by the melodic content of North and South Indian classical and [its] influence in my playing can be heard in the way of ornamentations such as meend and gamak.

Greenwald: What are the characteristics of Carnatic music and how do they manifest themselves in what you’ve written for Invocation?

Abbasi: I find the rhythmic dexterity to be fascinating. It’s very math based and most performers of the music can account for every beat, dancers included! The mathematical combinations are worked and reworked. One of the concepts I used in the new material is the idea of expansion and contraction. For example, a Carnatic musician might play a cadence using a six note figure, repeat it with one less note, continue the process until they’re left with only the last note and resolve that on the down beat of the cycle. That can also be done backwards by adding a note each time. I magnified this process into a larger piece utilizing multiple instruments playing different roles. It’s a pretty cool effect that creates an under-movement within the movement of the tune, kind of a rhythmic layering.

Rez Abbasi’s Invocation performs Thursday, February 25, at 8pm, at the Walker’s McGuire Theater, with a special opening set from Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition.

Paul Harding Reviews Noura Mint Seymali

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, the host of Foreign Currency on KFAI, shares his perspective on Noura […]

Photo: courtesy the artist

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, the host of Foreign Currency on KFAI, shares his perspective on Noura Mint Seymali. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

One of Mauritania’s best known musical ambassadors, Noura Mint Seymali, performed Friday night at the Cedar Cultural Center, in a concert co-presented by the Walker.

She played her colorful ardine, a traditional harp of sorts with the base of a calabash, somewhat like a kora. It was distorted, giving it a fuzzy sound like an electric guitar, but with a very different tone and playing style. I was bummed that she only played the ardine for the first song or two, after which she set it aside and turned her focus to singing, but her voice and engagement with the audience were far from disappointing.

She was backed by electric bass, drum kit, and her husband, Jeiche Ould Chighaly, on electric guitar. His guitar playing style is based on the tidinit, a traditional lute, so despite the very western instrumentation, their overall sound is clearly immersed in the roots of Mauritanian music. Every few songs he would switch guitars and tune to one of the five Moorish modes.

Both Noura and Jeiche come from griot families, and grew up steeped in the music of their culture. Her father was a prominent professor of music who documented and modernized the traditional music of Mauritania’s Moors.

The only English she spoke during the performance was an occasional call to, “Dance with me. Aiwa!” She sings in the Hassani variety of Arabic – which has a noticeably distinct sound, even to my fairly uneducated ears. The Arab influence on the Moorish sound was apparent most in her frequently melismatic vocals that she would contrast with percussive syllables.

Anyone in the Cedar Friday night could tell you that Noura has an unusually strong voice, but I found it intriguing that the guy watching the meters – the Cedar’s veteran sound technician Eric Hohn – commented that hers was one of the most powerful voices he’s ever mixed.

I was impressed how well the concert was attended – it wasn’t a packed house, but a good sized, diverse crowd that appeared to truly enjoy the evening. Whether you were among us or not, I recommend her album, Tzenni, from last year as a great way to delve into the Mauritanian soundscape.

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