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Talk Dance: Aparna Ramaswamy on Song of the Jasmine

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 Aparna Ramaswamy of Ragamala Dance, whose Walker-commissioned work Song of the Jasmine (a collaboration with Rudresh Mahanthappa) had its world premiere in the McGuire Theater May 15-18, 2014. Listen to the entire […]

Song of the Jasmine

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 Aparna Ramaswamy of Ragamala Dance, whose Walker-commissioned work Song of the Jasmine (a collaboration with Rudresh Mahanthappa) had its world premiere in the McGuire Theater May 15-18, 2014. Listen to the entire podcast here.

I’ve heard the saying, in one form or another, that you should never mix business with family, but that is exactly what Aparna, Ranee, and Ashwini Ramaswamy are doing.  When I sat down to interview Aparna Ramaswamy about her family’s dance company, Ragamala, and their upcoming premiere of Song of the Jasmine, I was particularly curious to hear about what its like to make art with family.  I’m married to an artist (a theater director), and we’ve collaborated a few times. Though we both survived the experience, we’ve learned that although we highly value the others feedback, we do our best work on our own.  There are many examples of partners making art together – even a handful in the Minneapolis dance community (BodyCartography Project and Chris Yon + Taryn Griggs to name two) but the examples that come to mind are couples who have chosen each other as life partners.  However, collaborating with someone you didn’t get to choose seemed unique to me.  When I asked Aparna about her choreographic partnership with her mother, Ranee, she was very direct: “we  create almost every movement together … our bond is so strong, it works for us, and we feel we create much better work together.”   I was also inspired by the family bonds within the company, which includes dancers Jessica Fiala and Tamara Nadel (everyone does more than dance, including grant writing and marketing work); as Aparna says, “to this day, when we tour, we eat every single meal together.  We really like hanging out together.”

A primary inspiration for Song of the Jasmine is the work of 8th century mystic poet, Andal, whose poetry casts the creator god, Krishna or Vishnu, as her lover to signify her deep desire to achieve a spiritual union with the infinite.  Aparna spoke of how Andal’s poetry is a guiding inspiration for this piece, “this idea of the human soul wanting to unite with the divine or the cosmic consciousness, we use that.  We use human love and sensuality as an allegory [...] so its a very contemporary feeling that all of us can understand, but really, its this feeling of transcendence and soaring and spiritual union.”

Aparna and Ranee create their work using the vocabulary of the classical Indian dance form, Bharata Natyam.  “For us, tradition is something that we hold very closely.  We are very proud of the tradition we come from, and when we say tradition its a very specific thing.  We come from an ancient form that is codified but within that form we come from a certain school and within that school we come from a certain teacher who comes from a very specific lineage and we are the next part of that lineage.”

I was curious to hear Aparna speak about how, as a contemporary dance company working within this centuries-old tradition, Ragamala stays true to form while creating work that resonates with contemporary audiences.  She likened their years of study of the form to learning a language, “its like having a dictionary.  Its all this information that you have embodied because you have done it for so long […] poets use language very freely to create new work and we create work with many different dimensions and layers that use Bharata Natyam, but that will look very different and feel very different, because of the music and all of the different strategies we’re employing.”  It seems that their collaboration with avant jazz composer and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa is taking their explorations at the edges of  tradition to new places: “he’s so grounded in jazz and [jazz musicians] have all of these different structures and different ways that they approach music that’s very different from our experience. It just makes one push oneself so much more.”

Bharata Natyam is expressed in two ways, as a more abstract and rhythmic dance and, as a narrative form, through the use of facial expressions, costume, emotion, and word-like hand gestures, or mudras.   Aparna mentioned that audiences’ desire to understand the specifics of the story and the meaning of the mudras sometimes gets in the way of their enjoyment of the work.  Aparna’s response: “When I see contemporary dance I don’t understand all of the inspirations [...] but I find different entry points or different things to appreciate or to be challenged by.  It’s the same thing. Just because its rooted in another culture doesn’t mean you don’t understand.”

Jazz + Mine: Sally Rousse on Song of the Jasmine

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View Series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local dance artist Sally Rousse shares her perspective on the opening night of Ragamala Dance and […]

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

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View Series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local dance artist Sally Rousse shares her perspective on the opening night of Ragamala Dance and Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Song of the Jasmine. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choreographing Music, Composing Dance: Rehearsing Song of the Jasmine

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

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

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

The Dance

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

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

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

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

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

The Music

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

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

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

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

Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structure, Improvisation, Space, Noise: Kevin Beasley’s Sound Horizon

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View Series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Dylan Hester shares his perspective on last night’s Sound Horizon performance by Kevin Beasley. Agree or […]

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To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View Series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Dylan Hester shares his perspective on last night’s Sound Horizon performance by Kevin Beasley. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

For the final Sound Horizon performance in the exhibition Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take, sculptor and sound artist Kevin Beasley gave three half-hour performances at the intersection of structure and improvisation. Kneeling on the floor in front of Jim Hodges’ breathtaking Untitled (one day it all comes true), Beasley used three turntables, a sampler, and a laptop to create immense, dynamic soundscapes.

The performance began with simple feedback drones, but eventually morphed into a dense array of arrhythmic beats, idiosyncratic melodies, and small bursts of static. These sounds then grew sparse: soft synth tones, distant vocal samples, bells and chimes were heard. For every few minutes of gentle, meditative euphoria, there was a collapse back into sheer dissonance, feedback, and static.

Though each set followed the same rough structure, improvisation played a clear role. At some points, the high and low frequency drones grew so loud that they created a binaural effect. Many people left as the volume in the Perlman Gallery became overwhelming.

Beasley did have moments of hesitance, but he is keenly aware of his use of space. Focused entirely on his equipment and the sounds being generated, he maintained intimate control of the soundscapes. In one of my favorite moments, he established a seriously head-nodding rhythm of static, and then added a vocal sample on top of it. The phrase “how can you take him too serious” looped over and over as he manipulated the turntable by hand – eliciting a few uncertain laughs from the audience.

Throughout the galleries, the sounds of the performance paired well with the artwork on display. It drew me even closer to Hodges’ intimate work. Beasley balances on the borders of analog and digital, high and low frequencies, euphoria and aggression. In a similar manner, Hodges tends to juxtapose the real and the artificial, color and monochrome, life and death. Both weave a fine line between density and sparsity. Merged together, the work of these two artists became a single visceral experience.

Roughing Up Steely Dan

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, creative leader/activist/artist Reggie Prim shares his perspective on Saturday night’s performance by Burnt Sugar–The Arkestra Chamber.  […]

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Photo: Petra Richterova

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, creative leader/activist/artist Reggie Prim shares his perspective on Saturday night’s performance by Burnt Sugar–The Arkestra Chamber.  Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Burnt Sugar, a 17-member Afrocentric jazz/funk collective, electrified the standing-room-only crowd at the Walker Saturday night. Any World That I’m Welcome To: The Steely Dan Conductions was an assertive and funky re-do of the music of this American band that borrowed heavily from jazz, rock, funk, R&B, and pop. At the end of a nearly two-hour performance the audience was on its feet demanding more. I found myself running down the aisle of the staid McGuire Theater and dancing for nearly half an hour onstage with my friends.

A focused and energetic funk “Arkestra” taking on Walter Becker and Donald Fagan’s complex and beloved repertoire produced a delightful tension between recognition and discovery. The band mined the collection for a variety of emotional effects, veering from reverential to parody. All of it was expertly performed. The rhythm section was expertly coordinated throughout the complex songs. Many of the performances were so saucy and knowing that I couldn’t help laughing out loud.

I caught sight of Philip Bither, the Walker’s senior performing arts curator, looking like he was having the time of his life. And frankly, I think he was. I was definitely experiencing one of the most memorable concerts in an age. My friend and I were enjoying ourselves loudly from the first moments. A number of eyebrows in the rows ahead of us seemed raised. I know that loud clapping, neck bobbing, and doing the Funky Sit-Down are not expected behavior at a Walker show. All I can say is that I wasn’t the only person bustin’ a move.

The band was in a word: hot. It was as if seventeen attractive people that I instantly wanted to be my friends all came out on stage together. I was forced to focus. First on Mazz Swift, the violinist and vocalist—a tall, arresting-looking woman dressed in all black with braids down to her hips playing a black electric V-shaped violin. And later, on drummer LaFrae Sci, whose intensity and metronomic precision never wavered over nearly two hours. The band is stocked with attractive and unique-looking characters who are all masters of their instruments. Of particular note for me was the vocal work of Karma Mayet and Lewis “Flip” Barnes on trumpet.

Vernon Reid conducted the band with intensity and laser focus. He also playfully pulled the audience in, encouraging singing and clapping. The party atmosphere belied a more serious artistic mission which was to, according to Reid, “Call Steely Dan out.”

“Calling a person out” is slang for surfacing someone’s hidden intentions, or challenging them to an artistic duel such as in street dancing, beat boxing, and Hip Hop. Throughout the show there was a clear sense that Vernon Reid and Co. were saying “Gimme that!” to Becker and Fagan and clearly intent on surfacing the signifiers of race and Black culture that were perhaps not so obvious in the original recordings.

The songs were accompanied by slides that showed images of cultural figures and artists from the late ’70’s and ’80’s that were “obliquely referential” to the songs. The slides also served as lighthearted interrogators of the often-coded racial signifiers in the lyrics. However, the effect was never heavy handed and only enhanced the intense pleasure of witnessing Burnt Sugar muscle in on a great American songbook.

Conduction, Community, and Good Shoes: An Interview with Burnt Sugar

“Spontaneous combustion being an occupational hazard in Gotham, Burnt Sugar is how we keep it real, surreal, arboreal, aquatic, incendiary.” —Greg Tate, Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber is a force of nature. The band creates music in which jazz, improvisation, social critique, poetry, melody, culture, and life stories intertwine, fusing […]

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Vernon Reid conducts Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber. Photo: Petra Richterova

“Spontaneous combustion being an occupational hazard in Gotham, Burnt Sugar is how we keep it real, surreal, arboreal, aquatic, incendiary.” —Greg Tate, Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber

Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber is a force of nature. The band creates music in which jazz, improvisation, social critique, poetry, melody, culture, and life stories intertwine, fusing quirk and sincerity, history and innovation, improvisation and structure—creating a distinctive hybrid groove that is both highly entertaining and remarkably profound.

Burnt Sugar has been grooving in various colorful and unique iterations since its formation in 1999, when bassist Jared Michael Nickerson and writer/instrumentalist/conductor Greg Tate got together to create “a forum for the New York area impro­vi­sa­tional musi­cian to com­pose, record and per­form mate­r­ial which reflects the breadth and depth of Amer­i­can dias­poran music in the 21st cen­tury.”

On display at Burnt Sugar’s April 26 Walker performance, the group’s musical trademark is the use of “conduction,” a style of conducted improvisation developed by renowned jazz musician and composer Butch Morris. Defined by Morris as “an improvised duet for ensemble and conductor,” conduction involves a system of gestures and signals that act as directives for the improvising musicians—for example, creating a “U” shape with the thumb and pointer finger indicates a repeat, and moving an outstretched palm up and down controls the volume of the players.

Taking on the conduction of Burnt Sugar’s Steely Dan performance at the Walker is Vernon Reid, renowned guitarist and founder of the Grammy award–winning group Living Colour. The collaboration between Reid and Greg Tate is not new—the two have been working together at least since 1985, when they co-founded the Black Rock Coalition, an organization that aims to create “an atmosphere conducive to the maximum development, exposure and acceptance of Black alternative music” (from the group’s manifesto).

I had the chance to learn more about Burnt Sugar through an e-mail interview with band members Ben Tyree (guitar), LaFrae Sci (drums), Karma Mayet Johnson (vocals), and Leon Gruenbaum (keyboards), facilitated by the group’s co-founder and bassist Jared Michael Nickerson. Here’s what they had to say about performing with the innovative and unparalleled Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber.

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Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber. Photo: Petra Richterova

Part of Burnt Sugar’s trademark style is using Butch Morris’ conduction system “to make every performance a fresh interpretation of its constituent parts.” What is it like rehearsing, performing, and recording “conductions”?

Ben Tyree: It’s spontaneous and engaging and can really bring things out of the musicians and into the room that nobody could have imagined.

LaFrae Sci: We don’t necessarily rehearse conductions because that’s what keeps it fresh. We rehearse songs, and the conduction happens on the fly. It’s super fun and requires one keeping their eye on the ball (conductor) at all times.

Karma Mayet Johnson: Well, playing Steely Dan or James Brown or… we’ll run a form then bust out into conduction, sometimes pass the baton. Full-on Burnt Sugar conductions, where the music is conceived and built simultaneously onstage, happen(ed) more outside the context of a “set” and go more like intergalactic transmolecularization.

Leon Gruenbaum: Jazz used to be the place where one would be spontaneous—but that field of music has become rigid. Conduction allows us to embody that spirit of not knowing what is coming next—I believe when the performers are excited on stage with that feeling of discovery, it comes across to the audience in a big way.

So what happens when Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber takes on the Steely Dan songbook?

Tyree: We have fun with it and dirty it up a bit. Most of the [original Steely Dan] records were very polished and produced so it’s exciting to take the material into a live setting where we can really do our own thing with it.

Sci: I love how Burnt Sugar is so big [17 members], and when everyone brings their flavor, the collective result often casts the material in a new and compelling light for the listener, whether they are familiar with the song or what. Also, my definition of soul is to “put ones whole self into something.” Everyone in Burnt Sugar is so soulful, and the music we make becomes exponentially soulful.

There is a lot of hybrid, genre-defying, boundary-busting, creativity going on in your music. What’s it like to create something that’s uncategorizable?

Johnson: It’s indescribable.

Tyree: Well, the question can go right back to you: what’s it like listening to something that’s uncategorizable? You’re talking about a group of people who are individually uncategorizable overtly challenging personal and creative categorization from every approachable angle in a society that imposes category. The sound is only the result of a state of mind and lifestyle that we wish to convey is available to all.

Sci: Duke Ellington used to call his music “beyond category” because he was in every way. Every member of Burnt Sugar is beyond category and exceptional in some way, hence when we come together the music is too.  We don’t set out to do this, it is what happens because we know how to surf up and down the musical tree from the spirituals into the future. If the blues is the roots, and everything else is the fruits, we are the whole damn ecosystem.

According to your website, Burnt Sugar is “a territory band, a neo-tribal thang, a community hang, a society music guild aspiring to the condition of all that is molten, glacial, racial, spacial, oceanic, mythic, antiphonal and telepathic.” It seems to me that Burnt Sugar is all about music, but not only music—what else is it about?

Tyree: It’s about a state of mind and lifestyle which the music is a result of. It’s also all about the LOVE.

Sci: Not only is Burnt Sugar about music, it’s […] a family, a tribe.  We all enjoy each other, and we can have fun anywhere, on stage, back stage, in the airport, in the van… Everywhere.

Johnson: Paramount, a democratization of vibe, a predilection for Cosmic Funk as an ontology, and good shoes.

How has Burnt Sugar changed since 1999? Where is it going in the future?

Tyree: Who knows? Why not join us for the duration of this journey and we’ll all find out together?

It seems like the members of Burnt Sugar all have some other cool projects going on. What else should I check out?

Tyree: I would recommend Googling all of our names. We all have awesome projects. Personally, I have a group called BT3 which you’d probably love.

Sci: Every member of the band is a unique artist with a project. My own band is called the 13th Amendment. We do my arrangements of Negro Spirituals, and originals (here is a link of us live in Paris). Currently I’m in Siberia rehearsing for this.

Gruenbaum: You should check out Genes and Machines, which features my “samchillian” keyboard invention. Some of our music is based on players having repeating parts which are brought in and out in a spontaneous way with conducting cues, so each performance of a piece is an improvisation, structurally.

Johnson: #ROOTWOMAN Karma Mayet Johnson.  I describe it as Burnt Sugar vocal member dropping 21st century Roots music.

Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber performs Any World That I’m Welcome To: The Steely Dan Conductions on Saturday, April 26, at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater.

Rock the Garden 2014 Lineup: Spoon, Guided By Voices, De La Soul, and More

This afternoon, the Walker and 89.3 The Current announced the lineup of Rock the Garden 2014. For the first time in Rock the Garden history, the festival spans two days: Saturday, June 21 and Sunday, June 22. As Associate Curator of Performing Arts Doug Benidt said, “the only thing better than live music is more live […]

RTG14

This afternoon, the Walker and 89.3 The Current announced the lineup of Rock the Garden 2014. For the first time in Rock the Garden history, the festival spans two days: Saturday, June 21 and Sunday, June 22. As Associate Curator of Performing Arts Doug Benidt said, “the only thing better than live music is more live music.”

On Tuesday, April 15 at 4 pm, Walker Performing Arts Curator Philip Bither joined Mary Lucia and Jim McGuinn on The Current airwaves to reveal this year’s two-day lineup. We liveblogged the announcement, and you can see the list of bands below. For more, read “27 Facets of the Rock the Garden Lineup.”

Saturday, June 21

Jeremy Messersmith (Minneapolis, MN)

Jeremy Messersmith. Photo: Kyle Dean Reinford

Jeremy Messersmith. Photo: Kyle Dean Reinford

Best Coast (Los Angeles, CA)

Best Coast. Photo: Courtesy the artists

Best Coast. Photo: Courtesy the artists

Matt and Kim (Brooklyn, NY)

Matt and Kim. Photo: Caleb Kuhl

Matt and Kim. Photo: Caleb Kuhl

De La Soul (Long Island, NY)

De La Soul. Photo: Courtesy the artists

De La Soul. Photo: Courtesy the artists

Sunday, June 22

Valerie June (Memphis, TN)

Valerie June. Photo: Matt Wignall

Valerie June. Photo: Matt Wignall

Kurt Vile and the Violators (Philadelphia, PA)

Kurt Vile. Photo: Shawn Brackbill

Kurt Vile. Photo: Shawn Brackbill

Dessa (Minneapolis, MN)

Dessa. Photo: Bill Phelps

Dessa. Photo: Bill Phelps

Guided By Voices (Dayton, OH)

Guided By Voices. Photo: Courtesy the artists

Guided By Voices. Photo: Courtesy the artists

Spoon (Austin, TX)

Spoon. Photo: Courtesy the artists

Spoon. Photo: Courtesy the artists

BUY TICKETS

Tickets go on sale to Walker and MPR members on Thursday, April 17, at 11 am through Etix.com only. Any remaining tickets go on sale to the general public Saturday, April 19, at 11 am.

REMEMBER

Last year’s Rock the Garden sold out in less than an hour, so mark your calendar and make sure that your Walker membership is up to date. Walker/MPR membership ID numbers will be required for all pre-sale purchases.

Walker membership: 612.375.7655 or membership.walkerart.org.

MPR membership: 1.800.228.7123 or mpr.org/support.

Shelley Hirsch’s Sonic Explorations

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Walker intern Chris Mode shares his perspective on Shelley Hirsch’s Sound Horizon performance. Agree or […]

Shelley Hirsch in Jim Hodges' the dark gate (2008). Photo: Chris Mode.

Shelley Hirsch in Jim Hodges’ the dark gate (2008). Photo: Chris Mode.

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

As curator of this season’s Sound Horizon, artist Jim Hodges hand selected musicians to perform in Give More Than You Take, an exhibition of his work over the last 25 years. This Thursday saw the second installment, and vocalist Shelley Hirsch filled the galleries with her eclectic sounds.

Known for her experimental, improvisatory storytelling through song and text, Hirsch has been an active performer and composer for over three decades. Her biography boasts a presence on over 70 CDs, and she has worked with composers such as John Zorn, Christian Marclay, and Alvin Curran (who was at the Walker last month as a part of the Trisha Brown Dance Company’s performance). Hirsch frequently works with visual artists as well, and she and Hodges have a long history of friendship and collaboration.

When she entered the gallery for her 7 pm performance, Hirsch’s dress of blue velvet and floral lace was at home with Hodges’ soft textures and colors. Microphone in hand, she began with an attempt at call and response, the greetings of “How are you?” and “ I’m saying hello to you” careening through her range before breaking into gibberish. Hirsch’s first task was to engage the dozens of students that surrounded her, arms crossed and unenthused. After some forced participation (“you’ve got to get up and be proud!”), they warmed up to her as she began her musical tour of the galleries.

Like Hodges, Hirsch creates through subtle transformations of the everyday; her improvisations relied on in-the-moment reactions to the art and bodies around her. She built a chant out of a simple observation: “I see you looking at me looking at you.” She invited us to “try try try” to draw on napkins, as Hodges did, the next time we got coffee. Classic songs are a large part of Hirsch’s performance vocabulary, and this invitation moved quickly into the first phrase of “Try to Remember.” Her powers of contorting text and sound were quite impressive. After asking for the time, “7:27” slowly morphed into “transcendence,” “transfigure,” and “triangles of light,” moving through the intermediate nonsense words in a free association description of Hodges’ work and her reaction to it.

Hirsch’s appreciation of Hodges’ art was evident throughout her tour. At times she would explicitly acknowledge her fondness for a piece. Elsewhere, his work provided inspiration for her sonic explorations. Near the start, she stood quasi-yodeling into the hanging flower curtain of You. Later, she sang from the sheet music of Picturing That Day, singing the names of colors that Hodges had placed where the note heads had been.

In a participatory performance such as this, the words Hirsch elicited from her audience were often as entertaining as her own. By now totally won over, the students offered comments like “This is my dream job” and “I seriously want whatever she’s on.” At one point, a mother explained to her young, wide-eyed son, “it’s called performance art.” But, smiling, he didn’t need an explanation of the fun that Hirsch was creating.

Early on, I spotted Jim Hodges sitting on a stool in the corner. He watched with a smirk, knowing exactly what we were getting into. By the end of Hirsch’s performance, that smirk became a smile, and I saw it repeated on the faces around me.

 

Brad Mehldau’s Inside-Out Intuition

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, music writer Nate Patrin shares his perspective on the second night of Intuitive Expression: A […]

Brad_Mehldau_celebration_2014_003_W

Photo: Michael Wilson

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, music writer Nate Patrin shares his perspective on the second night of Intuitive Expression: A Brad Mehldau Celebration. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Describing Brad Mehldau‘s rapport with his instrument is a slippery proposition. You could start with his chops (which are subtle when they need to be and flashy when the moment is right), or how he’s able to dart from elegant simplicity to careening runs of dizzying, joyous intensity like it’s the most natural thing in the world. But it’s his stance that gives him away – hunched over, head cocked, eyes perpetually shut, and an oddly beatific rictus of deep-focus purpose on his face. With every nimble transition or coaxed out counterpoint to one of the trio’s other soloists, he had the appearance of someone who knew exactly where everything came from and was supposed to go, as though every note was simultaneously dedicated to typing out the transcript of an unlikely but true slapstick story.

The 100-minute, two-encore set with his core trio (Larry Grenadier on bass; Jeff Ballard on drums) was deceptively brisk, even during the ballads – though it’s worth noting that songs that started as ballads on the surface frequently had the tendency to rear back and expand into something louder and more complex. Ballard’s drumming was at the center of some of the more aggressive moments: whether soloing or doubling up Grenadier’s zig-zag basslines, he manhandled the backbeat to the precipice of collapse and back again, daredevil rhythms that were free to wander when Mehldau’s piano carried enough steady momentum.

That left the pieces easy to follow yet hard to predict, grabbing attention with its tradition-acknowledging yet canon-expanding nods to bebop (Elmo Hope’s “De-Dah”), old pop standards (“These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)”), and the tangential outside improvisation of Sam Rivers (“Beatrice”), launching off the initial inspirations to find the notes between the chords and the beats beneath the rhythms. The pull between nuanced, subtle interplay and hard-charging, emotional catharsis used its three-man tug-of-war dynamics most engagingly on “Seymour Reads the Constitution,” a composition Mehldau stated was inspired by a melody he heard in a dream where Philip Seymour Hoffman read the United States Constitution to him – a week before he died. It was a fitting tribute, equal parts complexity and pathos. Which meant it fit in perfectly with the trio’s set, and the breath-snatching compositional vertigo Mehldau brought to it.

Reel Around the Genres: Brad Mehldau and Chris Thile

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today,  filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on the the first night of Intuitive Expression: A […]

Brad_Mehldau_celebration_2014_001_W

Photo: Courtesy the artists

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today,  filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on the the first night of Intuitive Expression: A Brad Mehldau CelebrationAgree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Brad Mehldau opened his two-night set at the Walker with a wide-ranging, virtuosic duet with Chris Thile, best known for his work with Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers. Over the course of nearly two hours (including two encores), both musicians showcased not only their own genre-defying skills (while never quite leaving the hallmarks of jazz and bluegrass) but their incredible sensitivity and intimacy in performance. In addition to songs by Mehldau and Thile, they re-imagined songs by Fiona Apple, Gillian Welch, Bob Dylan, Elliot Smith, and an incredible version of the Sinatra ballad “I Cover the Waterfront” that showcased Thile’s balladeer skills. (You can find earlier performances of most of these songs from the duo on YouTube.) They also did a melodic mash up of the folk standard “St. Anne’s Reel” with a  bebop hallmark, Charlie Parker, that featured a thrilling, high-speed unison line that ranged through the entirety of both men’s instruments.

Yet I left the concert feeling like Thile, a ‘the-word-incredible-doesn’t-do-it-justice performer’ who can do things with a mandolin I didn’t think the instrument was capable of, overshadowed his bandmate. Reflecting on this afterwards, I had a nagging feeling of safeness or comfort with this concert, despite the incredible technical and emotional depth displayed by both musicians. Despite it’s genre-hopping, it wasn’t all that adventurous, except in the realm of genre-hopping itself, a musical conceit that often sets up genres as straw figures only to knock them down. In the end, and at the risk of being reductive, it seemed that Mehldau was incorporating these other musicians into his own style, while Thile was able to adapt  an incredibly different variety of musical lineages and styles, without necessarily making them his own in the same way as Mehldau. I’m keen to see how Mehldau’s second performance, with his trio of 20 years, will differ, and what other dimensions of the pianist’s work it will show.

Brad Mehldau Trio performs tonight (April 9) at the Walker as part of Intuitive Expression: A Brad Mehldau Celebration

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