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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.

Listening Mix: Noura Mint Seymali

LISTENING MIX provides a musical preview of artists visiting the Walker. Combining their work with sounds from a variety of contextual sources, LISTENING MIX can be experienced before or after a performance. Get acquainted with the music of Mauritanian singer Noura Mint Seymali, who is bringing her unique brand of desert blues to the Cedar Cultural Center […]

Photo: courtesy of artist

Photo: courtesy of artist

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

Get acquainted with the music of Mauritanian singer Noura Mint Seymali, who is bringing her unique brand of desert blues to the Cedar Cultural Center on Friday, February 19. The show, copresented by the Walker, begins at 8pm.

Noura has been releasing music back home for a decade and performing since her teenage years, but even then, music extends beyond her birth for generations. Descended from traveling griot poets and storytellers, a father who devised the Moorish system of musical notation, a local pop star for a step-mother, and a grandmother who taught her the nine string ardine (which has become her signature instrument), Noura seems destined to carry on this sonic legacy. In collaboration with her husband, guitarist Jeiche Ould Chighaly, her international debut record Tzenni is the culmination of the sounds, classical and contemporary, that have shaped her path. This listening mix highlights some of her West African predecessors and fellow ardine and ngoni virtuosos, as well as Jeiche’s desert guitar contemporaries (Tinariwen, Bombino) and the unexpected westerners who inspired their sounds.

Noura Mint Seymali performs at the Cedar Cultural Center on Friday, February 19, at 8pm, with opening act Gospel Machine.

And the Space Will Be Transformed: Erin Search-Wells on Faye Driscoll

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, Erin Search-Wells of SuperGroup shares her perspective on Thank You For Coming: Attendance by Faye […]

Thank You For Coming: Attendance by Faye Driscoll. Photo: Photo: Maria Baranova

Thank You For Coming: Attendance by Faye Driscoll. Photo: Photo: Maria Baranova

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, Erin Search-Wells of SuperGroup shares her perspective on Thank You For Coming: Attendance by Faye Driscoll. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

These are the good times, when your body can do that.  This is what it’s like to go out and know a few people, and kind of arrive deep and known and felt.  This is what it feels like to recognize someone as who they really are.

I think I always look like that at a party, stop-motion video laughing maniacally.  I think the camera would probably catch my multiple chins though; I might not look as glamorous in the outfit I have put together.  I might feel like a real dork in this gold shower cap.  After the party I’ll notice that the shower cap left an indent on my forehead.

Everybody might expect me to join in and dance.

It is nice when you don’t realize a transition is happening.  It is nice to feel like something has gone on for a long time so it probably will start to morph soon, but then it goes on a little longer and you look back and realize it has changed.  It is nice to realize you missed the change again.  This level of transformation between sections takes meticulous crafting.  I was reminded that this type of crafting is not only about saying “no, not that,” but also “yes, yes, yes YES.”  It is nice to see something played long because it is simply so satisfying to watch.

I think I have seen another show recently where I was invited to join in the party at the end.  It was the last BodyCartography show.  And they both circled the space like a folk-dance, and dimmed the lights, and got a little bacchanal.  And I think I’ve been welcomed to a show with a song recently.  And the way clothing came off and naked parts of bodies writhed I was reminded of luciana achugar’s OTRO TEATRO.  All of these associations are not being recalled for nothing.  In fact is it performance zeitgeist? Is it our job to take the temperature of the audience and provide something that they can’t get from other art forms?  Why does contemporary performance, or dance-theater, still feel like the most necessary form to me?  Well we have to make a list of what it can do that other things cannot do.  Film can certainly create the most realistic bear fight.  So that’s done.  In fact we should probably stop trying to stage naturalistic dinner parties because none of the stage china will make the right sound when it’s broken.  But I digress.  What does this form have?  It has a live, relatively game audience.   It has willing, flexible, multi-disciplinary, practiced performers.  It has lights, props, costume, moveable seats.  It has musical capabilities ranging from acoustic, to voice, to reverberating beats.  It has microphones.  We should use these things but what is the hole in peoples’ lives that we will try to fill?  Communal experience.  Acceptance of personhood, yes.  Recognition of difference, yes.  But definitely communal ritual. Is this why we are seeing these things happen in contemporary performance?  I think mostly artists have their form and their interests and they are whittling away at it.  But it’s not like other forms where you go in a room above a garage and practice strokes.  It is completely in touch with the world.  And that is why I think there is a bigger reason we start to notice patterns in what we are seeing on stage.

The last thing I will say about this piece is that the performers are truly amazing.  I was just plain impressed by how many layers of their experience they were transmitting simultaneously.  Faye’s directions were clearly very specific, and the scores have been drilled rigorously, deeply, shaping their lived experiences so that their presences balanced delicately between alert and comfortable, tense and soft, large and small.  I was reminded of the unearthed possibilities our faces, our bodies, hold within us and right on our surfaces.

Faye Driscoll’s Thank You For Coming: Attendance  continues in the Walker’s McGuire Theater Thursday-Saturday, February 18-20, 2016 at 8pm, and Sunday, February 21 at 7pm.

Invented Horizons: Mary Halvorson in the Walker Galleries

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, Mark Mahoney, host of Sound Grammar on Radio K, shares his perspective on Mary Halvorson’s […]

Photo: Mark Mahoney

Photo: Mark Mahoney

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, Mark Mahoney, host of Sound Grammar on Radio K, shares his perspective on Mary Halvorson’s Sound Horizon performance on Thursday night. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Guitarist Mary Halvorson presented a series of riveting solo explorations in the Walker’s Burnet Gallery (within the Andrea Büttner exhibition, as part of the 2016 Sound Horizon series) on Thursday night. On display were all the things Halvorson’s fans have come to expect from her—hairpin rhythmic turns, oblique harmonies, and crystalline melodies punctuated by occasional bouts of lacerating distortion—alongside unexpected twists and unfamiliar repertoire.

In anticipation of the show, I had revisited an essay written by Halvorson entitled “The Invented Horizon Is Free” (published in the 2012 book Arcana VI: musicians on music, edited by John Zorn).  In the essay, Halvorson describes how she arrived at this title using a gradual iterative process, one that loosely parallels her process for finding new musical material:

I started with a saying from a fortune cookie that read, ‘You are free to invent your life.’ I then tinkered with the fortune cookie text a couple words at a time until finally settling upon a modified proverb, ‘The invented horizon is free.’

Initially, I had hoped that I might be able to employ this same process to arrive at some clever amalgamation of “The Invented Horizon Is Free” and “Sound Horizon,” the name of the series of which Halvorson’s Thursday performance was a part. My attempt didn’t produce any particularly interesting results, but Halvorson’s title nevertheless remained turning in my mind. It seemed to succinctly encapsulate some of the most striking constants in her otherwise radically diverse and far-reaching output: her all-pervading commitment to artistic invention and expressive freedom.

It seemed fitting, then, that Halvorson began the night with a tribute to the jazz great Ornette Coleman, identified perhaps more than any other jazz figure with the pursuit of complete creative freedom. Halvorson’s rendition of Coleman’s “Sadness” (a poignant choice, given the saxophonist’s passing last year) managed to translate the spirit of Coleman’s keening, blues-drenched sound to the guitar by employing a range of unorthodox techniques, including the use of a steel guitar slide and the progressive detuning and re-tuning of her guitar to mimic the weeping arco bass of the original.

The sound of Halvorson’s guitar attracted a growing audience. The crowd gradually filled in the chairs and meditation cushions provided until only standing room remained. Halvorson, seated with pedals under her feet as though she were driving a car, seemed unconcerned with the intermittent hubbub, focused only on coaxing an ever-expanding array of sounds and textures from her guitar.

Highlights from the first two sets included a spare, meditative take on Carla Bley’s “Ida Lupino,” and an arresting, tremolo-heavy rendition of French guitarist Noël Akchoté’s “Cheshire Hotel.” It is worth noting that, in a performance consisting entirely of covers, Halvorson drew her repertoire exclusively from tunes written by composers within the jazz tradition.

That’s not to say Halvorson’s song choices were conventional. Alongside luminaries like Duke Ellington and McCoy Tyner, she inserted the music of contemporaries like Tomas Fujiwara and Chris Lightcap. Her mesmerizing treatment of Lightcap’s “Platform” culminated in cascading torrents of distorted sound that dissipated almost as quickly as they had arisen. And her fertile imagination and keen ears allowed her to tease out the latent quirks and idiosyncrasies within even the most classic tunes. Halvorson’s bracing, angular take on Oliver Nelson’s “Cascades,” for instance, managed to transform that hard-bop classic into something like a noise rock anthem.

Halvorson delivered a kind of disclaimer towards the end of her second set: “I don’t normally play this many sets solo, so I’m going to be playing some new stuff for the third set,” she said. A pause. “I’m not sure whether I’m telling you to leave or stay.” Luckily for those who stayed, the third set offered some of the evening’s gems, among them a haunting Paul Motian tune and a shapeshifting version of Thelonious Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear.”

As I returned home after the performance, the phrase “the invented horizon is free” continued to echo in my mind. What did “invented horizon” mean?

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously observed, “It is the eye which makes the horizon.” In other words, the horizon, fixed though it may seem, is a human creation: an invention. It seems that Mary Halvorson has brought this line of thought to bear on her approach to the jazz tradition. As her choice of songs makes evident, she is not so much interested in rebelling against the jazz tradition as she is in engaging with it in contemporary and highly personal ways. As the crowd witnessed Halvorson continually invent and re-invent the horizons of her own artistry, it became clear to everyone present: the invented horizon is free.

Talk Dance: Faye Driscoll on Thank You For Coming: Attendance

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 Faye Driscoll, whose work Thank You For Coming: Attendance will be performed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater February 17-21, 2016.  You can listen to the […]

Faye Driscoll, Thank You For Coming: Attendance. Photo: Maria Baranova

Faye Driscoll, Thank You For Coming: Attendance. Photo: Maria Baranova

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 Faye Driscoll, whose work Thank You For Coming: Attendance will be performed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater February 17-21, 2016.  You can listen to the podcast on the Walker Channel 

Right at the start of our conversation, Faye Driscoll refers to Thank You For Coming: Attendance (TYFC:Attendance)  as “quite a live beast.” TYFC: Attendance is the first in a series of three works by Driscoll that, according to her website, “extends the sphere of influence of performance to create a communal space where the co-emergent social moment is questioned, heightened, and palpable.”  Or, as she said it more plainly to me on the phone, “I mean, I hate audience participation, so it was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna make a work that somehow does this … sneakily’.”

TYFC: Attendance has had a rich touring schedule this past year, including stops in major US cities, Croatia, and Argentina, and I was curious to hear about how the feeling between the performers and the audience shifts from location to location.  As a dancer who has toured a bit, I know each audience (even in the same city) feels a bit different, but I wondered if this particular piece revealed anything particular about the places in which it was being performed.  Driscoll responded “I think because we’re dealing with the sensation of co-creation with the audience so directly […] there is a very palpable difference in each community that we go to.  Like when we were in Zagreb […] they went from cold … to not cold maybe?  But there was a movement in every audience we’ve gone to. […] In Argentina it was like from warm to boiling hot. Like it was almost like they were just gonna start kissing the dancers as soon as they rolled into their laps.”

Like her past work, TYFC: Attendance is a demanding, multidisciplinary work.  Watching a video of the performance in preparation for our conversation, I was astounded by the performers virtuosic abilities – not just dancing, but singing, acting, remembering.  What they do seemed to me extremely rigorous, and somehow new.  I was reminded of something Phillip Glass said talking to Terry Gross on Fresh Air; Gross plays a clip of one of Glass’ early works and then admits that she can’t even imagine what it would be like to perform one of Glass’ demanding compositions.  Glass coolly responds that in order to perform his music he had to develop a new performance practice and then goes on to say “if you think about it, for any music to be really new, there probably has to be a different performance practice to go with it otherwise it wouldn’t be new.  What makes it new is that you have to find a new way to play.”

In TYFC: Attendance, Driscoll is seeking out new performance practices.  She elaborates, “I feel like I’m carving out and discovering new forms through the making of the thing and the more that I make things I feel that I bring lots of practices into the room.”  One of the practices we talked about was what Driscoll referred to as “state work”; I thought her definition of “state work” was particularly revealing to what the incredible performers are attempting in TYFC: Attendance: “I think of it like shifting presence in the body […]  it could be emotional, it could be purely the feeling of the body itself, kind of textural and tonal.  It could be working with image.  It could be more psychological.  But it’s become a huge part of my practice because its about […] shifting the shape and changing the alchemy of the body and almost imagining we can shift the composition of our form.”  In watching documentation of TYFC: Attendance, I found the performers’ adroit ability to shift and transform their performative presence fascinating. and I think it speaks directly to what Driscoll says she’s addressing in her work: “the very performativity of being and the sociality of being and how […] who we are is made by all these little interactions and all of these […] movements of self.”

If, like Driscoll, you’re skittish about audience participation, don’t fretDriscoll assures that the piece and the performers “create an environment where we’re at once commanding and extremely gentle and extremely direct. Where there’s options at every stage and there is this sense of, even if you’ve sat there with your arms crossed the entire time, we’ve sort of wrapped you a little bit in our world.” Thank You for Coming: Attendance will be on the Walker stage, Feb. 17-21, 2016.  And, lucky for us, the Walker will present parts two and three of the Thank you for Coming series over the next few years.

Listening Mix: Mary Halvorson

Last year, Mary Halvorson was credited as an instrumentalist on eight releases. Two years prior, she was on eleven; the year before that, eighteen. Ever the versatile guitarist, each collaboration sees her slipping into any number of roles stylistically. Her 2015 solo release Meltframe, however, finds her unaccompanied for the first time, and channeling the sounds of an entire band through a […]

Photo: Peter Gannushkin

Photo: Peter Gannushkin

Last year, Mary Halvorson was credited as an instrumentalist on eight releases. Two years prior, she was on eleven; the year before that, eighteen. Ever the versatile guitarist, each collaboration sees her slipping into any number of roles stylistically. Her 2015 solo release Meltframe, however, finds her unaccompanied for the first time, and channeling the sounds of an entire band through a singular guitar. In anticipation of her solo performances on February 11, as the inaugural artist for this year’s Sound Horizon series, it seemed appropriate to make a listening mix to showcase the many aspects of Halvorson’s craft.

1. Mary Halvorson Quintet – “Hemorrhaging Smiles” (2012)
Halvorson’s ensembles began with her 2008 trio of bassist John Herbert and drummer Ches Smith. As she’s expanded to a quintet and, more recently, a septet, the precision of this talented rhythm section continues to drive her compositions, taking center stage near this piece’s 17 minute mark in respite from the easygoing brass harmonies at its start.

2. Anthony Braxton – “Composition No 350 – Part 5” (2007)
Studies at Wesleyan with prolific composer Anthony Braxton lead Halvorson to become a valued member of Braxton’s ensembles, including the 12+1tet whose 2006 performance at the Iridium club he referred to as “the point of definition in my work thus far.” Halvorson’s arpeggiated duet with vibraphone that begins this excerpt is just one highlight in the sprawling, nine-hour performance.

3. Nels Cline, Mary Halvorson, and Ches Smith – Live at Medienkulturhaus (Wels, Austria) (2005)
While the trio has never recorded together, one can’t help but wish for more from Halvorson, her Trio/Quintet drummer Smith, and Wilco guitarist/Walker favorite Cline. The group has an amazing energy that adds a strength and tension to this inconspicuously ambient, Dirty Three-esque improvisation.

4. Kristo Rodzevski – “Kadife” (2015)
New York-based composer Kristo Rodzevski enlisted the help of several free improvisers in creating Batania, his melancholic yet breezy jazz-pop debut. Halvorson’s electric guitar takes a backseat to bouncy strings and brushed cymbals, which allows her solo (beginning at 2:45) to aptly punctuate Rodzevski’s Macedonian-sung verses and a trumpet solo by frequent collaborator Kirk Knuffke.

5. People – “The Lyrics Are Simultaneously About How The Song Starts And What The Lyrics Are About” (2014)
People, which Halvorson formed as a duo with drummer Kevin Shea in 2005, gives jazz prowess a backseat to plainly chaotic Melt-Banana style noise rock; but their third record saw the addition of both Crystal Stilts bassist Kyle Forester and a sense of humor. This particular track is the peak of its self-referential irreverence, both lyrically and in the time signature arithmetic lesson at its center.

6. Mary Halvorson – “Ida Lupino” (2015)
Meltframe is Halvorson’s first truly solo outing, with ten reinterpretations of tunes by both icons and contemporaries. As Marvin Lin observes, “Halvorson’s guitar-voice opens the conversation, gesturing toward the mirror while displacing itself historically”. This reverent solitude, new for both piece and performer, reshapes styles as disparate as Oliver Nelson’s frenzied hard bop and Annette Peacock’s synthesized soul. A rare sense of tenderness, too, is revealed in her rendition of Carla Bley’s “Ida Lupino“, only further confirming the multitudes embodied by one woman and her guitar. 

Mary Halvorson will perform as part of Sound Horizon 2016, the Walker’s series of free in-gallery music performances, on February 11, 2016, at 6, 7, and 8 pm.

Read more:
An Eruption of Communal Voice: Marvin Lin on Guitarist Mary Halvorson

An Eruption of Communal Voice: Marvin Lin on Guitarist Mary Halvorson

For Sound Horizon 2016, 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: Mary Halvorson (February 11), Vicky Chow and Tristan Perich (March 24), and C. Spencer Yeh (April 28). How does an artist find her […]

Mary Halvorson. Photo: Brian Cohen

Mary Halvorson. Photo: Brian Cohen

For Sound Horizon 2016, 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: Mary Halvorson (February 11), Vicky Chow and Tristan Perich (March 24), and C. Spencer Yeh (April 28).

How does an artist find her voice?

Experts say to live life. Experts say to practice. Experts say to explore, deconstruct, appropriate, hybridize, internalize. Experts say to add your own inflection, your own cadence, your own twist. But even if an artist somehow finds her voice, what exactly is she voicing?

For musicians like Mary Halvorson, a long fixture in New York improv and experimental circles, her voice is ostensibly the guitar’s voice. Or, rather, the guitar becomes a proxy for her supposed “internal” voice. An extension, a stand-in. A substitute. But is her voice really about who she is? Is the voice ever really about who a person is?

Maybe. But when I hear Halvorson fumbling haphazardly into a chord and articulating its dissonance through arpeggios, I hear her voicing tension. When she filters the guitar through delay, splaying sound molecules on the walls, I hear her voicing the room. When she’s violently scraping the strings, I hear her voicing the guitar’s materiality. When she’s scaling the fretboard in impossibly quick, complex movements, I hear her voicing the limits of human physicality. Halvorson’s guitar is not a reflection of her voice, but an eruption of a communal voice: she gives voice, we romanticize it.

The beauty found in Halvorson’s music isn’t necessarily about her finding a voice, but about the act of voicing itself. Nowhere was this clearer for me than on 2015’s Meltframe, her first solo album after a career marked most significantly (and prolifically) as a leader or member of jazz groups of various shapes and styles (she is also a former student of Anthony Braxton, an avant-rock musician in People, and a chamber-jazz artist with violist Jessica Pavone, among others). On this album, Halvorson finds herself both alone and among friends, darting through coarse, meandering moments of solitude while appropriating lovingly from her favorites (Ornette Coleman, Duke Ellington, Carla Bley). Rather than bracketing herself off, Halvorson’s guitar-voice opens the conversation, gesturing toward the mirror while displacing itself historically, affixing itself on a continuum of an avant-garde that’s still avant-garde against many odds.

When critics say that Halvorson is the “future” of jazz guitar (a sentiment pervasive in much writing about her), they’re really saying that her guitar playing is a future for jazz guitar, one that their very proclamations are aiming to preserve and make room for. But Halvorson’s guitar work has always created its own space, its own justification for emergence beyond genre and history. Originality is everything, but originality is also bullshit—both beautiful and disgusting, an aspiration and a dead-end. The myth of originality wants us to frame our experiences in terms of uniqueness—at best to find ruptures and breaking points and the limits of “good taste”/convention, at worst to whip us into a fog of individuality and lubricate the movement of products, the latter playing like capitalism’s own poetic cadence.

But music has an ability to not only reflect, but to also embody capitalism’s most despicable outgrowths, resisting it at the same time that it critiques it. Halvorson’s politics need not be known to hear the protest in her music, even if it has nothing to do with the free market. Because the voicing itself can be heard as a protest—against silence, against assent, against coherence, against convention, against acceptance—wrought by the destructive quality in her virtuosity, the immediacy in her attacks, the subversiveness in her melodies. It’s a protest, however, that seeks commonalities and communal modes of operation, as in line with Brandon Seabrook and Marc Ribot as Mick Barr and Annette Peacock, making her no more the future of jazz guitar than the future of whatever.

This is one way for a voice to function in capitalism. Because, aesthetically, music can serve to dissolve identity, to erode borders, to wriggle free from ideological baggage in order to tap into shared experiences or feelings that don’t need language for meaning. Because, aesthetically, music can be about an ambiguous, completely irrational expansion, without having to be determined through the narrowed lens of dogma or rhetoric or a reified future.

Halvorson’s voice is not her own voice. It’s a voice that we’ve been hearing throughout history. It’s a voice that she found already entrenched in its own peculiar contexts, willfully obscured and faintly heard in the gutters. It’s a voice chirping away anachronistically on the soggy frontiers, lost and found, yet perpetually made anew. It’s actually our voice, and it continues to say something important.

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