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Spiritual America: Zach Cohen on William Brittelle, Wye Oak, and Michi Wiancko

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

Left to right: Lorna Dune, Aaron Roche, Charles Block, Paul Wiancko, Michi Wiancko, Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, and William Brittelle. Photo: Jayme Halbritter

William Brittelle’s Spiritual America at Aria, October 14, 2015. Left to right: Lorna Dune, Aaron Roche, Charles Block, Paul Wiancko, Michi Wiancko, Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, and William Brittelle. Photo: Jayme Halbritter

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, musician Zach Cohen shares his perspective on Wye Oak + William Brittelle: Spiritual America with special guest Michi Wiancko. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Brooklyn-based composers William Brittelle and Michi Wiancko, in collaboration with the Baltimore-based band Wye Oak, performed at Aria this past Wednesday evening in a concert copresented by the Walker Art Center and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music Series.  The performers journeyed through a wide swath of soundscapes blending musical genres—most notably electro-acoustic—bringing a group of top-notch musicians from varying backgrounds on stage together for the first time. The eclectic group of musicians included Charles Block (double bass) William Brittelle (electronics and keyboards) Lorna Dune (keyboard), Aaron Roche (vocals, guitar, bass), Andy Stack (percussion), Jenn Wasner (vocals, guitar and bass), Michi Wiancko (5-string violin), and Paul Wiancko (cello).

The Liquid Music performance series is curated by SPCO’s Kate Nordstrum and spotlights some of today’s most innovative performing artists. Artists are given the space and resources to experiment freely with their newest projects and audiences are delivered something fresh and cutting edge. Spiritual America is one of five copresentations between the Walker and Liquid Music in the 2015-16 season; this iteration of this suite of music was also commissioned by the Walker.

The first half of the show featured the talented and multi-faceted violinist and composer Michi Wiancko. Demonstrating this in action, Michi was performing as part of Spiritual America the same week she was joined the violin section of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, as well as having written a world premiere arrangement of ‘Five Melodies’ by Prokofiev for the SPCO’s program.

Some of the highlights from the first half of Wednesday’s performance at Aria included Michi Wiancko’s string arrangements, which acted as a constant thread throughout the show, bridging and blurring collaboration of the “rock” musicians with the “classical” ones. In her arrangement of Wye Oak’s song “The Tower”, string harmonic glisses and rhythmic pulsing electric bass lines doubled by the violin created unusual sonorities with fascinating outer space-like effects and textures. “Shriek” also employed these effects outlining chords in the synthesizer, cello, and violin that shimmered as indie rocker Jenn Wasner sang over it in a haunting, mellow, and throaty tone.

After intermission, composer and multi-instrumentalist William Brittelle performed selections from Spiritual America, a project which he calls “electro-acoustic orchestral art songs”. The music of Spiritual America examines Brittelle’s journey in exploring and understanding his cultural and perhaps existential feelings in moving to New York City from his native small town roots.

In songs like “Canyons Curved Burgundy”, the listener hears a collage of string sounds like that of Americana Appalachia, and later bass drum, voice, and guitar wave effects meld into one, so that all the sound came together into one trembling and vibrating pitch.

Brittelle is able to discover new sound textures amid a general feeling of melancholia which perhaps captures a glimpse of this generation’s feeling of spiritual America.

All at Once a Paradox: Theo Langason on johnbrown

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, Minneapolis-based theater artist Theo Langason shares his perspective on johnbrown by Dean […]

Photo: Ryutaro Mishima

johnbrown premiere performances at The Kitchen, 2014. Photo: Ryutaro Mishima

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, Minneapolis-based theater artist Theo Langason shares his perspective on johnbrown by Dean Moss. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

johnbrown, a dance/multimedia performance by Dean Moss, is a meditation on the white abolitionist John Brown that uses the historical figure to examine the contradictions past, present, future and their interconnectedness.

John Brown: white man, abolitionist, trigger-happy.  He believed that the only way to end slavery would be through an armed insurrection.  Many scholars disagree on whether he is a hero or a terrorist.  Either way, John Brown was right about the need for a bloody end to the ownership of black flesh. After the failed raid of an armory, Brown was captured and later hanged.  His death is considered to have played a significant role in the start of the Civil War.  For more context read this piece written by Emma Barber, it’s informative and she’s dope.

The stage is set, a white square on the ground: a canvas to be painted upon with bodies and chalk and foam board and deflated kick balls.  A large wall with thick horizontal black and white stripes, slightly askew, looms in the background.  In silence the piece begins as a single white dancer dressed in white does a slow and mesmerizing balletic balancing act.  Flowing and slightly contorted, the dancer moves across the stage conjuring a sense of landscape.  “Now.”  A young woman of color runs out to assist with the balance, then disappears as quickly she appeared.  “Now.”  Another young woman of color, another assist.  “Now.” Again.  “Now.” A reminder that America was built on the backs of black, brown, yellow, and red people.  A reminder that history is held up by those who come after, the younger generations.

Moss, a black man, enters (un)dressed as Uncle Tom/Jesus.  Casting Uncle Tom as a savior is a hard pill to swallow.  John Brown, as white savior and benevolent catalyst that sparked the Civil War, is a hard pill to swallow.  But that’s the paradoxical “yes…and” history that Moss is investigating.  Yes, John Brown was a prominent instigator of the Civil War and gave his life to the cause of ending slavery.  And, he was a mad man with poor judgment and a too-young wife. Yes, ‘Uncle Tom’ is an insult hurled at black people too concerned with the whims of whiteness.  And, the popularity of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel was instrumental in the humanization of blackness in the eyes of many white people.  Yes…and.  Hard pills.

Recordings of Moss’ father Harold G. Moss play.  He speaks with a wit and frankness that are common of older black folk who have lived and survived Jim Crow.  His voice is familiar and warm.  He speaks of interaction with white folk.  His words ache with the wisdom of a life lived with purpose.  The audience begins to understand some of Dean Moss’ personal history and what’s shaped the lens(es) through which he looks back at historical figures and forward to future generations.

John Brown strikes a distinctly different figure than the subversive-clandestine-cloak-and-dagger-underground-railroad abolitionist that is most prevalent in middle school textbooks.  Moss highlights the tendency in society’s collective memory to boil down historical figures to their actions and ideas: He lived here, did a thing, thought thoughts and died.  Historical figures were living and breathing people with neuroses and eccentricities.  Video of fictional conversations between John Brown and Fredrick Douglass illuminates their differing opinions on the best tactics to bring about an end to slavery and also Brown’s taste for too-young women.  The two are projected as massive shirtless busts.  They bicker, their voices are distorted slightly and they’re funny.  Hilarious actually, like a sketch from Key and Peele, and it makes both of them feel more like real people.

Throughout most of the piece the young women of color from the beginning interact with the mostly white ensemble of dancers in a multitude of ways. Observing, supporting, framing, and interrupting the action.  The role of younger (darker) generations in the telling and examining of history is on display: the power to manipulate, the desire to witness and ultimately the ability to disregard it.  They transition seamlessly from being stagehands to cheering on a live performance of a song, reminiscent of vintage Cat Power deep cuts.  They use live-streaming video to show the audience their take on the performance then quickly turn the camera to themselves for selfies, complete with duck-faces. The final image of the piece is the young woman in a circle talking as John Brown ‘hangs’ over them.  The young women are uninterested, unfazed or unaware of his presence as they chat and titter about things of little consequence.  Brown fades away and the audience watches the young women as the lights dim, witnessing the future.

johnbrown is the past, present, and future simultaneously.  All at once a paradox: chaotic and precise, patient and hurried, historical and futuristic, connected and disparate. Dean Moss has created an exciting, varied work that is greater than the sum of its paradoxical parts.

Black Market Reads: Resisting and Rebelling with Dean Moss

In this episode, BLACK MARKET READS interviews the quixotic and brilliant multidisciplinary artist Dean Moss who is presenting his work, johnbrown, at the Walker Art Center this weekend. He is also a speaker at Convening: Resistance and Rebellion, a day-long international convening exploring the role of art in revolution on Saturday, October 17, presented by the Givens Foundation for African […]

Moss_Dean_johnbrown_2015-16_06_PP (2560x1707)

In this episode, BLACK MARKET READS interviews the quixotic and brilliant multidisciplinary artist Dean Moss who is presenting his work, johnbrown, at the Walker Art Center this weekend. He is also a speaker at Convening: Resistance and Rebellion, a day-long international convening exploring the role of art in revolution on Saturday, October 17, presented by the Givens Foundation for African American Literature in partnership with Million Artist Movement.

Check out minute 13:04 to hear the interview from the beginning in its entirety.

BLACK MARKET READS is a podcast produced by The Givens Foundation for African American Literature and hosted by Erin Sharkey and Junauda Petrus of Free Black Dirt, who are also the Givens Foundation’s Cultural Producers in Residence.

johnbrown will be performed at 8pm, October 15-17, 2015 in the Walker’s McGuire Theater. johnbrown is copresented by the Givens Foundation and in conjunction with the Resistance and Rebellion Convening

A Preamble to a Performance: Dean Moss’ johnbrown

Today through Saturday, multimedia and dance artist Dean Moss will perform his work johnbrown in the Walker’s McGuire Theater. Moss has been creating transcultural and multidisciplinary performances for over 15 years. Noted for his experimentation with performance styles, Moss continues his exploration of form in johnbrown, which was first presented at The Kitchen in 2014. Through the story […]

Dean Moss, johnbrown. Photo: Mark Simpson

Dean Moss, johnbrown. Photo: Mark Simpson

Today through Saturday, multimedia and dance artist Dean Moss will perform his work johnbrown in the Walker’s McGuire Theater. Moss has been creating transcultural and multidisciplinary performances for over 15 years. Noted for his experimentation with performance styles, Moss continues his exploration of form in johnbrown, which was first presented at The Kitchen in 2014.

Through the story of John Brown, Moss draws parallels between civil rights and the political climate of today. In the 19th century, Brown, a white man who vehemently opposed slavery, was an instrumental figure of the abolitionist movement. He was, however, possibly as controversial as he was instrumental. Brown believed that change would not be possible through peaceful tactics, so he led violent insurrections–involving the death of multiple slave owners–in the hopes of triggering a slave revolution. Indeed his mission also led to his death: execution by hanging as punishment for his failed attempt to raid the federal armory at Harpers Ferry. Many of his contemporaries and many scholars today credit Brown with inciting the Civil War.

In johnbrown, Moss looks into the sociopolitical history of Brown’s legacy to unravel tensions that still exist today. Race, gender, and generational responsibility are pervasive themes, as visualized through the performance of Moss, the dancers, musician, and teen production assistants. Rather than historically reenact the narrative of John Brown, Moss uses movement, text, media projection, and music to present an exploration on identity, politics, history, and change. Moss weaves together stories old and new, personal and political, to present a myriad of contemplations on these topics.

Inspired by the notion of a pre-performance installation, Moss and his collaborators created a short video “500 Words for John Brown: A Preamble,” which introduces each performer as they recite excerpts of Henry David Thoreau’s response to the death of John Brown.

Also an abolitionist and a contemporary of Brown’s, Thoreau wrote “A Plea for Captain John Brown” shortly after Brown’s failed raid on the armory and presented it to the public multiple times before Brown’s execution. Thoreau articulates a position contrary to media sources and then-common beliefs of Brown, calling for recognition of Brown’s dedication to justice and his commitment to action instead of passively wishing and waiting for change.

The video “500 Words” is a preamble for the audience of johnbrown, inviting us to contemplate our ideas of radical behavior, social justice, and racial relationships.

johnbrown will be performed at 8pm, October 15-17, 2015 in the Walker’s McGuire Theater. johnbrown is copresented by the Givens Foundation and in conjunction with the Resistance and Rebellion Convening.

Alchemy and Slip Jigs: Todd Menton on The Gloaming

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, musician Todd Menton shares his perspective on Friday night’s performance by […]

Photo: Feargal Ward

Photo: Feargal Ward

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

Friday evening’s concert by The Gloaming was a fantastic, immersive show, providing a unique and unprecedented experience with traditional Irish music.

The Gloaming is a collaborative group founded by legendary Clare fiddler Martin Hayes, which also features Dennis Cahill on guitar, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh on viola d’amore, Thomas Bartlett on piano, and sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird singing in Gaelic and English. They have a dynamic, multi-level approach to the dance tunes and songs of Ireland; utterly new in the way the old music is assembled and presented, but always returning to the core sound of the tradition. In concert at The Walker their intuitive musical exploration was on vivid display.

Beginning with “The Pilgrim”, a song ravishingly sung by Ó Lionáird, the group employed the framework that they used all night: space, silence, the layering and trading of rhythmic gestures, and liquid, relentless build. Cahill’s bell-clear harmonics set a stately pace, and Bartlett’s jazz/classical minimalism on the piano created a bed of rippling, never-resolving chords, deliciously atypical in regards to Irish keyboard accompaniment. As the song closed, Ó Raghallaigh began a plaintive jig on his throaty instrument while Hayes played a drone on the fiddle: the tune in a dark, rasping, rattling tone, the drone a laser bright note. This was the first of many inversions of the lead/backing roles. Cahill’s guitar work was so spare as to be ghostly, but always grounded the rhythm, holding a percussionist’s place in the music. Bartlett’s sweet, restless playing urged the ensemble to a crescendo, and then… Martin Hayes, rocking, swaying, all but leaping out of his chair, unleashed a fiery reel, and the fiddle master led the group to a blasting, last-round-at-the-world’s-greatest-pub climax.

Most of their sets (medleys? ceili-chord-poems?) followed the same template: a gorgeous song opens the door to marvelously inventive rhythmic/tonal explorations centered upon the finest traditional Irish fiddling on the planet.

Throughout the evening, the ensemble’s individual personalities came to the fore and receded as the music unfolded. Impish Ó Rahallaigh’s viola d’amore (equipped with a hardanger fiddle’s sympathetic resonating strings) groaned, whistled, hissed, and sang. Together with Bartlett’s controlled mania at the piano (Glenn Gould made it to the session, lads) they lent a Charles Ives atmosphere to Ó Lionáird’s song “The Lark In the Clear Air”. Frequently, when Hayes entered the musical room created by his fellows, he would bring in only sketches and edits of a tune, staying in the background until the tune formed in full, letting the chords and rhythms swirl and coalesce before breaking into the exuberant lead with “The Old Favorite”, “Sheehan’s”, or “The Sailor’s Bonnet”, a classic jig or reel bringing the many-colored hooley to an end.

The Gloaming have done something wonderful: they’ve found a new form for the famous and venerable tradition of Irish music, a new lens through which to view the gems (“My Darling Asleep”, “Toss the Feathers”) of Ireland’s musical heritage. By all means seek out their recording and, if you can, hear them live. Theirs is an alchemy that makes you want to dance.

The Gloaming performed on Friday, October 9, 2015 in the Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater, in a concert copresented by The Cedar.

Big Feelings in Intimate Spaces: An Interview with Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner

The music of indie duo Wye Oak (Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack), which has been described as “synthpop haze with serious percussive backbone,” may not seem like the most obvious candidate for orchestral arrangement. That’s just as well, because neither Wye Oak nor composer William Brittelle are inclined towards the obvious. Together (along with special guest […]

Wye Oak. Photo by by Shervin Lainez.

Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack of Wye Oak. Photo: Shervin Lainez

The music of indie duo Wye Oak (Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack), which has been described as “synthpop haze with serious percussive backbone,” may not seem like the most obvious candidate for orchestral arrangement. That’s just as well, because neither Wye Oak nor composer William Brittelle are inclined towards the obvious. Together (along with special guest Michi Wiancko) they will stage, in Brittelle’s words, “a series of electro-acoustic art songs exploring secular spirituality in America” at Aria in downtown Minneapolis on October 14.

Ahead of the performance, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner discussed her songwriting process, her creative trajectory, and learning to “play [her]self like an instrument.”

How did your collaboration with William Brittelle come about?

Bill actually approached us a couple of years ago (while we were working on our last record, Shriek). He was interested in acting as a conduit between pop musicians and orchestral musicians, but his vision—a really hands-on, musically adventurous approach rather than the usual pops-style orchestra—really appealed to us. His arrangements of our songs are strange and wonderful—it’s really exciting to hear our music re-imagined in this way.

What was the process of rearranging your music for orchestra like? Has it changed how you hear and think about your own music as a duo?

Obviously playing music as a duo forces a certain amount of economy in your approach. Our physical limitations can’t help but influence our writing and arranging styles. Sharing the stage with 50-plus musicians, then, is a totally different world for us. It’s overwhelming! (In a good way.) But it’s been very encouraging to see how, even with such a maximal approach, the essence of these songs remains the same.

Shriek sounds like something of a departure from your previous work. The guitar-driven sound that helped define your earlier music has been supplanted by more bass and synth-heavy textures. What compelled you to go in this direction?

A creative spirit, probably? There’s a certain type of person that will always be interested in new sounds, new textures, and new processes (spoiler alert: I’m talking about myself here). Switching things up and taking chances is an essential part of keeping the creative juices flowing. So the aesthetics may change (knowing myself, they will continue to change), but the songs themselves have always been the heart of this project, and always will be.

You’ve said, “I like bands that you have to look a bit to find it, where you have to really listen.” Were there specific bands you had in mind when you made this comment? More generally, what are some inspirations or influences on your work that fans might not initially expect?

I don’t remember making this comment, so I can’t say I’m absolutely certain of the “it” I was referring to. I can say that I tend to be drawn to music that is able to achieve much with very little. With Shriek, I was trying to create something more subtle and nuanced than our past records—something less bombastic, that opens up slowly over repeat listens. Pop music (and, let’s be honest, we’ve always made pop music) is a more oversaturated landscape than ever, and it can be difficult to carve out one’s own space while working within such an established form. For me, of late, I tend to respond to this overwhelming reality by getting small—by reducing ideas to their simplest forms, trying to work big feelings into increasingly intimate spaces. So … maybe that’s what I meant by that phrase?

You and Andy Stack live on opposite sides of the country. How has that distance affected your creative process?

I think it’s been a huge asset, honestly. We both have home recording setups, and it’s so easy to send works in progress back and forth remotely. But I do think we both do our best work when we have our own space to think and work privately. So it’s kind of the best of both worlds!

You’ve spoken very candidly about struggling with depression and creative burnout in the wake of an exhausting tour in 2013. Has that experience changed how you currently approach music?

I know myself, and I know my limits, a lot better now. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned how to play myself like an instrument. I have certain tendencies, patterns that have followed me for my whole life, and my awareness of that fact allows me to make better decisions. I guess you could say I’m better at cultivating an environment that will provide the best results, creatively and personally. I’m still moody, anxious, and my own worst critic—but I also love what I do, and I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to share my music with others. And that thought usually is enough to get me through on the rougher days.

Wye Oak and William Brittelle will perform Spiritual America with special guest Michi Wiancko at 7:30 pm on October 14, 2015 at Aria (105 First St. N., Minneapolis). Spiritual America is copresented by the Walker Art Center and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music Series. To read more, head over to the SPCO’s Liquid Music Blog to read a recent interview with William Brittelle about Spiritual America.

“An Intensity Born from Near Silence”: Iarla Ó Lionáird Discusses His Creative Process

Music is a birthright for Iarla Ó Lionáird. Born in the Irish-speaking town of Cuil Aodha in West Cork, Ó Lionáird comes from a long line of sean-nós (“old-style”) singers. His mother and grandmother both established themselves as bright talents, and his great aunt drew the attention of legendary folk archivist Alan Lomax, who captured […]

The Gloaming (left to right: Iarla Ó Lionáird, Thomas Bartlett, Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill). Photo: Feargal Ward

The Gloaming (left to right: Iarla Ó Lionáird, Thomas Bartlett, Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh, Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill). Photo: Feargal Ward

Music is a birthright for Iarla Ó Lionáird. Born in the Irish-speaking town of Cuil Aodha in West Cork, Ó Lionáird comes from a long line of sean-nós (“old-style”) singers. His mother and grandmother both established themselves as bright talents, and his great aunt drew the attention of legendary folk archivist Alan Lomax, who captured her singing in 1951. (Listen to a sample here.) 

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Ó Lionáird himself would achieve formidable mastery over the sean-nós style. Not content to simply adhere to established conventions, however, he has brought his consummate artistry to a number of decidedly non-traditional contexts, most notably with celebrated worldbeat group Afro Celt Sound System. Over the course of his career, this penchant for mixing experimentation with tradition has helped define a body of work that is utterly sui generis.

Much of Ó Lionáird’s creative energy lately has been directed towards The Gloaming, an Irish music supergroup that will perform at the Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater on October 9, 2015. Ahead of the performance, Ó Lionáird kindly took the time to share his thoughts on tradition and creativity.

The Gloaming is often dubbed a “supergroup” because it is comprised of such distinctive artists and personalities. How do you ensure the effort remains egalitarian? Is composing and arranging something you do as individuals, or collectively?

What we do is try to impose an egalitarian ethic. Creative work is messy, and the best thing is to realize this and to be at peace with the fact that it’s not a branch of mathematics: it’s open to diverse, unpredictable energies and outcomes. I always feel very excited when writing and performing. I am by necessity more focused on the songs, but one of the pure delights of being in this band for me is being able to participate across all of the tunes also, and being present ready to give or, as is the case, learn. It’s great fun, usually, and the payback is tremendous.

The instrumentation of The Gloaming is quite unique. In particular, the piano and Hardanger fiddle are central to your sound. How did you arrive at this unusual lineup?

To be frank, my colleague Martin Hayes (fiddler) was centrally responsible for configuring the lineup. Thomas Bartlett, our piano player, was a friend of Martin’s. I remember meeting him in New York and hearing the two of them play and knowing straightaway, or rather recognizing, that together they had special chemistry and a sound that I had not heard before in any other music. Piano has been deployed before in our tradition—and surprisingly far back—but something about the way Thomas plays and his engagement with Martin’s music is unique and is one of the cornerstones of what we do as a group.

Dennis Cahill (guitarist) has said, “It’s the mark of a great piece of music when it’s bendable, and it doesn’t lose its integrity, and I think the tunes are spectacular like that, they can be played in a lot of ways.” How important is improvisation to what you do?

Improvisation has multiple roles in the band. From my own perspective, it is how I write generally with Thomas and with others too: writing on the fly, trying things out quickly, malleably, instinctively. That’s one deployment of improvisation. The other is during live performance. We draw sketches of what might occur in terms of set list pieces, sequences, etc., but we leave room always for those things which can only happen when there’s an audience. This is one of  the great joys of being in this band—the unexpected happenings that the music can give if one leaves oneself open to the moment, the improvisatory moment.

People seem at a loss when trying to compare your music to other influences. I’ve seen references to everyone from Sigur Rós to Aaron Copland. Are there influences or inspirations of yours that people might not expect?

We sometimes think that we’re not so much influenced by traditional music (which is kind of analogous to the language we just happen to speak), so much as by the other non-traditional music we’ve been listening to all these years—in my own case, everything from Bob Dylan to ambient electronic music. Others among us are very given to jazz. There are strong interests in new-classical music and in the music of singular talents such as Keith Jarrett, Arvo Pärt, and others. It’s worth noting too that some of us grew up listening—indeed, living within—the tradition of Irish traditional music and we are given still to listening to very old, beautiful examples of that form, whether it be Willie Clancy, Padraig O Keefe, or Darach Ó Catháin.

The Gloaming is a remarkably spacious album, at times very quiet. That kind of dynamic range demands a certain degree of attention from the audience that isn’t always present in the kinds of venues with which traditional Irish music is most often associated. How do you hope audiences will respond to your music? Do you alter your performances depending on the venue or context you’re performing in?

The dynamics of performance are so complex. We give of ourselves, but also we listen and feel for response from the audience. Our music moves and mutates in relation to these conditions. But on the whole we do like the idea of being able to play with incredible intensity at times, whether that be frenetic intensity or an intensity born from near silence in the acute attention that this bestows on the moment. These silences, for us, are the places where all the beautiful things happen that make the experience of making music worthwhile and deep.

The President of Ireland attended your first show as a band, and you’ve won a host of awards and accolades in Ireland, including the prestigious Meteor Choice Music Prize. Some critics have suggested you are helping to revitalize interest in the music of Ireland. Is that one of your goals? Do you get the sense that there is a broader movement growing around the kind of music you are creating?

It may be the case—and I haven’t thought a whole lot about this—that Irish traditional music is undergoing some sort of churning similar to what occurred with classical music in this country beginning about 10 years ago with the emergence of new composers influenced by contemporary classical American and European music movements. It would be nice to think that what we do emboldens others. That would be the best possible outcome.

One of my favorite pieces on The Gloaming, “Freedom/Saoirse,” takes its lyrics from a poem by Seán Ó Ríordáin. Ó Ríordáin is someone who managed to beautifully integrate cutting-edge modernism with an existing folk tradition. It struck me that, in that sense, his project and his place within the cultural firmament might be considered similar to The Gloaming’s. Why did you choose that poem? More generally, do you have a particular process for choosing the poems, reels, and other elements that make up some of your source material?

Seán Ó Ríordáin actually grew up in the parish where I myself was born and reared, and he lived there until he was a teenager. The language he speaks has the same timbral fingerprint as my own, and so sonically it just feels like a great fit. But, of course, you are correct when you say that he straddles two worlds—the old Gaelic world and that of the more introspective modernism—the first poet to do so in any language to such great effect in Ireland. His legacy is on the rise, and I am very happy to have undertaken setting some of his extraordinary words to music. “Saoirse,” the specific poem to which you refer, is a mysterious examination of the complex relationship we all have with home. And it is difficult to truly understand the poet’s position on this question. The poem is quite ambiguous as it speaks about the challenge and isolation that one feels when stepping outside the group, the tribe, the original birthed location. To some extent, this work speaks very much to my own experience as an artist attempting to create outside using a combination of tools: some inherited, and some from my awareness of the outside world. And so these words speak to me in a very personal way.

In general, it could be said that I am drawn to looking back and seeking out textual treasure from our deep history. In some ways, it’s a habit. In other ways, it’s something I think I should do. But in both cases it’s something I really enjoy—bringing these long silent works into the sonic realm, into the musical experience for everyone to share.

Keeping Score with Mark McGee

Mark McGee, also known by his performance name, MAKR, is a Renaissance man. A Twin Cities transplant by way of Richmond, Virginia, McGee is a key creative contributor to myriad musical projects, among them Father You See Queen, Ronia, and Marijuana Deathsquads. His collaborations have extended beyond music to encompass artists of many different media. […]

Mark McGee. Photo: Gene Pittman

Mark McGee. Photo: Gene Pittman

Mark McGee, also known by his performance name, MAKR, is a Renaissance man. A Twin Cities transplant by way of Richmond, Virginia, McGee is a key creative contributor to myriad musical projects, among them Father You See Queen, Ronia, and Marijuana Deathsquads. His collaborations have extended beyond music to encompass artists of many different media.

Ahead of his upcoming Music and Movies performance, in which MAKR’s Coven will premiere a new score for the 1926 silent animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, I asked McGee about his inspirations and what we can expect to witness tonight.

You’ve worked with a huge range of talent in the Twin Cities and beyond. What is your relationship to the musicians assembled for this project?

The ensemble includes Nona Marie Invie and Fletcher Barnhill, all of us play in Ronia together and Aaron Baum and I have played in other projects, such as Votel and Basuketto. All of these musicians, in my opinion, are some of the most talented in the Twin Cities.

Can we expect the music to closely parallel the action on screen, or will the audiovisual connection be more oblique?

The music and sound of the piece is a little of both. The music does parallel the action on screen and this score was closely written to the film, but there are places in the film where the music and sound becomes more oblique and detached.

Is there any film score or soundtrack that you find particularly inspiring? Or a film scene?

There are so many. I guess one that comes to mind is the fox wedding/march scene in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. It is when the child spies on the foxes, peaking behind trees and fog, only to be spotted by the wedding party. Watching a fox wedding by a human is forbidden, so when the boy reaches his house, he is told by his mother that he can never come home again and in fact, should kill himself with a knife the foxes have left for him. That scene visually has always inspired me and the music is fantastic.

In addition to your musical projects, I’ve read that you’re a visual art lover. Do you see a connection between musical and visual practice? If so, does that inform how you think about this project?

Yes, very much so. Musical and visual practice is one of the same to me. Many might argue the opposite, but to me, both worlds play on one another and display as much information and content, even if the time frames of what is being presented differ. When I write music, it usually comes from a visual place, so it was very natural to create music for this project and to this film.

MAKR’s Coven will perform a newly-commissioned score alongside The Adventures of Prince Achmed tonight, Monday, August 17, at dusk (8:45 pm).

Talk Dance: Momentum 2015

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 Hiponymous, Angharad Davies, and Nic Lincoln, whose works will premiere in Momentum: New Dance Works July 9-18, 2015 at the Southern Theater.  You can find the podcasts […]

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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 Hiponymous, Angharad Davies, and Nic Lincoln, whose works will premiere in Momentum: New Dance Works July 9-18, 2015 at the Southern Theater.  You can find the podcasts on the Walker Channel 

Momentum: New Dance Works is a big deal.  Many emerging choreographers apply and a panel reviews and selects just 4 applicants to participate.  If your work is chosen, three major performance venues (Cowles Center for Dance/ Southern Theater/ Walker Art Center) and one major funding organization (Jerome Foundation) enthusiastically support your work with time, space, money, expertise, production, feedback, career development opportunities, and publicity.  Many choreographers who’ve come through Momentum have gone on to become major voices in the dance community locally and nationally.  When interviewing the Momentum choreographers about their upcoming shows I asked them what being a part of the program means to them.

Angharad Davies: “I just feel really so excited that I was invited to be a part of this, the support has been great. I’ve been making this work since I got here and to get Momentum was kind of a big deal because it felt like the support for my aesthetic or my artistic vision was there, and I feel really excited and proud that I’m part of this group.”

Hiponymous (Evie Muench and Renée Copeland):  “It means that we got a place to do this project idea that we had in our brains, that I don’t think would have been produced at the scale that it is going to be produced for this show…I was really trying to figure out how we would have done this piece had we not gotten this grant. It’s an incredible opportunity… and we took it!”

Nic Lincoln:  “I view Momentum as being a stepping stone. I really like the idea of being pushed forward.  This process, with all the feedback, has pushed me.  In the last couple years, I’ve been able to work on shedding any kind of ego that has to relate to my work so I can actually take in the corrections or feedback I’m getting.  I believe that because of that process, that’s part of the reason why the work is so strong.”

Interviewing these artists about their upcoming shows at the Southern Theater was great fun.  What was most exciting to me was learning that each of the artists are exploring new territory in their work.  Hiponymous expanded their collaboration to include two composers, a costume designer and a host of voice actors.  Nic Lincoln is creating his first choreography for an all male cast, and Angharad Davies is making a dance that is more, “internally driven and focused” than her previous work.

Making new work for an opportunity that is as big a deal as Momentum is, it might be easy to “do what you know.”  I commend the choreographers for going beyond and taking the generous support of the Cowles, Jerome, the Southern, and the Walker to explore new territory.   If you missed the first weekend, go now and get your tickets for week two.

Momentum: New Dance Works 2015 continues this Thursday through Saturday, July 16-18, at the Southern Theater.

In the Dark in 5… Megan Mayer on Momentum Week 1

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, choreographer Megan Mayer shares her perspective on State of the […]

Hiponymous (Renée Copeland and Genevieve Muench). Photo: Gene Pittman

Hiponymous (Renée Copeland and Genevieve Muench). Photo: Gene Pittman

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, choreographer Megan Mayer shares her perspective on State of the Moon Address by Hiponymous and Broken by Luke Olson-Elm. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Momentum: New Dance Works Festival! This series is one of my favorites, as it generously funds dancemakers venturing into new territories, cushioned by institutional support and a whole team of folks rooting for them and their work. I was thinking about how related yet distinct the skill sets of choreography and dance are; so I feel it’s important to note that in addition to directing these original dances, the choreographers featured in the first weekend of the festival gave stellar performances as dancers in their own work. If you don’t already know how challenging it is to be at once inside a work while keeping a fresh outside eye on its development, please trust that it requires extreme rigor and selflessness. Congratulations to these artists on multiple jobs well done.

Hiponymous’ set consisted of a green astroturf mound (reminding me simultaneously of the Nutcracker’s Mother Ginger, a golf course, Teletubbies, and the construction of the new I-can’t-see-downtown-anymore Minneapolis stadium), set up against one side of the Southern Theater’s arch. A lichen mini-mound adhered itself to the opposite side.

State of the Moon Address begins with a brief applause loop, serving as a preemptive favor on the audience’s behalf (more on this bit later). Evy Muench emerges on the side of the stage, shivering off a silvery tether as Renee Copeland shoots out from under the mound, and the two tilt-a-whirl and frantically spin around one another until connecting, and soften into a koala embrace. The pair scouted and explored their apparently new, foreign surroundings, working well as a team, using each other’s limbs, joints and kneepads as legos to build and compound strength and range. They seemed to be researching and building a language using the body and movement phrases to interpret their findings. The choreography was dense with clever, gestural material: a quick listening to the ground, scratching twitches, precise hands near the face, forearms sticking to the ground as if they were magnetized in a curious manner, bent forward at the waist and traversing backwards on deliberately placed hands and feet in unison, laying on their sides with their backs to us in quivering lumps.

The work’s tone fluctuated in and out of concern and anxiety. At times the choreography seemed too buoyant to be troubling in the way that seemed to interest them; leaps were at odds with the implied danger that was supposedly tethering them. The intriguing way they hung their heads, revealing only the crown to the audience, while slowly wheeling the light stands across the space, as a janitor pushes a mop bucket down a deserted hallway at night, was in stark contrast to the frontal eye contact held at other times. Their faces, side-lit by Heidi Eckwall’s evocative design during a stationary section, echoed the solitary, vulnerable time one waits in a doctor’s office on the exam table. During a slick commercial portion of the soundscore, they were able to morph their expressions in a matter of seconds: I saw Jane Fonda’s Barbarella’s confident stare, the spasmic grin of Max Headroom, Betty Boop’s smooshy pout and, Wile E Coyote’s predatory sideways glance.

After a quick blackout, the lights came up to reveal them holding large, shiny, silver gardening tools. They didn’t so much use the tools as animate them; Evy reluctantly overextended her arms and pretended to groom the astroturf mound and Renee slowly grazed the rake along her leg without actually touching the skin. Was this commentary on our culture’s disdain for women’s body hair? Or a reference to Bruce Dern’s gardener in Silent Running? The tools’ performance was short-lived.

The dominating soundscore overpowered the dance at times. There were moments when cacophony was the clear intention; there were others when the vibration was so loud I couldn’t distinguish the words and I missed hearing key clues. A few times the sound cues were late for the movement (the antennae section in particular). I questioned the choice of an initial authoritative male voiceover; it seemed to undercut the specific female strength that the performers had established with their movement. Overall I wanted more stillness, more time to settle in with these strong performers.

The piece “ended” when the stage crew walked on stiffly and immediately began dismantling the astroturf mound as Renee and Evy began a fast, tightly woven partnering section of winding torsos and furious legwork, twisting and careening their way upstage. The house lights came up and the audience shuffled in their seats. The sound bumped off early which was odd but that’s when the stage action of the strike crew got more interesting: I felt they dropped their “we had to be talked into this surprise fake ending but now that’s over and we’re really getting some shit done” personae and seemed less self-conscious, their bodies calmer and more at ease. I could also hear the drill, which helped me appreciate the work that went into the set. We didn’t get to applaud for the performers, but I grinned, remembering how they’d already snuck that in for us back at the beginning. After the mound had been completely removed I was hoping to catch one more glimpse of Hiponymous to know that they’d been just out of our sight this entire time, still spinning wildly and intricately working their way into the ether, but they were gone.

Luke Olson-Elm. Photo: Gene Pittman

Luke Olson-Elm. Photo: Gene Pittman

Luke Olson-Elm’s Broken started before it began by filling the space with a golden haze that accentuated the brick and rough texture of the Southern’s walls and invited my eye upwards. The lighting by Heidi Eckwall was gorgeous: expansive, raw, intimate with a dusty, dystopian edge and served the choreography well. The dance began with a row of downstage spotlights. The dancers walked dramatically in and out of the delineations on the floor and took turns showcasing in the spots. The movement material was a mostly frontal, aggressive mix of isolations, supple torsos, and articulate limbs with a hard edge. The choreography moved the dancers in diagonal pathways, fluidly finding the floor, falling in and out of unison to reveal solos and forming trios and duets.

The dancers were all tenacious and accomplished but I felt little connection among them as a group and didn’t learn much of anything about them as individual dancers. I’m not sure if this was a directorial choice or a missed opportunity. My eyes kept landing on Luke. You can always pick out the choreographer if they are one of the dancers because the material reads more clearly on their body. He owns this movement, it’s from within, and it pours out of him like water. I noticed his humility, his choice to not put himself center stage, to generously give the limelight to the other dancers, but he was ultimately the reluctant star of this piece. His performance was imbued with a grief not shared by the others and internalized in an intriguing way. His head bobbed at the neck, his hands reaching but never quite grasping, his eyes cast downward for much of the piece. Leaning against the archway under a light, his head hanging, I thought of Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle, broken in his own way. Luke has a curious, evocative way of articulating his hands, implying that whatever he tries to touch has already dissolved.

The soundscore was percussive, aggressive, repetitive, electronic, machinic. A factory with bits similar to the Six Million Dollar Man bionic jumping sound peppered throughout. Audible breath cues among the dancers were superfluous when the music provided a structure. At times the partnered lifts with pointed toes and outstretched limbs seemed incongruous with the rest of the material and the soundscore; virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake was not a viable currency in the world he had created.

Towards the end Luke used the spotlights in a clever way by walking straight across and through all of the spots. I then thought of him as a sort of ghost, someone who lives in-between alongside the grief and fading memories which broke my heart a little as it was such a successful way to express displacement/isolation/loss. This was a delicate, haunting image and I thought the piece could have ended there. 2 other dancers eventually walked through the spots in the same way which lessened the impact of the image for me. In the program notes Luke mentions that he’s not sure why he’s inspired by themes of community and identity. I don’t know if his intention was to isolate himself from the rest of the cast, but I found that to be the most interesting aspect.

Megan Mayer is performing this weekend in The Scraps by Angharad Davies as part of Momentum: New Dance Works 2015, Thursday through Saturday, July 16-18, at the Southern Theater.

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