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Beauty at the Edge of Terror: A Conversation with Pavel Zuštiak

  Born in Czechoslovakia and based in New York City, Pavel Zuštiak is a director, choreographer, performer, and sound designer. He is also the Artistic Director of Palissimo Company which he founded in 2004 and the winner of the 2015 Juried Bessie Award for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer. This weekend, the Walker will present the Midwest […]

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Custodians of Beauty by Pavel Zuštiak. Photo: Maria Baranova

 

Born in Czechoslovakia and based in New York City, Pavel Zuštiak is a director, choreographer, performer, and sound designer. He is also the Artistic Director of Palissimo Company which he founded in 2004 and the winner of the 2015 Juried Bessie Award for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer. This weekend, the Walker will present the Midwest Debut of Zuštiak’s newest work Custodians of Beautyco-commissioned by the Walker Art Center, New York Live Arts, American Dance Institute, and Legion Arts. In Custodians of Beauty, Zuštiak questions where beauty is found and whether it needs our defense. With this piece, Zuštiak moves away from his usual large scale productions by focusing on a more minimalist approach to choreographing dance—picking away at the subject to find, perhaps, the truth of what beauty is.

I had the honor to talk to the artist himself over a cup of coffee and what follows is a series of questions and responses to get a better idea of who Pavel Zuštiak is as an artist, and how he went about creating Custodians of Beauty.

Ben Swenson-Klatt: So glad that you are able to sit down and talk! I thought we would start out with a few questions to get to know you. What inspired you to become an artist? Was there a particular moment or artist that inspired you the most?

Pavel Zuštiak: I was born in former Czechoslovakia in an area that is now Slovakia, and I was always attracted to the theater world as far as I can remember. I built my own lighting system for my homemade puppet theater when I was very young, then acted and sang on a very popular TV series starting at age nine. Early on I also studied piano—I almost went to a conservatory to study that—and then things kind of shifted; when I was 12, I started to dance by accident.

That’s actually a funny story. This was around the time when Flashdance and Dirty Dancing had just come out, so dancing was very popular and everybody was looking for studios to dance in. Slovakia has a very rich tradition of folk dancing, and every town had its own specific folk dance vocabulary and traditions. A schoolmate of mine wanted to go audition for a folk dance company, but he didn’t want to go alone and asked me to go with him. I said sure. We got to the cultural center where the audition was being held, but he messed up the dates and we ended up at a modern dance company audition instead. Everyone was in tights except the two of us! We both got in—he quit after a month—but for me it was a revelation. I was fascinated by the ability of dance to touch upon something that goes beyond words and yet can be very specific in communicating.

One particular moment made me recognize art making could be a vocation, and that was meeting Pina Bausch and seeing her work. She came to my hometown, Kosice, in Czechoslovakia in 1987 and rehearsed and performed at the cultural center where the dance company I was a part of resided. We observed her rehearsals, interacted with her, and eventually saw two of her seminal pieces, Café Muller (which she performed in) and The Rite of Spring. This experience blew me away and revealed how powerful dance and theater can be. It was truly a pivotal moment for me. Later I went to the School for New Dance Development in the Netherlands. Seventeen years ago I moved to New York, and that’s my journey.

But I would also say that very early on, because of all these different genres that I had explored, to me, in a theater performance, one is not more important than the other, so rarely I see set, music, or lighting just as a decorative element but as an element that can push the narrative of the piece.

Swenson-Klatt: You seem to be really aware of the sound and lighting, and I think you even mentioned that you are playing with scent in this production?

Zuštiak: Yeah, this is the first time. The show is titled Custodians of Beauty, so one of the very first tasks when talk

ing with designers was asking what is the most beautiful thing that you could witness in theater, musically, visually or scenically? So of course we

went through all this stuff including clichés, and someone brought up the scent of a rose.

Swenson-Klatt: And other scents,like perfumes?

Zuštiak: Yes, and I was reminded of how powerful scent can be in transporting you to a place or time in a very immediate way. This is the first show where I am playing with that, and I plan to explore that further in my next project, where I will be collaborating with a scent artist. So this is dabbling into something new.

Swenson-Klatt: Could you talk a little bit more about the collaboration you have with lighting designer Joe Levasseur, set designer Simon Harding, and sound designer Christian Frederickson, and how they are integral to Custodians of Beauty, in terms of pushing the narrative through transitions?

Zuštiak: I usually start with a question or dilemma around a certain subject or theme as an opening question or conversation, not only with the designers but also with the performers, who are equally contributing artists in the room. Out of those conversations and out of contributions from all of us, we start to look at a palette of possibilities. Ideas, scenes, and events start to emerge, and then at a certain point I end up with a series of… I call them images, but I don’t see it as a static moment. I start placing them in a certain order, looking dramaturgically at what kind of trajectory the show could have, and then I start shaping individual images or scenes, and their progression, throughout the show. In terms of my direction, often I come with an image or I come with a clear proposal or direction of a scene, and sometimes I know what function a transition or scene has and that’s my direction to designers, to problem solve. But it’s a lot of back and forth, a very organic process. I have worked with Christian, the composer, on five productions, and Joe Levasseur is the exclusive lighting designer that I have worked with since living in New York, so at this point they pretty well understand my aesthetic. I think we are also at a place where, we were joking, we can be like an old couple: we know when to fight over something and when to let go.

Swenson-Klatt: You bring up seeing the overall choreographic process as visual or image-based. Do you have a connection to visual arts or a way that the visual arts play into making movement?

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Pavel Zuštiak. Photo: Maria Baranova

Zuštiak: I think there are choreographers who are creating or editing through kinesthetic feedback, and that’s how they shape and edit the work. For me, it’s seeing the work and seeing all the elements together, and I am more and more curious in reduction: how far can I push reducing expressive modes into a simple statement or gesture that would hold much more than you are seeing? Like reduction in cooking—you taste something but there is a depth—many different ingredients that went through a long process to get to that point. Or like a capsule that locks together complex layers, or a statement. I like to see how far I can push that without losing the intensity of what goes into it.

Swenson-Klatt: And the way that all the different elements that came together. In other interviews you’ve discussed the research that went into this piece, like how its title is pulled from a 2009 address by Pope Benedict XVI when he met with artists at the Sistine Chapel, as well as the influence of Alva Noë’s book, Action in Perception, and Susan Sontag’s essay, “An argument about Beauty.” Could you talk about your research?

Zuštiak: The original speech by the pope already touches on some references from history. He quotes Plato, for example, who talked about beauty as something that shocks us out of ourselves, which I find fascinating, as a way of being disarmed as an audience member, which also leads to a certain loss of narcissistic vision and makes you aware of larger issues or gives you a sense of humanity. In the show there a few moments where we are eluding to this sensibility of breaking the fourth wall, to making the audience realize that we are here in the same room, that this is something happening collectively.

I came across an article with the same title in a wonderful Dutch magazine Works That Work, published by a Slovak editor, Peter Bilak, which mentions the pope and his speech to leading art makers of the time—his insistence of holding onto beauty as something important in their art making. I was perplexed that this was high up on his agenda, although the relationship of the church and art world is nothing new. That led me to research beauty throughout contemporary art history, and I realized how problematic this subject matter is and how in certain parts of the art world, beauty has become almost taboo. Often we feel more comfortable talking about something as interesting rather than beautiful, which Susan Sontag states at the end of her article as an argument for the definition and existence of beauty: “If you are watching a sunset it would be strange to say it is interesting rather than beautiful.” I find that when we say something is beautiful we are laying our cards on the table, while when saying something is interesting we are holding them close to our chest.

Swenson-Klatt: It’s kind of like calling on people to really stand by what they believe in. I think that is an important concept to tackle especially today, when sometimes it is almost easier to not have an opinion but to instead stay on the sidelines and say, “That’s interesting.”

Zuštiak: I think the resistance towards beauty also comes from its associations, for instance as something being pretty or as something that has to be symmetrical, these preconceived ideas of what beautiful means. Who defines that? I think the question itself has also become controversial: who is in charge of the definition of what is and what is not beautiful? Although the pope is approaching the artists as custodians, the title Custodians of Beauty for me is more of a question mark, i.e. who are the custodians? Is it the audience member? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Is it the curator, who presents the work, is it his or her responsibility? The questions that this subject raises are challenging and lack straight answers, and I found it to be a fertile ground for a new work.

Swenson-Klatt: In her article, Sontag brought up the feminine connotations of beauty, and of course in mainstream media beauty has almost become attached to the feminine. Did you play at all with gender?

Zuštiak: Yes, there is one scene that acknowledges that. I am acknowledging feminine beauty as an image or association, although the notion of beauty as the cover of a fashion magazine often relating to a product was not something I was going for in this piece. I was more interested in beauty that is at the edge of terror. You know you can be in the presence of a tornado and it can be a beautiful sight, but you are also at the edge of something that can consume you. I believe there are artworks that can produce the same effect.

Swenson-Klatt: Is there a piece of artwork that you find beautiful? That’s probably a big question.

Zuštiak: I’m sure there is. For some reason I’m going to music. I’m thinking of the work of Arvo Pärt, music I find incredibly simple yet immensely beautiful.

Swenson-Klatt: It’s a hard question! But maybe something for everyone to think about when they are approaching this piece.

Zuštiak: And by saying something is beautiful, there is also judgment, so that is part of the show, where—I don’t know how much I want to say because people should come and see—basically, it’s a subjective matter, something can be witnessed by two people but they can have polar opposite experiences. So it’s also touching on that; it’s a subjective thing relating to judgment. And that leads to perception, which leads to Alva Noë, who talks about perception as not something that happens to you but something that you do. So he is talking about perception as an active engagement with what you are seeing. And for me, not just with this show but for any show, the audience is the co-creator of the experience and it is a live thing. When that meets with what we are proposing and comes into a conversation, I feel like that’s what releases the magic of a theatrical experience, something unpredictable but alive.

Swenson-Klatt: It almost seems that by setting the context with the term beauty that you are asking the audience to be active participants and to make a decision about what they find beautiful.

Zuštiak: And I’m hoping that it’s not just about this show. I’m thinking of another performance that we did in a public space. It was called Halt! and was presented in the terminal of the Staten Island Ferry in New York City. There were three performers who were among the people that accumulated to get on the ferry, and after one of the shows I got an email from someone who came to see it, and she was saying that suddenly everything in that terminal, in her eyes, was choreographed. She said, “I left the terminal and it continued. I was on the subway and it felt like everything was a dance.” So her perception shifted and I would hope that this show could also shift people’s perception. There are many things in the show that look at subtleties, the mundane, and when you start looking at things for an extended period of time or from a different angle, you start to see things differently, so that’s also what I am hoping to achieve with the show.

Swenson-Klatt: Do you have any last words as the audience prepares for the show?

Zuštiak: I feel like non-dance audiences come to a dance show believing that there is a certain kind of experience they should be having rather than just having their experience, so I would say, go in with an open mind; have an experience first, and then start analyzing what happened rather than coming in with an analytical mind at the start of the show. The biggest compliment I received for my work was from an audience member who said, “I did not understand it but I know what it was about.” I think dance is not the best medium at telling stories but an amazing medium to tell stories in its own language.

Pavel Zustiak’s Custodians of Beauty will be performed Thursday through Saturday, October 20–22, 2016 at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater.

Colin Stetson’s Reimagining of Górecki’s 3rd Symphony

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 Brandon Wozniak shares his perspective on last weekend’s performance of […]

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Colin Stetson: SORROW, a reimagining of Górecki’s 3rd Symphony. Performed in the McGuire Theater at the Walker Art Center on September 30, 2016. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, musician Brandon Wozniak shares his perspective on last weekend’s performance of Colin Stetson: SORROW, a reimagining of Górecki’s 3rd Symphony, which was copresented by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

I’m seated in the balcony, not by default but by design. It’s near the bar, and even though I only plan on having one drink, I feel better knowing it’s close by just in case my plus one and I decide we might fancy another. Fine, I had two drinks, but come on, it’s Friday night, and I’ve been trying to sleep-train my 11 month-old daughter all week.

Colin is welcomed to the stage after it’s been announced he will begin the evening’s festivities with a surprise solo set. He removes his metal mouthpiece cap, and chucks it to the floor in an authoritative manner. It came off a bit macho for my taste, but maybe it’s not machismo after all. Maybe he knows he’s going to be suffering through a physically and mentally demanding solo set where he will play continuously for about twenty minutes on a large, heavy saxophone. He doesn’t have time to be delicate about such things. He begins by playing a long drone, slowly incorporating a variety of extended saxophone techniques before building to a 12/8 rhythm, clicking the keys under his right hand. At one point, he threw his right arm out to stretch and wiggle the fingers responsible for keeping the beat. This kind of playing is all about the slow burn.  He comes back to click the keys, adding a simple melody over the top as he keeps a steady pulse with even more intricate overtones and vocalizations until he winds back down to the drone where he began.

Although I’m not as impressed as the masses who clearly love watching someone circular breathe ad infinitum, I can certainly appreciate Colin’s level of commitment to his art. It’s obvious that he’s spent countless hours honing his craft, and while it may not be my cup of tea for, say, a whole night of music, I have to give it up to him for being able to squeeze every last ounce of sound possible from that big bastard.

Next up is Colin’s “Reimagining of Górecki’s 3rd Symphony,” and the full house in attendance is ready to be bathed in sorrow. Once the ensemble is set, Colin brings the bass line in on a contra bass clarinet. He’s not quite as fluid on the big clarinet as he is on the bass saxophone, but he works through the one or two initial hiccups and regains control quickly. I wouldn’t say it felt rushed, but the ensemble is clearly not breathing together. Most of the instrumental sections feel more like a rehearsal than a performance. It’s a talented group of busy musicians, with, I’m sure, limited time for rehearsals. And while the music they’re performing is very simple from a technical standpoint, in terms of stamina, it’s actually quite difficult due to the legato nature of the music.

I’ve played in situations like this before and I can tell you that it’s actually much harder to pull off something dirgeful like this than it is to play an up tempo piece with a lot of notes on the page. Classical orchestras have been doing this kind of thing at the highest of levels forever, and in the age of instant gratification, it can be easy to think you’re giving every note its due. But I just didn’t feel the note-to-note despair from the ensemble that I had hoped.

I read an interview on the Liquid Music blog where Colin inferred that he didn’t alter any of the notes on the page, and that the reimagining of this piece was more about the musicians, instrumentation, and electronics. However, in this performance, the winds and strings dominated the piece, making the electronic and “black metal” connotations hard to make out. Maybe it’s just the way the musicians were mic’d on that particular evening. Regardless of the reason, there was something lacking.

That is until the sublime Megan Stetson enters. She was clearly in command from the first note she sang, giving herself completely over to the mournful text. Her elevated performance was so powerful that at times it dwarfed the ensemble, making them sound as if they were coming through a portable bluetooth speaker somewhere from a galaxy far far away.

After the performance, I checked out the record, and I think it’s a great representation of Colin’s vision for the music. Thanks to The Walker for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts and thanks to Colin and the rest of the musicians for the music.

I will be there when you die?: John Fleischer on Alessandro Sciarroni

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, John Fleischer shares his perspective on last weekend’s performance of UNTITLED_ […]

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Edoardo Demontis in UNTITLED_I will be there when you die. Photo: Andrea Pizzalis

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, John Fleischer shares his perspective on last weekend’s performance of UNTITLED_ I will be there when you die by Alessandro SciarroniAgree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Friday evening. The house lights in the McGuire Theater dim, gently signaling the imminent beginning of Alessandro Sciarroni’s UNTITLED_ I will be there when you die, and the room falls silent. After a few moments, five male performers walk quietly onto the bare white stage. Four of the performers arrive carrying sets of juggling clubs, and after each deposits all but one of his clubs to one side of the stage or the other, he moves to one of four staggered positions on the expanse of marley. Each stands motionless, eyes closed, facing the audience. The fifth performer, dressed in black, arrives empty-handed and moves to a station of electronic devices off in the shadows.

I watch the performer closest to me for a while — Lorenzo Crivellari. Pastel green trousers. Eyes closed. Breathing. The performer in the back — Pietro Selva Bonino. Head tilted. White high-tops. Eyes closed. To his left and slightly forward — Victor Garmendia Torija. Curly hair. Eyes closed. Broad shoulders. Left and slightly forward again — Edoardo Demontis. White T-shirt and jeans. Thin beard. Eyes closed. I revel in moments like this, the focused pause before the act, the viewer present and participating. Sometimes it can get a bit sticky, of course. Extended? Indulgent? Almost theatrical? But this feels natural — the time it takes to fully arrive. Eventually Demontis opens his eyes. I try to imagine the harsh intensity of his visual experience as he looks slowly around the house, at each of his fellow performers, and then up, directly into the lights. I feel him shift his attention to the object in his hand. And finally, still looking upward, he tosses the club into the air above his head.

Empathy?

I arrived this evening still processing my experience of yesterday’s performance in the Walker’s Cargill lounge, where Sciarroni presented CHROMA_don’t be frightened of turning the page. Waiting there in the lounge for the performance to begin, I overheard someone say the words work-in-progress. I think I heard someone else say meditation on spinning. When the artist finally arrived, he began by walking. He paced back and forth along a diagonal, the distance between his counterclockwise turns contracting until he was spinning. Yes, slowly at first, but increasing in speed and intensity over time, arms rising, hands folding and unfolding overhead like a double helix, gradually down the forehead to the mouth like a baby, spinning like summer afternoon in the grass, spinning because it’s just so incredibly wonderful to spin, but also intentional and precise. Heroic? I’m thinking about practice. I’m thinking about endurance. I’m thinking about skill. All this to a slowly shifting pulse of electronic sound particles, punctuated at first by every twelfth beat, and then dissolving into increasingly complex waves and washes. Sciarroni spins for … fifteen minutes? Twenty? Still spinning, arms extended, he moves outward toward the viewers circled around him. He spins a counterclockwise lap at the edge of the crowd, increasing the risk of falling into the the group, and then moves back to the center, gradually coming to rest. Yes.

Alessandro Sciarroni performing CHROMA_don't be frightened of turning the page at the Walker Art Center,

Alessandro Sciarroni performing CHROMA_don’t be frightened of turning the page at the Walker, September 22, 2016. Photo: Gene Pittman

Dimensions of time?

Still looking upward into the lights, Demontis catches the club with the opposite hand. Although I know he has done this thousands of times, I feel in my chest the real possibility of a miss. All of us focusing now on this isolated catch. He pauses for a moment, and returns the club to the air. Another catch. Another toss. The slap of the club in his palm gradually becomes a rhythm. Another performer opens his eyes, looks around, upward, and tosses his club in the air. Soon there are a pair of rhythms, then a trio, and finally a quartet. The rhythms phase in and out of sync with each other. They synchronize again, and the performers simultaneously catch and release the body of the club instead of handle, shifting the timbre of the percussive beat. The fifth performer — Pablo Esbert Lilienfeld — introduces a sparse mix of recorded clicks and slaps from somewhere in his stack of electronics, and the piece is spinning.

Obsessions, fears, and fragilities?

Occasionally, one of the performers walks over to the side of the stage and grabs another club. Are the cues for this shift in the music? The lights? Or do the performers decide when to shift? I sense a negotiation taking place, but I’m not sure. Sometimes one, sometimes another? Gradually, more and more clubs are flying through the air. Two clubs per juggler. Then three. Four. I find myself wondering where I placed those bean-filled juggling bags I picked up a few years ago. The bags came with an instruction manual, and I still remember practicing the first lesson — the drop. Throw all three bags into the air and let them hit the ground. It was a bit on the nose, but I recall appreciating the intentional space it created for failure, the miss, the mistake. UNTITLED cultivates a space like this, and occasionally one of the performers misses a catch. He watches the pin as it rolls along the mat, and after it slows to a rest, he calmly retrieves it. Usually he looks around at his fellow performers for a moment. Sometimes he smiles. And then he begins juggling again.

Theatrical framework?

Witnessing a demonstration of the skills that emerge over hours upon hours upon hours of practice is a pleasure and an inspiration. So I must confess I am a bit disappointed when the music and lights interfere with my ability to see and hear the jugglers excel at what they do. When the music gets louder and more dense, I can no longer hear the rhythms of catching. I no longer hear the performer nearest me breathing. I suppose an argument could be made that — like the clubs — the sound samples are being juggled in real time. But there is also this slow, emotional progression of piano chords, and I feel manipulated.

Finally, after a patient, slowly shifting display of juggling tricks and patterns, the music stops, and Crivellari launches five clubs into the air. His breathing is more strained now, and his feet scuff sharp sounds from the mat as he positions and re-positions his body beneath the clubs hovering above him. I’m amazed at how they seem to hang there, spinning in midair. At times it even appears that the clubs are juggling the performer. Yes. Wonderful. Just this man repeatedly tossing objects in the air, keeping them afloat. I see the precise, mundane, sweaty reality of years of practice, and its relationship to a skillful performance.

When the music begins again, the overhead lights go down, and the jugglers are dimly lit from the floor. They cast tall multicolored shadows on the scrim behind them as they pair off and begin passing clubs as duets. I immediately recall another tidbit from my misplaced juggling manual — juggling is not about making great catches, it is about making great throws. The passing continues as the duets entwine, cycling around and between each other. I struggle to watch their exchanges, but the colored background takes over. Dozens and dozens of spinning colored shadows are difficult to ignore. I try again to focus on the jugglers, their amazing entangled performance, but I keep seeing sperm.

Traditional definitions of gender?

Tomorrow I will think about how much I enjoyed the way Bonino sometimes separated his tosses into three distinct heights, one club spinning quickly near his chest and face, another more slowly above his head, and the third almost languid toward the ceiling. I will wonder what this bit of writing would have looked like if I had chosen to excavate the layers of time in this single toss. I will try, repeatedly, to make sense of the line in the program about gender, and I will swap texts with a friend who will critique Sciarroni’s use of talent from other disciplines. I will wish I could witness yesterday’s spinning performance again. Maybe I will even spin a bit. I will also try to find those juggling bags.

Luminous Non-Intention: John Killacky on The Selected Letters of John Cage

“I can’t understand why people are frightened by new ideas. I’m frightened by old ones.” —John Cage (September 5, 1912–August 12, 1992) One of the most singular artists of the 20th century, avant-garde composer, philosopher, visual artist, and writer John Cage transformed modernist aesthetics with his embrace of randomness, chance operations, and early adoption of technology […]

John Cage reads from Muocye at the Walker Art Center, Februrary 1980. Photo: Glenn Halvorson

John Cage reads at the Walker Art Center. Photo: Glenn Halvorson

“I can’t understand why people are frightened by new ideas. I’m frightened by old ones.”

John Cage (September 5, 1912–August 12, 1992)

One of the most singular artists of the 20th century, avant-garde composer, philosopher, visual artist, and writer John Cage transformed modernist aesthetics with his embrace of randomness, chance operations, and early adoption of technology in his artistic practice. And yes, silence. His seminal composition, 4’33” (1952), wherein musicians sit in silence and do not intentionally make sounds for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, taught us all to listen more deeply.

Our paths crossed a few times. Once, while I was on tour in the mid-1980s with the Trisha Brown Dance Company in France, I sat in a hotel lobby with him watching the French Open on television, and then shared a taxi with him to the theater. On the drive over, he repeatedly lowered and closed the window, amused by its squeaky sounds.

Then in 1990, when I worked at the Walker Art Center, I invited him to do a reading to celebrate the opening of the Jasper Johns: Printed Symbols exhibition. Cage had written about Johns earlier in their careers, and for this performance, he randomly rearranged his text utilizing his computer and presented this.

We had gotten a request for ASL interpretation. Cage was concerned, warning the interpreter the speech did not really make any linear sense. During his performance, he repeatedly stopped and watched the interpreter, who, of course, also stopped. The bemused Cage then continued reading. Afterward, Margaret Leng Tan performed Cage’s compositions on a toy piano.

While his public artistic persona was expansive, Cage was reticent about his private life. When asked about his relationship with life partner choreographer Merce Cunningham, he would often politely reply, “I do the cooking, and he does the dishes.” Although openly gay, neither of them chose to discuss their homosexuality publicly.

However, The Selected Letters of John Cage (2016, Wesleyan University Press), with more than 500 letters, brings readers intimately into his personal life, beginning in the 1930s when he was a 17-year-old dropout traveling in Europe and Algeria to shortly before his death in 1992. His affable nature resonates throughout this luminous collection and gives the reader insight into his prodigious intellectual and artistic pursuits.

When a nascent musical student, we read his pleas to study with Arnold Schoenberg, acquire expertise on Erik Satie and Virgil Thomson’s music, and build relationships with Morton Feldman, Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, and other emerging mavericks. These composers performed each other’s works in concert, and often wrote about the other, since few critics understood the new aesthetic frontiers they were fomenting.

Frustration is present in Cage’s missives to orchestral and museum directors around the world as he struggles to earn a living and be taken seriously as a composer. For decades, he was his own booking agent and asked people to help underwrite concerts. As well, he pleaded valiantly trying to establish a center for new music at Cornish School, Bennington College, and Mills College—all for naught. Tellingly, he wrote to young composer, “I never made enough money (from my music) to live on until I was fifty. Interrupted my music in order to do odd jobs in order to eat, etc.”

Throughout his life, Cage remained a cultural omnivore. Interwoven into The Selected Letters of John Cage are details as to how his study of the I Ching and Zen Buddhism, his burgeoning interest as an amateur mycologist (love of mushrooms), and his embrace of a macrobiotic diet informed his life and art. He aspired to have “all distinctions between art and life removed.” This blending of eastern and western traditions put him at the epicenter of the American avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s.

His early notes to Merce Cunningham are beautifully innocent, “I think of you all the time and therefore have little to say that would not embarrass you, for instance my first feeling about the rain was that it was like you… I would like to measure my breath in relation to the air between us.”

Cage became musical director for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and together they disrupted prevailing notions of modern music and dance. Aiding their revolution were visual artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, often collaborators on scenic and costume elements. These relationships, and the masterworks they created, are gloriously annotated throughout the book.

Cage did so much more than music for the Cunningham dance company. Early letters show him writing to festival promoters to book engagements, sending fundraising appeals to donors and funding agencies, and pleading with fellow artists to donate artwork to make up shortfalls from touring.

His persistence, entrepreneurship, and unequivocal questioning of the status quo as evidenced in this volume could in fact be a textbook for modern day artists struggling to forge a career. Ever the courageous anarchist, Cage states, “I think my activity in the arts is analogous to political activity. It gives an instance of how to change things radically.”

The Selected Letters of John Cage is revelatory, illuminating his creative processes, as well as the heart and mind of this multifaceted individual who has influenced generations of artists—essential reading for understanding 20th century American art history.

John R. Killacky is executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont.

 

The Flaming Lips at Rock the Garden: 360 Degrees of “Race for the Prize”

Smoke guns and confetti cannons were out in full force during the final set of Rock the Garden 2016—and videographer Chuck Olsen of Visual was there to capture the experience in immersive, 360-degree video. Watch as Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips perform “Race for the Prize,” off the 1999 album The Soft Bulletin. (See if […]

The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne at Rock the Garden 2016. Photo: Gene Pittman

The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne at Rock the Garden 2016. Photo: Gene Pittman

Smoke guns and confetti cannons were out in full force during the final set of Rock the Garden 2016—and videographer Chuck Olsen of Visual was there to capture the experience in immersive, 360-degree video. Watch as Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips perform “Race for the Prize,” off the 1999 album The Soft Bulletin. (See if you can spot the Walker bumpersticker—“Think about honking if you [heart] conceptual art”—on the leg of Coyne’s duct-tape pants.)

Held on Minneapolis’s Boom Island on June 18, the fourteenth edition of our annual festival featured eight bands on two stages: Plague Vendor, GRRRL PRTY, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Hippo Campus, M. Ward, Poliça, Chance the Rapper, and the Flaming Lips.

Rock the Garden 2016 was a copresentation of the Walker Art Center and 89.3 The Current.

Chance the Rapper Colors Outside the Lines

There is no single voice in DIY music culture making as much of an impact as Chance the Rapper. As an artist who has given away the majority of his music, without major label influence, Chance has been able to speak directly to the soul of young people without having his hand forced by the […]

Chance the Rapper at the Pemberton Music Festival, 2014 Photo: Rob Loud, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

Chance the Rapper at the Pemberton Music Festival, 2014. Photo: Rob Loud, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

There is no single voice in DIY music culture making as much of an impact as Chance the Rapper. As an artist who has given away the majority of his music, without major label influence, Chance has been able to speak directly to the soul of young people without having his hand forced by the recording industry. On his new gospel-laced mixtape Coloring Book, that soul shines through from track to track. As he states on the song “Blessings,” “I don’t make songs for free/I make songs for freedom.”

On June 18, Chance joins Poliça, The Flaming Lips, and others at Minneapolis’s Boom Island Park for what is destined to be the largest Rock the Garden street festival yet. Over the past two years we’ve seen Rock the Garden diversify its lineup with acts like golden-era MCs De La Soul and Afrobeat legend Seun Kuti, among a handful of others—and with Chance’s inclusion the event further ventures into unchartered territory. Which begs the question: where does Chance fit in a festival that has boasted a past of mostly white indie-rock giants? And what does his presence mean to this coloring book and who gets the crayons?

Let’s take a minute and talk about the often-overlooked city within the city of Minneapolis. The Twin Cities has undeniably been heavily influenced by our closest major city neighbor, Chicago, Chance’s hometown. In the late 1800s, the Chicago, St. Paul, and Minneapolis railways were consolidated to create a consistent stream of people and goods throughout the region. Simultaneously, in 1865, you had the abolition of slavery, which quickly created the largest migration of people in the history of the United States. In the 1920s, more than six million formerly enslaved people traveled North for better wages and opportunity. My grandparents on both sides of the family moved from Mississippi and Arkansas during this period. Both of my parents relocated to Minnesota in the last year of the 1970s. Being Black growing up in inner city Minneapolis, you are constantly reminded of Chicago’s influence. Transplants from that city speak with such pride and sorrow in the same sentence. They speak of struggle, pain, and, ultimately, the hope for a brighter future. A similar duality is the somber playfulness that you find in Chance’s music. This is the spirit that touches Chance’s followers in a way that many outsiders may not understand. It’s an authentic voice piercing its way through a cloud of doubt.

chance-1

Cover image for Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book mixtape

In the city that produced the likes of the Smashing Pumpkins, Styx, Earth Wind & Fire, and Chief Keef, Chance the Rapper finds a way to walk the proverbial line musically. Inside of his productions you will find both a wide range of musicality and a blunt directness that only Chicago hip hop could produce. He slips back and forth between rapping and singing within the same line of thought. He also freely moves between preproduced instrumentals and his live band, The Social Experiment, flexing skills over odd time signatures. The amount of gospel influence may sound way out of the box for the fair-weather listener but makes perfect sense with someone like the Coloring Book author. At 23, Chance has been influenced by an age of direct access to the “other.” By this I mean young people are much more free to explore their tastes and interests in the privacy of their own homes without judgment, thanks to the internet. This gives young artists more time to explore their ideas and openly create. His do-it-yourself approach to creating music allows him to easily move between tracks with his soulful live band, songs with gospel icon Kirk Franklin, and tracks like “Mixtape” with viral stars Young Thug and Lil Yachty.

All throughout Chance’s new project you find hidden messages. You have to think of what a coloring book represents. Though mass-produced, a coloring book gives every person who utilizes it an opportunity to create their own version of reality. You can choose to use lighter or darker colors. You can draw inside the lines or stray away from the format. Either way we are all given some basic outline of how to exist, and we have to fill in that space with whatever makes the most sense to your personal experience.

On “All We Got,” the first song of Coloring Book, Chance features Kanye West and the Chicago Children’s Choir. Constantly shrouded in controversy, West is arguably the biggest artist to ever represent the working poor in the city. The Chicago Children’s Choir was founded in the mid-1950s at the height of the Civil Rights movement, serving more than 4,000 youth annually. Through the choir, young people have been able to travel throughout the world and perform with acts like Beyoncé, Luciano Pavarotti, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. In the center sits Chance rhyming, “This for the kids of the king of all kings/This is the holiest thing/This is the beat that played under the Word/This is the sheep that ain’t like what it herd.” This alludes to the idea that we are all children of a higher power but do not need to be followers to anyone’s ideas. Later on in the chorus, Kanye sings, “Music is all we got/so we might as well give it all we got.” This is the metaphorical rose growing from concrete.

Chance the Rapper. Photo: Zoe Rain

Chance the Rapper. Photo: Zoe Rain

The historic brutality that has plagued the city of Chicago traces back to segregation, Al Capone’s rampant rule of the streets, police violence, and the violence inflicted by neighbors upon each other. We constantly hear the statistics about the loss of life in the city. Rapper King Louie coined the phrase “Chiraq” as a response to statistics that showed more people killed in the Chicago than in active combat in Iraq. There most certainly is a problem and everyone has their own way of dealing.

Chance states that he’s here to “clean up the streets so my daughter has somewhere to play.” That is the beauty that is rarely seen or heard in the way Chicago is portrayed. We have to ask why the most negative images of the Black community are so freely bought and sold for profit. This is at a time when young artists of color in both the Twin Cities and Chicago are literally dying because they don’t feel like they have any other way into the music industry except through displays of violence. Much of Chance’s new album sounds like a prayer for the youth of his city and proof that you can make it out of hard times when you express your best self. Don’t miss your chance to join the choir live at Rock the Garden.

Chance the Rapper performs June 18 at Rock the Garden 2016.

Audition Announcement! Choreographers’ Evening 2016

The Walker Art Center and Guest Curator Rosy Simas are seeking dance makers of all forms to be presented in the 44th Annual Choreographers’ Evening. Rosy Simas, an enrolled member of the Seneca Nation in Western New York, creates dance from a Native feminist perspective. Simas’ current work disrupts Eurocentric cultural norms by creating dance […]

Rosy Simas. Photo: Gene Pittman

Rosy Simas. Photo: Gene Pittman

The Walker Art Center and Guest Curator Rosy Simas are seeking dance makers of all forms to be presented in the 44th Annual Choreographers’ Evening.

Rosy Simas, an enrolled member of the Seneca Nation in Western New York, creates dance from a Native feminist perspective. Simas’ current work disrupts Eurocentric cultural norms by creating dance aimed at de-colonizing the Indigenous body. She is engaged in the dance field as a performer, teacher, curator, lecturer, panelist, activist, advocate and mentor to other Native artists and artists of color.

I see dance making as a way to reflect the times in which we live. My curatorial approach for this Choreographers’ Evening is to amplify the diversity of Minnesota dance and let dance makers lead the audience through a thought provoking, emotional, and kinesthetic 80-minute ride. I am excited to see and learn what Minnesota dance makers are stirring up in 2016. — Rosy Simas

Simas is a 2016 McKnight Choreographer Fellow, a 2016 First Peoples Fund Fellow, a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, and a 2013 Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Dance Fellow. Her solo, We Wait In The Darkness, won a 2014 Sage Award for Outstanding Design and a 2014 City Pages Artist of the Year citation.

Choreographers’ Evening will take place on Saturday, November 26, 2016 at 7:00pm and 9:30pm. If your piece is selected, you must be available the week of November 21st (excluding Thanksgiving), as well as from noon through the performances on Saturday, November 26, 2016.

Audition Information:

WHERE:     The Walker’s McGuire Theater, 1750 Hennepin Ave, Mpls 55403

WHEN:       Wednesday, August 24 from 6–10pm

      Friday, August 26 from 2–6pm

      Saturday, August 27 from 12noon–4pm.

– You will receive a call or email confirming your time slot

– Auditions are in 10 minute intervals

– Pieces are usually 3-6 minutes in length and may not exceed 7 minutes

– Vimeo submissions are accepted, although live performance is preferred

– Works in progress are accepted

– Choreographers must live in Minnesota

For more information and to schedule an audition, please email Rosy at performingarts@walkerart.org, or call the Walker at 612.375.7550. Additional questions may be directed to Anat Shinar at anat.shinar@walkerart.org.

Finding a Sense of Moment: Devendra Banhart and Friends, Night Two

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, Patrick Marschke shares his perspective on Saturday night’s performance of Devendra Banhart & […]

pa2016db0514 Performing Arts, Music. Devendra Banhart performs Wind Grove Mind Alone in the McGuire Theater at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, May 14, 2016. (Photo by Courtney Perry) A two-evening exploration of the musical worlds of singer/songwriter/painter Devendra Banhart. The acid-folk/indie-rock leader is revered for his idiosyncratic career of defying expectations and inspiring musical trends. The program title is borrowed from Dom Sylvester Houédard’s 1974 poem “Wind Grove Mind Alone.” Copresented with the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series. Program A: Friday, May 13 Banhart performs a solo set of songs, followed with music by interactive experimenters Lucky Dragons; impressionistic folk-pop from Jessica Pratt, electronic music producer/singer Helado Negro; and sound artist/composer William Basinski. Program B: Saturday, May 14 Banhart’s full touring band opens, followed by Brazilian singer-songwriter Rodrigo Amarante; LA art-pop duo Hecuba; and iconic ambient/minimal music pioneer Harold Budd.

Devendra Banhart performing with his band at the Walker, May 14, 2016. Photo: Courtney Perry for the Walker Art Center

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, Patrick Marschke shares his perspective on Saturday night’s performance of Devendra Banhart & Friends: Wind Grove Mind Alone, a two-night engagement copresented by the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

“There is so much that ties all of these artists together, but if i had to pick one thing, it would be space…. The participatory and collaborative space they create during their performances, whether with audience members, themselves,  or, by simply improvising, the moment itself ….and the physical space in their music…even the spaced out space of their concepts…..”

On Saturday, I found my sense of moment. The quote above is taken from Devendra’s program note: it’s his conceptualization of what tied all of the artists on the two night ‘festival’ together, providing some coherence to the program that wasn’t immediately apparent upon first glance. On Saturday night, it made sense. I was repeatedly captured by “the moment itselffrom Devendra’s intimate, right-in-your-ear vocals, to Rodrigo’s narrative melodies,  Hecuba’s  writhing synths, and Harold Budd & Co’s whispery/windy ambient atmospheres – each artist created their own distinct and entrancing moments.

Devendra Banhart + Band*

Devendra is incredibly endearing. He embodies kindness, joy, and ‘fun’ (in quotations to acknowledge how weird that feels to say) in an incredibly sincere way. I felt as though nothing could go wrong, even when it did early in the set when the sound went out. Devendra’s reaction? A skip around the stage and some playful banter. Is there a word for that “everything is fine” feeling?

Devendra reminds us of the joys we have forgotten, the times when things got silly because you let them, and the idea that a distinct sound/style sometimes comes more from a distinct demeanor than clever arrangements. His band frames and lifts these qualities, setting the tone for the rest of the show: to listen and  to be in/of this moment.

There were new songs and old songs, which I could describe in a bit too much detail from my scribbled-in-the-dark notes, but in retrospect, the details of each song wasn’t what left an impression on me. The music seemed more like a vehicle to accomplish what seems to be Devendra and company’s main goal: to make you and me happy in a way that we can’t always manage ourselves; to remind us that right now–while Devendra mumbles, hums, and croons, and saunters–we are here, together in the moment, and nowhere else regardless of where our thoughts might normally take us.

“Everything that made you stronger won’t be around much longer”

“Is this a fancy thought? I’m pretty sure it’s not”

Some striking moments from the set: in the middle of “Lonely Woman,” a somber, perpetually descending dirge-like song, the band dropped out and Devendra, nearly on top of his amp, strummed a single chord like a dark bell tolling, tapping the body of the guitar while subtle screeches emerge from Greg’s cymbals. The moment arrived and departed unexpectedly; the song went on as if it never happened. You could hear the audience listening in the silence between the guitar’s rasp. It was silence punctuated.

The collective focus of this moment was reflected  in the last song of the set I will call “Celebration,” this lone word sung slowly and repeatedly, chant-like, by the entire band. It was almost as if the band was waiting for the audience to join in. The song ended. They left the stage quietly. The audience applauded, but there was a sense of rumination within.

*Band = Devendra Banhart on guitar, Rodrigo Amarante on guitar/synth, Noah Georgeson on guitar, Gregory Rogove on drums, Josiah Steinbrick on synths, and Todd Dahlhoff on bass. Everyone sang a bit as well.

Rodrigo Amarante

Rodrigo and Devendra returned to the stage to shuffle equipment and instruments. “What’s happening?” said someone behind me. Devendra left and Rodrigo meandered like a Chaplin film, over there, off stage, then back. The audience murmured, not uncomfortably. And then, in a moment, he was set. And  the stories began.

Rodrigo’s music feels like a lullaby, a fable, a wise aphorism, and a somber anecdote all at the same time. I can’t think of many people in my life that tell “good stories.” Perhaps now that stories travel through wires instead of voices part of that art has been lost. Regardless, Rodrigo has tapped into something ancient and human and completely mesmerizing – all with only a guitar, his voice, and some charm. Even whilst singing in Portuguese, French (neither of which I can parse), vocables, or humming, there is a gravitational pull into Amarante’s voice and the story it tells, lightly threaded through his guitar accompaniment with delicate, sweet melodies.

“One more?”

Hecuba

Jon Beasley emerged from the stage banks after an intermission-y stage change and entered his synth chasm, checked his web of wires, tweaked some knobs, and then placed his hand just above his rig as if warming it above a candle. Isabelle Albuquerque arose next to him. Jon motioned as if opening the lid of his synth, atonal gritty waves ascending with his gesture until they were sucked back in as his hand returned to stasis. The waves of synth continued in this pattern with increasing frequency and intensity as a subtle beat surfaced along Isabelle’s low mumbled words. I wanted it to be louder, not because it wasn’t loud enough, but because in that moment I wanted to be engulfed. Isabelle’s inward dance and Jon’s entrancing and physical undulation demanded reciprocation, but in the dark hall, we sat still. I like to imagine that given the right cue/opportunity the entire audience would have rushed the stage and gesticulated along with the duo – but perhaps because of the two contemplative sets prior, that cue never arrived.

Hecuba’s sense of moment is both heady and physical, a cerebral dance that can’t help but manifest itself outwardly. When they come back to the Cities, which I have no doubt they will, I hope to see them somewhere dark, loud, and visceral.

“I was a person, without a person…”

Harold Budd + Brad Ellis + Veda Hille

With Harold Budd, we sensed History even without being informed about his significant contribution to the world of ambient and electronic music. I’ve never seen a musician listen in such a way. With a small gesture of two or three notes,  Harold would steer Brad’s gusty electronic pads and Veda’s delicate reading of  his surreal poetry. It was cleansing, it was atonement, transmutation. It unfolded. It was a long moment; a necessary solace.

__________

Then it was quietly over. And in that moment I felt lucky to have a place like this place, with musicians like these musicians, and audiences like this audience, ready for anything, listening for the moment(s), trusting the artists and each other, and understanding that moments like these can happen outside of moments like this. It is special to have presenters – Walker and Liquid Music – and audiences that are willing to try things like this out.

We are lucky.

Circuits of Saudade: Wind Grove Mind Alone, Night One

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, Jesse Leaneagh shares his perspective on Friday night’s performance of Devendra Banhart […]

Devendra_049

Devendra Banhart performing with Helado Negro at the Walker Art Center, May 13, 2016. Photo: Courtney Perry for the Walker Art Center

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, Jesse Leaneagh shares his perspective on Friday night’s performance of Devendra Banhart & Friends: Wind Grove Mind Alone, a two-night engagement copresented by the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Walking into the McGuire Friday night the theater looked as it always does, with the small exception of the mauve zafus sprinkled near the front of the stage. Waiting across the proscenium a guitar, electric guitar, small keyboard, and multiple laptop configurations.

Pre-show not everyone was reading the program. Someone in the front row scoured local obituaries. A man in a raccoon hat read a mystery novel. Someone to my left kept folding and unfolding the New York Review of Books to get a closer look.

You could hear a pause when Devendra Banhart walked out, with many in the audience likely coveting now his exact pair of black leather slide sandals.

Banhart’s only set of the evening was solo acoustic guitar. Two songs in, one of which the classic “Carmensita”, he promptly began asking for requests. The audience yelled out song titles while he mostly shook his head or countered that he didn’t know or want to play that one. Eventually someone in the audience grokked with him and he began again.

He talked a bit about the back-to-back evenings of music that he had curated, which he titled Wind Grove Mind Alone after a concrete poem by Father Dom Sylvester Houédard. “Monks can be pretty cool, it turns out,” Banhart said. “Benedictines especially.”

Banhart said his first idea for Wind Grove Mind Alone was to have 100 bands each play for one minute. The audience laughed, but he emphasized that it’s a concept he still wants to develop. Then he explained that what unites the musicians playing both nights is that they’re interdisciplinary. They do other things.

“I’m just gonna play new songs, “ he announced. What followed were vignettes: a song about enjoying San Francisco but not being able to afford it. Several songs were in Spanish and all I could think about was why his Spanish reminds me of Portuguese. Why does one get the feeling watching him that he is Caetano’s heir?

“Thank you thank you thank you,” he said after five songs and sidled off. Tonight’s program was a tight ship, each artist clearly allotted 20 minutes.

Next up: Los Angeles–based experimental music group Lucky Dragons. Sarah Rara and Luke Fischbeck walked impassively onstage, a screen forming behind them with a white cursor blinking on grey background. They sat across from each other, poised in front of separate laptops. Rara began typing and each letter announced its pronunciation as it appeared onscreen, sometimes a flurry of burping consonants or vowels hissing together. Fischbeck meanwhile looked at some sort of graphic layout, and my friend leaned over and asked if he was checking Facebook. Rara stood up and unrolled a banner near their station, which was kept flat on the floor although its colors of red, white, and blue were visible. New loops of sound repeated as the screen paused on a stanza.

More and more I heard a bog chorus, both sunken and locomotive at the same time. Mirroring arpeggios filled the audience, a guy in the front row rocking hard in his seat like we were at the club. “Ripping to re-vegetate,” read a line onscreen, and it sounded like we were listening to the soundtrack of a community garden being born, the music undeniably naturalia. The mysterious banner was rolled up again, while Fischbeck sang alone. A buoyant set.

Next up: more music from LA, with Jessica Pratt and Greta Morgan. Jessica Pratt performed tracks off her newest album (“Game That I Play,” “Jacquelyn in the Background,” “Back, Baby,” “Moon Dude”) except for her opening song, which I couldn’t place from either album. Pratt’s music hits the ears like a high quality vintage, a sound from decades past. Her voice bends the air like a golden halo around an AM radio. I must confess I find her music beguiling to a distracting degree. I took barely any notes. People on the zafus hugged their knees and swayed as she sang. That kind of set. She is the bard of every meaningful relationship you’ve ever had, complete with strange key changes. Her final track featured Greta Morgan on the mini keys and then they walked offstage, the spell broken.

Helado Negro emerged with his silver compadres. Costumed in what appeared to be shredded disco balls, the completely silver backup dancers had no eye holes, no arm holes. When they danced they looked like pin art portraits of chickens. In other words, you couldn’t look away. “Give it up for my furry friends.” He said. Occasionally the tinsel fell off their costumes and you could hear it hit the stage.

Helado Negro heated up the night with his dancing, bringing major level hip gyrations. People on the zafus got lit. Midway through his set, Devendra Banhart came onstage for the night’s only collaboration to sing “Young, Latin and Proud.” Devendra joked about being old, but that Helado Negro was keeping it sexy with his hip moves. The two embraced and their duet was a clear highlight of the night.

The final act of the evening, William Basinski, walked out with a blast of East Coast vibe that felt like a nice change of pace from what came before.  “Minneapolis, oh, my babies,” he said. Then he clarified, “I’ve actually never been here before.” He brought up Prince, with whom he shares the same birth year.  “Let’s purple down the lights. It’s not easy to do what that bitch did…dance to the death.”

He sat down in front of his set-up: laptop flanked by reel-to-reels, and other equipment. He barely moved during his set, still to the point of sculptural. He looked the part of the supremely confident auteur.

And his sounds, the ambient soundscapes. The sound of waking up among skyscrapers, to that window view that looks out only on brick wall. Ideas surface, grow, and pass within his work. Walking fast, then turning the wrong corner. Perhaps you see a car crash or an old friend. Another car pulls up, you get in. All that matters is the narrative and where you’re taken. Onboard the ferry now no seagull in sight only fog. You find a bathroom aboard and notice in the mirror for the very first time a lipstick imprint on your neck. Dark red, maroon. Marooned? The music has stopped but you’re clapping and you remember Devendra’s words sung during the very first song the beginning of the night it all feels so long ago: “A kiss begun will never end.”

Listening Mix: Devendra Banhart & Friends

LISTENING MIX provides a musical preview for 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. For his two-evening event this weekend, Wind Grove Mind Alone, singer/songwriter Devendra Banhart has gathered a group of collaborators, contemporaries, mentors, and friends. It wasn’t so long […]

Photo: OSK

LISTENING MIX provides a musical preview for 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.

For his two-evening event this weekend, Wind Grove Mind Alone, singer/songwriter Devendra Banhart has gathered a group of collaborators, contemporaries, mentors, and friends. It wasn’t so long ago, however, that he was working with a group of artists he referred to as “The Family.” In this New Weird America movement, Banhart was cast as the key figure willing not only to sketch out the family tree but trace it back to its roots, with a constant willingness to give recognition to his influences. One could consider Wild Grove Mind Alone a sort of culmination of these efforts. As the McGuire stage is shared by Lucky Dragons, Jessica Pratt and Greta Morgan, Helado Negro, William Basinski, Rodrigo Amarante, Hecuba, and Harold Budd with Bradford Ellis, each could be said to embody a unique element of Banhart’s ever-shifting sound.

Banhart’s musical career coincided with the beginning of the century, busking around San Francisco, slowly compiling demo recordings on “shoddy and broken four tracks” and friends’ answering machines. A decade later, fellow San Franciscan Jessica Pratt found success with a similar analogue authenticity, along with a vocalic intimacy that aligns them both with unsung folk forebears like Vashti Bunyan and Linda Perhacs. Banhart’s early aesthetic also effortlessly incorporated Spanish-sung ballads and polyrhythmic samba send-ups, hearkening to his adolescence in Venezuela. Roberto Carlos Lange’s music as Helado Negro has also found a center in an effortless bilinguality, and trades off Latin influences for pop efficacy with a similar ease. These elements also unify Banhart with fellow Venezuelan Rodrigo Amarante, with whom he has collaborated throughout his last several records.

While the decade moved on and The Family grew, so did Banhart’s sound. As his guitar and vocals were integrated into songs by Anhoni, he exchanged the influence of her contemporary William Basinski, a purveyor of sonic intimacy, melancholy, and wonder. This sense of wonder saw shades of klezmer, comedy, art rock, and gospel begin to appear on his records, enacted with the same sense of conviction he had left on answering machines in years prior. Lucky Dragons seem similarly committed to rearranging commonplace sounds, pursuing strange experiments, and retaining an acoustic instrumentation to give their work a sense of distorted familiarity.

After 2009’s What Will We Be, Banhart took a break from music to focus on a love of visual art fostered by his album cover illustrations and selection of tour-mates like Hecuba, a visually-motivated LA duo whose music develops naturally alongside its choreographed, costumed, and projected elements. In 2013, Banhart released his eighth album, Mala, and last year published a book of his art, I Left My Noodle on Ramen Street. The book contains a series of paintings inspired by the minimal piano pieces of Harold Budd, which Banhart had also expressed a wish to emulate on Mala, an album equal parts intimate and ambitious.

Just as in Banhart’s career, Wind Grove Mind Alone confronts a wide spectrum of sounds. Together, they create an ambitious portrait of a family of sounds that continues to grow, and where they’ll wind up next is anyone’s guess. For this listening mix, I’ve paired songs from across Banhart’s discography with collaborators and influences alike: the minimalist soundscapes of Budd and Basinski, the Spanish-sung ballads of Helado Negro, the intimate folk of Pratt and Vashti Bunyan, the heartfelt electronics of Hecuba and Arthur Russell, the abstract experiments of Lucky Dragons, and more.


Wind Grove Mind Alone—a copresentation with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music Series—will be performed over the course of two evenings in the Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater. Devendra Banhart will perform with Lucky Dragons, Pratt and Morgan, Helado Negro, and Basinski on Friday, May 13 at 8 pm, and with his full band, Amarante, Hecuba, and Budd and Ellis on Saturday, May 14 at 8 pm. Tickets are currently sold out; a wait list will begin one hour prior to the performance at the Walker box office.

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