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Sounds in Motion, Community in Action: Douglas R. Ewart’s Sound Horizon

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, Walker Intern Mark Mahoney shares his perspective on Douglas R. Ewart’s recent […]

Left to right: Stephen Goldstein, Mankwe Ndosi, and Douglas R. Ewart. Photo: Mark Mahoney

Left to right: Stephen Goldstein, Mankwe Ndosi, and Douglas R. Ewart. Photo: Mark Mahoney

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

Acclaimed local composer, improviser, and sculptor Douglas R. Ewart launched this year’s installment of the Walker’s Sound Horizon series with a far-reaching and engaging performance. Ewart’s variegated artistic practices and his propensity for finding interconnections between different media made him a natural choice for the series, which celebrates the intersection of sound, materiality, space, and community. He was joined by the similarly multifaceted Mankwe Ndosi (voice, poetry, and percussion) and Stephen Goldstein (laptops, various electronics and controllers), both longtime collaborators.

Ewart arrived at Walker Gallery Six with an impressive array of instruments both traditional and invented, among them an English horn, sopranino saxophone, and several crutches retrofitted with tiny bells. This assortment was not simply for show; Ewart’s remarkable command of these instruments opened up a vast spectrum of timbral possibilities. Goldstein proved a deft foil to these explorations, conjuring evocative textures that alternately complemented and challenged Ewart’s decisions.

The textural juxtaposition of Ewart’s acoustic instruments and Goldstein’s electronics could be read as a kind of trope, a transparent take on the motto of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future.” (Ewart served as the AACM’s president from 1979 to 1986.) Ewart’s expansive approach, however, soon complicated any reductive assumptions as to which sounds were ‘ancient’ and which belonged to the ‘future.’ When Mankwe Ndosi added her potently expressionistic vocals to the mix in the second set, the expanded palette allowed all three improvisers to stretch even further into realms of abstraction.

Walker Director Olga Viso and former Director Martin Friedman watched the affairs silently from within artist Goshka Macuga’s monumental tapestry, It Broke from Within. Twentieth-century art provocateurs Joseph Beuys and Marcel Duchamp sat elsewhere in the wall-sized image, and interposed were Tea Party protesters with signs such as, “We don’t want socialism, you arrogant Kenyan!” It would be difficult to imagine a more incongruous group of personages, yet all of them have affiliations with the Walker or the surrounding community. Macuga’s piece begged the question: what are the limits of “community”? It’s a question that seemed to animate much of what transpired Thursday night. The musicians sat at the center of this space, anchoring this improbable gathering as activity emanated outwards in all directions. The audience sat in an ad hoc semicircle around the artists. It was sometimes difficult to distinguish the audience from those who were merely passing by, further underscoring the question of community, of who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out.’

Ewart concluded the second set with an unexpected flourish, releasing a number of hand-made spinning tops onto the gallery floor. As the crowd watched, enraptured, the tops circled each other in a kind of cosmic choreography, eventually tipping over until only a single top remained: a blue sphere, eerily suspended, seemingly perfectly balanced upon its axis. The significance was difficult to miss.

When asked about his tops in an interview with Time Out Chicago, Ewart explained that tops “are magical, cosmic, mystical and beautiful.” The same set of adjectives could be applied to Ewart’s performance. Tops are imbued with further significance for Ewart because they help “to inveigle and instigate substantive engagement with families, diverse people and communities.”

This performance took place within the larger context of the Walker’s celebration of the AACM’s 50-year anniversary. Next week, AACM luminaries Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell will join Larry Gray in Jack DeJohnette’s Made In Chicago. Ewart shared his thoughts on that organization and recounted its impact on his artistic trajectory here.

Former AACM President George Lewis, a frequent collaborator of Ewart’s, has written, “In improvised music, the development of the improvisor is regarded as encompassing not only the formation of individual musical personality, but the harmonization of one’s musical personality with social environments, both actual and possible.”

Ewart’s Sound Horizon performance served as a welcome occasion to come together in celebration of these radically inventive artists in our midst, and, in so doing, to reflect on our community, actual and possible.

“I Don’t Mind a Detour”: An Interview with Douglas Ewart

Douglas Ewart is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, and past president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). He sat down with Sam Segal and Mark Mahoney, the hosts of Radio K’s jazz program Sound Grammar, for an interview ahead of his March 5 Sound Horizon performance at the Walker. You can listen to […]

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Douglas Ewart. Photo: courtesy the artist

Douglas Ewart is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, and past president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). He sat down with Sam Segal and Mark Mahoney, the hosts of Radio K’s jazz program Sound Grammar, for an interview ahead of his March 5 Sound Horizon performance at the Walker. You can listen to the interview on the Walker Channel.

My first experience with Douglas Ewart’s music came through Voice Prints, a recording he did in 2008 at the Walker with one of my musical heroes, Yusef Lateef, along with percussionist Adam Rudolph and Ewart’s AACM colleague Roscoe Mitchell. The music I discovered was deeply spiritual, a quest for serenity that never loses its intensity. In this performance alone Ewart plays sopranino saxophones, C flute, glass didgeridoo, voice, bass clarinet, gongs, bells, percussion, sirens, bass transverse flute, bamboo flutes, and something called the Ewart Hotchiku. Yet, his clear virtuosity on all of these instruments never seems to overwhelm the ensemble’s sense of collectivity, and when I had the pleasure of meeting him to record this interview, I wasn’t surprised to encounter a remarkably humble and thoughtful artist.

Ewart has lived mostly in the Twin Cities since moving up north from Chicago in the early ‘90s, and as a past president of the AACM, he has provided the local creative music scene with a connection to one of the pillars of the 20th Century avant-garde. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the AACM this year, Ewart spoke to me and my co-host Mark Mahoney about the Chicago collective’s impact on his own artistic approach, the supposed “Jazz Tradition,” and the Twin Cities artistic community.

We also went into depth on Ewart’s childhood in Kingston, Jamaica, where not only did his involvement in the Rastafarian movement in the early ‘60s put him in direct contact with the Nyabinghi drum music of the legendary Count Ossie  but he was also exposed to U.S. jazz titans like John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. We learned that as a teenager living in Chicago, it was Ewart’s vocational schooling as a craftsman that would inform his artistic practices as a sculptor and a maker of musical instruments today.

Last June, I attended The Audible Edge, an exhibition at the Nash Gallery that included one of Ewart’s sculptures, a rain stick he had crafted as a tribute to Trayvon Martin. When we asked him about the socio-political themes in his work, Ewart elaborated eloquently on his concerns over the continued dangers faced by young black men in America, as well as the issues he focuses on in his upcoming Sound Horizon piece: gender equality and water conservation.

For his Sound Horizon performance, Ewart will be playing alongside longtime collaborators, percussionist Stephen Goldstein and vocalist/poet Mankwe Ndosi. When asked what we could expect from the piece, Ewart couldn’t make too many promises. “[Performing] reminds me of going on a journey, and you journey to a particular place, maybe to see a particular item,” he said, “And someone tells you about something else, and you only have that moment to make up your mind….I don’t mind a detour….I often get lost on journeys, because I’ll take the other path.”

Listen to the entire conversation here.

Douglas Ewart performs in the Walker galleries at 6 pm, 7 pm, and 8 pm on Thursday, March 5 as a part of the Sound Horizon series.

A Love Supreme: Danny Sigelman on The Campbell Brothers

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, artist, DJ, musician, and writer Danny Sigelman shares his perspective on The Campbell […]

The Campbell Brothers. Photo: Courtesy the artists

The Campbell Brothers. Photo: Courtesy the artists

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, artist, DJ, musician, and writer Danny Sigelman shares his perspective on The Campbell Brothers’ performance of A Love Supreme last night. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

One of the more anticipated performances during the chilly Winter this year finally came to fruition as The Campbell Brothers performed a spiritually enlightened set in the William and Nadine McGuire Theater last night. The centerpiece of the evening was the American Sacred Steel family’s recently commissioned celebration of saxophonist John Coltrane’s hallmark work, A Love Supreme, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month.

Appropriately, the brothers were chosen by the Lincoln Center and Duke University to perform the classic piece, but utilizing a seemingly unlikely set of instruments, primarily the pedal steel guitar. Interestingly, the combination of the spiritually inclined instrument, commonly used in the church and the personal faith of brothers, Chuck, Darick, and Phillip Campbell, integrated beautifully with Coltrane’s original inspiration for the entire performance. While Phillip on guitar led most of the show in addressing the audience with his son Carl on drums and bassist Daric Bennett consistently holding down the rhythm, it was Chuck Campbell on pedal steel that musically shined throughout the night.

The group paced the evening by getting the audience warmed up with a series of gospel-inspired blues from their own songbook. Illustrating the origins and connection of Coltrane’s melding of the traditional forms of the blues and his own Christian beliefs, it was the perfect primer for the main course of the evening.

Taking the stage and rubbing their guitars with their fingers to warm up their strings, Phillip nodded toward the round of applause from the audience, “Thanks for the warm welcome in the cold weather.”

Showing their roots with ease, The Campbell Brothers gave the audience a slow building version of “Wade in the Water”. All the strings on stage in unison wonderfully played counterpoint to one another as melodies sprang against a chugging rhythm reflecting a true blues spirit. Finding their own groove, the audience  morphed into a sea of smiles and hand claps as Chuck took flight with a solo of rising notes that sounded like a soul singer.

Complementing the train whistle sounds from Chuck’s pedal steel, Philip provided narration on “Morning Train”. As a musical family their effortless transitions and trading of solos showed the real supportive nature of the group as the music carried the audience along for the countrified gospel number. Playing mostly rhythm, the song allowed for Philip to rise up from his chair as he charged through his own guitar solo, tearing through some serious soaring lead guitar work.

“When we go to church, we clap. We stand up. We shout along, run around the room. Whatever we need to do to show our love for the Lord. This is active music!” Philip preached, inspiring some call and response during “Hell no! Heaven yes!”

Chuck’s tone turned to a more rural blues sound, sounding like a harmonica with waning flourishes of movement across the strings of pedal steel he elicited screeching melodies atop the chugging rhythm as everyone sang along.

Calming things down, the Campbell Brothers gave grace to Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”. With Darick Campbell taking the lead melody with incredible lyricism, he made his instrument sing. Amid fluttering notes and a sustained, laid back energy that he pleasantly gave to the song, the Campbell Brothers showed the true gospel roots of Cooke.

Conjuring the true spirit of John Coltrane’s music, Chuck conceptually uplifted the feeling in the room with flurries of melodic clusters that echoed and gave a nod to Coltrane’s famous sheets of sound. After an elongated musical introduction the Campbell Brothers seemed to begin breathing life into the music. As the familiar mantra from Coltrane’s piece took musical shape on stage, the audience gleefully applauded and the rhythm section kicked in with a steady beat to support the flowing melodies between the instruments.

The bass held down an astute blues punch as the brothers led the meditative chant, “A Love Supreme” in unison, eventually inspiring the entire audience to sing along. It was a highly gratifying moment that was only a priming of the canvas the Campbell Brothers would eventually unravel as the song moved forward.

Much like Jimmy Garrison performed on record 50 years ago, bassist Daric Bennett took his turn for the “Resolution” section, holding onto the spiritual vibe of the song. For a rewarding solo that inspired shouts from the audience, even the band would shout their approval before Bennett returned to the main riff to a round of applause.

Blasting the primary melody of section, all three brothers incited an atmospheric but charging progression that coalesced in Philip’s slaying guitar solo to which Chuck brought out the gospel soul of his pedal steel.

Similarly Carl Campbell echoed Elvin Jones famous drum solo to introduce “Persuance”. Making his portion his own, he combined a steady hi-hat pattern that rapidly returned to his snare and back again. In odd time signature he attacked with sixteenth notes and aggressive bass drum that transitioned to again support the vamping his the rest of the band re-introduced with gospel coloring that lead back into the main melody. A woman in the front sang her praise with her arms lifted in the air; the rest of the audience passionately showed their own appreciation.

The frantic gallop urged the spirit of Coltrane and Philip again took another driving guitar solo that howled in devotion, as Chuck responded in standing virtually atop his lap steel, almost tipping it over entirely.

To wrap up the famous work the band brought back a steady blues. Chuck and Darick’s steel took to the sound of birds as the rhythm dissipated into cymbal washes and deep tones. The band began to sound like a gospel choir rounding out a hymn that left the exhausted audience with contentment and deep recognition. Taking in the audience’s standing ovation, the Campbell Brothers nodded humbly toward the crowd.

Acknowledging the audience, Philip sounded overwhelmed, “We’re really thankful to be here with you and we really appreciate your applause. Playing this music we really feel a connection to the music. We feel what Coltrane felt in being thankful to be in touch with the love supreme.”

Taking the room back to church, the Campbell Brothers rounded out the night with a soulful groove and encouraged everyone to clap and get up and move. Dancers bounced in the upper levels and soon the whole audience was clapping along as Darick sang, “Did you have a good time? Everyone lift your hands up in the air, wave them like you just don’t care!”

Like a true gospel revival the band kept the song going, all trading leads and keeping the audience on their feet before finally bringing the music to full throttle boil. Further displaying his abilities to make his instrument sing, Chuck ran up and down the scales with an avalanche of notes that brought the whole band to a final burst to finish off the incredible evening.

It was a fantastic night with the Campbell Brothers and well worth the wait. Anyone who was fortunate to brave the cold to come out to witness the music left the room truly uplifted. The band, genuinely kind and thankful for the response, left the stage and went out into the audience to shake hands and have pleasant exchanges that only further warmed the room and spirit of the night.

Revealing the Space / Revealing the Dance: Penelope Freeh on Chris Schlichting’s Stripe Tease

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on the World Premiere […]

Photo: Gene Pittman.

Stripe Tease artists, left to right: JT Bates, Jennifer Davis, Max Wirsing, Dustin Maxwell, Jeremy Ylvisaker, Tristan Koepke, Laura Selle-Virtucio, Mary Ann Bradley, Krista Langberg, and Mike Lewis. 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, dance artist Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on the World Premiere of Chris Schlichting’s Stripe Tease. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments! 

From the beginning of Stripe Tease I feel as though I am in good hands. Two men enter in silence and commence a dance, opening the main drape in the process. It is an elegant and surprising gesture, the curtain billowing apart then slowly opening part way.

Silence continues as the duet takes the space. I remember that Chris’ last epic dance, Matching Drapes, ended with these very men, Max Wirsing and Dustin Maxwell, engaged in an elegant arm wrestle that resembles what I see here. I love this notion: start your new epic dance where your other one left off…

During the course of this hour-long work various parts of the space are revealed: the upstage curtain opens to display a striped backdrop in day-glo colors, side wings disappear, side balcony curtains move aside revealing drawings of tigers in the same palette, and the musicians are exposed upstage left with a vertical tiger lurking behind. These scenic elements, designed by Jennifer Davis, deftly support the stripe theme and the notion of tease/reveal.

The six dancers, at various times, occupy the entire theater. They use the stairs, the side balconies, the exit doors. The masterful lighting by Joe Levasseur sometimes shines on the audience, involving us and possibly implicating us.

And now to the dance, ah the dance and the dancing. Chris’ movement is highly gestural, arms often swishing, swiping, initiating. There is virtually no partnering and yet relationships abound. His choreographic sweet spot seems to reside in quartet work, pitting two dancers in contrast to the other pair then seamlessly swapping unison partners. The dancers track one another’s movements, rather like tigers, racing with them down a diagonal and tearing back. Often one dancer frames another’s movement, a sort of tracing with abstract gesture and physical intention.

The soundscape, played live by Alpha Consumer (Jeremy Ylvisaker, JT Bates, and Michael Lewis) perfectly accompanies the complex choreography. The music does not dictate the steps. It hovers alongside them, inspiring but not enforcing rhythms. The movement contains its own rhythmic impulses, likely based upon what works well with contrasting steps and also perhaps driven by an abstract dramaturgy of sorts. To my eye, the dancers groove on having the music there to support them. Laura Selle Virtucio in particular let her passion shine through, leveraging her exhaustion to dig deep.

The steps unto themselves are not particularly hard. The virtuosity resides in the craft of how the dancers move in relation to one another and in the duration of certain passages. A rapid-fire yet simple gestural arm and hand choreography becomes sublime in duplicate. Unison and relationship reveal rigor and intelligence.

The three other wonderful dancers are Dolo McComb, Krista Langberg and Tristan Koepke. All the dancers serve the overall vision while remaining utterly themselves, unusual to see amidst so much unison and the need for keeping an eye on one another.

The work was by turns mesmerizing and edge-of-my-seat inducing. There were quiet moments that apertured in, like in the opening arm dance, and full-throttle moving acrobatics that laced and spun and careened. There were beautiful, very feminine feeling gestures, fascinating to see on male bodies. Then later a double knocking gesture became a signature, ever so slightly more hard-edged.

Get your tickets, folks. There is an added show, Saturday at 2pm as the others are virtually sold out.

For a World Premiere, this work is well cooked. It has legs beyond this moment and may well be one of those occasions about which we can say we saw it when.

Stripe Tease continues in the Walker’s McGuire Theater tonight, Friday, February 20 at 8pm, and tomorrow, Saturday, February 21 at 2pm and 8pm. 

Coltrane’s Sacred Testimony: The Campbell Brothers Preach A Love Supreme

“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.” —Psalm 98:4, King James Version On February 26 in the McGuire Theater, brothers Chuck, Darick, and Phil Campbell will take the stage to set steel to steel in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the release […]

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The Campbell Brothers. Photo: Gene Tomko

“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.” —Psalm 98:4, King James Version

On February 26 in the McGuire Theater, brothers Chuck, Darick, and Phil Campbell will take the stage to set steel to steel in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the release of John Coltrane’s seminal work, A Love Supreme. The Campbell Brothers are some of the world’s foremost practitioners of the “Sacred Steel” tradition, a strain of African-American gospel in which the organ and the choir are cast aside in favor of an ensemble of wailing and preaching lap steel guitars. With countless reinterpretations of A Love Supreme already in existence—in every medium imaginable and by everyone from choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker to poet Michael S.Harper—some might be bold enough to ask, “Is there really anything left to say about A Love Supreme?” When it comes to the Campbell Brothers’ version, the question of what they can say about the music becomes irrelevant. But things get a lot more interesting when you ask, “What can the Campbell Brothers do with A Love Supreme?”

It’s been much discussed how Coltrane’s Christian background influenced him on A Love Supreme. His grandfathers on both sides were ministers in the African Methodist Episcopal church, and while the AME has a less affective and flamboyant style of worship than the House of God, Keith Dominion church that the Campbell Brothers come from, the musicality of the preachers Coltrane saw growing up no doubt had an influence on the album. As musicologist Lewis Porter notes, Coltrane’s playing on the piece’s final movement, “Psalm,” is essentially a recitation of the self-written poem he included in the album’s liner notes. Coltrane himself refers to “Psalm” in his own outline for A Love Supreme (below) as a “musical recitation of prayer by horn.” Porter points out that this recitation follows the basic “tonal system” of the chanted oral sermon1.

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Manuscript of A Love Supreme, by John Coltrane, 1964, Photo: Courtesy Smithsonian National Museum of American History via Flickr Creative Commons

The technique of preaching through the instrument has been one of the defining elements of Sacred Steel music ever since pioneering  steel guitarist Brother Willie Eason first performed “Just A Closer Walk with Thee” by “speaking the lyrics slowly while playing slurred passages on the top string of the steel guitar to make the instrument ‘talk,’” according to Sacred Steel historian Robert Stone2. These technical and structural parallels allow the Campbell Brothers to channel the Christian spirituality embedded in Coltrane’s piece.

The kinship between A Love Supreme and the music of the Sacred Steel tradition extends beyond technique. Both the House of God church service and the recording of a jazz record like A Love Supreme are occasions of structured improvisation. Just as Coltrane twists, mutates, and builds upon his composed themes in search of spiritual transcendence and knowledge, the Sacred Steel band leader will extend and improvise on sermons and spirituals while members of the congregation give personal testimony and seek the Holy Ghost3.  There is a shared balance between intensity and meditation in the music of Coltrane and the Campbell Brothers. Professor Tommy L. Lott remarks that Coltrane’s saxophone playing features the same fiery intensity of African-American church singing, “with no overriding concern for pitch or intonation”4. Yet, the space for tender, melodic beauty is also made in Sacred Steel music, as well A Love Supreme, in order to heighten the intensity later on. In an interview, Bishop Charles E. Campbell, father of the Campbell Brothers, talks about a technique he taught his sons called “the breakdown”:

When you get it in high and everybody’s jumpin’ and getting emotional with you, we say, “Break it down. Lower it down.” Put in a certain thing…something touching that people can relate to. And they start thinking about the Lord and themselves and how far they’re down, and how they need to be lifted up…5

Coltrane and his band toy with energy in the same way throughout the piece. Clearly, there a number of ways in which we can see John Coltrane and the Campbell Brothers operating within the same musical, cultural, and spiritual framework.

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John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, 1965, Photo: Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons

But the question remains: What are the Campbell Brothers doing with Love Supreme? Since Coltrane’s premature death in 1967, he has been mythologized perhaps more than any other figure in jazz. A Love Supreme is a central component of that myth, acting as a testament to Coltrane’s individual spirituality, a manifesto for his personal belief system. Coltrane himself seems to have wanted the album to be taken this way on some level. A Love Supreme is one of the only albums Coltrane ever wrote the liner notes for himself. These liner notes create a uniquely autobiographical context for the listener’s interpretation of the music6. He positions the album as a demonstration of his faith in God in the face of his struggles with drug addiction. At times, Coltrane explicitly asks us to see his music as personal testimony. In an interview with Newsweek from December 12, 1966, he said, “My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being.”

In his book Beyond A Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album, Musicologist Tony Whyton asks why we view the studio recording of A Love Supreme as the essential document of the piece, when live jazz is so often hailed as the most authentic way to experience the genre and plenty of recordings of Coltrane performing the piece live have been released. Ultimately, he concludes:

Within the studio recording of A Love Supreme, the absence of the visual and the control of Coltrane’s sound creates a context for music to be experienced as more profound and mysterious. In many ways, the album transcends its status as a physical object to become something more symbolic, a reified object and associated set of events that bring us closer to Coltrane’s dialogue with God than any live performance could7.

Again, it seems that this album is continually experienced as a piece of testimony by John Coltrane. When we listen to the December 9, 1964 studio recording of A Love Supreme, it almost feels as if we are eavesdropping on Trane as he sings his song of praise.

The Campbell Brothers, however, are less concerned with the audience witnessing their testimony. In the Sacred Steel churches, the band acts as a facilitator for the spiritual experiences of the congregation. A steel guitarist measures his success by how much he moves the congregation, not by how well he can communicate his own faith8. The Campbell Brothers manage to turn the isolated personal statement of John Coltrane into a tool for creating a more communal spiritual experience. They can turn the holy experience of listening to Coltrane’s prayer alone in a bedroom into something shared, public, and no less sacred.

 FOOTNOTES

1 Porter, Lewis. “John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’: Jazz Improvisation as Composition.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 38.3 (1985): 593–621.

2 Stone, Robert L. Sacred Steel inside an African American Steel Guitar Tradition. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2010. 75.

3 Ibid 34

4 Lott, Tommy. “When Bar Walkers Preach: John Coltrane and the Crisis of the Black Intellectual.” John Coltrane & Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music. Ed. Leonard L. Brown. New York: Oxford U, 2010. 115.

Stone, Robert L. Sacred Steel inside an African American Steel Guitar Tradition. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2010. 51.

Whyton, Tony. Beyond A Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album. New York: Oxford U, 2013. 28–29.

Ibid 33

Stone, Robert L. Sacred Steel inside an African American Steel Guitar Tradition. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2010. 50.

….

The Campbell Brothers will perform John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, along with a selection of gospel and spiritual works from their repertoire, on Thursday, February 26 at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater.   

Talk Dance: Chris Schlichting on Stripe Tease

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 Minneapolis-based choreographer Chris Schlichting, whose Walker-commissioned piece Stripe Tease will premiere at the Walker February 19–21. You can find the podcast on the Walker Channel. Watching the first iteration […]

Jennifer Davis, Chris Schlichting, and Jeremy Ylvisaker. Photo: Gene Pittman

Jennifer Davis, Chris Schlichting, and Jeremy Ylvisaker. Photo: Gene Pittman

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 Minneapolis-based choreographer Chris Schlichting, whose Walker-commissioned piece Stripe Tease will premiere at the Walker February 19–21. You can find the podcast on the Walker Channel.

Watching the first iteration of Chris Schlichting’s Stripe Tease at MTM@10: Momentum in the Garden was magical.  As I drove up to the Walker on Hennepin Avenue, I caught a glimpse of something hanging from the trees—like someone had very artfully “teepeed” the sculpture garden.  When I got closer I saw how carefully Chris and visual artist Jennifer Davis had placed each hand-painted butcher-paper streamer.  I loved how the set invited me to dream up and away from the dance and  reminded me to look down at the stage and pay attention!  The weather was summery and amazing (think opposite of February) and the piece, Den Rags, was lush, soft, and at times hypnotic.  After it was over, I loved watching Chris and the cast carefully lower each streamer down from the trees with string.

That first impression of the set, which at first glance it reminded me of a banal high-school prank and then revealed itself as something beautiful, is indicative of my experience of Chris’ work.  As I watch his dances I feel something similar to a concept Chris brought up in our interview earlier this month.  He said, “Kristin Van Loon (of HIJACK) talks about this attraction/repulsion dynamic that really connects with my interests in the form…there are things you find yourself attracted to and then there are things that you’re attracted to but feel kind of gross, and so you’re negotiating those frictions. To me it stirs up questions and keeps me interested.”  Those frictions keep me interested too.

We covered a lot of ground when we spoke: the difficulties of transitioning his work from outdoor stage to proscenium theater; collaborations with Visual Artist Jen Davis and Guitarist/Composer Jeremy Ylvisaker (Alpha Consumer); connections between Chris’ interest in Food and Dance; and Chris’ longtime employment at the University of Minnesota’s Architecture Department.  However, the thing I was most curious to talk about was the sexual content of his work.  It comes to you first in the in the titles of his works (to name a few: Dirty (2006), Love Things (2009), Public Hair (2011), I’m Not Sure What This Wetness Is (2011), and Matching Drapes (2013)).  But it also comes in the slyly suggestive movement vocabulary and the evocative relationships and situations between performers onstage. I wanted to know where this comes from and how he’s thinking about it in the larger context of his work.  Chris spoke eloquently about his interest in “the power and the beauty of these things that we sometimes associate with being somehow dirty […] some people might consider this gross and grotesque but it’s contextualizing it.  These things are also beautiful and these are parts of the human experience.”

Listen to Jones’ entire conversation with Schlichting here

Stripe Tease will have its world premiere in the Walker’s McGuire Theater Thursday–Saturday, February 19–21, 2015 at 8 pm.

Get to Know the Artists Behind Chris Schlichting’s Stripe Tease

Ahead of next Thursday night’s world premiere performance of Minneapolis-based choreographer Chris Schlichting’s Walker-commissioned dance piece Stripe Tease, we asked his collaborators, including visual artist Jennifer Davis and art-rockers Alpha Consumer, to answer a few 8-ball-style questions. The artists discussed their histories with Schlichting, the other projects they’re working on, their favorite hidden spots in the Twin Cities, […]

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Stripe Tease; Photo by Gene Pittman

Ahead of next Thursday night’s world premiere performance of Minneapolis-based choreographer Chris Schlichting’s Walker-commissioned dance piece Stripe Tease, we asked his collaborators, including visual artist Jennifer Davis and art-rockers Alpha Consumer, to answer a few 8-ball-style questions. The artists discussed their histories with Schlichting, the other projects they’re working on, their favorite hidden spots in the Twin Cities, and much more.

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Krista Langberg, Photo: Erin Celeste Westover

Krista Langberg (Dancer)

When or how did you meet Chris ?

At the bus stop on the corner of 62nd and Lyndale

What’s your best kept Twin Cities secret that you don’t mind sharing?

The Lock Up mega self storage on American Blvd

What’s your most vivid memory from childhood?

The La Brea Tar Pits

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Honesty

What have you been reading lately?

The Haynes manual “so you own a volvo…”

What else are you working on?

SHORE with Emily Johnson/Catalyst

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Mike Lewis, Photo: Courtesy the Artist

Mike Lewis (Sound)

Describe Stripe Tease in one sentence or less.

Ever evolving.

When or how did you meet Chris?

Through Jeremy Ylvisaker, before Alpha Consumer performed as a part of his piece for the 25th anniversary of the Sculpture Garden.

What’s your best kept Twin Cities secret that you don’t mind sharing?

Succotash, a small vintage furniture shop in St. Paul.  The owners, Paul and Noreen, are beautiful and welcoming people with a learned and nuanced aesthetic, and prices always seem respectfully balanced between keeping the doors open and building a devoted clientele.

What global issue most excites or angers you?

The slow death of culture, thought, and individuality via corporate monopolization of food, media, and commerce as a whole.

What artist turned your world upside-down as a teenager?

Public Enemy. Mingus. Kubrick.  Rothko.  Jim Henson.

What have you been reading lately?

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie and The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra.

What question do you wish we asked you?

Why do you wear that tape on your nose?

What else are you working on? 

Making time for solitary musical explorations and cooking eggs.

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Lion. Painting by Jennifer Davis

Jennifer Davis (Visual Design)

Describe Stripe Tease in one sentence or less.

I give up. I can’t do it. I just can’t!

When or how did you meet Chris?

I’ve known Chris for 24 years! We went to high school together. We briefly lost touch but were later reacquainted via mutual friends.

What artist turned your world upside-down as a teenager?

Axl Rose =0)

What is one of the most unexpected influences on your art?

Vintage carousel animals.

What’s your most vivid memory from childhood?

Playing for long hours in a weird, partially below-ground, playground built in the ruins of an old barn across the street from the house where I grew up in Jonathan (Chaska), MN. I have only my memories because I can’t find any photos of the place.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Getting plenty of sleep.

What else are you working on? 

I’m currently working on a series of paintings inspired by an ad for vintage paper mache masks, but after Stripe Tease I’m taking a short break to work on my tan.

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Tristan Koepke, Photo: Steve Niedorf

Tristan Koepke (Dancer)

Describe Stripe Tease in one sentence or less.

Erratic, elegant, hysteric, compulsive, and exquisite hypnosis.

When or how did you meet Chris?

We met casually through the community in 2007, but our relationship became official in 2009 when he mentored a project I created at the University of Minnesota.  I quickly told him that if he was in need of any tall, blond, awkward dancers, I was his guy.

What’s one of your guilty pleasures? 

Writing on bananas with ball-point pens.

What have you been reading lately?

In Bed with Gore Vidal by Tim Teeman

What else are you working on?

I work full-time for Zenon Dance Company. Touring with luciana achugar’s Otro Teatro. I also begin my training at the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration in Boulder, CO in May, 2015!

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Dolo McComb, Photo: Bill Starr

Dolo McComb (Dancer)

Describe Stripe Tease in one sentence or less.

Calculating Cool Cats Coming Constantly Candy

When or how did you meet Chris ?

In June 2014 at the Bryant-Lake Bowl after I danced a little solo for 9×22 Dance/Lab!

What artist turned your world upside-down as a teenager?

John Maus. Still. Every day.

If you could throw a dinner party for anyone in the world, who would you invite?

Charlie Chaplin; my mother.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

I can only think of patience.

What have you been reading lately?

Steppenwolf  by Herman Hesse

What else are you working on?

I am creating a piece for the Red Eye Theater’s Work-In-Progress Festival this May. Also, working with BodyCartography Project on their work called closer.

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Dustin Maxwell, Photo: Andy Richter

Dustin Maxwell (Dancer)

Describe Stripe Tease in one sentence or less.  

Stripe Tease is a meticulous dance of gestures and short stories.

What artist turned your world upside-down as a teenager?

Eiko and Koma changed my life

What’s one of your guilty pleasures? 

Chocolate…and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

What is one of the most unexpected influences on your art?

New Mexico.

Fill in the blank. What the world needs now is _________________.

Love. No, really, love.

What else are you working on?

I’m also working on Still Life with Morgan Thorson to be performed this summer at the Weisman Art Museum.

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Jeremy Ylvisaker, Photo: Ben Durrant

Jeremy Ylvisaker (Sound)

Describe Stripe Tease in one sentence or less.

Parallels

What is one of the most unexpected influences on your art?

Distraction. It seems if I skate on top of my ideas, I’m less likely to get lost. I have 2 kids and a dog. This helps.

What’s your favorite place to people-watch?

24 hour casino in the middle of the night. I’ve only done it once, but I recommend it.

What is your favorite place in the world?

My cousin’s farm in Norway.

If you could throw a dinner party for anyone in the world, who would you invite?

I think Louis C.K. and Brain May should hang out. I don’t need to be there, but I want credit if they hit it off.

What else are you working on? 

A bunch of solo recordings, Alpha ConsumerGuitar Party, The Suburbs.

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Laura Selle Virtucio, Photo: V. Paul Virtucio

Laura Selle Virtucio (Dancer)

Describe Stripe Tease in one sentence or less.

It is craft and candy.  It is meticulous and precarious. It is arithmetic and heart, clean and broken.

When or how did you meet Chris ? 

Chris and I had a class together at the University of Minnesota in the late 90s.  I remember seeing him swing dance and sing in a punk band around that time too…

What have you been reading lately?

Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See (my son’s favorite book) and I just started Silas Marner by George Elliot

What’s one of your guilty pleasures?

I’ve recently binge watched The Killing and The Fall on Netflix.

What else are you working on? 

Shapiro & Smith Dance at The Cowles Center for Dance, April 2 – 4, 2015.

Max Wirsing

Max Wirsing, Photo: Courtesy the Artist

Max Wirsing (Dancer)

Describe Stripe Tease in one sentence or less.

It’s a dance piece that is almost fractal in its composition– the deeper you look into its details and nuance, the more it reveals.

When or how did you meet Chris?

Chris and I toured Heaven (by Morgan Thorson and Low) together– so many of my memories of Chris are in a long white skirt.

What artist turned your world upside-down as a teenager?

So many to choose from:  Robert Rauschenberg, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Yayoi Kusama, John Cage, Meg Stuart, Sasha Waltz—though I guess many of those obsessions started in my 20s.  In high school I went through a jazz phase—so Miles Davis, Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald….and Fauvist painters.

Who is your favorite villain of fiction? Of non-fiction?

Ronald Reagan

If you could throw a dinner party for anyone in the world, who would you invite?

Tilda Swinton, Jeff Koons, Dan Savage, Solange Knowles, my sister Liz, Bjork, Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, Jean Nouvel, Bob Vila, Pema Chodron, Myra Kalman, Malia Obama, and someone who knows how to read tarot cards.  Holy cow, that’d be awesome.

What’s your most vivid memory from childhood?

I once swallowed the entire contents of my sister’s piggy bank.

What else are you working on?

Over the summer I’ll be a part of a performance installation at the Weisman Art Museum that Morgan Thorson is creating. And somewhere over the next year I’ll be working on a solo for the McKnight “Solo” show—choreographer TBD.  I’m also taking a math class right now.

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JT Bates, Photo: Bryan Aaker

JT Bates (Sound)

Describe Stripe Tease in one sentence or less.  

An honest search.

What artist turned your world upside-down as a teenager?

Max Roach.

What’s one of your guilty pleasures? 

Melted cheese.

What is your favorite place in the world?

Oh c’mon, it’s Minneapolis!

What is one of the most unexpected influences on your art?

The opposite of art/opposite of individuality.  Like, the brand new awful condo high rises everywhere.

What else are you working on?  

I’m always working on the Jazz Implosion series.

….

Stripe Tease will be performed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater Thursday–Saturday, February 19–21, 2015 at 8 pm. 

Romantic Pathologies: Fire Drill on RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE

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, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on […]

Photo: Johanna Austin

Photo: Johanna Austin

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, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE by Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental and Wilhelm Bros. & Co. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE is a story of stories. The piece is inspired by historical record, and also incorporates several pieces of writing—many of them stories—written by Edgar Allan Poe. The history sampled surrounds Edgar Allan Poe’s final days, letters, and train rides. The story synthesized from these elements however—the Capital-S Story—is conspicuously not Poe. It is a metanarrative, The Tortured Genius, and Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental / Wilhelm Bros. & Co.’s engagement with Poe’s life and work fit him inside this narrative. The Tortured Genius is a romantic trope—in that it dates literally from the Romantic era, when our social understanding of both art and mental illness were shaped quite differently. In considering RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE, we are most curious about how the representational practice of quoting historical source material–both historical facts as well as Poe’s writing—is deployed to shape history into metanarrative.

RED-EYE is full of stunning images and considered design, and its creators clearly value virtuosity, creativity, and clarity. Relatively few set pieces are used to create a multitude of scenes—three long tables become doors, trains, a bar, a hotel room, as well as various imaginative spaces. A small number of lighting instruments create stark lines and shadows, heightening the drama and pathos of each image. Though we grew tired of the constant set transitions, the visual composition was resonant throughout the piece, demonstrating a type of formal attention. We believe these images are Lucidity Suitcase et al. at their finest, and we as an audience did not require a grounding of these images in history to appreciate their intrinsic aesthetic and choreographic value.

The stage pictures in RED-EYE were often inspired by and illustrative of the quoted text. This “physicalizing” of the text ranged from tricks like acrobatics, stilts, aerial arts, mime, and gestural choreography. The tricks were clearly physical metaphors for the text being excerpted—an ultimately self-defeating desire to be abstract with history while at the same time being very clear about how they abstracted it. The historical justification was built fully into the piece. Take, for example, the Ranger character, whose function at times was to directly address the audience, interpreting the abstractions. He explained a scene where a wearied Poe removes a sock and shoe to touch his bare foot on astroturf, and this appeared in the play because Poe was actually known to do this on grass. Not only were isolated poetic images explained by our Ranger guide, but the whole of the narrative. He telegraphed from the opening that many instances of a women characters in Poe’s work (and ostensibly therefore, the performance) were references to Poe’s dead wife Virginia. However this literal, one-to-one clarity undercut the poetry of the few, silent images. Could the images stand on their own, without justifying their existence with the text?

Ranger aside, the major tool the production used to ground the narrative in history were the supertitles, which announced every sourced poem, story, letter and essay. Why was this piece so invested in citing its sources? It wants to tell us it has done its research, shoring up historical capital. Without the supertitles, or even grounding the metanarrative specifically in an artist such as Poe, the story would read as an age-worn archetype. The historical research places it beyond reproach—perhaps instead of Colbert’s “truthiness”, here we have “historyness”. The production’s specificity about Poe’s life actually obscures its other ideological moves—and when history is used to justify a narrative that is damaging in other respects, it becomes problematic.

RED-EYE displayed classic vintage sexism, presented without comment. Virginia Poe (played by Alessandra L. Larson) haunts E.A. throughout the piece, darting in and out of scenes, under tables and past curtains. As narrative, she is Poe’s deceased wife and cousin, the young and sickly woman who appears in many of his works as Annabel Lee, Lenore, etc. As image and history, she is the classic sylph: the white female figures appearing in contemporaneous Romantic ballets, wispy, ethereal, alluring, cunning. They hover between life and death, often luring men to their downfall. Virginia traps Edgar under a table, grazes over his shoulders from behind, slides down a white fabric from a suspended bed, and plunges from a ledge into a reservoir. There’s an extended gesture phrase where her hands play as birds. In the third act of the play, she transitions into another sexist trope, the siren. Now she’s in stilts and a red dress, more overtly sexual and dangerous. Still she does not speak.

As good third wave feminists, we do not object to women being portrayed as sexual or dangerous, but the female tropes in RED-EYE are regressive and handled uncritically by the production. These tropes are the root of why women are still portrayed without agency or complexity in our cultural texts, important only insofar as they relate to men. Yes, they are taken from Poe’s work, but shouldn’t they be afforded some recontextualization in a contemporary work? Instead, they just become the most visible figment of Poe’s mental illness—which is similarly treated in a dehistoricized light. Perhaps there’s a subtext that the way we view mental illness has changed since the 1840s: Poe would likely have received diagnosis and treatment today, rather than been left to his destructive habits. But actually the production highlighted the ways in which our culture still does treat mental illness in an antiquated fashion: most crucially in the way that it links creativity and madness.

What we find most disturbing about this production is its romantic portrayal of the artist and the source of art. It promotes the image of the artist as a solitary genius, a tortured soul, a sensitive being driven to reveal their emotional truths in a hostile world. In the context of Poe’s implied mental illness, his artistic production also becomes pathologized, and his works become symptoms of his unconscious impulses. Poe’s obituary in the closing moments of the show pays homage to “genius and the frailties too often attending it”. RED-EYE caricatures insanity, gaining comedic or even poetic mileage to make behavior the right blend of tragic and zany, supporting the just-so narrative of the tormented genius.

This image is, of course, taken straight from Poe’s era–but just like the female archetypes, we must question the presentation of the Romantic model of the artist in 2015. Since then, our culture has cycled through a few other models of the artist in society, the credentialed professional and the creative entrepreneur among them. The Romantic solitary genius model, however, remains present in the popular imagination, and RED-EYE treats it more as an essential truth than a historic object. The production did not interrogate its relationship to history or to the present, and we were alarmed to experience this dehistoricized Romantic idea within the context of a contemporary art center. To perpetuate that model has dire consequences: it delimits the scope of art to the personal and the emotional, and narrows the interpretation of art to individual pathology. These ideas work against the field of art when artists want their labor to be valued as work instead of treated as personal indulgence (an issue that affected Poe as well). They work against artists who want their work to impact fields beyond art, like the social, political, or economic. This model also prevails in mainstream American culture (including among right-wing pundits who see artists as indulgent freeloaders) and contributes to the continued ghettoization of contemporary art in our country.

The slick visuals paired with the macabre narrative creates a tricky result. Poe’s alcoholism, (probably) schizophrenia, and marriage to his 13-year-old cousin are transformed into a beautiful, cathartic, digestible whole. The tension of this aesthetic treatment is present in Poe’s work as well, but in the context of the RED-EYE production in 2015, we take it as part of a different trend: the elision of art and entertainment. In week two of Out There, we discussed this issue in relation to the conceptual themes of aggression and the commodity, but in RED-EYE the entertainment issue arises from the style and aesthetics of the piece. The polished staging reminds us of commercial more than experimental theater, and the metanarrative is familiar and pleasing. The body of the tortured artist passes from this mortal coil, yet his work of genius lives on: no loose ends or productive questions remain. Frankly, we have higher hopes for art and its capacity to provoke and disturb. We also have higher hopes for the contemporary–that it will fundamentally alter preexisting ideas, rather than create slick packaging for old tropes.

RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE continues at 8pm tonight, January 30, 2015 and tomorrow night, January 31, 2015, in the McGuire Theater.

 

Magical Liquid Space: An Interview with Thaddeus Phillips

From January 29 to 31, the Walker closes out its annual Out There festival with RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE, a striking and surreal “action opera” that examines the bizarre circumstances surrounding the final days of Edgar Allen Poe. The piece is a collaboration between director/playwright Thaddeus Phillips’s theater collective, Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental, and the […]

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Thaddeus Phillips, Photo: Courtesy of Juju Caleñas

From January 29 to 31, the Walker closes out its annual Out There festival with RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE, a striking and surreal “action opera” that examines the bizarre circumstances surrounding the final days of Edgar Allen Poe. The piece is a collaboration between director/playwright Thaddeus Phillips’s theater collective, Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental, and the Minneapolis-based musical duo Wilhelm Bros. & Co. Ahead of this weekend’s performances, I spoke to Phillips about his revisionist perspective on Poe, the explosive potential of stage space, the value of journeys in narrative, and more.

Sam Segal: Why Edgar Allan Poe?

Thaddeus Phillips: My interest really began when I learned about Poe’s last days being lost and confused on trains between Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York—a final train journey that led to his death. The image of him on a train in 1849 is downright fascinating. This musical action opera really starts with that image, not Poe himself. When we started to research Poe, we discovered something very different than we had been taught about him—a witty, funny, and inquisitive writer who really explored almost everything and intuited the creation of the universe. So, we put all of that in the context of an artist trying to make ends meet on a train.

Segal: Why did you decide to investigate Eureka and some of Poe’s other lesser known works?

Phillips: Poe has been locked into a cliché for all time, but when you peek behind the curtain of his known works, you discover a truly rounded, playful, mischievous thinker who played with ideas on furniture, fantasy, and the creation of the universe. It is without doubt that Eureka should be his best known work, not his brilliant, yet somewhat silly The Raven, which he wrote as a commercial hit to make money. In our US culture that, then and now, values first the commercial over the intellectual, real ideas that ask us to contemplate real questions about existence are swept under the rug for gossip, trends, and distractions.

SegalRED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE features only four cast members and a pretty limited number of props. What appeals to you about this kind of minimalist approach?

Phillips: This action opera only needs four people onstage; anyone else would be extraneous, as each of the four performers has a very defined and specific role in terms of the story, but more importantly, they each serve a specific dramaturgical and structural purpose. So, yes, this becomes a distilled minimalism that is the best tool for devising theater, as it forces the creative team to work with limited resources to maximum potential, creating an action-packed yet refined performance that relies on creativity, transformation, evocative design, and integrated music. Working minimally also allows for maximum use of each object and every inch of stage space, which makes the stage a canvas where the placement of everything has a reason and meaning and must transform from one thing to the next. RED EYE to HAVRE de GRACE is a much richer, fuller, and dynamic work, dramatically, musically, and visually, because we chose to do so much with so little.

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Lucidity Suitcase, Photo: Johanna Austin

Segal: In the program notes for RED-EYE, you include a timeline of the events that led up to the premiere of the play in April 2014. In that timeline, you place a decent amount of emphasis on when you bought the props that would eventually inspire the props you use in this production (e.g. “Oct 1997 – Phillips and Wilhelm buy a wood table for $20 under the El in Philadelphia…”). Are props and staging often the first variables you deal with in your creative process?

Phillips: This timeline is deceptive, although groundwork was laid down for this work years ago, the actual rehearsal and creation time for RED-EYE was six weeks. Objects create theater. A chair can write a show. Put it in a room. Look at it. When was it made? Who sat there? What does the chair tell you? What stories does it have? From just this chair in a space, you could devise a work using just the chair as the source material. Objects tell us a lot and are infused with meaning. When played with, objects can create an entire unexpected universe.

Segal: Could you explain the concept of “action design” and its influence on your work?

Phillips: Action design is the idea that theatrical design should move with stage action and be an integral and vital part to any theatrical work. It employs the idea of transformation and the set having a defined meaning to the content of the show, not just a dead space to hold the actors. Stage is a liquid space with more power and actually, in using action design, more technological power than cinema. Onstage you can do quicker shifts and jump cuts live in front of an audience than you can on film. Action design promotes the explosion of stage space into a magical liquid space.

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Lucidity Suitcase, Photo: Johanna Austin

Segal: How involved were you with the Wilhelm Bros. & Co. in the composition of the music?

Phillips: They composed a lot within and around rehearsals, and my role was similar to a producer of a record. Jeremy and David composed the music, but, for example, I would suggest that the song “El Dorado” be played with Flamenco guitar. This was because David lived in a cave with Gypsies in southern Spain for two years and the idea of a Quixote-esque knight is in the poem lyric. The crazy-insane-can-do-anything Wilhelm Brothers then wrote a flamenco version of the song.

Segal: What speaks to you about journey narratives? It seems like the characters in many of your plays are often in various states of transition.

Phillips: I love travel. I love being in odd places and trying to understand. When we discovered the odd facts of Poe’s last travel, they screamed to us. There is great drama in travels, especially ones that lead across the river Styx, as in RED-EYE. We take Poe, away from home, on a journey, throw him into a space with a Ranger of today who guards his old Philly house, two pianos, and all the accouterements of the theater (booms, lights, curtains, shadows, etc.), and drive home to the audience an action opera. It is the journey that drives the design, music, and action.

Segal: Finally, in the aforementioned timeline, you include the July 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson. What’s the connection between the Higgs boson and RED-EYE?

Phillips: The central idea in Poe’s Eureka is the “Primordial Particle,” which is the Higgs boson. What Poe intuited in 1849 was confirmed in 2012, the year RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE opened.

RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE runs from Thursday–Saturday, January 29–31 in the McGuire Theater at 8 pm.  

Tell Them What You Told Them: Fire Drill on Mariano Pensotti’s Cineastas

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, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on […]

Photo: Carlos Furman

Photo: Carlos Furman

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, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on Cineastas by Mariano Pensotti. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Mariano Pensotti’s Cineastas opens with an outrageously clear structural conceit, represented by two chairs on two stages. The real chair on the bottom stage designates the area where “real life” filmmakers will be depicted, while a life-size photocopied image of a chair on the top stage marks a space for the world of their films. It’s a simple device that instructs us how to watch the action, and our understanding of the piece begins and ends with this image. We immediately see the congruence between “real life” and the filmic world, and the double image foretells the merging of the two spaces.

Nestled neatly within this delineation of space is a similarly clear narrative conceit: the filmmakers’ lives affect the films they create, and vice-versa. The visual split-screen produced by the architecture sets up a cause-and-effect relationship between the two stages. As we see the stories unfold (there are four main filmmakers, plus their films), we hear how each filmmaker’s vision for their work is changing due to their life circumstances (e.g., terminal illness, pregnancy, rising in the ranks of a corporation) and we are invited to scan the films above them for signs of change. It works the other way too, as we similarly see a film about a long-lost father subsume its filmmaker, whose own father was disappeared.

And in case either of these conceits fail to dawn on you initially, you are guaranteed to understand them thanks to Cineastas’ underlying performance conceit: constant narration. The narration is intended to evoke the sense of a voice over, but the narrators, who distinguish themselves by speaking into handheld mics, are nearly always onstage as they describe what is going on in the filmmaker’s life and their films. This narration is oftentimes crucial: with four filmmakers plus their respective films, we have somewhere between 7-9 mildly-interacting plot lines and probably 40 characters among the 5 actors. With every shift from filmmaker to filmmaker we need to be reminded who this new filmmaker is, which film is theirs, and brought up to speed on what has happened since the last time we saw them (e.g., they are now in Russia).

Their ability to shift seamlessly and even playfully from character to character, storyline to storyline, and narration to narration borders on the virtuosic. However, this sense of constant exposition extends to the point where it becomes an omnipresent oral history, telling everything that it’s showing, and then some. The performative conceit intended to evoke cinema ultimately lands it in another form, a lecture–or rather, a book, since those who do not speak Spanish will find themselves reading the subtitles projected between the stages.* The text would easily stand on its own as a printed publication. We are all about drawn-out structural conceits–but the question is: to what end was this conceit stretched? When the format refuses to change, how do we as an audience change in response? Perhaps apropos to movies, when we are constantly told what’s going on, what to look for and each character’s every action and motivation, we become much more passive and absorbent–not only to descriptions of what happens to the characters, but also when the piece tells us how to interpret it.

We can easily draw connections between the “real” lives of the filmmakers and their filmic creations, like relating fast food worker’s discontent with the character in his film who is kidnapped and forced to work as Ronald McDonald. Elements of the plot are often predictable–we are not surprised when the script exacerbates the filmmaker’s father issues. And yet the characters repeatedly comment on the obvious interaction of film and life, driving home just how meta they can be. To wit: “We know places by their fictional output.” “Two images come together to form a new meaning.” And the most obvious: “We live the way films tell us to live.” There are visual metaphors like this as well, such as the character in the film world who photocopies an image over and over until it’s faint and blurry. The production is eager to tell us that filmic life bleeds over into real life–so much so that the play includes not one, but two mentions of people literally walking onto a film set and believing that it’s real.

Many contemporary works of art ask whether art can have a true and profound effect on our lives. While we (Fire Drill) are more compelled by works that hold this question open rather than answer it, Cineastas makes a clear, partisan argument in the affirmative. We find this to be an interesting contribution to current discussions about the role of art in activism and civic life that are taking place locally and nationally. (Though we can’t speak well to the context in Argentina, that this show was curated here qualifies it as part of the conversation.) Cineastas makes a strong case for the material impact of art on life, with political threads tied throughout the work. No doubt this is inspiring for many viewers, fulfilling hopes that the time they’ve spent in the theater really does make a difference. As for the Minnesotan context, we see this piece as yet another work directly arguing for the importance of art via its content rather than its form. We wonder if these works would be more powerful if they didn’t try so hard to shore up their own powerlessness.

Another note on Cineastas and its contemporary context: The lower, real-life stage contained a laptop, which was sometimes used by the characters to view their own films. While it was somewhat out of place within the visuals of the piece, it served as the sole window into the contemporary. The play delimits film strictly, looking at cinema proper as opposed to the broader, more interesting question of how screen time and filmed media in general affects our lives now. Cinema has been around for roughly 100 years and has clearly impacted our sense of time and narrative, but Cineastas turns a blind eye to the contemporary manifestations of the omnipresence of film. Making films is no longer an esoteric activity, so what does it mean that everyone now carries a camera in their pocket? Focusing the piece on characters for whom film is a vocation and a profession, rather than an integrated part of their daily lives, actually seems out of step with the main argument of the piece.

We believe in evaluating work on its own terms, or watching it the way it asks to be watched. Cineastas is a work in which the form matches the content: the concept of the piece serves the narrative and vice versa. (Granted, that’s no small thing.) The structure is so airtight, however, that it forecloses the viewer’s ability to connect the dots on their own. It becomes didactic, spoonfeeding interpretation rather than suggesting pathways toward meaning. Rather than “show, don’t tell”, Pensotti’s code seems to be, “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them”–a rhetorical strategy, not a filmmaking one. But who is not aware that we live in a mediated reality? If art is going to change our lives, it needs to give the viewer more credit, and make space for a different kind of understanding.

*For those fluent in Spanish, there is a good deal of spoken dialogue that remains untranslated and subtitled. In the performance these were often punctuated by the laughter of the handful  of audience members sufficiently fluent in Spanish to catch a joke or reference. I highly recommend brushing up on your Spanish–particularly Spanish curses–as well as the recent geopolitical history of South America with particular emphasis on US interventionism and local resistance to globalization.

Cineastas continues tonight (Friday, January 23) and tomorrow night (Saturday, January 24)  at 8pm in the McGuire Theater.

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