White/Light and Shelley at MCA

A museum gallery is an apt place for some drone music. As I’ve mentioned before, Chicago has a pretty active scene for drone music, which is a catch-all term for music with sustained notes or chords. The Chicago duo White/Light has an installation all this month at the Museum of Contemporary Art: a dark room filled with cabinet speakers and a couple of old tape machines. The tapes spin around, creating humming sounds that come out through the various speakers. If you spend a little time in the room, listening closely, you’ll notice different noises coming out of the various amps.

It’s a great spot for a little meditation. You’ll think that you’ve seen and heard everything there is to experience in this room after about 90 seconds, but linger for a while and let the sound wash over you.

That’s also the best attitude to take when experiencing a live performance of drone music. At various times during the month, White/Light’s Matt Clark and Jeremy Lemos and guest musicians have been performing in this space, improvising off the room’s droning vibe. The most famous of the guest musicians, Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, played with the duo Saturday afternoon (March 20). Shelley’s thumping mallets added throbbing rhythms to the abstract guitar and keyboard sounds, giving the music a bit of the same feeling as Pink Floyd’s “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” The music built from a quiet intro into loud thump — loud enough that I saw one parent exiting the room with a young boy who was grimacing with his hands over his year. Ear plugs, folks — wear ear plugs!

Upcoming performances: March 23, 7 p.m.: Lucky Dragons. March 27, 3 p.m.: Félicia Atkinson: Saturday. March 28, 3 p.m.: White/Light.

The studio is part of the art

The new exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, explores how artists use their studios and how the studio environment influences their art. It’s called “Production Site: The Artist’s Studio Inside-Out,” and it’s up through May 30.

At the press event that kicked off the show, I recorded comments by a few of the artists and curator Dominic Molon. Here’s a video with a few of those sound bites, along with photos of the exhibit. (This video is a little experiment. I’m playing around with different ways of documenting stories and events.)

… One thing you won’t hear about in my video is the wonderful piece of paranoid narrative art by Deb Sokolow, “You Tell People You’re Working Really Hard On Things These Days,” which she plans to change as the exhibit goes on. It’s in the front lobby of the MCA.

ICE plays Saariaho

International Contemporary Ensemble — or ICE for short — played four pieces by Finnish avant-garde composer Kaija Saariaho Thursday (Nov. 19) at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

Based in both Chicago and New York, ICE champions new music, performing in a variety of lineups — Thursday’s concert included a solo percussion piece as well as compositions played by larger ensemble that was more like a chamber orchestra.

My favorite piece of the evening was the first (and most recently composed), “Terrestre.” Flute, harp, percussion, violin and cello notes skittered around one another in a delicate dance. Flutist Claire Chase somehow managed to sing and play flute at the same time during some passages. In “Six Japanese Gardens,” Nathan Davis ably demonstrated the variety of sounds and delicate patterns one can created with nothing but percussion. Well, not nothing — the piece also includes some electronic background tracks created by Saariaho, which Davis triggered by pedal.

The second half of the concert featured two pieces that Saariaho wrote for chamber ensembles with electronics — “Lichtbogen” (1986) and “Solar” (1992). The electronic textures and treatments were subtle, barely even noticeable at times, other than moments like the climax of “Lichtbogen,” when the notes reverbed and echoed in ways you don’t often hear at a classical concert. The music floated along, and it was easy to loose track of the passing time, as Chase pointed during an onstage interview with Saariaho. The amorphous quality of the compositions reminded me of Gyorgy Ligetti’s “Atmospheres,” although Saariaho’s tones are less ominous.

It was interesting to hear Saariaho answer Chase’s questions during their conversation before the concert’s intermission. Saariaho talked about how nature inspires her music — “the symmetry of leaves … and the endless variation within the symmetry.”

In parts of “Lichtbogen,” Saariaho instructs the players to make visceral sounds with their instruments, such as the noise of strings being scraped. “They are not noises for me,” Saariaho explained. “They’re associated with some of the most beautiful sounds that we know — wind and whispering. They are very intimate sounds for us.”

That sort of intimate sound made ICE’s Saariaho concert an unconventionally beautiful experience.

Frankenstein by the Hypocrites

When I heard that the audience would be onstage during Hypocrites theater company’s new staging of Frankenstein at the Museum of Contemporary Art, I wondered if we would be given pitchforks and torches. That didn’t happen. I suppose it would violate the fire code to allow a mob of theatergoers to chase after the monster.

However, the audience does chase around the actors, in a manner of speaking. This play, directed by Sean Graney, is being performed “in promenade,” which means that the audience is on the stage at the same time as the actors, who move in and around the spectators. Interesting concept, but difficult to pull off. I haven’t seen the earlier Hypocrites shows that were performed in promenade, though I have seen a couple of other plays using this device. With Frankenstein, the seating area of the MCA’s auditorium has been closed off with a curtain. Audience members sit or stand wherever they can, including benches scattered around the stage. When the actors need to move to a spot occupied by an audience member, they point in that direction as a signal to make way. The problem is that audience members frequently find themselves unable to see what’s going on. You have to keep moving around to get good vantage points, which didn’t bother me too much, but after a while, it got to be too much work just to get a clear view of the action.

More to the point: Does the fact that the audience is surrounding and mingling with the performers have anything to do with the theme of the play? There is one point when the Frankenstein monster is talking about mankind and he seems to be taking in the people surrounding him. At this moment, I got some sense of how the audience functioned as a sort of silent character in the drama. But it was just a passing moment. Perhaps the promenade concept would have worked better if the MCA stage had elevated areas for the actors or more than one overhead mirror to reflect the action.

The famous movie of Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff and its sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, were not all that faithful to the original novel by Mary Shelley. This stage version isn’t either, although it seems to draw more from the book (which features an articulate monster) than the films. The original film plays on a screen above the play, with the actors occasionally using a remote control to fast-forward the flow of black-and-white images. Graney’s take on Frankenstein vacillates between contemporary and historic settings, or so it seems. Most effectively, it feels like a bad dream. The story jumps ahead at a few points, skipping over months of events. The result is the alarming sensation that Victor Frankenstein (John Byrnes) has conducted his dangerous experiments in a sort of nightmarish haze, waking up one day to realize what he’s done. Whenever Elizabeth (Stacy Stoltz) or “Strange Girl” (Jessie Fisher) show up, it feels like they’re dropping into Frankenstein’s lair from another dimension.

Matt Kahler delivers a strong, visceral performance as the monster, billed here as The Daemon. As in the book, the monster eloquently questions who he is and why Dr. Frankenstein has built him. The play’s final confrontation between monster and maker is moving and dramatic.

Frankenstein continues through Sunday (Nov. 1) at the MCA. www.mcachicago.org

Photo by Paul Metreyeon

Califone goes to the movies

The Chicago band Califone’s music has always been cinematic, with lots of atmospheric touches, so it was not all that surprising to learn that Califone leader Tim Rutili was making a movie. On Saturday and Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Rutili’s film, All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, screened while the band played along to the soundtrack. Or something like that. You see, Califone has a new album, which is also called All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, but it’s not really a soundtrack. It includes some music that appears in the film, but it also has other songs.

And when Califone played in front of the movie screen this weekend at the MCA, the band was also appearing in the film up on the screen. The film is about a haunted house in Indiana, and the members of Califone play a ghostly house band. The way the film was shown, you could hear some music from from the film, while Califone supplemented that soundtrack with even more music — rattling, jangling percussion and droning guitar, keyboards, violin and banjo. Rutili sang a bit, when the film left space for a couple of actual songs, but most of the time, it was more like Califone was adding emotional accents to the film as it unfolded. The music and images meshed together artfully.

Rutili’s film was pretty impressive in its own right. This is the sort of independent film that probably wouldn’t make it much further than the film-festival circuit, short on plot, heavy on mood, but it’s imaginative and well crafted, with decent acting. Like Califone’s music, the film is spooky and a little rough around the edges. Seeing it with a live supplemental score was a memorable experience.

After the movie and an intermission, Califone came back and played about 40 minutes of music without visual accompaniment, including several of the songs from the new album that don’t actually appear in the film. The band ambled through these songs, taking a couple of long pauses due to a broken string… which led to some humorous stage banter. Rutili remarked that it was an unprofessional set, which Califone can get away in its hometown but perhaps not in other cities. Maybe so, but it made the performance seem all the more intimate.


(Photo from All My Friends Are Funeral Singers by John Adams.)

The Books at the MCA

Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art was an ideal location for the concerts Sunday night (May 3) by the Books. This was not so much a concert as it was a multimedia presentation — a live musical performance in synch with short films. And for a show like that to work, you need a nice auditorium with a real movie screen. Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong sat down in front of the screen and played calming, almost minimalist music, mostly on guitar and cello, while movies and words and creatively reconstructed audio clips unreeled behind them.

Playing a lot of new and recent compositions, the Books were most impressive in how they brought all of these elements together into one seamless whole. The sampled voices and audio mix in perfect time with the live music. This is sound and voice editing in the tradition of records such as Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush With Ghosts, though the Books do it in a way that sounds less aggressive than many of those earlier efforts. Without all of those audio samples, some of the music that Zammuto and de Jong play would be a little too bland to attract much attention, but it functioned well as one part of the concert’s overall auditory and visual spectacle, which occasionally achieved real genius. The film imagery was often edited with stuttering motions to fit the tempos, often to humorous effect.

My favorite part of the whole show (and, judging from all the laughter, it was a favorite for others) was the song “Cold Freezing Night,” which featured recordings of some young kids making violent threats to one another. At other points, the Books introduced songs with the following descriptions: “This is a piece about the circulatory system.” “This next song is about geese.” “About male geese.”

Another highlight was a cover of Nick Drake’s “Cello Song.” As the concert progressed, it became clear that the sequence of letters showing on the screen in between songs was a coded set list. The Books played two encores, but left that last song — identified only as “n” — unplayed during the 7 p.m. show.

Photos of the Books.

Rocking to Warhol films

Andy Warhol’s films raise the question of what exactly you’re supposed to do with them. Are they regular “films” meant to be seen in a movie theater? Or some other sort of art? In today’s art world, they’d probably be seen more in line with the video art that you see in galleries or posted on the Web than anything you would sit down to watch with a bucket of popcorn.

It seemed especially apt when the “screen tests” Warhol filmed showing the members of the Velvet Underground staring at the camera were displayed in the 2007 exhibit “Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Walking through the galleries, you saw these faces looking out at you from the wall, not still enough to be paintings, not quite animated enough to be movies. They were the living equivalent of a two-dimensional photographic portrait.

More of those screen tests — a sample of the 300 four-minute films Warhol made of various people looking into the camera — were back at the MCA Saturday night (March 7). This time, they were on a big screen in the theater, a bit more like a trip to the cinema. But this was a concert, not a movie. Or maybe it was both. Dean & Britta were playing thirteen songs to accompany those black-and-white faces, in a project commissioned by the Andy Warhol Museum called 13 Most Beautiful … Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests. Warhol used to show some of these movies at performances by the Velvet Underground and Nico, so it seems like the late pop artist would probably approve of this latest use for his footage.

And Dean & Britta are a good choice to carry it out. It’s been obvious ever since Dean Wareham was in Galaxie 500 — and all throughout his recordings with Luna and Dean & Britta — that the Velvet Underground are his major musical influence. At last night’s show, Dean & Britta sounded more like the V.U. than ever. Other than a few loud moments, they stayed on the more delicate end of the V.U. groove, with that trademark sound of tamped-down urgency pulsing underneath the chords. While Wareham and Britta Phillips don’t sound precisely like Lou Reed and Nico when they sing, their languid vocals were a close-enough approximation to set the right mood for the screen tests. Some of the songs (including originals as well as covers) were instrumental; in some, the vocals were almost incidental. Wareham’s guitar was the musical star of the night.

But the real stars were those faces — Richard Rheem, Ann Buchanan, Paul America, Edie Sedgwick, Billy Name, Susan Bottomly, Dennis Hopper, Mary Woronow, Nico, Freddy Herko, Ingrid Superstar, Lou Reed and Jane Holzer. As the films flared in and out of view, the faces stared out at us, like people looking at themselves in the mirror. Some of them did little more than stare, and one’s attention wandered away from the screen. Then the eyes would blink and you would remember that that wasn’t just a still photo projected behind the band. Some of the subjects were more lively. Reed, wearing cool shades, slurped at a Coke bottle. (For that film, Dean & Britta played “Not a Young Man Anymore,” an old V.U. song that surfaced in bootleg concert recordings.) Hopper kept glancing down and then back up, seemingly fighting off an urge to laugh or reveal some other emotion, his eyes fluttering.

Nico acted as if it wasn’t a screen test at all, but rather a casual moment captured by a surreptitious camera. But then she made it clear that she really was playing for the camera when she rolled up a magazine and held it to her eye like a telescope. (For that film, Dean & Britta played “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” which Bob Dylan wrote with Nico in mind.) In the final film of the show, Jane Holzer brushed her teeth for all of us to see.

13 Most Beautiful… is coming out on DVD from Plexifilm, and Wareham suggested the video musical tracks would be perfect to watch on an iPod or cell phone. That does seem like the sort of art-dissemination system Warhol would have liked. You can watch the trailer here on youtube.

Photos of Dean & Britta performing at the MCA.

The great ‘Gatz’

When a book is adapted for the stage or screen, one of the hardest things to capture is the author’s voice. Without a lot of narration, the way the author tells the story tends to disappear. So why not include the actual words on the page? How about every single word? As insane as that idea might sound, it’s exactly what the New York theater company Elevator Repair Service has done with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

The group’s play, called Gatz, is hardly a straightforward adaptation of The Great Gatsby, however. Performed three times this past weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the 6 1/2-hour Gatz presents the odd spectacle of an employee in a drab office who finds a copy of the novel in his desk and then proceeds to read it aloud. At first, the other employees around him seem to be aware of what he’s doing, giving him odd looks. But after a while, they all begin providing the voices for the various characters within the novel. Don’t worry about the logic of this. Of course, the actual office employees wouldn’t know all of those lines without looking at the page. At this point, Gatz is becoming a weird little world with a logic of its own.

It’s a highly conceptual piece of theater as well as a staged reading of the novel. It was a bit like hearing a book on tape mixed with performance art. The milieu of the office reminded me of Ben Katchor’s comic strips, and some humor arose from the way the office workers perform Fitzgerald’s great story. As unconventional as all of this was, it still managed to stay true to the novel. As the narrator, Scott Shephard achieved the Herculean task of reading the whole damn book. Halfway through the show, I marveled at seeing how many pages he had turned. And 45 minutes or so from the end, he set down the book and recited the rest from memory. A stillness descended on the theater for Fitzgerald’s final elegiac passage. It had been a long haul for the audience, with two intermissions and a dinner break, but my attention never lagged, and by the exhausting end of the ordeal, the long standing ovation and three curtain calls felt like the least we could do to honor the amazing performance we’d just witnessed.