ICE plays Alvin Lucier’s music at the MCA

You had to be there. An audio recording of the International Contemporary Ensemble’s performances last weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago might capture some of what happened, but to understand and appreciate what ICE was doing with Alvin Lucier’s compositions, you really needed to be inside that three-dimensional space. You needed to move around the museum’s fourth-floor atrium to feel the sound waves coming from various directions.


ICE devoted three concerts to the work of this innovative composer, the most extensive retrospective of Lucier’s work ever performed in Chicago. (Read Peter Margasak’s interview with Lucier in the Chicago Reader.) I attended Saturday’s concert.

The closest thing to a piece of traditional music was Lucier’s 2013 work “Codex,” performed by soprano Tony Arnold and five musicians: David Bowlin on violin, Nicholas Masterson on oboe, Daniel Lippel on guitar, Katinka Kleijn on cello and Campbell MacDonald on clarinet. At times, it seemed like each of these players was expressing just one tiny note at a time: a plink of one string on the guitar, a wordless “ah” from Arnold, a tone from the oboe, and so on, with the notes overlapping to create the sense that they were sustaining. Was it just an illusion that this was a minimal skeleton of music? Or was it an illusion that this seemingly bare framework somehow revealed richer colors? It was a shimmering but mournful wonder.

Some of the other Lucier pieces performed on Saturday were more like sonic experiments than traditional compositions. Most striking was “Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas” (1973–74, revised 2013), which featured two speakers at one end of the atrium emitting tones from pure wave oscillators. We were encouraged to walk around the room and experience the changes in volume level and vibrations where the waves from the two speakers came together. There was Lucier himself, leading a line of people slowly moving forward from the wall to experience the oscillations; I got in line and followed him. Musicians accompanied the oscillations. Just one note — C sharp — was struck on a marimba over and over. The soprano raised her voice and sang along.

That piece segued into “In Memoriam Jon Higgins” (1984), for clarinet and pure wave oscillator. The concert also included a duet between bassoonist Rebekah Heller and an electric lamp. And it ended with a piece that featured no live musicians at all: just a violin hooked up to wires and attached to a pole, surrounded by microphones and sound-sensitive lights.

Through it all, there was a remarkable feeling of calm in the room. You could sense the other people around you paying close attention to every nuance of noise. You could feel the physics of what makes music.

eighth blackbird with special guests

The worlds of classical music and indie rock have been intersecting in some interesting and exciting ways lately. I get the sense that certain musicians and composers feel completely free to cross over the old genre boundaries — if they even recognize that such boundaries exist. Several of these category-defying artists came together this past week for two concerts at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

eighth blackbird. Photo by Nathan Keay © MCA Chicago.

Top billing went to Chicago’s eighth blackbird, a chamber ensemble that champions contemporary classical music (or “new music,” if you will). But the group’s guest performers — Shara Worden, Bryce Dessner and Nico Muhly — were a big draw, perhaps explaining why the concerts sold out.

Dessner and Muhly both wrote pieces that eighth blackbird played during the concert, but they also sat in with the ensemble during other pieces, performing like integral members of the team. (Afterward, on his blog, Muhly wrote: “it’s always a pleasure to interfere in their patterns.”)

Worden, who performs her singular style of rock under the name My Brightest Diamond, is also a classically trained singer and composer — and that pedigree came in handy as she took on the role of the soprano for two movements of David Lang’s “Death Speaks,” which has just been released on CD. It was delicate and mournful music, with sublime singing by Worden giving it a strong emotional undertow.

The concert also featured playful moments, including the opener: Tristan Perich’s aptly titled, “qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq,” which used three toy pianos and electronics to create an undulating, mind-bending pattern of notes. Eighth blackbird member Lisa Kaplan wrote three piano pieces for four hands and played them alongside Muhly, their arms crossing but never tangling.

Dessner, best known as a member of The National, wrote a set of four “Murder Ballades” for eighth blackbird, and this was the U.S. premiere of that suite. Dessner drew on old folk songs for his material, and it did sound distinctly American, with woodwinds and strings taking over for the human voices that might have announced tragic crimes via the folk-music medium in the 19th century.

Muhly wrote his composition, “Doublespeak,” for eighth blackbird in 2012 as a contribution to a festival honoring Philip Glass. It echoed the cycling arpeggios and looping melodies that are Glass’ trademark, without sounding like a slavish imitation.

Appropriately, the concert also included an early Glass composition, “Two Pages” from 1968. Introducing it, eighth blackbird flutist Tim Munro said, “Philip Glass is sort of the grandfather of this entire concert.” He noted that performing “Two Pages” requirers such intense concentration that it feels like “running an ultra-maration,” and that the musicians are really “freaking out” during the piece even if they seems expressionless. That rigorous Glass composition also proved to be something of an ordeal for the audience — harsher and less yielding than Glass’ later music — but it was an impressive feat in its own way.

Throughout the evening I attended (Wednesday, May 1), eighth blackbird and its guest stars played compositions that were equally intriguing and accessible, performing it all at a high level.

Emily Lacy at the MCA

I was unaware of the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Emily Lacy until Jessica Hopper interviewed her for the Chicago Reader. The prolific Lacy has released some 15 mostly homemade albums, including last year’s Country Singer, a haunting collection of simply recorded and plaintively sung acoustic folk songs.

Lacy performed some of those songs as well as more experimental ones using looping pedals in a free concert Tuesday (March 29) at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, part of the same “Face the Strange” series of shows inside Puck’s Cafe that featured Disappears last week. The music was drenched in too much reverb, and Lacy’s toying around with the looping pedal to build choruses of her own voice didn’t always work. I would have preferred a concert that captured the quiet, direct sound of the Country Singer album, but Lacy’s striking voice and songs managed to pierce all of that unnecessary audio haze.

Emily Lacy’s music can be heard and purchased at her website:

Disappears at the MCA

The Chicago band Disappears’ new drummer — possibly just a temporary fill-in — is Steve Shelley, more famous for his work with Sonic Youth. Shelley’s been spending a fair amount of time playing gigs in Chicago over the last year or so, and there he was on Tuesday evening (March 22), when the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago hosted a free show by Disappears. Making the gig extra special was the addition of the two musicians who make up the Chicago band White/Light, Matt Clark and Jeremy Lemos. They’re the curators of this “Face the Strange” series of free concerts at the MCA, and for this show, they sat in with the band, adding a couple of extra layers of humming noise to the proceedings. Disappears easily shifted between those experimental stretches of elongated chords into crunchier rock songs with vocals, and Shelley helped to tie it altogether without ever getting flashy on the drums. Only complaint: The band played too short, clocking in at barely more than half an hour. More music, please!

Creative Music Summit

The Creative Music Summit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago certainly lived up to its name — at least on the one night I was able to attend, Saturday (Nov. 20), a concert that doubled as the 15th anniversary of the Chicago Asian American Jazz Festival. Despite the “jazz” label, this concert was far-ranging and inventive, combining several different strains of music and performance.

The first half of the concert featured Miya Masaoka’s “LED Kimono.” Masaoka played the koto, a traditional Japanese instrument with plucked strings that sounds somewhat like a harp, as well as making sounds with a laptop and electronics. Meanwhile, Arnold Davidson recited text from Luigi Russolo’s “The Art of Noise” in the original Italian. But the focus of attention was Mariko Masaoka-Drew, who stood center-stage with her head covered by a horse’s-head mask. She wore a kimono with LED lights in one sleeve, striking poses throughout the performance. The music was tinkly and abstract — not often offering the listener anything solid to grasp onto. But considered as a piece of performance art — an audio and visual spectacle — “LED Kimono” was pretty interesting. That horse mask and kimono created an unsettling image.


The second half of the concert featured Francis Wong and an ensemble he put together called Legends and Legacies. As the name suggests, the music drew on Asian traditions even as it explored new musical territory. The first piece was “FLUX,” created by percussionist-singer-dancer Dohee Lee. It unfolded like some mysterious, ancient ritual, beginning with dancer Sherwood Chen sitting cross-legged and playing with a bunch of small, thin wooden sticks. Building over the course of what seemed to be several movements, “FLUX” climaxed with Lee dancing and clapping cymbals together.

The ensemble also played Wong’s piece “Shanghai Stories,” which he said was inspired by the stories of his father and grandfather about their days living in Shanghai, including the work they did as jockeys. And then the concert concluded with Wong’s arrangement of “Beyond the Bridge” by the late Chicago jazz legend Fred Anderson.

Throughout all of these pieces, Wong’s Legends and Legacies played a mix of jazz elements (including singing by Dee Alexander and woodwinds by Wong, Ed Wilkerson and Mwata Bowde, violin by Jonathan Chen and bass by Tatsu Aoki) with Asian instruments (taiko drumming by Amy Homma, drumming by Dohee Lee and shamisen by Aoki), as well as avant-garde classical and drone music. The way these various forms of music melded together was impressive and sometimes dramatic.


Frost and ICE

On Sept. 11, it was possible to see two concerts of daring, challenging music in one evening in downtown Chicago — and I managed to attend both. (I did not take photos at either, however.) First up was the closing day of Sonar Chicago, with Australian-Icelandic musician Ben Frost playing at the Chicago Cultural Center. A short time after Frost finished, the International Contemporary Ensemble (or ICE) performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Sadly, I missed most of the Sonar festival, which seemed like a cool addition to Chicago’s September music lineup. Frost stood alone on the stage inside the Claudia Cassidy Theater, switching between his electric guitar and an array of electronics, including a laptop, as he made unsettling and droning noise. Frost created dissonant, almost overwhelming mountains of sound, including some looping repetitions that seemed to sample an animal’s growl and human breathing — familiar sounds that became strange and menacing in this new context.

ICE called its concert “Roots and Return,” since it traced “the web of connections between recent works and the classic pieces that inspired them.” For instance, the first half of the concert featured Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 from 1906, while the second half featured the Chicago premiere of John Adams’ 2007 piece inspired by Schoenberg, Son of Chamber Symphony.

As always, it’s cool to see the flexibility of this ensemble. ICE is an interesting hybrid, sort of like a symphony with a big roster of musicians and sort of like a chamber group, such as a quartet. For each piece that ICE performs, the group pulls a shifting lineup of musicians from that big roster, putting together whatever musicians are required for each composition. An ICE performance might be just a piano solo — or it could be a symphony with a miniature orchestra.

The first composition ICE performed Saturday is a perfect example of the sort of music it’s well-positioned to play: Pierre Boulez’s Memoriale (…explosante-fixe…originel), a 1985 piece for flute and eight instruments. Flutist Claire Chase is ICE’s offstage leader, and she often takes the lead onstage, too. She dominated the Boulez piece, but conductor Jayce Ogren kept the flute and strings in fragile, delicate balance.

Composer Dai Fujikura was present at the concert, and ICE played two new pieces by him, including one that he wrote specifically for the ensemble — called, appropriately enough, ice. Although it was performed without any pauses, it felt like a suite, progressing from one movement and mood to another with some unexpected directions. The opening’s pizzicato strings were eerie, and the climax — or was it a denouement? — was a low, trembling duet between flute and percussion. After intermission, Fujikura answered questions from Chase in an onstage interview, saying that he’s never collaborated so closely with an ensemble on one of his compositions. ICE pianist Cory Smythe also performed Fujikura’s new composition, returning, a sequence of notes that wandered across the keys without much reference, following what seemed to be a strange logic.

The Schoenberg Chamber Symphony and its counterpart by John Adams were high points of the program — although it would take close study to reveal exactly what Adams pulled out of Schoenberg. The strings were nimble during the Schoenberg, with a strong presence of woodwinds, including oboe, bassoon and contrabassoon. The symphony ended with a dramatic punch. Adams’ piece had the cycling, intricate sequences typical of minimalist music. But surprisingly, some woozy, almost romantic melodies emerged at times on top of those music-box patterns. / ICE podcast including interview with composer Dai Fujikura. / WQXR recording of ICE in concert, including Fujikura’s ICE.

Redmoon’s comic-book-come-alive

Before the invention of movies — those sequences of still pictures that create the illusion of movement when they’re projected rapidly — audiences were entertained by other sorts of “motion pictures” and projections. A projector known as the “magic lantern” was invented as early as the 1650s, frightening viewers with ghostly, demonic apparitions. In the 1830s, artist John Banvard stirred a popular sensation by performing in front of a long panoramic painting that scrolled behind him on moving rollers. Devices such as the Kinetoscope and Zoopraxiscope, tricking people into believing they were seeing pictures move.

The newest show by Redmoon Theater owes a debt to these pre-cinematic picture shows. The Astronaut’s Birthday looks like a comic book come alive as it flashes on the grid of 18 square windows on the Museum of Contemporary Art’s front wall. At the beginning of Thursday’s performance, Redmoon Artistic Director Frank Magueri informed the audience that the show involved nothing digital.

This was not a video or film being projected in front of us. Rather, it was a series of pictures on transparent sheets of plastic, projected onto the windows from inside the museum, using the most rudimentary of devices — overhead projectors. Yes, the sort of machines you might remember your grade-school teacher using. The show also uses shadows. At some points, as we sit on the bleachers outside the museum, we see the silhouettes of the Redmoon performers inside the building projected onto those windows.

A great part of the fun comes from thinking about what the Redmoon folks are doing every minute of this show to get all of those pictures to come together on the wall in front of us. It’s like watching a movie being assembled by hand, projected in real time. And that grid gives it the look of a comic book.

The story of The Astronaut’s Birthday is just the right sort of sci-fi plot to go with these stunning visuals. It’s a thrilling ride, made all the more compelling by Jeff Thomas’ musical score and Tony Fitzpatrick’s narration. The story becomes a little vague and enigmatic as it reaches its climax, striving toward a meaningful sort of resolution without completely getting there. But this is a truly inventive and innovative show. Once again, Redmoon is creating its own sort of art, defying the usual genre definitions.

The Astronaut’s Birthday will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays until Sept. 26. See or for details.

Photos by Scott Shigley, courtesy of Redmoon and the MCA.

Jon Langford: The Executioner’s Last Songs

Jan. 21 — “The Executioner’s Last Songs,” which Jon Langford performed Friday and Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, is a mix of concert, staged reading, performance art and video projection. Nothing too pretentious, thankfully… Despite the title, only a small part of the show (the last section) is about Langford and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts recording their anti-death-penalty albums.

For the most part, it’s Langford talking about growing up in Wales, going to art school, discovering punk, forming the Mekons, coming to the U.S. and meeting Lester Bangs, etc. etc., eventually discovering country music via the Chicago WZRD deejay Terry Nelson (who was in attendance for the MCA shows)…

The music was a mix of Langford solo stuff, the Mekons, Wacos, PVC, covers (Tom Jones’ “Deliliah,” introduced as “the Welsh national anthem”). It was kind of interesting hear Langford play “Memphis, Egypt” and throw in a spoken interlude explaining the story behind some of the lyrics — concerning a trip to East Berlin, where they found it impossible to buy any Communist souvenirs.

When I saw this last year at SXSW, it was just Langford, Sally Timms and the violinist Jean Cook, with Langford doing almost all of the reading.

This time, he had those two, plus Tony Maimone playing an odd banjo bass, a drummer (sorry, can’t remember who off the top of my head)… and some of the others, mostly Timms and Cook, did some of the reading.

Highlights included some clips from the aborted TBS kids show that starred Langford as “The Salty Old Sea Dog,” a pirate inside a tiny boat inside a bathroom sink reciting nonsensical poetry. (The show also featured “Cowboy Sally.”)

Anyway, it was all pretty fun, though it did go on a bit long. And the MCA theater is one of those venues that has good sound and sightlines but feels a little too staid for a rock concert.

This was more polished than the version I saw last year, but some of the best moments were the mistakes and ad libs… such as when Timms egged Langford into pretending he was Russell Crowe.