To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write 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, musicians Julie and Andrew Thoreen share their perspective on Saturday night’s performance of Rafiq Bhatia’s Breaking English, with visual art by Michael Cina and Hal Lovemelt, and Ian Chang’s Spiritual Leader, which was co-commissioned and copresented by the Walker Art Center and the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series.
We came to Breaking English because we are fans of Son Lux, and we’re familiar with Ian Chang and Rafiq Bhatia’s work through that band. We also love what the Liquid Music series stands for and are regular supporters. All of this, combined with our intrigue for the new percussion technology developed by Sunhouse that Chang uses in his work, had us both excited and curious to enter the show. Neither of us were disappointed; the show delighted and inspired us.
Ian Chang’s Spiritual Leader
We don’t have the words or know-how to precisely describe what Ian Chang does. In fact, not knowing exactly how he was doing what he was doing distracted both of us for much of the performance. We researched it, though (you should too), and in a few words, Chang uses a sensor technology to trigger samples and lights from different parts of his drum set. If you want to know more about this technology and how he uses it—and to get a rad history of electronic drumming—check out this interview written brilliantly by Patrick Marschke for the Liquid Music blog.
Andrew Thoreen: Recently having recently ventured with Julie into using MIDI signals to perform, trigger, and play music in our project together, Chang’s synchronized lighting triggers, along with his use of Sunhouse Sensory Percussion, kept me constantly dropping into a meditative and analytical state. In this state I subconsciously probed the performance to identify what specific sound triggered which programmed sample and sound. I was also captivated by how the mood of each sampled sound he used, be it percussive or melodic, was emotionally represented with a lighting cue from LED lights on the floor, in the kit itself, and from bright white lights hung on boom stands behind him. With each song, the mapping of the samples changed along with the lights they triggered. The amount of thought and energy Chang put into this performance was incredible and well executed.
Julie Thoreen: I had a similar experience. Once I closed my eyes and refocused my senses from the how to the what, I really marveled at the way that Chang constructed the performance, specifically how he conducted the piece. I read somewhere that he makes “electronic music that is humanistic.” Indeed. The technology in the sensory percussion allowed for this interaction between conductor, light, and sound that seemed to illustrate human as god. That, mixed with the overall effect created by Chang’s sound design, almost moved the heavens.
Andrew: Once I got over the “wow” factor of the technology, I focused in on the sound design and the richness of the sampled audio. Chang’s subtle and melodic phrasing on the drums, amplified by the rhythms and paired with warm, intriguing sounds enhanced the melodic gestures. I also appreciated the thoughtful arrangements of the songs. His compositional restraint in introducing new material towards the end of a piece was wonderful and compelling. Chang did a great job of pacing throughout his set and transitioning between scenes, blurring the edges of the composition with a fully encompassing sample.
Surprisingly though, my favorite moment of the set was when Chang broke out of the composed arrangements and started improvising with recordings/samples of drums, as opposed to the produced sounds and samples with a given pitch/articulation. It seemed that he entered into a trance, improvising a fidgety, evolving breakbeat, turning over and displacing beats. It was a drum solo that lasted the right amount of time and developed in a great way. It found its way to a breathing point and then naturally evolved into the introduction of the song “Spiritual Leader.”
Julie: I hate to obsess over the celestial quality of things, but when I began to lose myself in the sound design, my imagination drew me into a dimension outside of this material one. The sounds were, for lack of a better word, extra-terrestrial… and their interaction was… cosmic forces playing, dancing, and battling with each other. With Chang controlling it all, Spiritual Leader feels an apt name for both the song and the entire performance.
Andrew: Chang is definitely the leader of these sounds. I had seen Chang play “Spiritual Leader” on a live video he released of the piece, and during the performance, he played it with a different approach, varying the way he used the samples. Different rhythms played with a different amount of space. Though he changed the way he played the rhythms, this performance still seemed a part of the original and tied together to the video performance. It’s an infinite variation of possibilities with every performance.
I do wonder how the technology of Sunhouse’s Sensory Percussion will affect Chang’s work as he continues to experiment and write with it. Will the technology keep evolving and challenge Chang to become even more ambitious, designing ever-more intricate arrangements? I’m excited and curious to hear how the technology will affect his writing in the future. It seems to me there is still much more he can do.
Rafiq Bhatia’s Breaking English
Andrew: I was fascinated by how Bhatia wrote with and arranged for a three-piece band with vocal and production/sound design. The performance and the way they executed the songs instrumentally, with samples, tracks, and other produced sounds were both flawless and incredibly emotional. I couldn’t help but think how this is a contemporary reaction to the fusion era of the ’70s and ’80s. It seems a natural progression in the lineage of Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Yes—sensibilities taken from progressive pop music and fused with free jazz, metal, and rock, as well as soul. Bhatia’s music tactfully blended sound design and improvisation with through-composed arrangements in a way that is definitely inspiring. I especially loved when the voice of Nina Moffitt entered and was doubled in unison with Bhatia’s guitar—it took on a texture of its own and made the hair at the back of my neck stand up.
The band did a great job of executing the music with a ton of energy, but I did find myself fatigued with the length and development of the set. Though Chang’s bombastic work on the low toms was always fascinating and sounded incredible, there were moments in this music that I just wanted to hear him groove, as I know how amazing his pocket playing is. However, I often found myself departing from a focus on the music and becoming involved with the vast amounts of fleetingly beautiful moving images transported along with the music, getting lost in the incredible artwork.
Julie: I’ll be honest, I was not as moved by the music of this piece, although I also loved Nina Moffitt’s addition halfway through. I was most drawn to the visuals created by Michael Cina and edited/manipulated/scored by Hal Lovemelt. I think without them, I would have eventually lost interest in the music. They gave context to the music: devastation, vastness, awesomeness, uncharted landscape. Second to that, for me, was the lighting. Though I found some of the choices distracting, I appreciated the risks the artists were taking to use lighting to enhance, to envelope, and at times, to disarm the audience. It delighted me.
If I could see this performance again, I would. There were so many incredible moments, but it moved so quickly, I hardly had time to catch them and commit them to memory. The music, video, and lighting felt as if they were improvising together. There were times when they seemed to not listen well—or that they were exploring something similar, but not quite connected to each other. After reading Bhatia’s notes about the piece, I believe this was intentional. My favorite moments were when they found each other and locked into place. This happened a number of times, the most satisfying of which occurred at the end, during the aptly named piece, “Love.” Cina’s heart-toned, paint-spilled visuals linked to the lush sounds of the trio, all while the audience was slowly bathed in glowing pink light. I’m a sucker for these sorts of things… It felt like love.
I wonder what will happen as Breaking English continues to be performed and perfected. As with many Liquid Music world premieres, I appreciate the rawness of it, and I always wish I could come back and see it again in the future, after the performers have learned from performing it more in front of an audience.
Andrew: I agree! We’ll just have to go see again someplace else.
Julie: Fine by me… You buying?