General 1-26-2004

My Favorite (Walker) Things, Part II: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

To mark the closing of the Walker for a year, we're running a series of articles by Richard Paske, musician and writer, about his experiences with the Walker performing arts programs. This is the second; click link at the end of the article for the first.

No discussion of performing arts at Walker Art Center can begin without mentioning Merce Cunningham at the very top, first and foremost. The Walker’s website lists his name ten times on its exhaustive list of performances between 1973 and 1994 (see the link below to access this list) but that number far under-represents the actual number of appearances by Mr. Cunningham during that time. Most of these appearances involved performances by his dance company, but a significant number were solo or duo gigs, lecture/dialogs, or master classes. A few of my favorites:

– It must have been 1973, but it seems earlier: Merce’s company danced in the Walker’s galleries, the only time this has been allowed. John Cage, David Tudor, and David Behrman each provided squeaks, squawks, and other danceable electro-sonics from individual work areas. Gordon Mumma played a French horn with a bassoon reed. Wow! Certain Twin Cities dancers accustomed to smiling while performing were miffed that Merce’s dancers didn’t smile.

– An Event danced by Merce and company in May, 1981, on a taut black dance floor stretched over Saltari’s wooden ballroom floor in the old Podany building on East Lake Street. According to Merce’s notes, an Event “consists of complete dances, excerpts from repertory, and often new sequences arranged for the particular performance and place, with the possibility of several activities happening at the same time—to allow for not so much an evening of dances as the experience of dance.” Experience, indeed! With Cage, Tudor, Kalve, and Kosugi producing bizarre sonic textures never before issued from a bandstand out of the Glen Miller era, Merce’s dancers leaped and torqued so close to the dance floor’s perimeter that sweat would literally move across the invisible fourth wall from performers to audience members seated or standing next to it. I could both hear and feel the breath of individual dancers as they stopped inches from my face before bounding off on their next sequence. It was breathtakingly beautiful in the way that tribal people experience communal art on a daily basis on dirt in the sunshine. Merce’s dancers smiled and so did we.

– Probably 1974, maybe 1978: John Cage reading indeterminately from a bare stage-left to a very subdued and attentive audience in the darkened auditorium. All at once, out of the shadows from behind the very top of the wall behind Cage came Merce’s leg disguised in a long stocking with broad horizontal stripes. Immediate laughter and delight!

– 1978, MCDC at the Native American Center on Franklin Avenue: John Cage sings! If you’ve ever heard Cage’s gentle speaking voice, you would have been stunned to hear the booming bass/baritone intoning sustained pedal points in the gymnasium-like resonance of the NAC.

– 1998, last, but not least: MCDC’s Event in the Sculpture Garden with Andy Warhol’s silver pillows billowing in the September sunshine. Truly a great day to be alive.

Now for a couple bad and one ugly. Along with performances of truly historic significance by many of the twentieth century’s greatest artists, the Walker has presented some real clunkers. I shudder as I type:

– 1978, Charlemagne Palestine: a study in new-agey self-indulgence—candles blanketing the stage provided a warm and fuzzy aura for plodding, excruciatingly boring expanses of piano noodlings and doodlings punctuated by stretches of nearly-Wagnerian bombast. I think he sang, too, but a fuzzy memory protects me from any residual pain I might suffer.

– 1991, John Zorn’s Marquis de Sade piece: While not necessarily true that art dealing with masochism will be by definition offensive to most people, Zorn’s piece was. Not because of the subject matter, or even the composition of the piece, but because of the adolescent manner in which it was performed. By their embarrassed glances at and nearly audible titterings to each other, it was obvious that Zorn’s musicians were extremely uncomfortable with their role in this examination of the horrors expressed by de Sade. I was ashamed of myself for not booing at the end. The Walker’s PA curator at the time told me after the performance, “Zorn will never work here again.” He hasn’t.

– 1982, SPK (file under Ugly, not Bad): Given the embarrassment they suffered at the time, I’m surprised the Walker didn’t expunge this from the list on their website. (Staffers tried to hide the fact that the performance had taken place from Walker board members and higher-ups). Long before Karen Finley’s riveting, chocolate-smeared nude performance in 1990 on the anniversary of her father’s suicide or Ron Athey’s controversial blood-drippings at Patrick’s Cabaret in 1994 the Walker hosted SPK, an Australian punk band that out-Artauded Artaud. With his Theatre of Cruelty the French theater artist Antonin Artaud, who spent the last 10 years of his life in and out of various insane asylums, advocated shocking audiences from their complacency by seating them in the middle of loud, confusing, disturbing dialog and action. SPK chose instead to use amplified chains, grating electronic howls, and films of live people sexually manipulating human cadavers. Upon leaving the auditorium mid-way through the piece I felt as though I were emerging from an artistic torture chamber. Powerful stuff, very ugly, but undeniably powerful.

I can’t end this section of My Favorite (Walker) Things on a note of bad and ugly, so here are some positive, uplifting, even transcendent images with which to close:

– 1970’s: Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra conductor Dennis Russell Davies performing Ives’ Concord Sonata for piano while stomping the stage with his cowboy boots during particularly raucous sections. SPCO concerts at the Walker during Dennis’ 1972 – 80 tenure brought some of the world’s finest musicians together with some of the time’s most adventurous New Music. For anyone intrigued by new musical possibilities for the classical canon, it was a match made in heaven.

– very early 1970’s: SPCO percussionist Larry Barnhart attacking two tympani heads with Bowie knives in a concert featuring Japanese avant-garde music. Trust me, it was funny! This was the very first concert I attended in the Walker auditorium—SPCO’s pay-what-you-can-afford ticket policy had seduced me into making the trip across Hennepin Avenue from my Loring Park apartment. The concert’s bold irreverence primed me for what was to come throughout the Davies era. I had learned that classical music didn’t have to be stuffy.

– 1972, Philip Glass’ first Walker gig as a leader (earlier he had played in Steve Reich’s band at a May, 1970 gig held at Theatre in the Round on the West Bank): Scheduled to be held in Loring Park on a Sunday afternoon in May, rain forced it inside the auditorium where the audience could come and go. Mostly, it went—there were six people left at the end: Sue Weil, my wife and I, and three others. Glass and friends mesmerized those of us who stayed with an effervescent performance of Music with Changing Parts that was at once ethereal and firmly anchored to the earth. Glass played unceasingly throughout the hours-long performance, conducting by nodding his head while playing quick two-handed riffs on Farfisa electric organ. By the time it was over he was drenched in sweat and had the look of Nirvana on his face. I was lucky to be there, and had the opportunity to tell Steve Lacy, who had never heard of Glass, about it a few months later in Paris.

Next time in Part 3, more good…