This Is America: Tylonn J. Sawyer's "WHITE HISTORY MONTH VOL. 1" at LSA Humanities Gallery

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Tylonn J. Sawyer, DNA drawing

DNA, charcoal, collage and gold leaf on paper, 96 “ X 67”, 2019.

Tylonn J. Sawyer's exhibition WHITE HISTORY MONTH VOL. 1 might not seem to be made for people who ask, “Why don’t we have a White History Month when we have Black History Month?”

But people who ask that question should see this exhibit at the LSA Humanities Gallery at the University of Michigan. 

Sawyer is an artist, educator, curator, and activist based in Detroit who tackles difficult questions of race and identity in American culture. He grapples with the "why don't we have" question by representing iconic African-Americans in his show devoted to “white history” by suggesting that white history is inextricably linked to black history in the U.S. He uses varied media in his explorations of identity and race, including drawings on paper, oil paintings, a soundtrack, and a short film.

His works at LSA range from monumental drawings to intimate portraits of influential black women artists. Sawyer disrupts typical histories of the Civil War and its monuments in these bodies of work by referencing the creation and destruction of monuments both in America and throughout known history. He also offers audiences new heroes through Grâce Noire, his series of charcoal and glitter portraits of black women artists, including Faith Ringgold, Kara Walker, Sydney G. James, and Tiff Massey, an interdisciplinary artist based in Detroit.

Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Yeomen of the Guard" casts a darker shadow for light comic opera

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW

UMGASS's Yeoman of the Guard

Photo courtesy of UMGASS.

Comic operas usually live up their genre name: lively songs, light humor, and endings filled with satisfied characters.

For the most part, Gilbert and Sullivan's twist on the style, Savoy operas, are no exception. But their The Yeomen of the Guard mixes playful puns and broken hearts, making for an emotionally complicated environment that is a distinct change from standard comic-opera fare.

The play debuted in London on Oct. 3, 1888, at the 1,200-seat Savoy Theatre, which was built to showcase Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas. The University of Michigan Gilbert & Sullivan Society (UMGASS) is staging its take on The Yeomen of the Guard at the 600-seat Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, December 5-8, which will give attendees a more intimate look at a play Sullivan described in his diary as, "Pretty story, no topsy turvydom, very human, & funny also."

"Impulse Ann Arbor" documentary explores the present and history of the town's techno-music scene

MUSIC REVIEW

Impulse Ann Arbor

DJ and MEMCO member Victoria Johnson in a still from Jordan Stanton's documentary Impulse Ann Arbor.

If all you know of Jeff Hayner is that he's a sometimes controversial member of the Ann Arbor City Council for Ward 1, Jordan Stanton's Impulse Ann Arbor documentary will be an eye-opener. 

The film is primarily about the university-affiliated Michigan Electronic Music Collective (MEMCO), a group of student DJs, producers, dancers, and fans who support and promote techno via a variety of events, including the monthly Impulse party.

But Impulse Ann Arbor also explores the connection between the current techno scene and the people who helped launch it -- and that includes Hayner, who was a longtime co-host of WCBN's Crush Collision, which began in 1987 and continues to this day (Thursdays, 10 pm to 1 am, 89.1-FM). 

Hayner's DJ name was Jeffrey Nothing -- borrowed from David Lynch's Blue Velvet. In the early 1990s, Hayner and Crush Collision co-host Brendan Gillen (aka BMG, aka Ectomorph) were early enthusiastic supporters of Detroit techno and its offshoots, helping draw a line of influence to Ann Arbor from the Motor City (with a zig through Belleville -- home of electronica pioneers Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson). 

Gillen and Hayner are two of several talking heads in Impulse Ann Arbor, including current MEMCO members DJ Holographic, Cat Kenzie, Kavin Pawittranon, and others, as well as Shigeto, aka Zachary Saginaw, whose accent is so PURE MICHIGAN that it adds an extra level of local love to his affectionate words about the town where he grew up. They all pay tribute to A2's legacy as a progressive place -- musically and otherwise -- and the MEMCO DJs do a fine job of explaining the collective's mission to be inclusive and mentoring, passing knowledge to anyone who wants to learn how to create a dancefloor-filling mix. The 22-minute documentary also gives nods to the Nectarine Ballroom -- aka Necto -- which was an early Ann Arbor home for industrial electronic music and techno, and to WCBN's legacy as one the local scene's hubs in the 1990s.

Director Stanton is a senior at U-M and co-president of MEMCO, so it's no surprise his Impact Ann Arbor reads like a love letter to the organization he helps lead and the university town that supports it. But what's not to love about dancing the night away among friends, or DJing music that makes people from different backgrounds come together under the same beat?

Even councilmember Hayner still spins from time to time -- on the turntables. There are no politics on the dancefloor.

See Impulse Ann Arbor below:

U-M Emeritus Professor John Knott recounts adventures of semi-rural Scio Township life in a new nonfiction essay collection

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Almost Country by John Knott

Occasionally you get a good look inside another life. It could be seeing a career other than your own. It could be hearing about a trip to a place where you’ve never been. It could also be learning about a distinct lifestyle chosen by another person.

John Knott’s new book, Almost Country: Living With the Land, reveals the latter. In this 147-page self-published collection of nonfiction essays, he outlines his experiences with building and living in a home in the woods outside of Ann Arbor with his wife, Anne. Anyone with an interest in construction, wildlife, ecology, native plants, and trees, land ethics, local politics, and stories about ways of living might appreciate these essays.

Their house was situated on about three acres near the Huron River and just far enough outside of the city that they experienced a closer connection to the natural world while still enjoying a quick drive to Ann Arbor. As Knott writes, “We would find ourselves learning to appreciate darkness and quiet more absolute than anything we had experienced in town.”

The Knotts moved to their home in Scio Township in 1992 after their children left the house and as a way to pursue their interest in environmental issues. In 2006, Knott retired from the University of Michigan, where he taught and led in academic administration and is now Professor Emeritus of English. He focused on English Renaissance literature before turning his attention to literature and the environment.

One recurring thread throughout Almost Country is the question of how to maintain a landscape. The Knotts made a strong effort to give preference to native plants. Striking a balance between aesthetic and ecological principles presented both a challenge and goal for them, as Knott contemplates the question, “Restoration to what baseline?” in the book.

Wisconsin indie-folk band Dead Horses look to the moon and Midwest for inspiration

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Dead Horses

Music from the indie-folk and Americana band Dead Horses grapples with hope and pain -- how to reconcile sorrows and desires -- through both songwriting and sound. Lyrics on the 2018 album, My Mother the Moon, draw on frontwoman Sarah Vos’ life story, including experiencing an unsettling childhood and finding her way as an adult, as well as her observations as a musician. The track “Turntable” offers this image:

Oh, she said, “If my heart was a turntable,
And my belly was the speaker and my soul the needle.”

These are the kind of songs in which you can hear something new each time you listen. Finding autonomy and self, acknowledging hurt and struggles, recognizing social issues, interacting with nature, and looking hopefully to the future all figure into this album.

Most recently, Dead Horses, started by Vos and bassist Daniel Wolff, is releasing a series of singles, which will appear on an EP next year. Their latest one, “Birds Can Write the Chorus,” embraces possibility, as “it’s never what I thought it was; it’s never too late,” according to the lyrics.

Dead Horses play The Ark on Wednesday, December 4, with doors opening at 7:30 pm and the show starting at 8 pm. Vos and Wolff responded to questions by email beforehand.

"Last Letters" documents a love story among German Resistance fighters in World War II

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Last Letters book

“We are only here because of Harald Poelchau, the prison chaplain who risked his own life to smuggle these letters back and forth to my grandparents,” says author Johannes von Moltke. “There is no other way that my grandmother would have gotten these letters and been able to keep them the rest of her life.”

The messages von Moltke refers to are the heart of Last Letters: The Prison Correspondence Between Helmuth James and Freya von Moltke, 1944-45, which contains the intimate notes between German Resistance fighters in World War II. The book is published in English for the first time thanks to von Moltke, his sister Dorothea, his uncle Helmuth, and translator Shelley Frisch. 

Late in 1944, Freya von Moltke waited at home while her husband Helmuth James von Moltke was being held in a Berlin prison, awaiting his trial for his part in the Kreisau Circle, one of the crucial Resistance groups in Germany. In the months leading up to Helmuth’s execution in January 1945, the two exchanged heartfelt, moving letters about their lives and love for each other. Poelchau risked his safety daily to smuggle these writings in and out of the prison. 

Dr. von Moltke, now a professor of German and film at the University of Michigan, says his grandmother always had the letters with her.

Bill Kirchen reminiscences on Commander Cody, Iggy Pop, and Bob Dylan before the Ann Arbor guitar legend's Honky Tonk Holiday

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Excerpt from Bill Kirchen's Holiday Honk Tonk 2019 poster

Ann Arbor native Bill Kirchen is instrumental in creating the rootsy country-rock-blues-folk mix we today call Americana. 

Kirchen hit it big early in his career as the lead guitarist for Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen; he’s responsible for the dazzling guitar work on their enduring 1972 hit “Hot Rod Lincoln.” He’s since become known as an absolute master of the Telecaster guitar, playing with a nearly endless list of impressive names through the years. 

Most recently, though, Kirchen has found one more way to shine: He’s become well known for his Honky Tonk Holiday tours, which showcase some of the most amazing, overlooked Christmas-themed gems you’ve never heard, alongside some other favorites from throughout his storied career.

On Sunday, Dec. 1, Kirchen brings his annual holiday spectacular home to Ann Arbor for a show at The Ark.

Dusting off should-be-classics like “Daddy’s Drinkin’ Up Our Christmas,” “Silent Surfin’ Night,” and “Truckin’ Trees For Christmas,” Kirchen -- now based in Austin -- will appear with his backing band The Hounds of the Bakersfield, featuring Rick Richards on drums and David Carroll on stand-up bass. 

Kirchen took the time to answer a few questions via email, reflecting on the upcoming show and his time in Ann Arbor.

Winter Breakbeats: MEMCO's recent electronic-music mixes bring the heat

MUSIC

MEMCO painted The Rock in Ann Arbor on November 4, 2019

MEMCO painted The Rock in Ann Arbor on November 4, 2019. Photo via MEMCO's Facebook page.

We all have ways of coping with the holidays.

Some eat and drink in abundance to steel themselves against their uncle's ranting of conspiracy theories.

Others join their uncle in spouting said conspiracies.

And then there's you, the person who emotionally logs out by jamming headphones so deep into your earholes that the only thing you hear is whatever jams you're pumping at family-saving volumes.

Well, the Michigan Electronic Music Collective has some gifts for you, O' Blocker ov Bloviators.

The University of Michigan group more commonly known as MEMCO has had an active fall. In addition to throwing various dance parties and frequently holding down the Crush Collision radio show, MEMCO teamed up with the Maize Collective and WCBN for an event at Club Above on November 22 that raised $1,725 for The Avalon Village in Detroit. (MEMCO will also team up with the North Coast Modular Collective for "Getting Started in Electronic Music" at AADL on January 11.)

But what you need for the holidays aren't dance parties or fundraisers; you need Loud Uncle Blocking Mixes, which MEMCO members past and present have been cranking out this fall. Below are all the recent MEMCO-associated mixes the collective has posted to or flagged up on its Soundcloud page, plus a link to a Pulp article back in September where I collected all the mixes the group posted over the summer and at the start of school.

In other words, hours and hours of peace and non-quiet to get you through the holidays.

U-M brings diversity to Steinbeck’s "Grapes of Wrath"

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Grapes of Wrath book cover

Excerpt of the book cover for the first edition of The Grapes of Wrath, 1939.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a great American classic.

It is set in a specific time, the Great Depression of the 1930s; specific places, the Dust Bowl ravaged southwest and the fertile promised land of California; and a specific group of people, the migrant Joad family of Oklahoma, one of many families looked down upon as ignorant Okies, traveling with hope for a better life. Yet the story continues to resonate as migrants make their way from Central America to the United States border and from Syria and North Africa to the shores of Europe in search of justice, peace and a chance for that better life. 

The University of Michigan Department of Theatre and Drama is presenting a production of Frank Galati’s critically acclaimed stage adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel.

“It seemed timely, relevant, a great American tragedy, a great novel,” said production director Gillian Eaton, an award-winning actress, director, and U-M faculty member.

Interactive Empathy: "Way Opens (Disability Arts and Culture)" at Riverside Arts Center

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Still from Petra Kuppers' Salamander

Still from Petra Kuppers' The Olimpias (Salamander Video). Image courtesy Riverside Arts Center.

In its juried exhibition Way Opens (Disability Arts and Culture), Riverside Arts Center asks, “What does ‘disabled’ mean to such a broad range of people who identify as such?”

Works in the show certainly address artists’ personal experiences with disability, but also offer opportunities for audiences to explore what this means interactively, ideally working toward empathy and interrogation into internalized perceptions of disability. Artists in the show grapple with questions of identity and disability, mostly in America, through multimedia installations, interactive exhibits, painting, fiber arts, video, sculpture, and written word. 

The Riverside Arts Center gallery space included multiple changes to the layout typically used for a group exhibition. The center space, instead of being open, or containing installations that require physical engagement, contained tables and chairs to allow visitors to sit and enjoy the show from many positions. The gallery’s book of artist statements is printed in large type and, in addition to the usual statements and bios, includes detailed descriptions of each exhibit for visually impaired visitors.