Instinct to Play: Thollem McDonas at Kerrytown Concert House

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Thollem McDonas

This article on June 28, 2017. We're re-running it because McDonas is returning to Kerrytown Concert House on Thursday, November 7, and he'll again collaborate with local improvisors Piotr Michalowski and Abby Alwin for an evening of spontaneous music.

Thollem McDonas might be a compulsive collaborator. The American pianist, composer, keyboardist, songwriter, activist, teacher, and author's many projects have included several renowned, and lesser known, players over the years, and he doesn't seem to be slowing.

From improvisations with perennial experimental music headliners -- guitarist Nels Cline; double bassist William Parker; the late composer, accordionist, and electronic music pioneer Pauline Oliveros -- to his Italian agit-punk unit Tsigoti and the art-damaged spiel of the Hand to Man Band (also featuring American punk icon Mike Watt on bass and Deerhoof's John Dietrich on guitar), there's little ground McDonas hasn't covered or isn't covering. He might just be the ideal "six-degrees-of" candidate for people into that particular Venn diagram of weird improv, challenging chamber music, and thinking-people's punk rock.

McDonas plays Kerrytown Concert House on Thursday, November 7, with a trio completed by two accomplished locals: reedman Piotr Michalowski and cellist Abby Alwin. We talked with the restless, and very thoughtful, pianist by email about his many collaborations, balancing political action with music, and sitting down at Claude Debussy's piano.

Be, Hear, Now: yMusic brought its contemporary classical and crossover collaborations to Rackham

MUSIC REVIEW INTERVIEW

yMusic by Graham Tolbert

Photo by Graham Tolbert.

If you aren’t paying attention at the beginning of Andrew Norman’s “Music in Circles” you might miss it. The first note is just so quiet, an almost imperceptible harmonic whispered high in the viola, the kind of airy, insubstantial noise you have to strain to hear.

But once you hear it you’re hooked.

That first lonely pitch is like a slow intake of breath, interrupted after a moment by a stuttering spiccato exhalation that foreshadows the energy that is to come. Slowly the viola is joined by other strings, and patiently the music unfolds and intensifies until, some two and a half minutes in the viola takes off with an up-tempo rhythmic pulse produced by bouncing the bow vertically off the strings, generating a sound that is a blend between being pitched and being a percussive noise.

From here the music grows in volume and intensity as the cello and trumpet play yearning arpeggiated lines, the bass clarinet pitches in with a fluttering falling figure, the violin scratches wildly and the flute shoots jets of air. It’s thrilling. And then it winds down again, just as patiently as the music of the opening developed.

Eventually, the piece closes out with soft, slowly moving echoes of the previous material, pared down until it’s only the viola, again, playing alone, with that same airy harmonic it began with.

“Music in Circles” has always been one of yMusic’s more popular pieces, at least on the classical music side of things, so it’s no wonder that the group chose to program it on last Friday’s performance at Rackham Auditorium.

Fifth Avenue Press celebrates the release of 9 new books on November 10

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Fifth Avenue Press logos and November 2019 authors

The Ann Arbor District Library's Fifth Avenue Press celebrates the release of its latest batch of books with a release reception at the downtown branch on Sunday, November 10, at 1 pm.

AADL cardholders can download PDF copies of the books here; print copies for most titles will be on sale at the reception.

To read interviews with the other authors, click on the book titles below:

➥ The Elements: A Love Letter to All Things Everywhere written and illustrated by Hannah Burr
➥ Intersections by Shanelle Boluyt
➥ All That We Encounter by Bethany Grey
➥ Shape Notes by Judy Patterson Wenzel
➥ Fantastic Planet: Modern Crab Adventures written and illustrated by Douglas Bosley
Over in Motown by Debbie Taylor, with illustrations by Keisha Morris
The Dragon Library by James Barbatano, with illustrations by Douglas Bosley
➥ Breaking Through by Johnny Thompson
➥ The Planet We Live On by Shanda Trent

Flash! Bang! A photographic funeral for the 18-year-old dance party's goodbye blowout at The Blind Pig

PULP LIFE

The Bang! Must Die! October 26, 2019

The nearly two-decade-old dance party The Bang! went out with ... wait for it ... a bang on Saturday night at The Blind Pig. Photographer Doug Coombe met his wife at this long-running throwdown and he was there for the final night -- "The Bang! Must Die!" -- to capture the euphoric madness for one last time. (If you're unfamiliar with The Bang!, here's our brief history, "Last Dance.")

The Bang! Must Die! October 26, 2019

The Bang! Must Die! October 26, 2019

The Bang! Must Die! October 26, 2019

In a Silent Way: Don Hicks, owner of Ann Arbor's Blue Llama Jazz Club, won an auction for one of Miles Davis' trumpets

MUSIC

Don Hicks with Miles Davis' trumpet

Don Hicks, owner of the Blue LLama Jazz Club, with his Miles Davis trumpet. Photo from Facebook.

A piece of jazz history has found a permanent home in Ann Arbor.

Don Hicks, owner of the Blue LLama Jazz Club, won a auction on October 29 for one of three trumpets Miles Davis commissioned in 1980 when he was coming off a five-year performing hiatus.

Christie's auction house in New York City put a pre-sale estimate on the instrument’s value between $70,000 and $100,000, but as you can see in the video below, a flurry of bids pushed the cost to $220,000 -- and with the addition of Christie's commission, the final price for the trumpet was $275,000.

Poet and U-M writing instructor Molly Spencer sees the world "as a collection of thresholds" in her new book, "If the house"

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Molly Spencer and her book If the house

Author photo by Michelle Massey Barnes.

Throughout Molly Spencer’s new book of poetry, If the house, each measured word reveals the intensities and scenes of home, time, and solitary experience amidst people and relationships. In a poem titled “How to Love the New House,” there is a line that answers, “Until you ache with it.” Another poem, “As if life can go on as it has,” includes the sentence, “The earth has all these endings,” and the speaker goes on to share, “I am / in a kitchen’s heavy afternoon / light,” almost implying that the sun could indicate a conclusion. 

Perhaps most consistently, the passage of seasons prominently delineates time in If the house. Early on, a stanza depicts time’s effects through apples and squash:

Given time, they will ripen, 

grow sweet, become something

for you to get by on. 

It seems that time offers sufficient sustenance to keep going and also that time keeps independently moving, resulting in byproducts like sweetening. Later, the lines, “It’s December” and then “October and the birds flock / and rise, whole-cloth” appear in different poems. So months also mark time in this collection, along with other indicators, such as, “My body / adds itself again to the unfolding / rooms of time,” and there are “...other Augusts far / from here, but not so far you can’t / reel them back in....” Each moment is clearly fixed to others by virtue of time being linear, but life in this poetry collection’s world still changes and shifts, showing contrasts to previous points in time to which the speaker remains connected. 

Joseph Zettelmaier's "Dr. Seward’s Dracula" is a creepy, clever prequel to Bram Stokers' vampire legend

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Dr. Seward's Dracula

Allyson Miko as the Emily the ghost and Jeffrey Shawn Miller as the unstable Dr. Seward in The Penny Seats Theatre Company's production of Dr. Seward's Dracula.

Near the end of Joseph Zettelmaier’s play Dr. Seward’s Dracula -- now being staged by The Penny Seats Theatre Company, at Ann Arbor’s Stone Chalet Inn -- a character observes, “People need their monsters.”

So it seems. For it’s far more comforting and palatable to believe that humans like ourselves simply aren’t capable of committing the very worst acts of violence and depravity.

But we are, of course. And this unnerving truth is precisely what drives Zettelmaier’s unconventional take on the Dracula story.

Happy Sad: The Cactus Blossoms' shimmering folk-rock hit a harmonious sweet spot at The Ark

MUSIC REVIEW

Cactus Blossoms at The Ark

The Cactus Blossoms at The Ark. Photo by Amanda Szot.

Why is it that sad songs make us feel better? 

Esther Rose, opening act at Thursday night’s show headlined by The Cactus Blossoms at the Ark, asked that question partway through her set as she realized that all of her songs to that point had been a bit melancholy.

A Michigan native, but a New Orleans resident for the past decade, Rose sang songs of loves lost and found. Not just people, but places too -- from her family’s farm near Flint, Michigan, to the love of the Lower Ninth Ward in her adopted hometown. Her earnest songwriting and clear vocals were paired with sparse instrumentation. She was joined on stage by Jordan Hyde, who provided backup vocals and lead guitar. Her debut album, You Made It This Far, was released in 2019 on Father/Daughter records.
 
The Cactus Blossoms are brothers Page Burkum and Jack Torrey on main vocals and guitar, now joined eldest brother Tyler Burkum on guitar, cousin Phillip Hicks on bass, and Jeremy Hanson on drums. Formed in Minneapolis, The Cactus Blossoms have a sound influenced by classic country, folk-inspired storytelling, and the harmonies of famous sibling duos, with some good old-fashioned rock and roll reverb from the ‘60s. The band members started exploring this style of music around 2006 while investigating their local library’s music collection and through a friend whose collection of obscure folk music and “high lonesome” sounds was particularly intriguing.
 

The atmospheric dance troupe Sankai Juku transfixed the Power Center with haunting movement

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Sankai Juku performing Meguri

There’s an image I’ve been having a hard time getting out of my head ever since the performance of Sankai Juku’s Meguri: Teeming Sea, Tranquil Land at the Power Center last weekend:

Four dancers in an eerie semi-darkness -- bald, torsos nude, bodies covered in white dust -- stand together in a circle. They stay fixed to the floor, seemingly rooted to the spot, as their bodies turn around in a unified, slow-motion gesture. Their feet rotate in place as their limbs twist together, until legs spiral around one another and the spine and neck swivel to bring the ghostly visages directly before the audience. On the faces, there is an open-mouthed image of silent, inexpressible anguish, a sort of inaudible scream whose riveting force stops your breath. For a moment, before the contorted and gnarled bodies reverse direction and rotate back, you have unshakable certainty that this is the face of a body in pain.

It’s haunting.

Then the moment passes and the spell dissipates.

There’s no pain here, not really, just illusion and mastery.

This kind of arresting image isn’t uncommon for Sankai Juku, a Paris-based troupe that practices a Japanese dance form known as butoh, an avant-garde genre that arose in the 1960s and is recognizable by its characteristic use of white body powder and shaved heads.

The U-M Digital Music Ensemble's "Pond Music for Airports" encountered unexpected turbulence

MUSIC REVIEW

Pond Music for Airports

All photos by Christopher Porter.

I went to the pond not to fish, not to swim, but to listen to experimental music.

And all I heard was silence.

It's not because the University of Michigan's Digital Music Ensemble (DME) was performing John Cage's 4'33"The group, under the guidance of Professor Stephen Rush, had worked up a piece inspired by Brian Eno's Music for Airports, the landmark 1978 ambient record that was built by having pre-recorded tape loops of varying lengths go in and out of phase with each another.

The DME's Pond Music XVII: Brian Eno’s Music for Airports -- or more colloquially on the promo posters, Pond Music for Airports -- was created by students who wrote and performed the short music segments that were then committed to tape. The DME artists then spliced the tapes and loaded them onto old reel-to-reel machines, which were set up in front of the retention pond behind the Earl V. Moore Building, which is the home of the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, located on North Campus.