One of the first things that bestselling author Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Eating Animals) mentioned in his talk at Ann Arbor’s Rackham Auditorium on Friday night was that he’d always rather engage in conversation than do a straight-up reading.
The reasons why became evident soon after the evening’s host, author/U-M professor Doug Trevor, invited audience members – from the crowd of about 550 – to approach one of two microphones to ask Safran Foer a question. When the second fan at the mic said that his favorite author, Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), once claimed that the reader was his best friend, Safran Foer’s wit kicked into high gear.
“Now I’m jealous of Jonathan Franzen,” said Safran Foer. “Did you have to say that? … Couldn’t you just ask, ‘What’s your relationship with your reader?’ And his first name is Jonathan, too, which just made it that much worse.”
After Safran Foer asked for the fan’s first name (Justin), he said, “My favorite reader’s first name is also Justin.” When Justin responded by saying, “I greatly respect you, too, as a writer,” Safran Foer quipped, “Respect is for losers.”
Digressions weren’t likely to throw off Safran Foer’s readers, of course, who have come to appreciate the author’s sometimes funny, always insightful literary side-trips.
Though Safran Foer’s latest novel, Here I Am, focuses on a marriage in decay, a family in crisis, and an earthquake in the Middle East, it primarily draws its title from the biblical story of Abraham. For when Abraham called upon by God to make an unbearable sacrifice, he simply replies, “Here I am.”
Safran Foer - whose visit was sponsored by Literati Bookstore, and who was dressed casually in a gray plaid button down shirt and camel brown pants on Friday night - spoke at length about not feeling a need to focus on momentum and plot when writing novels. “Why is the plot so important?” said Safran Foer. “TV takes care of plot these days. Books don’t have a burden to entertain people. Books have a different burden, which is really hard to articulate, even though it’s so unmistakable when it happens. I think it has something to do with … the feeling of being known. If you really love a book, or really moved by a book, transported and changed by a book, the physicality of it disappears, and the characters and plot disappears, and language disappears, and you’re just left with this feeling of being known. … When I write, I want my books to be forceful expressions of my sensibility.”
Safran Foer’s work is often called “cerebral” and “ambitious,” but during Friday night’s talk, he insisted, “I don’t think unless I’m either writing or in conversation with somebody. I do not. I’m always curious, if other people are really different, or if they just haven’t thought of it that way before. I don’t have an active interior monologue. I don’t walk down the street by myself thinking things other than, ’It’s unseasonably cold,’ or, ‘I feel like Chinese food,’ or whatever. I do not have thoughts. They don’t self-generate. They’re always responsive. So that’s why I love conversations, and that’s why I love writing, because writing creates a context for thought.”
A father of two young boys, Safran Foer made non-literary headlines in recent years when he and author Nicole Krauss (The History of Love) separated and divorced; when an email correspondence between him and actress Natalie Portman – the only person who actually appeared in the story’s sexy accompanying photographs – was published in the New York Times’ T Magazine; and because he’s been dating actress Michelle Williams. But Friday evening’s talk focused solely on Safran Foer’s work and his newest book, which nonetheless deals with the challenge inherent in sustaining a marriage over time.
“People who are married and entertain the notion of divorce get divorced,” said Safran Foer. “Even if they don’t legally or technically get divorced, to entertain the notion is to break something, because marriage is the absence of divorce. That’s what it is. … Some people choose to do it, and that is what it means to get divorced. Some people will not allow that to be a choice. And that’s what makes it a marriage.”
Finally, Safran Foer talked about how changes in his life and perspective feed into his sense of his work.
“I always feel like I hear a little voice saying, ‘This is the last thing you’re ever going to write,’” said Safran Foer. “Not in the sense that I’m going to die, and not in the sense that I won’t write another book, but in very straightforward sense that, the person writing this book will not write another book. And proof of that is when I look at my old books. I did not write those books. Obviously I have more in common with the person that did than anybody else, but they are not reflections of my sensibility. They’re reflections of the sensibility of the person I used to be.”
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
Edward Gorey: lover of cats, ballet, Victorian/Edwardian era aesthetics, fur coats, pen-and-ink drawings, the color black and bats. Becoming a fan of Gorey has come in/out of fashion many times over the years, but since his death in 2000 he has only grown in the public consciousness. If you don’t know Edward Gorey’s work you surely know of the legions of other artists who were inspired by his work. From Tim Burton to Lemony Snicket, and goth culture to steampunk Gorey’s influence is felt far and wide. And from Neil Gaiman to Emily the Strange, and Lenore all things, dark, atmospheric and vaguely historical likely started with a love of Edward Gorey. Gorey’s black and white aesthetic lends itself to tattoo work, and often seeing a Gorey inspired tattoo will be for some their first glimpse into his macabre and hypnotizing world view. Many people also discover Gorey from the many New Yorker covers he did, as well as the animated credits for PBS's Mystery!
Unsettled: The Work of Edward Gorey @ the Cranbrook Art Museum, in Bloomfield Hills, MI opened September 18, 2016 and will be on display through March 12, 2017. The show is a perfect primer for entering the pen-and-ink world of Gorey’s illustrations. Gorey was a prolific illustrator who started working in the 1950’s for Doubleday publishers in NYC as their in house illustrator. It was here he honed his craft and illustrated classics like Dracula by Bram Stoker, The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, and Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot. Later, he became known for illustrating most of children’s author, John Bellairs’s books, starting in the 1970s and continuing in the 90s.
The exhibit is a collection on loan to the museum from a local collector and it serves as an excellent overview and entree to the work of Edward Gorey. Newbies and devoted fans will both enjoy the variety of work on display and the opportunity to ponder and look closely at his detailed drawings. The size of the works and his simple yet complex use of black pen and ink begs to be more closely inspected.
The majority of what is on display are the wide variety of books that Gorey illustrated for others as well as his own works such as: The Curious Sofa, The Beastly Baby The Sopping Thursday, and his most well known book The Gashlycrumb Tinies. Knowing that most of his original illustrations were the size that they were published makes his meticulous detail even more impressive.
The original prints, posters and ephemera are also a thrill to see. From the large framed poster print of the 1977 Broadway revival production of Dracula that he designed the sets for to the 3D replica of the stage set, that allows you to do your own version of the play, it’s a wonderful sampling. A bean bag filled Gorey bat with red rhinestone eyes, The Fantod Pack - Gorey’s version of a Tarot card as well as a few rare stuffed cats and pigs were also on display. The impossibly miniature and rare books on display are a joy to see - smaller than 2 inches in diameter with full, detailed illustrations.
Gorey’s humor is dark, clever and at times make you feel uncomfortable, but you may also find yourself smirking with knowing glee at the black humor and the dangerous places he fearlessly takes his audience.
Erin Helmrich is a librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and an avid collector of Edward Gorey's books and more. She has three tattoos of Gorey's work - all black of course.
Unsettled: The Work of Edward Gorey is on display through March 12, 2017. Museum admission is $10 for adults and the exhibit is included in this fee. More information about the exhibit and the museum can be found here.
Ann Arbor is blessed to have many veteran acoustic musicians grown from experiences in the old days via performing at the original Ark Coffeehouse on Hill Street and the late lamented Mr. Flood’s Party. They have lived to give us an overview of pre-technology years and simpler times.
Jay Stielstra, a native of Ludington, is the local founding father of this movement. Borne of the 1960s protest movement and the so-called folk music boom, he has written some one hundred fifty tunes about the life and times of legendary or fictional figures dealing with heartbreak and triumph, and the outdoors lifestyle that is much more rural routed and natural than the digitally produced country music of today. In his eighties, the guitarist and vocalist still has a lot to say based on his experience, his love of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and his longtime affection for Ann Arbor as not only the city of trees, but the beauty that still surrounds the outskirts of our city, untouched by strip mall mentality.
Stielstra’s magnum opus “North Country Opera,” as well as “Tittabawasee Jane,” “Old Man In Love,” “Escanaba,” “America, America,” and “Prodigals” are full-length theatrical musical dialogues that have stood the test of time. So too have songs like “Spikehorn,” about the Harrison, Michigan iconic backwoods coal miner and bear whisperer/preservationist/advocate John “Spikehorn” Meyer, a timely poem for the season titled “Autumn," the poignant “November Love” and “The Most I’m Missing,” a sly spinoff on “Farmers Daughter” titled “Baker’s Daughter,” and locale-driven tunes like the recently penned “Cut River Bridge” and “Manistee Waltz.”
Stielstra’s current ensemble consists of a cadre of admirers, followers, and talented players he has essentially mentored. They include guitarist/vocalist Chris Buhalis, mandolinist Jason Dennie, slap bass expert David Roof, harmonica master Peter “Madcat” Ruth, and rising star songwriter, guitarist and singer in her own right Judy Banker.
We spoke to the veteran musician and award winning playwright /actor from Manchester during a rehearsal session prior to his upcoming Ark show. The former Ann Arbor High/Pioneer and Huron High School football coach, public school teacher, and carpenter is also as humble as a Buffalo nickel, and responds with equally laid back demeanor about his status as an icon and the depiction of his sound as easy-going mosey down music.
Originally influenced by Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, Stielstra also mentions the music of the Washington First Baptist Church. “A lot of my tunes, the patterns and progressions come from those old gospel songs. I’m not a religious person at all, but my parents were during World War II. I loved those tunes and still do. My mother played piano and my four years younger brother Elden Stielstra still is a tremendous trumpet player in Grand Rapids who plays Dixieland and big band music. He was the musician in the family,” he chuckles, “and I was the jock."
“I started singing when my daughters were small,” he continued. “We didn’t have a piano then so I got a guitar and said I’ll see if I can play that and learned to strum a few chords. Then the folk music thing came on - The Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan and Pete Seger. Most all of those tunes were simple. In the seventies there were places to play in town - it just went from there. I was in the schools, then retired from coaching, became a carpenter and did year round what I did every summer.”
Jay got into theater, building sets at the old Tech Center and original Performance Network where the YMCA is now located. This led to the North Country Opera and his one man show Old Man In Love.
But an accident curtailed his performing career: “I stopped playing, had to relearn and retune the guitar, and eventually was fortunate to play for a long time with excellent musicians like mandolin player Kelly Schmidt, bassist Gary Munce, David Menefee, Eric Nyhuis, Judy and John Banker - we had a trio together for four years. We worked with Drew Howard out of Lansing a number of times; Jason whenever we can because he’s a full time musician; and now Madcat - we got together with him last year and will again this year. He’s great.”
As far as a blues component, he added, “Yes, at one time in my life, and I had my heart broken a lot of times. It has influenced a number of songs I have written. Why it happens or how it happens, I have not a clue.”
Amazingly Jay Stielstra has only two recordings to his credit, but a long standing legacy of live shows all over Michigan and other far flung places leads him back to his home and to us, hopefully for many more years to come.
Michael G. Nastos is known as a veteran radio broadcaster, local music journalist, and event promoter/producer. He is a former music director and current super sub on 88.3 WCBN-FM Ann Arbor, founding member of SEMJA, the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association, Board of Directors member of the Michigan Jazz Festival, votes in the annual Detroit Music Awards and Down Beat Magazine, NPR Music and El Intruso Critics Polls, and writes monthly for Hot House Magazine in New York City.
Jay Stielstra & Friends play The Ark, 316 S. Main Street, on Thursday, November 17 at 8 pm. For more information call (734) 761-1800 or (734) 761-1818, or visit online at http://theark.org.
Pioneer Theatre Guild's The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a special production: First, PTG is one of a handful of American schools piloting the musical before its rights are released to theater groups across the country. Second, they may well be the first to perform it, with a few other venues performing the musical during winter and spring 2017. So it's not only an Ann Arbor premiere, it's also a sort of world premiere as well.
In preparing for the show, PTG has been fortunate to have the technical assistance of University of Michigan Professor Peggy McCracken, whose expertise in France during the Middle Ages has helped the students and directing staff understand this period and place as well as the motivation of their characters. Then, to even top this unexpected source of expertise, the production group has had the opportunity to Skype with the show's musical composer, Alan Menken, for additional pointers.
The show's haunting, beautiful music -- featuring a full choir that helps narrate the plot and give a historical feel to the theater -- showcases the timeless and powerful story of Quasimodo and his love for the beautiful Esmeralda against the backdrop of the historic Notre Dame Cathedral. Set in 1482, a time of mystery and havoc, the story follows Archdeacon Claude Frollo’s dark past and how he came to raise the disfigured child Quasimodo who is prohibited from ever leaving the Notre Dame environs. Others among the bustling city of Paris below the church bells are the aforementioned Esmeralda; the war soldier Phoebus; and the unexpectedly heroic Clopin Trouillefou.
Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame runs Friday, November 4, 7:30 pm; Sunday, November 6, 2:00 pm; Friday November 11, 7:30 pm; Saturday, November 12, 7:30 pm, and Sunday, November 13, 2:00 pm. (Note: No show Saturday, November 5 because of U-M game across the street.) Tickets: $10 (Students, 65+ Seniors, PHS Staff); $15 (Adults). Reserved Seating Tickets will be available in advance at http://showtix4u.com, beginning on October 24, 2016. General Admission tickets will be available at the door starting one hour before each performance. All performances in Schreiber Auditorium.
One of the more intriguing scripts I’ve read recently is Hir, by Obie-winning playwright and performance artist Taylor Mac, which opened last fall at New York’s Playwrights Horizons. A black comedy about a truly, truly dysfunctional family, the play caught my attention with its high profile review in the New York Times, which called it “remarkable, audacious, uproarious … a daring combination of realism and madcap absurdity.”
Time Out called Hir a “dizzying theatrical Tilt-a-Whirl, in which sections of the play spin wildly on a steadily revolving base” and TheaterMania praised it as a “remarkable examination of gender and identity in contemporary America.”
Local audiences can experience this madcap new play when Kickshaw Theatre, Ann Arbor’s pop-up professional theatre company, brings Hir to Ann Arbor as a staged reading on Friday, November 11, at 7pm at Espresso Royale, 214 South Main Street. The previous week, on Friday, November 4 (same time and location), the company offers a reading of another recent play: Milvotchkee, Visconsin by Laura Jacqmin - a “comedy about a tragedy.”.
“These are not predictable plays, to be sure,” explains Kickshaw Theatre’s artistic director Lynn Lammers. “The staged readings will give audiences and artists a chance to get a taste of Kickshaw’s aesthetic. These two plays are wildly imaginative in their structure and style, which translates to stories that unfold in surprising ways.”
Milvotchkee, Visconsin follows the fascinating journey of a woman experiencing various stages of dementia. Directed by Sara Lipinski Chambers, the professional cast features Ruth Crawford, Hugh Maguire, John Seibert, Casaundra Freeman, Brenda Lane, and Aral Gribble.
In Hir, war veteran Isaac returns home to the suburbs to help take care of his ailing father, only to discover a household in revolt. Michael Lopetrone, Henry Schreibman, Emily Sutton-Smith, and Hugh Maguire are featured in this reading, directed by Lynn Lammers.
Kickshaw is Ann Arbor’s new non-profit professional theatre and operates under an agreement with the Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers. Kickshaw prides itself on exciting the curiosity of audiences and artists with plays that represent humanity in all its complexity and multitudes.
Tim Grimes is manager of Community Relations & Marketing at the Ann Arbor District Library and co-founder of Redbud Productions.
The staged reading of Milvotchkee, Visconsin will take place November 4, at 7 pm, Espresso Royale, 214, South Main Street; the staged reading of His will take place Friday, November 11, same time/location. There is no admission for either reading. For more information, visit http://kickshawtheatre.org.
Preview: Local Author Scott Savitt Discusses His New Book "Crashing the Party: An American Reporter in China"
Former foreign correspondent Scott Savitt, who’s called Ann Arbor home for a little over a year now, is celebrating the release of his new book Crashing the Party: An American Reporter in China with local appearances on Tuesday, November 1 at 7 pm at Nicola’s Books, and on Tuesday, November 29 at 7 pm at Literati Bookstore.
The book starts with Savitt’s harrowing account of spending 30 days on a hunger strike in a Chinese prison; and it later explains how the tragic death of his high school girlfriend set him on the path to spending years of his life in China. But the last section he needed to write to complete the manuscript – about Tiananmen Square, where Chinese political protesters were confronted by tanks and military force in 1989 – may have demanded the most courage.
“I had never revisited that, even in all the years since it happened,” said Savitt. “You have to move on somehow. And speaking as a journalist, the story continued. People were arrested, people went into exile – you had to keep covering the story. … So I wrote that section last. My publisher got to a point where he said, ‘Maybe you just can’t do it,’ and I said, ‘No, I can.’ So I finally cranked it out one sleepless night, and then the next morning, I read it to [U-M faculty member Dr. Rebecca Liu], and I started sobbing uncontrollably. It just made me realize how repressed that emotion was. It was still there. I don’t like calling things ‘syndromes’ but post-trauma – that’s real, and I still have it for sure. … It was something people are not built to see.”
But Savitt’s unique journey began when he was a freshman at Duke University. One Sunday night, he spoke by phone with his girlfriend, a high school senior, and 12 hours later, after suddenly becoming ill, she lay comatose in Yale University Hospital. She died one week later.
Shortly thereafter, Savitt was back on campus, leading a wilderness survival training program (Outward Bound), when he heard about Duke’s new student exchange program with China. The requirements were rigorous and included taking an intensive Chinese language course five days a week for one school year.
“I feel pretty certain that, if not for that untimely death, I wouldn’t have done something like that,” said Savitt. “I could have shown you China on a map, but otherwise, I didn’t have that mindset at all. I just felt like, ‘I want to get out of here.’”
So Savitt left for China in 1983. First, he was a student, but he then began working as a journalist – first for Asiaweek Magazine, then The Los Angeles Times, and United Press International. At age 25, he become the youngest accredited foreign correspondent in China.
“I’d never really thought about being a journalist for my career,” said Savitt. “ … But at that time, in China, there were very few ways you could stay there when you weren’t a student. You had to get a job visa. You could teach English, and I did that, too. But getting a job in the foreign news bureau was the best job you could get, and it would utilize my Chinese language skills and my writing ability. … It was really easy to sell articles then.”
After witnessing, and reporting on, the events surrounding Tiananmen Square in 1989, Savitt founded his own independent, English language newspaper in China, called Beijing Scene – which eventually led to his 30 day imprisonment in a small dark cell, in solitary confinement, and then deportation.
“The compliment I usually get from all sides [about the book] is that I’ve really tried to be fair about China, because having those experiences – it would be easy to become embittered,” said Savitt. “But I’m not. By the time those events happened, I was ready to leave, anyway.”
But Savitt’s sustained residence in China, fulfilling a number of different roles, lends him a far more comprehensive view of this huge, complicated country than is normally available to journalists.
“We rely on (journalists) to tell us what’s happening in places, but in many cases, they don’t exactly know,” said Savitt. “It’s not that easy. If I’d never started a business, there would be stuff about China I just wouldn’t know. … There are very few Americans or journalists who’ve seen the inside of a prison cell, or seen how business gets done – which involves paying bribes for pretty much everything.”
Given Savitt’s deep knowledge of, and vast experience with, China, you might wonder what we, and our political leaders, get wrong about the country.
“What I get the most is, ‘Oh, I thought China was going to pass us like we’re standing still – that China is the future, and we’re the past,’” said Savitt. “I would disabuse people of that notion. China’s used to highlighting our own shortcomings, but it’s never going to pass us on per capita income. … The general consensus is that China will grow old before it grows rich. In many areas, it’s still a third world country. Yes, the cities people have visited are modern, because they leapfrogged other parts of the country. But many places never had landline phones to begin with, so they went from no phone to cell phones, which saves a lot on infrastructure. … But the main thing I always say to people is, if they’re the future, how come thousands of Chinese people line up every day to move here, and no one is lining up to move there? Nobody who’s not from China stays there permanently. And when people are making a decision about where to raise children, the vast majority of people would rather be here.”
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
Scott Savitt discusses his book at two local appearances: Tuesday, November 1 at 7 pm at Nicola’s Books, and on Tuesday, November 29 at 7 pm at Literati Bookstore.
Local musician Isaac Levine is hosting a record release party for his first album at Arbor Vitae—a unique music-and-performance-oriented loft on State St. where Levine and five others reside—on November 4. The album, Nothing Shocking, is one he’s worked on for over a year, and he’s recruited a multitude of local performance artists, storytellers, and musicians to help him celebrate its release. For the first few hours of the event, attendees can immerse themselves in two different performance spaces: a storytelling stage and an improvisational group area, and beginning at 11:00pm, Levine will play his solo set. This free event is a great opportunity not only to hear Levine’s music in an up-close-and-personal venue, but also to get a taste of some of the more obscure, younger local talent in the city.
The diversity in performances at the event is impressive. The Shade Brigade, a local sit-down comedy group comprised of Demario Longmire and Thomas Kratofil, will dialogue on child birth and more. Kit E. Parks will read samples of her work, complete with tongue twisters. Of Parks, Levine says, “She manages to approach the tragedy and comedy of her life in a way that shares the joy of living.” Evicholas Nolpe will read stories about “moseying around,” while Katie Brown and Noor Us-Sabah will perform their piece “TOYS.”
Levine’s music is a little bit early Andrew Bird-like, trippy and shadowy without being overly synthetic. He juxtaposes his slow “How Not to Break Someone” song with a video of real worms wrestling gummy worms, the shots moving in and out of pixilation. This writer hopes that he will find a way to play the video behind him when he performs at Arbor Vitae, if only so that the crowd there can enjoy the unsettlingly disgusting experience of seeing live worms wrestle candy ones.
Arbor Vitae in and of itself is a reason to attend the event on Friday. For over 50 years, the loft space has housed an eclectic group of students and performers. Concerts, art show openings, and other performances are held there regularly. Created by world traveler Richard Ahern in the 1960s, the loft was originally intended to be an architects’ studio, but the offices inside gradually got converted into bedrooms and artists and musicians began calling Arbor Vitae home during the Peace Movements of the 60s and 70s. Now, six people always live in the loft, navigating their lives around instruments, art pieces, and whatever past residents have left behind. These have included, at various points in time, an impeccably organized collection of VHS tapes, a piano, and a drawing that reads simply “Hella Taco.”
Overall, Friday’s event offers a cool (and free!) chance to check out what the young people of Ann Arbor are up to these days, most notably musician and host Levine, whose passionate enthusiasm for his music and the talents of others will surely make the evening a fun one.
Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Isaac Levine hosts a release party for his record, Nothing Shocking, from 9pm-12am on Friday, November 4 at Arbor Vitae, 336 ½ S. State St. No cover.
One of the things I love most about the arts is the way they can be beautifully connected. On Sunday, October 23, the arts of music and photography combined when artist Catie Newell's exhibition Overnight at the University of Michigan Museum of Art inspired a University of Michigan Chamber Choir performance at the museum. The performance was themed around the concepts of darkness and light, in honor of Newell's work.
The award-winning conductor, Dr. Jerry Blackstone, opened the concert by encouraging the audience to review the exhibit after the performance. Blackstone also presented the listeners with the arrangement of the concert: the theme of darkness to be set in the first half of the performance, with light theme being presented afterwards.
This was a sensational concert. The vocalists were some of the most talented musicians I’ve heard. With each vocalist standing beside a vocalist with a different voice part, the whole choir was beautifully balanced. In every song, you could hear the gorgeous melodies each section could be proud of. In some pieces, the harmonies were so tight that the sound was like how I’d imagine water running would sound as it splits from one stream into many – effortlessly smooth. I could have believed in magic that night the way Dr. Blackstone used his hands, like a magician conjuring sonic enchantment out of thin air.
The musical selections were overwhelmingly beautiful. From pieces totally new to the ones more familiar, each song was a joy to the ear. The Rachmaninoff “Bogoroditse Devo (Ave Maria)" is one I’ve sung before, but this performance of the piece still knocked me off my feet. If you consider yourself a music lover and have never heard it, get thee to YouTube. A new piece I heard that night was “Ev’ry night, when the sun goes down” arranged by Gwenyth Walker. With the soulful tenor solo and the gorgeous choral sections, I had to close my eyes and focus all my senses on those heartwarming sounds. I attended the concert with someone totally new to choir concerts, and even he had chills during that piece.
I heard other favorites, like Brahms’ “Der Abend” and the “O nata Lux” from Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, but overall my favorite had to be “Northern Lights” by Eriks Esenvalds. As hand-chimes came to the stage along with wine-glasses filled with water, Dr. Blackstone introduced this piece as an expression of first seeing the lights from the perspective of a ship crew, previously bunkered down under the docks in darkness. Throughout the piece, the choir mimics the lights with their shimmering and smooth tones as the notes rise and fall. I could also hear the urgency in the captain’s voice when the choir sings “Come above,” the part of the story just before the crew rises to see the night’s spectacle. During the part of the song when the crew finally climbs up into the night from below, the choir bursts into the poetic line that Dr. Blackstone prepared us for before beginning: “the sky was aflame.” From then to the end, the chimes and water glasses are played to create a tinkling, ringing sensation that sends your thoughts to the shine of those lights. The whole piece was incredible – it melted my heart.
Not only was the music stunning - the atmosphere was equally appealing. A long time choir geek myself, I’ve sung in plenty unique places, but setting the performance in the lobby of UMMA was a spectacular experience. The space gave the effect of a European cathedral, with the glass above, the pillars all around, the resonation of the room, even with the choir beginning along the balconied edge of the second floor (just as if they were singing in a cathedral’s choir loft). Seriously, I could not have asked for a better way to end the weekend.
Liz Grapentine is a desk clerk at AADL. A graduate from Oakland University with a major in Music Education and a minor in English, Liz enjoys all the arts in every form. Liz is also a true Ann Arbor townie and a proud patron of the library since 1995.
I’ve always thought it was just me. That is, that my comfort with the night’s glimpse into the unknown was an element I alone enjoyed.
Little could I know that Catie Newell: Overnight at the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s Irving Stenn, Jr., Family Project Gallery would be such a vivid entry in the outsider’s world of artful darkness.
Atmospheric darkness is a rather difficult concept with which to fully come to terms. Simply said, there’s a seeming absence of something—through the presence of nothing.
Perhaps night light is the unacknowledged underbelly of the sublime - that exalted aesthetic quality distinct from manmade beauty. Which is to say, what we appreciate in nature is supposedly qualitatively different from the pleasure we receive from viewing art.
Think along the lines of standing aside Yosemite’s Half-Dome; overlooking Lake Superior at the Upper Peninsula’s Pictured Rocks Natural Lakeshore; or contemplating the dazzlingly azure beauty of Italy’s Amalfi coastline. All are indeed awe inspiring experiences.
But this yawning of nature’s infinity has always been a troublesome concept—or, at least, I’ve always thought it so. If only because there can also be no mistaking of the thrill to be found standing dead-center in the junction of New York City’s Broadway and Seventh Avenue at Times Square; or studying the overwhelming intricacy of Chartres cathedral; or, for that matter, walking the expansive panorama of St. Peter’s Square.
Yet all these glorious experiences—as magnificent as they may be—do not really hit the curious spot of simple night light. And Newell’s Overnight is as handsome an exploration of this singularity as one is bound to find.
It’s definitely been a long time coming for someone whose favorite backdrop encompasses the night’s perimeters.
An Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Newell joined that faculty in 2009 as their Oberdick Fellow after receiving her Masters of Architecture from Rice University and a Bachelor of Science in architecture from Georgia Tech University.
Winner of the 2011 Architectural League Prize for Young Architects and Designers; the 2011 ArtPrize Best Use of Urban Space Juried Award; and the 2011 Architectural League Prize for Young Architects and Designers, Newell has exhibited at the 2012 Architecture Venice Biennale. And after attaining the Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Rome Prize Fellow in Architecture for 2013-2014, she’s now a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome.
UMMA Director Joseph Rosa and Exhibit Manager Jane Dechants say in their introduction to the exhibit, “Newell’s fascination with light is also a fascination with darkness."
“Darkness and its surrogates—ambient light; residual light; shadows, haze, and other ‘interruptions’—give the environment what she calls its double-life in daytime. A landscape may be seen and known—familiar, predictable, trustworthy—but at night it succumbs to a darkness that, in her words, removes its walls, alters its spaces, and haunts—becoming risky, even dangerous, and ultimately alien.”
This nod to darkness—and the strategic absence of darkness—is the essential element of Newell’s installation and its spectacular accompanying untitled color photography.
Newell writes in her gallery statement, the “installation is attuned specifically to the gallery’s exposure to daylight and its transformation into night. During the day, natural illumination catches reflections on the aluminum wire, and provides the best light to view the 'Nightly' [color photographic] series.
“In the evening hours after sunset and for the duration of the show, the Museum will leave its exterior lights off, allowing the installation spotlights to draw out different lines of light on the aluminum [Overnight] and create the impossible architectural moment captured in the 'Nightly' series.”
Impossible might indeed be the right word here. Because these observations indirectly infer that what one sees of Overnight is only a portion of what one does not see—at least not directly.
The installation definitely is a nocturnal treat to observe overnight. Two chevrons of multi-strand aluminum wires shimmering as they hover from the gallery’s ceiling with a single spot light shining on each aggregation, Overnight is haunting in its suspension. Tiny LED lights at the bottom of selected strands give occasional bursts of light as one passes the UMMA. There’s a decidedly ghostly ambiance to the work.
Yet perhaps it’s the photographs that are the most distinctive element of the exhibit. A series of 19 color photographs set in irregular groups of two, three, and four images around two walls of the Stenn Gallery, the 'Nightly' series is easily some of the most dramatic photography seen in Ann Arbor through this last year.
Each composition is really no more than a strategically placed spotlight that captures the mood of its surrounding landscape in an otherwise ordinary urban setting. The nocturnal iridescence of this light creates an otherworldly intimacy that dramatically dominates the photo’s milieu. As such, perhaps the most overwhelming effect of this masterly work is Newell’s keen sense of the psychological tension this imagery can have on its viewer.
If it’s a valid truism that profundity of art lies in simplicity, Newell has crafted some of the most insightful art we’re likely to see any time soon. Playing off the observation that absence can have as strong an attraction as presence, the simplicity of Newell’s Overnight installation and her 'Nightly' series is as visceral an experience as art can be.
John Carlos Cantú has written on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.
University of Michigan Museum of Art: "Catie Newell: Overnight” will run through November 6, 2016. The UMMA is located at 525 S. State Street. The Museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 11 am - 5 pm; and Sunday 12–5 pm. For information, call 734-764-0395.
If you're looking for some fun events around town for the Halloween weekend, read on for creepy cemetery tours, devilish dance parties, shadow puppet theatre, and more Halloween arts & culture:
Book-Themed Halloween Costume Contest
Monday, October 31st - 10:00am-9:00pm
Literati Bookstore - Ann Arbor, MI
Halloween at the Market
Saturday, October 29th - 12:00pm-2:00pm
Ann Arbor Farmer's Market - Ann Arbor, MI
Highland Cemetery Lantern Tours
Sunday, October 30th - 7:00pm-9:00pm
Highland Cemetery - Ypsilanti, MI
Shadow Puppet Double Feature
Saturday, October 29th - 9:00pm-11:00pm
Triple Goddess Tasting Room - Ypsilanti, MI
Cultivate Masquerade & Costume Bash
Friday, October 28th - 8:00pm-12:00am
Cultivate Coffee & Taphouse - Ypsilanti, MI
Black Cat Cabaret - Neighborhood Theatre Group
Friday, October 28th and Saturday, October 29th - 8:30pm
Bona Sera - Ypsilanti, MI
Halloween Treat Parade
Monday, October 31st - 11:00am-5:00pm
Main Street Area - Ann Arbor, MI
A2DC Presents: Hullabaloo Halloween Spooktacular
Sunday, October 30th - 6:00pm-10:00pm
Ann Arbor Distilling Company - Ann Arbor, MI
The Bang! Halloween Dance Party
Saturday, October 29th - 9:30pm
The Blind Pig - Ann Arbor, MI
Nightlife Arcade Gaming Spooktacular
Friday, October 28th - 6:00pm-9:00pm
The Forge by Pillar - Ann Arbor, MI