But as a solo artist, Porter plays her own compositions, which are thoroughly contemporary because of the creative arrangments.
The U-M grad composes the songs and arrangements with notation software, so even though her classically steeped art-pop sounds loose and jammed with details, it doesn't happen through randomness. The woozy blend of strings, piano, wind chimes, marimba, vibraphone, harp, woodwinds, and more are carefully plotted out with specific players in mind.
Porter's first album, 2012's The Child Wrote a Poem, is written like a 15-chapter book set to music. Her latest, 2016's The Summer Sinks, is a song cycle about hurt and redemption, and the music is even more fragmented and quirky than the sounds on her debut. But Porter's flexible voice, which can sound as delicate as a bird outside your window or as ferocious as a crow cawing on your shoulder, shapes the songs through elastic Joni Mitchell-like melodies and her smart, raw lyrics keep your ears attuned to the tune.
With a bachelor in music composition and a minor in creative writing, Porter combines the two disciplines with excellent results. But she's also a visual artist, hand drawing her brand new video, "II," the second promo clip in support of The Summer Sinks.
Now splitting time between her native California and Ann Arbor, Porter talked to us about her solo work, compositional process, the "II" video, and what's on tap for Ensoleil.
The Ann Arbor District Library's Westgate branch is filled with new things. After all, it just reopened in September 2016 after a massive expansion and remodel.
But even newer than the computers, coffee shop, and shiny shiny bathrooms are three large paintings by Ann Arbor native Ben Cowan. The video above gives you a guided tour of Cowan's paintings. We also interviewed the artist about growing up in Ann Arbor, his influences, and how he came to create the works from his Neighborhood Views series, which have ended up finding permanent homes in the library.
They say you should dance like no one is watching. But sometimes it's helpful to be aware of your audience -- especially if they're master dance instructors.
Mark Carpenter of Mountain View, California, and Barry Douglas of Detroit will be in Ann Arbor from February 3-5 as part of FUSE, teaching dance classes for beginners and experts alike. Put on by Ann Arbor Community of Traditional Music and Dance (AACTMAD) and A2 Fusion, the FUSE weekend includes instruction in fusion, blues, West Coast swing, and hustle as well as plenty of dance parties to test out your moves.
The AACTMAD page describes fusion as an “improvised lead-follow approach to dancing to any style of music that does not have a strictly defined dance aesthetic.” It incorporates a variety of styles to connect your movements with your partner’s movements and can either combine established dance styles or create an entirely unique dance experience.
“My version of fusion is a combination of dance styles and techniques," Carpenter said, "more than it is a dance in its own right, as in a basic step and mode of connection.”
Directing the Burns Park Players’ annual stage musical, particularly for the first time, comes with unique challenges.
“Sometimes an actor goes, ‘I’m on call for heart surgery. I may have to leave because of that,’” said Matt Kunkel, who’s at the helm of BPP’s upcoming production of Shrek. “And it’s like, they all put in more work [in rehearsal] because they don’t know when they might have to go, so rather than giving 100 percent, they put in 125 or 200 percent. And when they’re not there, they’ll meet with someone the next day to learn everything they missed. It’s a very professional group. They’re incredibly hard workers.”
These performers aren’t professional actors, of course. They’re Burns Park students, parents, teachers, staff, and neighbors who come together, working both on stage and behind the scenes, to put on a big musical each winter. Money raised by the production goes to support arts programs in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.
Fred Thomas is like a library. The Ann Arbor-raised musician has lent his talents to approximately one billion recordings, from his own to his friends' and the many bands who have hired him to produce their records.
When the Montreal-based artist lived in Tree Town, the Ann Arbor District Library frequently lent Thomas assets from its Music Tools collection when he recorded his numerous solo records or those of his various bands, including Saturday Looks Good to Me and Hydropark.
So, when Pulp and the Music Tools crew decided to record musicians performing with instruments from the collection, Thomas was the perfect person to launch the video series: Tools Crew Live.
Thomas was back in Ann Arbor over the winter break, and on December 15, 2016, he came to the library’s Secret Lab makerspace and recorded “Echolocation” (from his new record, Changer) and “Cops Don’t Care Pt. II" (from 2015’s All Are Saved), using six instruments from the collection, including synths, effects pedals, and a guitar.
We also interviewed Thomas about his instrument choices and his amazing new album. Changer combines all the elements of Thomas' past work -- raw emotional insights, indie-rock stompers, and electronic evocations -- and manages to be the most personal and cohesive record of his long and creative career.
The leader of the Kelly Jean Caldwell Band is constantly juggling creative endeavors, be it leading the alt-country band behind her name, playing in the occult-metal group The Wiccans, or raising two little ones.
“My kids are going crazy right now,” Caldwell wrote in an email to Pulp. “I have a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old and they are freaks.”
Caldwell was fending off the kids while answering questions to preview her concert at the Elks Pratt Lodge in Ann Arbor on Friday, January 27. Her third album, Downriver, was recorded six years ago, but it finally came out late last year on The Outer Limits Lounge, a new label run by her husband, John Szymanski (vocalist Johnny Hentch from long-running garage-rockers The Hentchmen).
The album’s delay was due to a number of reasons, not the least of which is Caldwell and band bassist Brian Blair divorced, then she got remarried to Szymanski, with whom she has the two rugrats who helped her with this interview. After a break that allowed Caldwell to focus on family life, she eventually called up her old bandmates -- including her ex -- and the Kelly Jean Caldwell Band was born again.
On the surface, Downriver’s music sounds familiar enough to label it alt-country, but underneath the twangs are dark and humorous lyrics delivered by Caldwell’s powerful voice. She brings real personality and presence to the songs, elevating them above their rootsy origins. The tunes were written when former Ann Arborite Caldwell was living downriver with Blair, and the album is a chronicle of their time together and the eventual dissolution of their marriage.
If the American ideal is defined by the coming together of various cultures to create a unique whole, then ragtime is the country's first musical example of that worldly synthesis.
Developed in African-American communities in the 1890s, the music combines African rhythms and syncopations, European harmonies, marches, and a Latin tinge to create a sonic brew that the King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin, described as "weird and intoxicating."
Detroit loved that weird intoxication and was a hub for ragtime during the music's peak period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries before it gave way to jazz. In fact, the Remick Music Shell on Belle Isle is named for Jerome Remick, one of the biggest publishers of ragtime music. (Read a history of Detroit ragtime here.)
Now, a hundred years after ragtime's apex, and 47 miles east of the Remick Music Shell, the sixth the annual Ragtime Extravaganza aims to recreate the look, feel, and sound of the music's classic era at the Michigan Theater on January 21.
Extravaganza organizer William Pemberton has always loved ragtime music and founded the River Raisin Ragtime Revue in 2002. He’s served as its president -- and tuba player -- ever since.
The Revue has grown to be one of southeast Michigan’s most respected performance groups, featuring musicians from across the state, including professors from Central Michigan and the University of Michigan’s music departments. And the Ragtime Extravaganza is the Revue’s biggest event each year -- and by far "the most fun," Pemberton said.
“I love that it takes place in a 1920s vaudeville house," he said, "and the whole idea of it is to re-create a feeling of the golden age of American entertainment: the ragtime, the vaudeville, and the burlesque eras. And it’s just perfect and you can just feel the energy in the house.”
On Monday, the cast and crew of the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre production of In the Next Room were busy with final preparations at the Arthur Miller Theatre, where the play opens Thursday.
The cast was doing a run through while director Melissa Freilich was busily taking notes and getting the perspective from every angle around the Miller’s thrust stage. The crew was making last minute adjustments to an unusual set and working with the sophisticated Miller Theatre lighting -- house lights, spotlights, lights on stage, mood lights.
On, off, on, off. Thank you, Mr. Edison.
Electricity is an important element in modern theater productions. It also plays a major role is Sarah Ruhl’s popular play. The full title is a bit “shocking” and a bit playful: In the Next Room, or, the Vibrator Play. The play is set in the 1880s, a time when the advent of widespread electrical power and modern ideas in medicine were coming together in interesting ways.
“Sarah Ruhl is one of my favorite playwrights,” said Freilich. “I think she writes some beautiful and really emotionally connected works. ... It asks us to imagine ourselves in this different situation in the 1880s when women were being treated for hysteria and yet the characters are so relatable. The situation seems so absurd to a modern audience. But I love a work that hooks us emotionally and then gets us to think.”
Experimental vocalist and composer Meredith Monk did not make a hip-hop record. But a prime inspiration for her 2016 album, On Behalf of Nature (ECM) is repurposing, the same creative construct that informed early hip-hop artists, who created beats and melodies from fragments of sampled sounds.
But Monk's decision to use repurposed things -- musical ideas and material objects -- was also a metaphorical extension of On Behalf of Nature’s main theme. As Monk wrote in the album’s liner notes about her compositional process:
"As I began working on the music for On Behalf of Nature, I asked myself the question: 'How would one make an ecological art work, one that didn’t make more waste in the world?' What came to mind was the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and his notion of bricolage: the process of assembling or making something from what is already at hand. In pre-industrial societies, one object could function in many different ways by an act of imagination."
Taking incomplete phrases and themes from her notebook, Monk assembled these fragments into what became On Behalf of Nature, a wordless meditation on our fragile ecosystem. In the age of climate change -- and climate deniers -- the piece shines a solar-powered spotlight on the issue without resorting to didacticism.
On Behalf of Nature isn’t just a recording, though; it’s also a full theatrical performance that the Meredith Monk Vocal Ensemble, which also includes instrumental musicians, has performed around the world since 2013. But to make sure the live performance doesn't pull focus from the music, the choreography includes simple gestural movements, plain recycled outfits -- “We did not buy anything for the costumes. Everything was [old clothes] used again and re-created into a new form,” Monk told Pulp -- and a minimalist stage show to accompany a musical landscape that’s more expansive than what’s heard on the CD.
A professional singer since 1965, Monk’s avant-garde influence is felt in modern artists as diverse as Joanna Newsom, Maja Ratkje, and Björk, who told Monk she heard Dolmen Music (1981) when she was about 16.
Now 74, Monk’s extended technique vocals, which include all sorts of whoops, clicks, trills, and primordial utterances, are still stunning.
We talked to Monk before her Ann Arbor residency, which begins with a Penny Stamps Lecture Series talk on January 17 at the Michigan Theater and culminates in a performance of On Behalf of Nature on January 20 at the Power Center, sponsored by University Musical Society.
ALL MIXED UP: The annual Collage Concert is the starting line for U-M’s bicentennial year celebrations. The wide range of School of Music, Theater, and Dance (SMTD) ensembles coming together on January 14 at 8 p.m. in Hill Auditorium will provide a continuous sonic collage of styles to represent the many diverse elements that have combined to shape U-M for the past 200 years. (➤ SMTD)
RESIDENTIAL EFFECT: Ypsi Alloy Studios is teaming up with the Ann Arbor Art Center for an exhibit they’re calling Emergent Effect. Sixteen resident Ypsi Alloy artists are represented, with the exhibit focusing on their “intersecting work and common voice,” according to curators Ilana Houten, Elize Jekabson, and Jessica Tenbusch. The opening reception is free and goes down January 13 from 6-9 p.m., and Emergent Effect runs through January 28. (➤ Ann Arbor Art Center)
MOZART MONTH: There are more Mozart-related concerts in January every year for one reason: The powdered-wig wonder was born on this month’s 27th day in 1756. One such event in Ann Arbor is the A2SO’s 21st annual birthday bash (which we profiled here) on Saturday, January 14. But if you can’t make it to that performance, drop by the library on Sunday, January 15 at 2 p.m. for a screening of an all-Mozart concert performed in New York City's Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in May 2013. The music includes Piano Trio in B-flat major, K. 502; Horn Quintet in E-flat major, K. 407; and Viola Quintet in C major. (➤ AADL)
Christopher Porter is a Library Technician and editor of Pulp.