You’re in a strange, hypnotic space that’s layered, dimensional and alive. There’s movement everywhere, and sound: hums, buzzes, breaths, whines, rattles, squeaks, sticks on wood, steel bars clanking, notes from a piano.
Shapes emerge and disappear. Shafts of light pass over and through, like beams from a flashlight or the headlights of passing cars. Strands of light dance and float like streamers in the air, and radiant grids drift and crumple like paper. A curtain of leaves slowly falls and dissolves. More shapes, more light, a fire-like glow, flickers in the distance. And, ultimately, a thousand stars.
Are you in an electronic forest? Some kind of wired cave? Or, in the words of visual artist Carole Kim, a developing nervous system?
You’re in Episode 1 of COINCIDENT, a new work by the new music ensemble Zeitgeist, Kim, and composer Scott L. Miller that premiered Sunday afternoon on Zoom. COINCIDENT is part of DECADE FIVE, a set of major new works Zeitgeist will commission and present throughout its fifth decade. The group has a history of commissioning music from cutting-edge composers. Some names from over the years: Harold Budd, John Cage, Mary Ellen Childs, Fred Ho, Libby Larsen, Terry Riley, Carei Thomas.
Zeitgeist has had a long and fruitful relationship with Miller, who describes himself as a “composer of music for humans, instruments, and things you plug in.” His most recent project with Zeitgeist before COINCIDENT was “The Blue in the Distance,” a virtual reality work filmed in Quarry Park and set to a poem by Joyce Sutphen.
Even before the pandemic, the group was geographically challenged. Executive Director and percussionist Heather Barringer lives on a farm in western Wisconsin, percussionist Patti Cudd and clarinetist Pat O’Keefe are in Woodbury, pianist Nicola Melville splits her time between the U.S. and New Zealand, Miller is in St. Cloud and Kim in Los Angeles.
When COVID-19 hit, Miller broadened his thinking. “I was motivated to try to figure out how to make music, and beyond that, to make a more comprehensive internet-based art form, because in March I realized that I had to in order to keep doing what I do,” he said during a Q&A on Sunday.
“What I typically had done for the two decades Zeitgeist and I had been working together was show up in a room with musicians, sit at microphones and process the sound of musicians in real time. It’s a very hands-on, experiential kind of process. What I needed to do was try and figure out how to do that over the internet.”
Meanwhile, in California, Kim sized down. Her focus up to then had been video projection installations. “My first pandemic venue was a cardboard box and a PICO projector,” she said. “I’ve taken what I do normally on a large scale and compressed the heck out of it into this miniaturized space. I was delighted to find that just because you go smaller doesn’t mean you’re necessarily giving up anything. It had all the complexity I love about installation in general, but it was on a magical scale.
“From the cardboard box, I expanded to under my kitchen table. I feel I have a world under there. Into that world come all these other live performers, and it’s been a really interesting space for online performances, because it’s like everyone’s being piped in, and it’s holding space for everyone.
“I do not feel I’m doing anything that’s just what we put up with until this is over. It hasn’t been that way at all for me. It’s been a constant fertile ground of where can we go next? What else can happen here?”
Barringer added, “For our musicians, for our organization and the people that support us, we don’t have the resources or the time to do things that are just good enough for this particular moment. We need to see the frontier moving ahead.”
What you’ll see when you watch COINCIDENT: Episode 1 are images created under Kim’s kitchen table. What you’ll hear is music composed by Miller, a combination of original composition, his responses to sounds made by Zeitgeist and improvisation. “I asked the musicians to send me recordings of 10 mechanical sounds from their instruments not normally associated with music-making,” Miller said. “I wanted everyone to engage with the mechanicalness of their instruments.”
The technology used to create COINCIDENT is complex – sometimes old, sometimes so new it’s still in beta. For example, Miller used “autodestructive programming.” He explained, “I thought it worked really well with the kinds of internet glitches that pop up, little clicks and pops and things. You can fight it all you want, but they’re going to be part of the performance one way or another. I thought – let’s embrace it.” Episode 1 ends when it does because the program collapses.
The latency that has plagued musicians when rehearsing or performing over the internet has been greatly reduced by software called Netty McNetface. Any lag that remains is part of the music, which allows for asynchronicity.
Kim programmed “audioreactive elements” into her visuals. “It was like having another collaborator in the room,” she said. “It has behaviors that were hard to control and a bit unpredictable. It gets activated in different ways as musicians play different things for each take. It’s this thing unto itself I have to constantly be riding. OK! Whoa! Thrilling and scary at the same time.”
Episode 2 is already complete; Episode 3 is under way. How many will there be?
“I don’t think we know right now,” Barringer said. “I have a number in my head, but I’ve been afraid to mention it to Scott. There will be episodes unveiled throughout 2021. They will include different artists, like NO EXIT New Music Ensemble, because Zeitgeist usually collaborates with them once a year. We’re thinking we’ll include some poets in this experience as well.”
Meanwhile, Zeitgeist is facing pandemic-related financial challenges. Their ticketing income is nonexistent, as is their rental income from Studio Z, the new music performance space they manage in St. Paul’s Lowertown. The current and future episodes of COINCIDENT will be available to stream on demand free of charge, but donations are welcome. View and learn more about COINCIDENT here.
V is for virtual, L is for live and in person.
V Streaming now through Sunday, Feb. 28: Theater Mu: “Today is My Birthday.” Theater Mu’s production of Susan Soon He Stanton’s entertaining, perfect-for-the-internet play was set to end on Feb. 21 but has been extended due to popular demand. This is a recording of the performance that livestreamed on Feb. 11. FMI and tickets (pay-as-you-are starting at $5).
V Tonight (Wednesday, Feb. 24), 7 p.m.: Dakota: Jearlyn & Jevetta Steele: “Healing, Peace and Joy.” Originally conceived as a series of three ticketed performances, this will now be a single 80-minute concert from the Dakota’s stage that will leave you feeling ready for whatever life brings, because nobody – repeat, nobody – sings like Jearlyn and Jevetta. Free, with registration required.
V Tonight (Wednesday, Feb. 24), 10:30 p.m. and Sunday (Feb. 28), 2 p.m.: TPT 2: “Listen! Please!” J.D. Steele’s film about four distinguished African American elders from the Twin Cities and how systematic racism has affected their lives will get well-deserved airings on Channel 2. Also Friday, Feb. 26, at 9 p.m. and Saturday, Feb. 27 at 3 a.m. on TPT Life.
L and V Tonight (Wednesday, Feb. 24) through Sunday, Feb. 28: Mizna Film Series: “Soleil Ô.” Adding to their annual film festival, Mizna is entering the world of year-round curated film programming. In a partnership with the Trylon, they will present a different SWANA film each month. Each will screen on the fourth Wednesday at the Trylon and will be available for streaming the next day (Thursday) through Sunday. Launching the series, Mauritian director Med Hondo’s “Soleil Ô” (1970) is a landmark of political cinema, a bitterly funny attack on Western capitalism and colonialism told in a variety of narrative and stylistic techniques. Wednesday at the Trylon, 7 p.m.; FMI and tickets ($10; COVID protocols limit total seating to 20). Thursday through Sunday, on demand: FMI and tickets ($8).
L Saturday, Feb. 27: The Science Museum will reopen to the public. See the reopening FAQ to learn more and book in advance. (You can’t just walk in – not yet.) The “Race: Are We So Different?” exhibit, quite possibly the most important exhibit at any museum, has been updated to highlight issues local to Minnesota.
V Saturday, Feb. 27, all day: KFAI: Black History Month: 25 Hours of All Black Content. A full day of Black music, storytelling, history, conversation and healing practices, starting at 12 a.m. Saturday and ending at 1 a.m. Sunday. View the complete schedule.