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July 2015
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Music You Can See, Art You Can Hear


The world is so full of exciting art and music that sometimes we overlook what’s in our own back yard. Right here in Chicago, we have a rich cultural tradition that has been underrepresented by history writers and tastemakers. Luckily, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Chicago is highlighting the important contributions of local artists with The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, which opens July 11, 2015 and lasts through November 22, 2015. On the opening day, the Museum is free to all Illinois residents.

To call The Freedom Principle an “exhibit” is a bit of a misnomer. Of course, when you visit the MCA to experience The Freedom Principle, you’ll see visual art on display. But this project is best described as a Gesamtkunstwerk. The exhibition is composed of diverse objects from historical materials to art works, including sonic sculptures that activate the galleries with sound, as well as graphic scores that are as visually appealing as they are notationally innovative. The MCA has also planned a series of performances and other events that blur the boundaries between artistic disciplines and between artist and audience.

The South Side Roots of Experimental Art and Music


Former MCA Senior Curator Dieter Roelstraete and MCA Curator Naomi Beckwith, who co-conceived The Freedom Principle, before Glenn Ligon’s sculpture “Give us a Poem” (2007), inspired by the words of Malcom X.

MCA Curator Naomi Beckwith, who conceived The Freedom Principle along with former MCA Senior Curator Dieter Roelstraete, explained the exhibit was “shaped around the moment of the mid-Sixties. It was a moment of great aesthetic flourishing that happened in the context, clearly, of a lot of social change, then a lot of social concern with art. That was expressed in multiple ways. One of the ways that happened was in the formation of collectivities, which was in itself a kind of democratic experiment and democratic exercise.”

One of the most important collectivities that formed during this time was the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Beckwith said that at the time the AACM formed, “there was this idea that art could live outside of formal institutions. So the AACM didn’t just perform in music halls, per se – although they did often.  They would perform in artist studios, in college sites, they would perform right here at the MCA in Chicago. Art became more expansive and less connected to just the places that it was performed or made.”

Despite the Association’s importance, there are even some Chicagoans who are unaware of the AACM’s existence and impact. Roelstraete said that he and Beckwith “both kind of sensed that there was an opportunity there to finally celebrate a cultural achievement that had been pushed to the side, with the full institutional force of a museum like ours.”

“I remember a very significant moment for me, personally,”  Roelstraete said, “was a chance to meet musician Muhal Richard Abrams. I was curious about his paintings, which I’d known for a long time through his record covers, so I asked, ‘Surely, they’ve been shown before?’ I found out that actually – no, never! This guy’s been painting for all his active musical life, the paintings are amazing, and it was just kind of mind-boggling that this was the first time that they had been shown, not just as the amateur doodlings of a professional musicians, but as an integral part of the artistic practice of a performing artist.”

He said that he hopes “the exhibition makes enough of an impact on Chicago locally so that people here understand that it is time to name a street after people like Muhal Richard Abrams, or a park after Roscoe Mitchell, because they are titans of local cultural lore. I also hope people leave the exhibition, events, or experiences with an impression of the political charge of art and culture, because it’s as much a political project as an artistic one.”

Beckwith said, “I would love every visitor to walk away with an idea that what we call ‘jazz’ and what we call ‘art music’ aren’t necessarily different things. I also want people to have a sense that a lot of things in things in our contemporary culture that emphasize the cross-fertilization of the visual arts and the performing arts have roots. There was a really incredible moment here in Chicago, especially on the South Side, in the mid-Sixties where that rootedness flourished.  And also maybe our interest in social practices now, too, and bringing art to the people, comes back to that moment.”

In visiting The Freedom Principle, there is a lot everyone can learn, whether you’re new to experimental music and art, or an aficionado.

A Sound Space for Social Change

Though some of the art on display does, in fact, make music, there will also be nine live performances inside the galleries in a special “interpretive space” designed by artist and musician John Preus. Heidi Reitmaier, the MCA’s Director of Education explained that in the fourth floor of the museum, “people like to chill out. People like to sit down, read a book, have a conversation with a friend, sketch.” Preus has been commissioned, Reitmaier said, “to respond to ideas and sensibilities around the exhibition using his own practices to create an entry point for visitors.”

I spoke with Preus as he constructed this interactive installation using found materials from recently closed Chicago Public Schools. “I managed to get a bunch of furniture that wasn’t salvageable and couldn’t be sent to other schools – desks with rickety drawers, and that kind of stuff,” he said. “There’s pathos in the material that resonates with everyone. When people come look at it, it’s clearly made of something specific. People will recognize the chairs, for example, as what they used to see as a kid in school.”

“The rational for using that material in this context is that the AACM was, in part, an educational organization. Musicians worked as sort of apprentices from session to session, so it made sense to bring in that sort of educational angle. But, more than that,” he continued, “I think about the closing of the schools. It’s more about the public in general and the divestment in the public and the idea of what public life is.”

Preus will perform in the space himself, along with his group New Material, later this fall. “My work as a visual artist is really improvisational, so there’s a direct connection between improvisational musical and my other work.”

One feature of the installation that may best embody Preus’s improvisational approach is a swing that visitors can use. In constructing it Preus said, “I started off with the basic A-frame swing structure, more-or-less, so that I knew it was stable, I knew it could support people. Once I established that I took desktops and tabletops from the school and really randomly attaching them to that structure. So the improvisational aspect of the swing is figuring out how I get from this plane to that plane, how you get from one place to another in the same way you improvise on a musical structure.”

If the city could be more like experimental music, things would be a hell of a lot better.John Preus

“The basic idea with the swing is movement,” Preus said. “From a socio-political perspective, there’s something so intractable about the struggles in public education, the questions of race and poverty, and all the questions about what make a public school struggle. And with a swing, it’s a place where you’re moving, but you’re not going anywhere. And at the same time, a swing is a place where you can go and think.”

While taking a break from hammering and drilling to construct the swing set, Preus said, “If the city could be more like experimental music, things would be a hell of a lot better. There’s a way in which like contemporary urban life in a place like Chicago the possibility of doing anything outside of the structural framework of our current economic system are really limited. So it’s as if there’s an inalterable grid that is laid over life.

“It’s almost like the city is based on the framework of some really genre bound type of music that’s locked in,” Preus said. “Whereas the experimental music and improvisation are based on risk to some degree, and vulnerability – sort of like comedy. You can crash and burn pretty easily. I think that aspect of risk in music is thrilling.”

When the space Preus has designed is not activated with live music, visitors can deepen their understanding of the art and music they experience in The Freedom Principle through an interactive timeline of the history of new music, books, iPads, and through educational greeters.

Other Sights and Sounds at the MCA

Besides performances that will happen in the galleries, the Museum is also presenting over a dozen performances through its Tuesday on the Terrace series and through the MCA’s performance series, MCA Stage, in the Edlis Neeson Theater.

The first MCA Stage performance, taking place on July 11, 2015, features music by AACM member Douglas R. Ewart, a composer, improviser, sculptor and maker of masks and instruments.

Later this fall, Roscoe Mitchell, a composer and multi-instrumentalist, will present two sets of two jazz trios, one at 3 pm and 7:30pm on Sunday, September 27.

Then, the acclaimed composer George Lewis brings his opera Afterword, which explores the legacy and future of the AACAM, to the MCA Stage. Scored for seven instrumentalists and three singers, Afterword will feature musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and reed master Douglas Ewart. To realize the project, Lewis is collaborating with theater artist Catherine Sullivan and director Sean Griffin.

Another interesting performance planned in conjunction with The Freedom Principle is a 25-hour marathon reading of John Cage’s book Silence: Lectures and Writings. Over 100 readers will come to the MCA to deliver Cage’s text in an event organized by artist William Pope.L.

For more information about The Freedom Principle, visit the MCA’s website.

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