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How 1 Artist is Condensing 24 Decades of American Popular Song into a Single, 24-Hour Performance

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Taylor Mac, who brings excerpts of “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” to Chicago on a cross-country tour (Photo: Ves Pitts)

How would you tell the history of nation in music? Artist Taylor Mac is condensing the history of American popular music into an epic, 24-hour performance: his 24-Decade History of Popular Music.

Mac’s History includes 246 songs performed over 24 hours, with one decade of music per hour. 24 musicians will start the show with Mac, and every hour, a musician will leave. By the end of the performance, only Mac will remain on stage. (In total, 40 musicians will participate since some musicians will perform in shifts).

While the full, 24-hour long performance will occur only once, scheduled for October 2016 in New York, Mac is touring excerpts of the performance across country. In Chicago, Mac presents music from 1956 – 1986 at the Museum of Contemporary Art – Chicago from April 12 – 16, 2016.  Mac spoke about this massive undertaking in a recent interview.

“I had been wanting to create an experience about how community is often built because it is being torn apart,” something Mac witnessed during the first AIDS walk in San Francisco. “I was being exposed to the queer community and queer history and queer agency for the first time, and I saw a community coming together because it was being torn apart because of an epidemic.”

Mac needed to explore those ideas about community in an epic way, saying, “If I could have done this show an easier way, I would have. But this is the way it needed to be done.” Sample some of the performance below.

“For me the content dictates the form,” he said, “so it seemed that the form that best represents how communities are built through their own imperfections is popular song. Popular songs tend to use their imperfect rhyme and their simple chord structures as a way to reach the people.”

But why 24 hours of music? The duration of the performance is important because Mac wants “the audience to deteriorate throughout the course of it. I want to put them in dire, complicated circumstances. I’m falling apart, the band is falling apart, we’re all falling apart as a result of doing this all together. We’re building bonds with each other.”

In addition to building bonds with the audience, the audience also helps build the work in a way. “We build everything in front of the audience, so it’s different every time” Mac said. “The outline is the same, but a lot is very different. The show is about the process with the community as we build this over multiple years.”

Mac has been developing the project for 5 years with a team of collaborators. “I’m a craftsman, so I’m crafting the $h!t out of this show. We’re structuring this to have a real arc. I think a lot of the shows that you see that are durational that don’t work don’t work because the form comes before the content. I want every single hour to be extraordinary. I want to it be overwhelming,” Mac said.

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Taylor Mac (Photo: Kevin Yatarola)

Though the History has 5 years of craft behind it and may evolve as it tours for another 5 years, Mac said, “we also want an aspect of authentic failure. We want it to be messy. We want it to be spontaneous.”

“I tend to be drawn to performers who aren’t afraid to fail on stage,” Mac said, citing Patti Smith, Nina Simone, and Tiny Tim as important influences. “Authentic failure is a part of the art they do in way. It’s not that they’re not successful, it’s that they risk something when they’re on the stage.”

What songs has Mac included in his 24-decade survey?

“We don’t always choose the best stuff. Sometimes we choose songs specifically because they’re bad. But we try to do things that people have heard as well as things that most people don’t know.” Mac assured, “It’s not about a hit parade. It’s about how we can use the songs to tell a story.”

The music from the early decades is “more surprising,” Mac said. “You’d think it might be boring or be annoying (and sometimes it is, because it’s a little oom-pah-pah), but partially because of that reason the early stuff has been more rewarding in some ways to work on. But once we get to 1956 it becomes really fun.”

What has Mac learned in surveying 24 decades of American history and music?

“A lot about so much,” Mac said, “though one thing that stands out is how slowly we’ve come in terms of women’s rights. If you look at our history and you observe all the tactics that have been used to prevent women from getting power, it’s pretty remarkable,” he continued. “In the 1780s, the founding fathers were writing letters ridiculing women. And it’s still happening. You see people doing the exact same thing to women today. There’s been so little progress considering how long it’s been.”

What does Mac think about the current race for the White House?

“I’ll make no bones about it. I’m in support of Hillary. The one thing I know that will happen if she is elected is that everything will be framed around sexism, which I think would be really good for this country.”

One decade, 1806-1816, in Mac’s History is titled “Songs Popular While Escaping the Heteronormative.” The decade from 1836-1846 is titled “Songs Popular While Escaping the Plantation.”

Though politics is a thread that binds some aspects of Mac’s History, there are other important threads in the production as well: the literal threads that hold together Mac’s 24 extravagant costumes designed by a long-time collaborator, Machine Dazzle. Learn more about Machine’s work in the video below.

“I want to look on the outside how I feel on the inside,” Mac said describing the looks Machine has created. “Almost all of my art is about heterogeneity and homogeneity. We say as Americans that we celebrate the whole range of what we are. But because capitalism is all about reduction – how you sell something – we tend to reduce things and people. We compartmentalize. The work is about that conversation.”

“He’s kind of a mad genius,” Mac said of the designer. “We have been working together forever,” Mac said, “so I trust him completely. I can tell him, ‘This is what I’m thinking for this decade,’ and he comes up with something great. Occasionally I might tell him, ‘I want the look to transform at a certain point, I’d like it work with a theme in some way, and then I just let him go. The costumes are collaborations, but they’re his vision working within the structure of what we’re performing.” In addition to simply designing the costumes, Dazzle becomes part of the show by dressing Mac in each of the costumes.

Mac was reluctant to reveal any surprises about the costumes, though did confess one favorite look is one Chicago audiences will see. “Let’s just say there’s a lot of macramé and I wear a headpiece that’s kind of like a mirror ball. It’s pretty amazing.”

To attend the full-length performance of Mac’s History, audience members will need to sign a release stating that they will stay for the duration. “We don’t want that music festival vibe where people come and go,” Mac said. “Part of the art is what happens to the audience.”

Luckily, audience members will have food options at the venue, or can bring their own.

Audience members will be encouraged to bring their own bedding. “Hopefully cots will be set up in the lobby where the music will still be audible so you can still be a part of the experience but you can take a break.” The venue has not yet been announced.

To learn more about Taylor Mac including upcoming performances, visit Mac’s website.

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