Mark Stryker’s ‘Jazz From Detroit’


I unintentionally kicked off 2020 with a bang, at least in one respect. I read Mark Stryker’s excellent Jazz from Detroit last month, and it was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in some time, sticking with me weeks after I finished it.

I had been looking forward to the book’s release for some time, though it took me longer than expected to get around to it. (Upon seeing him at a wonderful Prism Quartet recital in Ypsilanti in November 2018, I introduced myself to let him know I was looking forward to the book’s eventual release.) I’ve followed Stryker’s work for years and his Twitter timeline is a wonderful repository of historical and musical morsels. I’ve seen him around at various shows in southeast Michigan over the years (the trademark hat and mustache make him easy to identify).

Whether people are aware of it or not—and many are likely not—Detroit has played an integral role in the development of jazz. For those with even a modest jazz collection (…for those who even have a non-streaming collection anymore, that is…), look through the liner notes and you’re bound to see at least one name who is from or spent time in the Motor City. I mean, where would jazz as an art form be without the John Coltrane Quartet (with Detroiter Elvin Jones on drums) and Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet (with Detroiter Ron Carter on bass)? (Hell, Ron Carter alone is credited on over 2,000 albums.) That said, until Jazz from Detroit‘s release in July 2019, no one had tried to cover that history in a single volume.

A richly detailed and comprehensive look at both the musical heritage of the city and the lineages in which Detroit has played an integral part, Jazz from Detroit has much to offer to both the musician and layman. Coming in at nearly 300 pages—not including the informative appendices and voluminous index—it’s a taut text that covers a century of not just musical developments, but economic, industrial, demographic, political, and sociological ones too. Stryker reaches beyond purely musical considerations, digging deeply to examine the factors that helped make Detroit such a cultural powerhouse. Bassist and pedagogue Rodney Whitaker said it best, telling Stryker, “That’s what we do in Detroit. We make cars, and we make jazz musicians.” (p. 294)

Stryker spent decades doing his homework, much of that time as a critic for the Detroit Free Press. In addition to his digesting existing scholarship, many of the interviews with the musicians and sidemen discussed throughout the book, including several who are now deceased, were conducted by Stryker personally. His authority comes from being someone who is both a fan of the music and history as well as someone who is himself a part of it. (His anecdote about his first phone call with bassist Ralphe Armstrong had me laughing out loud.) Additionally, his genuine love of the city and its heritage come through with every passage. He’s not a dispassionate scholar who swoops in from parts unknown to examine a phenomenon, only to leave once he’s collected his data. Rather, he’s a champion of the city and its legacy, pulling it out from under the shadows of New York City and Los Angeles, and, to a lesser extent, New Orleans, Kansas City, and Chicago. As the author writes:

“Many Midwestern and Rust Belt cities with large African American populations also experienced golden ages of jazz in the middle of the 20th century—Kansas City, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Cleveland among them—but their musical impact eventually faded. Meanwhile, Detroit continued punching above its weight class.”

(p. x)

This book deals with jazz specifically. Myriad other books, articles, and films have been devoted to Detroit’s Motown and rock offerings. Though there is some musical cross-pollinating where Motown is concerned, Stryker, to his credit and the book’s benefit, stays in the jazz lane.

The book is divided into six parts. “Setting the Stage” (~1900-1950) lays the initial groundwork for much of what follows, particularly regarding the automobile industry and its role in shaping Detroit’s public education system and black working and middle classes, as well as discussion of some early musical figures in and around the city. “The Golden Age, 1940-1960” gets into the real meat and potatoes, with over a dozen chapters, each covering a notable musical figure (e.g., Barry Harris, Yusef Lateef, Tommy Flanagan, Ron Carter, Curtis Fuller, Sheila Jordan, and more). “The Jones Brothers” discusses that remarkable triumvirate Hank, Thad, and Elvin. “Taking Control” explores some of the more communal and entrepreneurial musical developments in Detroit, including the Detroit Artists Workshop, the Strata Corporation, the Creative Arts Collective, and more. “Marcus Belgrave and His Children” dives into the music and legacy of Marcus Belgrave, one of the city’s patron saints of jazz who mentored many of Detroit’s more well-known contemporary exponents (e.g., Kenny Garrett, Rodney Whitaker, Geri Allen, Regina Carter, James Carter, and more). Lastly, “Tradition and Transition” takes stock of the health of both the city and its music of the last couple decades through early ~2019. Each chapter includes recording recommendations for the relevant artist or group.

As someone who grew up in Michigan, it was great to see how some of the more “local” or regional names fit into the larger musical and cultural tapestry. For example, laying all my cards on the table, I knew Marcus Belgrave was a longstanding musical and pedagogical institution in Detroit, having seen him at various masterclasses and concerts in college and elsewhere (annually leading and sitting in with myriad groups at Detroit Jazz Festival, sitting in with Wynton when he visited Detroit, etc.), but save for the occasional mention in a liner note when I’m getting a new (for me) album, it wasn’t always clear to me just how he fit into the larger puzzle beyond the Midwest. (Admittedly, perhaps it was my own ignorance.) I now have a much clearer understanding, thanks to Stryker’s work.

Stylistically, much of the book is weighted toward The Tradition, but that’s to be expected. After all, many of the figures discussed are known for styles steeped in the blues, swing, and bop (be- and post-). Even the more avant-garde folks who appear throughout, including bassist Jaribu Shahid, drummer Tani Tabbal, and pianist Craig Taborn, had a foot in more mainstream styles at one time or another. My only real quibbles with the book are extremely minor and subjective. For one, I was surprised to see Massive Attack labeled a rap group. (That said, as a fan, I was as surprised as anyone to see the group mentioned at all, and, admittedly, trip hop isn’t too widely known of a label.) Additionally, and it’s just because the album is a desert island disc for me, I would have included Chasin’ the Gypsy as a recommended James Carter album instead of either Heaven on Earth or Present Tense. But that’s me.

Selfishly, as a point of saxophonistic privilege, I must highlight one of my favorite passages. I was pleasantly surprised to learn of Joe Henderson’s training and that he studied with Larry Teal. More than that, though, I was floored to read of the following convergence of greatness. Talk about a pantheon of jazz and classical saxophone: “[Larry Teal’s] Tuesday morning lineup of students in 1956-57 was Yusef Late at 9:30, Henderson at 10:00, and Donald Sinta at 10:30.” (p. 132) A real murderers’ row!

If you’re at all into jazz, history, or Detroit culture, I highly recommend Jazz from Detroit. Mark Stryker knocked this one out of the park. I only hope there’s a sequel of sorts in the future.

Recommended Reading:
Perhaps to whet your appetite if you’re still wondering whether or not you should read Jazz from Detroit, I highly recommend these excellent interviews of Stryker conducted by Ethan Iverson for Do The M@th: here and here.

Audience Highlights Over the Decade

Though tired of the relentless assault of best-of lists, I guess I can’t help but jump on the bandwagon. The last decade was big for me personally—marriage, a family, multiple interstate moves—but this list isn’t about that. Instead, for posterity’s sake, here’s a list of some of the best things I witnessed from the audience over the last decade. These are listed in chronological order, with mostly a single item per year. Some years had much more competition that others, but each year’s pick was formidable in its own way.

2010: Dave Matthews Band at The Gorge Ampitheatre (George, WA) on 09.04.10
— One of the best DMB shows I’ve attended. The band was on fire and several of my all-time favorites were played: “#41,” “Fool to Think,” “So Right,” “The Stone,” and “Two Step.” I may have celebrated too heartily afterward.
2011: Smashing Pumpkins at Riviera Theater (Chicago, IL) on 10.14.11 | Keith Jarrett Trio @ Orchestra Hall (Chicago, IL) on 10.21.11
— These back-to-back treks to Chicago were well worth it. One of the better SP shows I’ve attended (“For Martha” to close the main set!), plus it’s always nice to see Billy Corgan in Chicago, where it all began. Having his family in the audience made Billy a little extra chatty. As for Jarrett, it was the last time I saw him in concert. I’ve seen him four times (twice solo and twice with the trio), all in Chicago, and this was the better of the two trio shows I attended. It hurts that the trio has since disbanded after so many years of great music-making.
*Honorable Mention: Bon Iver at UIC Pavilion (Chicago, IL) on 12.11.11
2012: Einstein on the Beach at the Power Center (Ann Arbor, MI) on 01.22.12
— A once-in-a-generation production and tour. I’m still grateful I was able to attend this. Nearly a decade later, I still think of this performance often.
*Honorable Mention 1: Charles Lloyd‘s New Quartet at Michigan Theater (Ann Arbor, MI) on 04.14.12 (that version of “Go Down Moses” haunts me still…)
*Honorable Mention 2: James Carter Organ Trio, Spectrum Road, and Neneh Cherry with The Thing at Montreux Jazz Festival (Montreux Switzerland) on 07.07.12
2013: Rienzi at Oberfrankenhalle (Bayreuth, Germany) on 07.07.13
— A uniquely odd but wonderful performance and setting for Wagner’s bicentennial celebration.
*Honorable Mention: Dave Liebman residency at Detroit Jazz Festival (Detroit, MI), Labor Day Weekend 2013
2014: Tord Gustavsen Quartet at Constellation (Chicago, IL) on 02.22.14
— A moving, intimate performance, and afterward I got to hang for a bit with the one and only Tore Brunborg, one of my favorite saxophonists.
2015: Dave Liebman’s Expansions at Kerrytown Concert House (Ann Arbor, MI) on 10.13.15
— Lieb always delivers, and seeing his new regular band was no exception.
2016: River of Fundament at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Cleveland, OH) on 01.30.16
— Need I say more? Arguably the top “performance” of the decade for me, even though it’s a film.
*Honorable Mention: Der fliegende Holländer at Bayern Staatsoper (Munich, Germany) on 07.22.16
— This was my second time seeing this engaging production by Peter Konwitschny in Munich. Even though the end was changed at the last minute due to exigent circumstances (the onstage explosion was pulled due to the chaos ensuing from that evening’s nearby shooting), I got much more out of the production than the first time through. Dr. Mark Berry wrote a lovely review here. (After the opera, my students and I spent the night camped out at the Staatsoper due to the “shelter in place” order from the US, most of them eventually sleeping. It was an unforgettable evening for many reasons.)
2017: Die Walküre at Lyric Opera of Chicago (Chicago, IL) on 11.14.17
*Honorable Mention: Götterdämmerung at Canadian Opera Company (Toronto, Ontario) on 02.05.17
— My first time seeing Christine Goerke at Brünnhilde. Her commanding performance quite whetted my appetite for her debut in Chicago’s Ring cycle later that year.
2018: Radiohead at Scotiabank Arena (Toronto, Ontario) on 07.20.18 | Middle Kids at Mohawk Place (Buffalo, NY) on 06.07.18 | Elton John at Scotiabank Centre (Toronto, Ontario) on 09.25.18
— 2018 is a difficult one due to lots of great shows. My gut reaction is that Radiohead’s concert was the best one I saw that year. Simply amazing; even better than the previous time I saw the band. However, I can’t leave Middle Kids off the list. Middle Kids is easily my favorite new band of the last several years. The Australian band has yet to really break big here in the US, but fortunately for me the group played Mohawk Place in downtown Buffalo, an intimate, long-running rock club that holds a couple hundred people at most. Being front row for that was a special experience. (One of my great regrets of the last several years regarding this blog is that I haven’t written about Middle Kids. Hopefully that’ll change at some point.) And of course Elton. This was arguably one of the two best shows I’ve seen of his. Hercules and the whole band were on fire all night.
2019: Redoubt at Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, CT) on 03.02.19| Tool at Scotiabank Arena (Toronto, Ontario) on 11.12.19
— Attending the premiere of Redoubt (both the film and exhibit), along with attending an artist talk and getting to briefly meet Matthew Barney, was quite an experience. And then, months later, I learned that my boys are back. Great bookends to the year.
*Honorable Mention: Bon Iver at Scotiabank Arena (Toronto, Ontario) on 10.06.19

Fandom: Here, There, and Back Again

I attended the second night of Tool’s two-night run at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena last Tuesday, and it proved to be far more consequential than expected.

The last time I saw the band was nearly eight years ago in January 2012. That Toledo, OH show was a bit underwhelming. Danny, Adam, and Justin were at the top of their game, collectively and individually, but Maynard seemed disinterested at best. To say nothing of his blasé vocals throughout, he was the last one on the stage and the first one off. Sure, people have off nights (myself included, not that I’m in the same league), and the show wasn’t bad overall. But what a bummer, especially after a long drive, the cost of the ticket and merchandise, and having not seen the band for several years before that. It was disheartening. I mean, I’ve seen less-than-great shows before by many bands—some downright bad (yes, Iron Maiden, thinking of you)—but not by an artist or group I hold in such high regard. More than that, as lame as I know it seems, as a fan I took it personally. And it festered.

Following that, I continued to listen to and love the band’s music, but a part of me did it at a distance. Some months after I moved from East Lansing to Buffalo, I passed up trying to see the band in either Rochester, Hamilton, or Detroit during the brief 2017 run. Even though I had a lot going on in my life at the time and didn’t need another event on my plate, I know that had that 2012 show gone differently then I wouldn’t have thought twice about whether to attend in 2017. (I would’ve been there without question.) But I had a chip on my shoulder and considered my passivity an act of defiance, particularly for a band that tours so infrequently. (My ~15 shows in 22 years is notable only because of that infrequency.) I thought that, if nothing else, I had a lot of good shows under my belt and didn’t need to go out on a limb at that time. Plus, it’s not like my emotional investment in the band was a waste. After all, that May 2001 show at Detroit’s State Theater is arguably my favorite concert I’ve attended. It’s in my top 3 or 5 (of everything) at least.

Even in 2019 I was hesitant, more so than in previous years. When Fear Inoculum, the band’s first album in thirteen years, was officially announced, I was skeptical. Would it be worth the wait? Should I even bother with the expensive deluxe packaging of the studio album or just buy it digitally? Will the live show be worth not only the wait but also the expense? I knew I’d go to a show if the opportunity presented itself, but there was a part of me that felt obliged to do so. Partially out of principle, but also out of procrastination, I avoided really listening to the album’s title track before the album’s release. (It was made available to stream weeks in advance.) I considered it best to just hear the entire album with fresh ears once available. Coincidentally, Fear Inoculum was released the same day as Bon Iver’s i,i. (Also coincidentally, I saw Bon Iver at the same venue as Tool ~6 weeks ago.) When I made a trip to the store that day, I knew immediately upon seeing Fear Inoculum and its oversized packaging that I had to go big or go home. If nothing else, I had well over two decades of emotional investment to honor, which outweighed my weird little grudge. (Yes, I wore it like a crown…)

Skittish, I listened to i,i first that day. But eventually…

I listened to Fear Inoculum. Then I listened again. And again.

My boys were back, I thought. I really liked it the first time through. By the second listen I loved it. And more with each full listen. Hot damn. A lot of hype surrounded the album. Not only was it the first album in over a decade—many of us fans thought it’d never happen—but there was also seemingly endless discussion about how it was a big album (the shortest song being over ten minutes long) that covered new ground for the band. Plus, given the amount of time that had passed since 2006’s 10,000 Days and Fear Inoculum, there was a lot of concern that the band just wasn’t as invested as before, not to mention the music industry itself being a whole different beast than it was in 2006. But I wasn’t the only one who got sucked in. Enough people did for Tool to dethrone Taylor Swift on the Billboard charts.

But the hesitancy remained. The tour was announced and I didn’t try to get a close seat. Furthermore, I figured I’d play it safe and only go to one of the Toronto shows instead of both. I considered writing a full album review, going so far as to start multiple drafts but abandoning them.

Without making this a full album review, suffice it to say that it’s a great next step in the band’s evolution. There’s been some back-and-forth among the fans as to whether it’s heavy enough, but I think that misses the mark some. Maynard’s vocal stylings aren’t as aggressive as in previous albums, but instrumentals certainly contend with the rest of the catalogue. The blending of those two aspects is part of the band’s secret sauce. Tool was never going to release a direct-to-video sequel to Undertow, so it’s lame to hear when people expect it. (Just as Miles wasn’t going to treat his audiences to an acoustic rendition of “My Funny Valentine” after 1970.) As far as a review is concerned, right now I’ll note that if you like Lateralus‘s “The Patient” (as I do—one of my favorites from the band’s output), then Fear Inoculum is right up your alley. For me, “Pneuma” and “7empest” are the album’s MVPs.

Then Tuesday came. And the band DELIVERED. The boys are indeed back, and I still float on a cloud when I think of it. Some thoughts on the show, in no particular order:
• The band was TIGHT. Everyone, including Maynard, was locked in and the ensemble worked as one unit.
• Maynard seemed as into the performance as his bandmates. I dare say he even seemed jovial at times in his own way, interacting with the others on stage as well as the audience.
• The sound mix was excellent. That particular Tool concert may have been the best the band has sounded live. Even with it being so very loud (always wear your earplugs), everything was crystal clear. Considering Tool’s wide dynamic range and sudden juxtapositions, this really put things in welcome relief.
• Justin’s bass really cut through the texture in a tasteful way. Sometimes bass guitar can be muddled in such an environment, but thanks to the live mix it was clear as a bell.
• The phone ban was a dream come true. (Kudos to the arena’s staff for strict enforcement.) It’d been years since I’d watched an arena show with an audience that was free of phone screens due to photos and video. Of course, I do admit to taking one photo for posterity when the ban was lifted during the final song, but it was otherwise lovely to just take in the show without such distractions.
• The set list was an interesting mix, and only one song from 1992’s Opiate and 1993’s Undertow combined was included. “Part of Me” was such a surprise and a real treat. It was only the second time I’d heard that live, I think. Given the band’s penchant for mostly static set lists for a single tour, I’m glad I completely avoided looking up the shows prior to mine. Each song was an unexpected turn. (Consequently I won’t post the set list here.)
• “The Pot” hit me like a ton of bricks. For whatever reason, that had long been for me the weak link on 10,000 Days. Chalk it up to the euphoria from that night’s rekindling of the flame if nothing else, but I’ve been making up for lost time with that song over the last week.
• It never ceases to impress me that a band can rock such a large crowd so hard for two hours and yet only one six-minute song is in a continuous, steady 4/4 time.
• Some tweaking of the older material was a nice touch. For example, the extended jam during “Jambi” and the extended double-time during the bridge in “Schism.” (I thought Danny’s drumset would explode.) I did miss the “Suspicious Minds” interpolation in “Stinkfist,” but you can’t have it all.

All this is to say that my Tool fandom has gained a second wind of sorts. Not that it ever went away. Certainly not. But since the show I’ve been caught off guard at just how much it affected my spirits and how I see my relationship to the band’s music. It’s refreshing to know that after so many years I can still get that giddy, deeply connected feeling to it. And, without question, I now can’t wait for the next show.

Though the band didn’t perform it at last week’s show, it’s only fitting I include a live video of “The Grudge,” this from ’02. The lyrics are here.


Remediation

2019 has shaped up to be an invisibly productive year thus far. I say that because I haven’t much to show for it. Save a couple pit gigs and a one-off crashing of a Forgotten Prophets show, my itinerary has been empty. That said, in some ways I’m in the best musical shape since my son’s arrival over four years ago. I’ve made a conscious effort to batten down the hatches and consistently practice with an eye toward goals both big and small. Some tangible victories include:

  • My clarinet playing being the best it’s been. It’s an instrument I’ve never really enjoyed playing, doing it only when I must. But I did have a few days this year where—gulp—I had fun playing it.
  • Reacquainting myself with a number of forgotten jazz standards. A decade ago I could do a 4-hr. jazz gig and barely need charts except for the original tunes. That said, I haven’t had a regular jazz gig in a number of years, and therefore no need to retain or practice them. It’s been nice to wake those particular muscles.
  • Progressing with some long-intended transcriptions.
  • Learning some new classical literature. Putting together a recital or something similar at this point would be completely impractical, and nothing I’m that interested in doing. However, it’s been great to be able to get back in that mindset to some degree.
  • Glacially paced improvement in music technology matters, including some recording here and there.

So, those are some wins. Of course, there have been drawbacks:

  • Ensemble performance. The pit gigs were fine, but I definitely felt caught flat-footed a couple times on stage with the Prophets. Even though I was just sitting in on the show with little prep, I definitely felt rusty at times when it came to playing in a live, improvised setting. I don’t know how it sounded or appeared, but I definitely had some internal unease. It’s a scenario that, years ago, would’ve been a non-issue.
  • External momentum. While I’ve been diligent about sheddin’ in the basement, I can’t say the same for playing beyond my property. Much of that has been because I’ve hit a brick wall with trying to make inroads locally. The union is a social and political network that I can’t seem to crack, despite having joined years ago and making and reaching out to contacts over the years. In other words, “Seat’s taken!” Turf wars and the cold crossfire of competitive self-interest. Such is life in a metropolitan area where seemingly everyone’s a townie or close to it.

Still, I suppose I should focus on the silver lining. There have been improvements, even if only I know about them. And, playing aside, I’ve made a point to do much more active listening these last several years. One consequence of that—or was it the other way around?—is that I’ve gone on a CD-buying tear since moving from Michigan, increasing the frequency I’d already been maintaining. In the beginning, I’m sure part of it was retail therapy to go along with the move. But also, for a time, I was just a few miles from Buffalo’s Record Theatre, a local institution that I’d been frequenting for nearly a decade. Of course, it was just my luck that it permanently closed the following year. Anyway, the shopping has generally continued nonetheless. I’ve yet to get into vinyl, so CDs are my physical copy of choice. I know, it makes me a ridiculous luddite, yada yada. I still think there’s value in curating a personal library. Also, it’s nice to not be completely reliant on the cloud for all my needs.

Eventually my schedule and availability will lighten up some, particularly when the little guy goes to school, at which time I’ll be able to plant more irons in the fire. And when that happens, I’ll be glad to have spent this time buffing out the wear and tear—taking the time to actually work things out as opposed to maintaining between gigs.

Music (mostly) aside, I’ve also made a point to consistently read more for pleasure. Not only has that been good for the eyes to lose the screens for a bit, but it’s just been good for the mind to focus on longer narratives, fiction or otherwise. (This does include re-reading Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. Of course.) Right now I’m nearing the end of Dr. Mark Berry’s new Schoenberg biography, which I’m quite enjoying.

Additionally, I’ve been working on a lead from the Redoubt premiere, as the River of Fundament obsession continues. More about that if anything ever comes of it.

And here we are: June 2019. I only really know that from looking at the calendar. That’s fine. The seasons keep changing and the work continues. Whether it’ll amount to anything is an open question. Admittedly, my not-quite-suppressed nihilism make me think it doesn’t really matter either way. But at least I’m enjoying doing it.

Matthew Barney’s ‘Redoubt’ at Yale University Art Gallery

I was fortunate to attend Saturday’s premiere of Redoubt, Matthew Barney‘s new film and accompanying exhibition, at Yale University Art Gallery, the artist’s alma mater. The intimate new work is smaller in narrative scope and scale than its predecessors River of Fundament (which still has me under its spell), Drawing Restraint 9, and The Cremaster Cycle. But that in no way diminishes it. The multimedia collection is powerful, engaging, and promises to stay with you long after you leave.

https://vimeo.com/319603163

Redoubt, the 134-minute film, features only six characters. (There are also four others, a bartender and three bar patrons, who tangentially appear for several minutes.) Its name literally means a defensive fortification, but the word is also used regarding political movements. Specifically, American Redoubt is a survivalist movement in the northwest region of the US, including Idaho, where the work takes place. The entire wordless film is set in and around Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, not far from Barney’s childhood home of Boise. It’s visually and sonically subtle to an effectively unsettling degree. A minimalist but enchanting score by Jonathan Bepler accompanies the mostly stark imagery: snow-covered panoramas, slow pans, careful and deliberate gestures, and extended slow-to-moderately paced physical sequences. Peter Strietmann‘s cinematography captures the essence of the wilderness’s micro and macro elements—from the privacy of a hammock or shared gaze to the vastness of an untamed wilderness in which you can easily be lost and forgotten.

The complete absence of dialogue further emphasizes the work’s physicality. Movements and gestures ordinarily ignored when accompanied by spoken word are exponentially magnified when the primary mode of communication. The that end, four of film’s main cast (2/3 of the six) are portrayed by dancers. Of those four, three of them execute their choreography in challenging external conditions, a nod to Matthew Barney’s trademark Drawing Restraint series. Such conditions include knee- and waist-deep snow, sub-zero temperatures, working within tight spaces (e.g., in a hammock or on a small tarp), and while scaling and descending from trees.

Just as Barney worked with operatic language in River of Fundament, he addresses dance head-on in Redoubt. I should note that much of the choreography is done by cast member Eleanor Bauer, who performed a dance sequence in Act III of River of Fundament as one of the Little Queens in Usermare’s court.

As a brief synopsis, I’ll simply quote the one on the Yale University Art Gallery’s website:

Set in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountain range, the film layers classical, cosmological, and American myths about humanity’s place in the natural world, continuing Barney’s long-standing preoccupation with landscape as both a setting and subject. Redoubt loosely adapts the myth of Diana, goddess of the hunt, and Actaeon, a hunter who trespasses on her and is punished… [T]he characters communicate through choreography that echoes and foreshadows their encounters with wildlife.

Yale University Art Gallery

In this abstract adaptation of the myth of Diana, Barney also addresses the reintroduction of wolves into Idaho, hunting, weapons and artillery, survivalism and its relation to regional politics, Native culture and its relation the state, the land management bureaucracy, and more. Continuing his tradition of casting practitioners over actors to fill the roles, the cast includes:
Diana, goddess of the hunt: Anette Wachter, record-holding champion sharpshooter
Calling Virgin, attendant of Diana: Eleanor Bauer, dancer and choreographer
Tracking Virgin, attendant of Diana: Laura Stokes, dancer, aerialist, and contortionist
Electroplater, alchemist and assistant to Engraver: K. J. Holmes, dancer
Engraver, a U.S. Parks ranger: Matthew Barney, artist
Hoop Dancer, Native dancer: Sandra Lamouche, Native performer

The narrative is divided into six hunts (days) plus a prologue, stemming from a conversation Barney had with a hunter who claimed that tracking and hunting a wolf would take at least six days. Over the course of the work, Diana, accompanied by her attendants, tracks and hunts a wolf. Being the goddess of the hunt, Diana’s actions are portrayed as more of a sacred duty—something she must complete—rather than a sport of choice. She portrays arguably no emotion at all in any of her actions. Meanwhile, the Engraver (Actaeon), roams the wilderness, capturing scenes with his engraved drawings, returning each evening to his shared home (a trailer adorned with survivalist trappings) with the Electroplater, a maternal figure of sorts who both transforms his engravings via electrochemical baths as well as ritualistically and cosmologically translates his work and the story at large into part of the Cosmic Hunt mythology. Eventually, the Engraver happens upon Diana’s hunt, at which point he is drawn to capturing her image. As punishment for this, wolves eventually descend upon his trailer and destroy his art.

Reintroduction: State five

In Hunt 5, the Engraver briefly leaves the mountains and drives to a nearby town, where he happens upon the Hoop Dancer while she quietly prepares a private performance of her own. Notably, she is in an empty American Legion hall that is heavily decorated with US military paraphernalia. And when she dances, we, the audience, cannot hear her music, as she is listening to her iPhone with headphones. We can only watch. Some early reviews have remarked on how out of place this seems to be, but to me that’s the point. The one Native character is removed from the land, surrounded by four militaristic walls (and yet leaving the door to the outside open), and must conduct her ritual privately, whereas the five non-Native characters are allowed to carry out their own rites with abandon throughout the land. And the Engraver, who does briefly observe the Hoop Dancer, ultimately chooses not to capture her image.

The use of dance as a narrative device, much of it including contact improvisation, was quite effective, and the choreography and execution was engaging and thought-provoking. The dearth of sudden or quick movements in the film, both conveying the limitations of the harsh conditions in which its performed and illustrating the patience required when tracking and hunting, provided a subtle tension throughout. From the Virgins’ minimally adjusted gait—graceful and intentional, yet contrived to the slightest degree—while they follow Diana through the woods, to the manner in which they move their heads and limbs while looking for Diana’s prey, the smallest gestures often have the most lasting effects.

Additionally, dance is present throughout a vast majority of the film, even if not in the foreground. As an example, there is a scene in Hunt 2 in which Diana sits by a river and slowly cleans her handgun (in a manner later ritualistically emulated by her attendants toward the end of Hunt 6) while her attendants slowly bathe (through dance) in the water. Much of the time the camera focuses on Diana’s deliberate process, while the attendants can be seen slowly moving while partially submerged in the background.

In a directorial move that reminded me of River of Fundament, the Electroplater engages in an extended dance “monologue” in the film’s final scene, which is her first dance of note in the film (save for a cosmic pose struck in the prologue). In River of Fundament, Joan La Barbara, a legendary vocalist and master of extended techniques, portrays Norman Mailer’s widow. As such, she is present in most of the five-and-a-half-hour film, but she doesn’t sing until deep into the third act. When she does, just as with the Electroplater’s dance, it’s both surprising and powerful.

Further emphasizing the economical use of action, Diana herself discharges a firearm only a handful of times over the course of the story: twice to harm the Engraver’s work, and only two or three times directed toward prey (deer, a wolf). Instead, much of what is shown of Diana is her patiently tracking, waiting for, and considering her prey and rituals. It wasn’t just the jaw-dropping accuracy of a sharpshooter that Barney wanted from Wachter, but also to convey just how natural and instinctual Diana is with her tools and methods, and she more than delivered.

Jonathan Bepler’s minimal, mostly consonant score, which he performed himself along with some haunting vocal work by Megan Schubert (also of River of Fundament), provides an engaging, non-diegetic aural layer. While not tonal by any means, moments of heavy dissonance are few and far between, and are mostly saved for the wolves’ destruction of the Engraver’s art at the end. The sparse percussion, keyboards, synthesizers, and voice often imitate or complement the natural sounds captured in the wilderness, such as the crunching of snow, the howl of a wolf or flapping of a bird’s wings, a bubbling brook, and the snapping of branches. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish where the natural sounds end and the artificial ones begin.

[I’d be remiss to not mention a possible operatic allusion from the prologue. In what I believe is the first aerial view of the river flowing through the mountains, Bepler’s score is briefly—a few seconds at most—reminiscent (intentionally or not; I don’t know) of Richard Wagner‘s Rhein leitmotif as used in Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung (particularly the latter’s French horn choir in the prelude to Act III). If intentional, it’s a clever nod to the past. If coincidence, this Wagnerian appreciated it nonetheless.]

Accompanying the film is the exhibition of sculptures, engravings, and electroplated works, which also debuted this weekend. The collection’s composition of metals, wood, and chemicals is a continuation of Barney’s processes he began exploring in River of Fundament. The engravings, which are featured in the film, are also show in various states of (d)evolution: with and without patina, and having undergone the electroplating process to varying degrees. The large-scale sculptures include molds made from and/or using burnt, felled trees from the Sawtooth Mountains.

Elk Creek Burn
Elk Creek Burn

I’d recommend both the exhibition as well as the film individually, but they’re best absorbed together if you can plan your visit accordingly. Redoubt will be at Yale University Art Gallery through June 16, and will subsequently show at Beijing’s UCCA at the end of 2019 and at London’s Hayward Gallery in 2020.


UPDATE: Below is the artist talk that occurred immediately after the premiere screening. It features Matthew Barney in discussion with Pamela Franks. It’s probably for the best that the top of my head didn’t make into the bottom of the frame.