By MATT PEIKEN / MNuet Publisher
I was one of the first people, I believe, to buy a package of tickets for the new music performance series called Liquid Music. Laurie Anderson, who came here in November, was the premiere artist on a six-program lineup (now seven) that spans jazz to atmospheric pop to chamber music to whatever label you want to pin on the cacophony Ben Frost, his Macbook and two drummers served up last Saturday at the Amsterdam Bar.
Liquid Music is the brainchild of publicist-turned-curator Kate Nordstrum, who has a knack for intriguing musical pairings in unexpected venues. I was familiar with several of the artists she’s bringing to town and eager to learn about the others.
What I didn’t understand then—and still don’t, even after conversations with the people behind Liquid Music—is why this series comes from the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (in partnership with the Walker Art Center, whose involvement makes far more sense). Only one of the Liquid Music programs includes any SPCO musicians and only three can even remotely fall under the umbrella of classical music.
Diversifying programming with series such as Liquid Music, SPCO administrative leaders say, is imperative for growing audience and revenue. Other orchestras, including the Minnesota Orchestra, have long presented artists outside the umbrella of its core musicians. Funding for Liquid Music came from the Augustine Foundation in New York and restricted grants from other organizations and people.
But the shape and timing for Liquid Music couldn’t be worse for the SPCO. Every Liquid Music concert that happens during the management-imposed lockout of its musicians makes the organization seem either unfazed or uncaring to the fact that its core musicians are out of work. And while there are hits and misses with anything new and experimental, the incongruence of SPCO and Liquid Music couldn’t have been more evident than last Saturday at St. Paul’s Amsterdam Bar.
Programmers were expecting up to several hundred people and, while I eyeballed maybe 200 attendees, they were a diverse lot—from bearded thirtysomethings to couples clearly in their 60s and perhaps 70s. I’ll take a leap and suggest that few here knew of Ben Frost before he showed up on the Liquid Music schedule. Some were undoubtedly there only because this concert bore the stamp of The SPCO, others because of the Walker’s support. It’s unlikely a tenth of these people would have turned out for Ben Frost or paid $10 to see him—and little chance of St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman escorting Frost to the Xcel Center before the concert to watch a bit of Minnesota Wild hockey—if he merely appeared as any other artist on the Amsterdam calendar.
I hadn’t done much research into Frost before arriving, and I was thankful for the hint from a bartender that I would need earplugs. I bring earplugs to most of the shows I attend—many in the vein of hardcore or thrash metal—but it didn’t occur to me to bring them here. I fished out a dollar bill to secure a pair but, from what I could see, few others got the memo on earplugs. Everyone else paid a deafening price.
Frost’s computers and amplification, not to mention the propulsive percussion of two drummers, produced a chest-penetrating, hair-raising curtain of noise. Within three minutes, the first couple I placed in their 60s abandoned their choices seats—either for a vantage further back or for the doors, I couldn’t tell. Before long, others had followed, including a longtime local choreographer and her husband, both known as purveyors of alternative art. To say people fled in droves would be wrong, but I watched enough older people leave to get the sense—and I might be making an assumptive leap here—they felt misled by The SPCO’s brand on the bill. This isn’t to suggest that Frost and his drummers didn’t do what they do well, and this is Minnesota, so at least some in the audience responded to Frost’s hourlong set by clapping and standing at the same time.
There’s an argument to be made the SPCO has no business producing these kinds of concerts. Taking management’s logic to another arena, it would be like a dressage league feeling the need to expand its audience by also producing, say, roller derby. Will new people come through the door? Absolutely. But who will you confuse, alienate or drive away? You could call this series Liquid Mission.
I understand there are contractual obligations to fulfill in producing these concerts even during the lockout, but doing so without acknowledging to your audience the grim, protracted state of the labor dispute communicates flippancy and lack of commitment to what should be the core mission and music and, by extension, the staff musicians.
It’s also germane to note that management is insisting, as part of any labor agreement, that non-artists and others without critical or programmatic artistic experience be allowed to shape the SPCO’s programming and other artistic decisions. It was less than a decade ago that the musicians of the SPCO agreed to a 17 percent pay cut softened, in part, by a greater say for the musicians in programming. The SPCO musicians I’ve spoken with say they had problems from the outset with Liquid Music.
Next up for this series are excerpts of Sarah Kirkland Snider’s song cycle Penelope, featuring vocalist Shara Worden, along with new work from Worden’s band. Performances are Feb. 26-27 in the SPCO Center, and I’m excited to be there. The program, in the SPCO’s far-underutilized home, seems far more appropriate to fly under the orchestra’s banner.
Still, I would have much rather seen SPCO musicians involved, in some performative capacity, with every program in the Liquid Music series. Toward that end, you won’t want to miss bassist Reid Anderson, best known as a member of The Bad Plus, performing with SPCO concertmaster Steven Copes and others to close out the series June 18-19.
From my view, though, any music presented by The SPCO without some involvement from The SPCO’s musicians—particularly during this lockout—leaves everyone with a sour note.
Pictured: Ben Frost.