Sound of Music Returns to the MCA
For a week in July 1982 Navy Pier was the most exciting place in the world to hear new music. In an unusual partnership, the city and the Museum of Contemporary Art hosted the New Music America festival, with a staggering lineup of performers and composers that included Muhal Richard Abrams, Glenn Branca, John Cage, Meredith Monk, Alvin Curran, Joan LaBarbara, Annea Lockwood, Alvin Lucier, Roscoe Mitchell, Steve Reich, and Christian Wolff. Presented cabaret-style, New Music America made art music casually accessible to thousands of Chicagoans.
Alene Valkanas, former programming director at the MCA, considers the festival the high point of her 12 years of booking musical events there. It also turned out to be something of a parting blast: she left later that year for another job (she's now with the Illinois Arts Alliance), and, thanks in part to cuts in arts funding in the 80s, her legacy dwindled. But if Peter Taub, who just last year was hired to succeed Valkanas at the new MCA, has his way, the museum's reputation as a leading presenter of new music will soon be restored. This weekend the MCA's 1997-'98 performance series kicks off impressively with the Chicago premiere of Pussy, King of the Pirates, an acclaimed but rarely staged bawdy collaboration between pomo novelist Kathy Acker and the Mekons.
Putting on a show at the MCA's old digs at 237 E. Ontario was a pretty simple proposition when Valkanas started, around 1971. "We would just move the art aside and put up folding chairs and a sound system," says Valkanas. "It was not a time when one was concerned about insurance liabilities. What started me off was Anthony Braxton. I think he was coming back from Japan, and his advance person wanted a place for him to perform that was in the downtown area. Folks poured in from all around the city, including the south side. We were stuffed to the gills that night and the music was so electric, and the resonance in the space so wonderful, that it convinced me to keep doing it."
Under Valkanas the MCA presented a wide range of sounds, from blues to chamber music to experimental. Crossover stars like Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich gave some of their earliest Chicago performances there, the first wave of AACM musicians found regular support there, and some of new music's most serious and respected composers, including Rzewski, Stockhausen, and Berio, found the MCA a welcoming place to have their works heard.
But the culture wars did their damage, and as the museum began to place a greater emphasis on its permanent collection, converting the galleries into temporary performance spaces became increasingly impractical. By the time the MCA started planning its relocation in the early 90s, the performance program had been dead for years. Fortunately, "the people who worked on this new facility had it in mind to return the MCA to what it was in its early years--a true contemporary-arts center," says Taub, a former director of Randolph Street Gallery. "Instead of it just being a place for the contemplative appreciation of objects, it's trying to be a more experientially defined place." They backed up that notion with a 300-seat performance space.
Taub's first year of programming was rather ambitious, though there were only three musical events. "Originally the idea was that 1996 would be dedicated to planning and development and laying groundwork," says Taub, but he managed to squeeze in Latin-jazz trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez, experimental reedist Douglas Ewart, and local free-improv legends Liof Munimula. This year's program is much stronger, with a full slate of performance art, dance, film, spoken word, and music; musical highlights include daring German composer Helmut Lachenmann, expansive jazz clarinetist Don Byron, AACM avatar Roscoe Mitchell, and a series of concerts by the Chicago Chamber Musicians, including one conducted by Pierre Boulez. Many of the programs are multidisciplinary: Byron's octet will accompany a screening of a silent film, Scar of Shame, and the Paul Dresher Ensemble will play original music by Alvin Curran and David Lang for a performance by the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company.
In order to help keep the series healthy--both financially and artistically--Taub is copresenting many of the events with other arts organizations, ranging from the Jazz Institute of Chicago to the Goethe Institute to Women in the Director's Chair. And, perhaps predictably, he'd like the shows to draw in audiences who, though active in other "scenes," might not otherwise visit the museum regularly. "Part of my curiosity about the Mekons program is that we want the museum to be accessible to a broader population, not just people who are already informed about what's going on in the contemporary arts," he says. "I'll be learning this year how much crossover there is, and how far I can stretch our limited resources."
Late next month, after four years of booking music at Schubas, helping establish the club as Chicago's premier venue for up-and-coming roots music, Anastasia Davies is calling it quits. Building on the occasional Americana concerts Jam Productions put in the room, Davies carved out a valuable niche by booking important alternative country acts and off-kilter folkies and providing an intimate space for more popular artists. She plans to take a few months off to ponder her next move; so far no one has been hired to replace her.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Peter Taub photo by Brad Miller.