October 23, 2014
The Beethoven Festival: Love 2013 might be about the last place you’d expect to find Gray, an experimental industrial-sound band founded in 1979 by graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and performance artist Michael Holman.
But for Holman, who revived Gray in 2010 with another original band member, Nick Taylor, also known as DJ High Priest, it makes perfect sense. Ludwig van Beethoven was one of history’s great musical innovators, and that’s what the group aspires to be as well.
“When he [Beethoven] was playing music, a lot of people were scratching their heads and going, ‘What is this?’ ” Holman said. “This isn’t like music we’re used to.”
Gray’s “A False Sense of Silence,” a kind of deconstructed ode to the silent-film era, is one of 37 world premieres and six Chicago premieres featured at the third-annual installment of this year’s festival, which runs through Sunday.
In all, the nine-day event at the Merit School of Music and several other venues will encompass more than 60 performances by artists from 12 countries, as well as related visual art, literary and fashion offerings. The emphasis is the new and unconventional.
“We do about 20 percent of programming around Beethoven,” said pianist George LePauw, the festival’s president and artistic director. “But, really, the rest is inspired by his spirit, which was unconventional, a sort of rock-star attitude. He was always breaking the rules — traditions in the art form of composition but also societal rules.”
Nowhere will that rules-breaking mantra be more in evidence than in Gray’s work, which debuts at 10:30 p.m. Thursday. Using disparate Super 8 film clips from the 1950s through the 1980s, Holman and Taylor have assembled a 50-minute silent film related to the life of Beethoven, complete with title cards and an accompanying live score.
“This film we made is not a documentary,” Holman said. “There’s a story, and the story we’re telling is based on his life and it’s based on fact, but we’re taking liberties, of course, because we’re deconstructivists in the extreme.”
Many premieres will be heard at 3 p.m. Saturday, as part of festival’s recurring Bagatelle Project, which is overseen by Chicago composer Mischa Zupko. Sixteen classical composers, including such well-known names as Andy Akiho and Douwe Eisenga, were commissioned to write a bagatelle — a two- to three-minute work for solo piano using themes from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
Added this year is the related Rockatelle Project, headed by Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and Joe Darnaby of Chicago’s Fulcrum Point New Music Project. They asked a diverse group of 12 folk, rock, electronic groups and composers to tackle the same challenge from their stylistic point of view.
Here is a look at some other noteworthy premieres to be featured during the Beethoven Festival:
◆ “Orbit” for Solo Cello, Philip Glass, 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Merit School. At 76, Glass is one of the deans of American composition. Jeffrey Ziegler, former cellist of the Kronos Quartet, performs the Chicago debut of this seven-minute work.
◆ Untitled work for cello, percussion and electronics, Glenn Kotche, 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Merit School. Kotche might be best known as the drummer for Wilco, but his musical adventurousness propels him into cross-genre projects like this one.
◆ “AlSham,” Mohammed Fairouz, 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Merit School. “He’s quite a happening composer,” Lepauw said. “He’s Arab-American, and he really bridges his two cultures and has had a lot of success doing so.”
Kyle Macmillan is a local free-lance writer.