Essay: A (Positive) Unpacking of Art Ensemble of Chicago in Melbourne and Being “Performative”

By October 11, 2019 No Comments


Last month Sam Gill and I ventured down to Melbourne to watch Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEoC) play at Super-sense festival. I’ve long been a fan of the AACM and it’s many subsidiary ensembles and considering the last time they came down under was way back when in ’79 and the next time is probably never, forking out the bunce to get there and back seemed worthwhile.

It’s not even a bit hyperbolic to call Art Ensemble of Chicago one of the great improvising band of all time. Unfortunately only two surviving members are still kicking round (Roscoe Mitchell and Don Moye) and with word of a reduced ensemble of seven opposed to the full twenty or so piece ensemble on the record, I wasn’t sure how it was all gonna go down, tbh.

But I’m glad to say they rocked it. It was an affecting and affirming gig. Truly mesmerising. In fact, I was left so intrigued by how damn refreshing the performance was I thought I’d sit down here and attempt to qualify the components of the performance that made it so.

There’s a couple of things that come to mind; fore-mostly, I was impressed how underpinning the music was a number of performative moments- moments where body and movement spoke in equal measure to sonic elements- and how powerfully these moments conveyed meaning.

The first and most potentially pertinent example came just after they walked on stage. Taking their places the entire ensemble stood facing the stage’s left wing seemingly in solidarity. You could feel a distinct shift in the ambience of Hamer Hall; it was as if everyone realised the gravity of what they were about to witness and turned their brains to peak concentration for the performance ahead. The band still for a couple of breathes until Roscoe turned towards the audience and cut the silence with his Soprano. The other six players, commanded by the fluttering notes of the Roscoe’s Sop, thawed, turned and began improvising.

Another example came at effectively the beginning of the second act. The percussionist stood and donned a traditional Continental African garment over his clothes. He then blew a powder from his hands that in my *romanticised memory* burst and spiralled above him; with the backlight behind him it was especially wowzah. It also seemed to frame the ensuing section with a ritualistic blessing.

Thereafter there were moments when drummer Don Moye, one of two remaining original members, shuffled (he walked on stage with a cane!) a good way from the drum kit to his percussion station where he and the younger percussionist enthusiastically played some rhythm cycle in tandem. Similiarly, the other OG, Roscoe, twice travelled a good way across the hall to his signature percussion station of mismatched bells and jangles where he spent some time wacking about. At one point he even squeezing the ever comical rubber chicken with a face so straight I’d use it draw my margins (which probably only made it funnier) – a couple of us letting out a laugh.

Of course, these guys are known for taking performative measures with all the above examples as well as masks, costumes and a dizzying array of instrument (Wikipedia reckons they used up to 500 instrument at one time) but it took watching these moments live to  realise being “performative” is indeed a powerful tool often dismissed by us musicians.

It achieved a couple of things, I reckon: fore-mostly it brought a level of tangibility to their already sleeve-wearing themes and philosophy, which to my mind included the African American Experience and Continental African heritage (as well general spiritual opening). They also acted as a palate cleansing moments that momentarily shifted my perspective out of the music and allowed me a rest before diving back into the dense music and themes- or more simply: it kept me entertained.

I remember in the early days of gigging, I was playing in a reggae band and went through a phase of squatting before and after my horn solos, as if I was a brooding jazz musician who after pouring his lil heart out through the bell of his horn retreated below the eye sight of the audience to recharge his emotional juju. Pretty bullshit of me. I remember after one gig the frontman very politely suggested I in future stand and instead give off a bit of vibe by bobbing round which I could only agree with. Here I was getting some caught up in my chat lil solos that I dismissed the reality of that music revolving around groove, vibe and party.

But yes, that’s a reggae band not an art music band but here’s a follow up anecdote for ya: I’ve been told I can get a bit performative when Microfiche plays my feel-good, crescendo-core piece “C to Sea”. I can’t say it’s a completely conscious choice to sway and raise my bell as we build towards the end but in the moment I understand it’s aiding in conveying the meaning of the music.

Ultimately it must be congruent with one’s aesthetic and music but let’s not forget the performative ranges from the subtle to the obtuse wherein it start to turn theatrical. I guess the take away is not to forget like I did once did as musicians there is invariably a visual element to our sonic offering but it can be used to bolster our music and message.

Finally, I found the band seemed to have a profound awareness of both texture and form. The set had a satisfying structure that masterfully balanced the good ol’ six concepts of music. Both veterans and freshmen members alike seemed to have an acute awareness of what the moment needed- when to lay out or get “performative” etc. This seemed to keep us all engaged for the entirety of the 90ish minute  performance, which is not necessarily an easy task in the these days of the internet and instant gratification… like, has anyone even read this far?

And shit, don’t even get my started on Roscoe; the man had a gravity to him that pulled twice as hard once he put horn in mouth. Sam reckons you could hear the blues in Roscoe’s playing which I thought was a beautiful observation.

P.S. If you’d like to listen to the music I’m referencing, they performed music from their 2019 CD  ‘We Are On The Edge, Celebrating 50 years’ which is a double disc featuring a studio and live version of the set.


Photo taken from Performance Website.

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