First-Annual Midwinter is a Call and Response Between Music and Artwork | Under the Radar - Music Magazine

First-Annual Midwinter is a Call and Response Between Music and Artwork

A Preview of Pitchfork's New Festival at The Art Institute of Chicago

Feb 08, 2019 Photography by Jordan J. Michael
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A weekend of eclectic live music is known as a festival. But what if the general basis of a music festival was deliberately altered beyond recognition?

Over the better part of the last 12 months, Pitchfork and The Art Institute of Chicago have been collaborating on Midwinter, the first-annual indoor performance weekend that coincides with the artwork throughout the museum. There is nothing straight-forward about Midwinter; it was planned to change everything. Midwinter kicks off next Friday, and is planned to be a yearly event.

"We're not calling it a festival," says Adam Krefman, Senior Director of Festivals and Activations for Pitchfork. "Midwinter is creative, music that responds to the art that is on the walls. A festival in 2019 might mean something different now...maybe it has nothing to do with music. It has to do with a lifestyle, a wider pop culture, and social media."

As the second largest art museum in the United States (Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is the biggest), The Art Institute of Chicago is a gorgeous place full of priceless artwork. In the thick of downtown, the 1893 building is the holy grail of Michigan Avenue and Grant Park. Approaching the entrance from the train stop at Adams Street, the Art Institute beckons the eyes. A statue of a fierce lion keeps watch.

Michael Green, Associate Director of Live Arts and Lectures at the Art Institute, knew about Pitchfork's musical reach when he started working at the museum two-and-a-half years ago. "I always thought, 'How can these two institutions collaborate?'" Green says. "We wanted a new public engagement, bringing artists in, and creating dialogues with the Institute's collection. It's an encyclopedic collection, really vast as international history."

Apart from the Louvre in France, The Art Institute of Chicago has the greatest collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings. It has roughly 300,000 pieces of art from names such as Georges Seurat, Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet and Georgia O'Keeffe. Green took Under the Radar on a walk through the museum on a Monday afternoon, pointing out all the rooms where Midwinter live music and gallery soundscape compositions will be happening.

"A connection is going to be made," says Green. "The performances are happening directly in front of the artwork, and visitors can walk through it and have an experience. Midwinter was built off a cultural experience model, something very social. But the museum is not a neutral space; it is as important as the music. You get to experience Vincent van Gogh with music-exceptional art with exceptional music."

Midwinter's gallery soundscapes (happening each night) are original ambient loops that respond to the artwork in the room. There are eight different compositions from Julia Holter and Tashi Wada, Stars of the Lid, Helado Negro, Nico Muhly, Visible Cloaks, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Ilyas Ahmed, and Midori Takada.

Krefman and Seth Dodson, Production Director at Pitchfork, kicked around the idea of an indoor festival for a few years, Krefman says, eventually landing on a few venues that could hold a few thousand people for such an event. Turns out, The Art Institute was the only practicality. "Once the Art Institute became an option, there was no other option," says Krefman. "The complete concept is fitting of the museum-takes chances and challenges people. It's volatile, special, and a reminder of how lucky we are to have the Institute."

Speaking of a test, Tortoise will play its 1998 album, TNT, from start to finish, for a 21st anniversary performance on February 16. Tortoise is originally from Chicago, and has never done such an act, says Doug McCombs, who plays guitar and bass in the band. Pitchfork made the proposition, and Tortoise accepted. The Midwinter set will be Tortoise's first live show since September 2017, and they'll have 11 musicians on stage instead of the usual five, doing a series of rehearsals before showtime

"It's counterintuitive for us to do the full-album live thing, but we thought the opportunity was interesting," says McCombs. Tortoise played the initial Pitchfork Music Festival in 2005. "We still play songs from TNT, but there are some songs on the album that we haven't played live, too. There's some instrumentation we have not done-horns, strings, cornet trombone, clarinet, violia, cello-that we need extra members for. Also, there will be some extra guitar, bass, and keys."

Tortoise has released seven albums since 1994. McCombs said that the band gets interest from jazz, avant-garde, and rock fans. Tortoise is far from a rock band, and the Midwinter performance should be prime evidence. "Midwinter is not going to be uncommon for us," McCombs says. "I was unaware of the multiple performance spaces that The Institute has, it will be very interesting to see the focus on artistic performance. For us, the major thing is the extra musicians, trying to figure it out. It'll be slightly different, and I think it should be fun."

With a rough capacity of 920, Tortoise will play the Arthur Rubloff Auditorium. Also playing this spotless stage is Kamasi Washington as Saturday's headliner; Friday headliner, Slowdive; and William Basinski, who will be playing with the Chicago Philharmonic for a full presentation The Disintegration Loops, Basinski's 2002 ambient-drone master work.

The Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room, which has no seating, will be the area for electronic, hip-hop, and dance shows; Yves Tumor, serpentwithfeet, and Jlin will fill the space with mind-warping material. The Stock Exchange is cubed by immaculate hardwood.

"There has been nine months of planning for Midwinter," says Green, mentioning that safety and operations will be smooth when asked about protection of the surrounding artwork. "Working on Midwinter is part of my regular day; it is a large scale work with a unique scope."

After walking through The Art Institute's main entrance, you're faced with an unsoiled, complex, and bright Grand Staircase. All four wide stairways meet at a central platform; Midwinter will hold performances on the steps throughout the weekend.

Shining with a red hue, the Fullerton Hall stage will host intimate sets by Grouper, Sudan Archives, and Weyes Blood. Fullerton Hall has a high dome; the acoustic sounds will carry. Bill Callahan, Panda Bear, and Deerhunter will play in the Modern Wing, a long, tall space; it's like the inside of a telescope became a room.

Midwinter is meant to be broken up and spread out for particular taste. There's a four-tier ticket system that matches the four separate performance venues inside The Art Institute, but most of the tickets are sold out by now, including the base three-day passes that sold out a month ago. There's an exclusive buffet dinner at 5 p.m. before everything begins at 6 p.m., and live Pitchfork Radio sessions with interviews and DJ sets from musical figures from Chicago.

"We tried to be logical and not too glamorous," says Krefman. "Our audience is smart-they read, they're heady about music; there's a deep history. Good music is good music, and our line up tends to lean experimental."

Square music wouldn't fit the bill of an art museum. Midwinter might be the start of a new crossover in the visual world. Altered music and classic artwork creating a full weekend, together.

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