Navy Pier, as Chicago’s mission-driven cultural district, was the perfect space to showcase the works of world-renowned contemporary artist Nick Cave and international architect and MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang, who collaborated in presenting Here Hear Chicago. This new site-specific project series melded art, design and performance and was featured at the Pier on September 13th, 16th and 17th as part of the free public programming for the Chicago Architecture Biennial and EXPO CHICAGO, the International Exposition of Modern & Contemporary Art.
Here Hear Chicago also showcased the musical genius of Sir Kahil El’Zabar and his Art Music Ensemble, (The AME) who perform the music for Up Right Chicago and HEARD Chicago. These two new original pieces composed by Maestro El’Zabar and arranged by Robert “Baabe” Irving III featured multi-instrumentalist-percussionist/composer/conductor El’Zabar along with a stellar roster of internationally acclaimed master musicians, including Alex Harding, tenor saxophone; Charles Heath, drums; Ian Maksin, cello; Tammy McCann, vocals; Jamaaladeen Tacuma, bass; and Corey Wilkes, trumpet.
HEARD Chicago also features the Chicago Children’s Choir as part of the score.
The highly anticipated collaboration presented a series of live productions in which performers interacted and responded to a field of dynamic, custom-fabricated buoy-like objects designed by Gang and her practice, Studio Gang. The performance series kicked off on September 13th at 8:30 PM with Cave’s newest performance work, “Up Right” set to the live music composition “Up Right” composed and performed by legendary jazz musician, maestro and composer Sir Kahil El’Zabar and the AME. “Up Right” was performed again on September 17th; both events took place in the Aon Ballroom at Navy Pier.
On the 13th, after a rousing promenade into the Aon Ballroom, El’Zabar’s hugely inspiring avante-jazz with atonal, almost eerie insertions surrounded Cave and a group of young men on a stage lined with buoys. They were dressed in vivid, brightly colored furry “soundsuits” by acolytes garbed in white; they wandered about, engaging with each other and members of the audience. Finally, Cave set the buoys in motion. The portions of the “Up Right” score where the music fades to silence were particularly moving and dramatic.
On September 16th, two renditions of “Here Hear”, set to El’Zabar’s piece entitled “Heard”, were performed outside at the new Polk Brothers Pavilion at Navy Pier. At 1:00 and 3:30, divided by a break and an interlude when the “soundsuits” danced at the Wave Wall, Navy Pier, the Chicago Children’s Choir (CCC) and the AME, energetically conducted by an exuberant El’Zabar, performed a work of music that proved to be a renaissance of wonder.
Beginning with an introductory announcement that Mayor Rahm Emanuel was dedicating September 16th as “Nick Cave Day”, the Chicago premiere of “Here Hear” with the world premiere of the musical piece “Heard” incorporated the CCC in a chorus of polyphony akin to Gregorian chants. Interspersed with sprightly jazz reminiscent of Mardi Gras and dreamy, moody melody, the music called forth complex emotions. While the musicians produced these beautific strains, out onto the rectangular performance space trotted life-sized shaggy “sound-suited” puppetry horses, enacted by two humans each, joined by single human soundsuits. Their costumes were infectiously amusing, their actions clever and joyous as they glided and danced about to the delighted laughter and cheers of the crowd.
This reviewer had the opportunity to interview both Nick Cave and Sir Kahil El’Zabar about the joint work. Said Cave, “The audience is creating an amazing framework for the performance.” He described how El’Zabar crafted the scores for his work; the 2 artists spent time “talking about the vision, allowing each other to have a voice”. He said “The horses are part of the voice, and the work is being built as it’s being performed”.
El’Zabar demurred at his oft-mentioned title “the prolific innovator”, calling himself instead “a student of life”. The much-decorated musician described the second suite; “It’s about the mystery and discovery of horses as spiritual beings!” He noted that within the body of the work “there is discovery and reflection, acceptance of other intelligence and rejoicing, new understanding and thankfulness, and finally a resolution and knowledge of peace in the whisper of horses”.
Much has been written about El’Zabar’s extraordinary percussive artistry, but listening to the many-layered premiere, I watched him conduct the AME and CCC in tandem, utilizing different gestures and expressions. Looking over his shoulder, grinning at the soundsuits and dancing horses, then swinging a giant mallet at a huge gong, he pulled it all together. Similarly, one can view Cave’s work in museums, but seeing a bemused Cave on the opposite side of the enclosure, both artists surrounded by engaged spectators and CCC family members, it brought home what versatility and sincere collaboration is all about.