Twenty-first-century dance music
Published in July, 2012
For many, the highlight of this year's musical season in Ann Arbor was the University Musical Society's presentation of Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach, the last century's most radical rethinking of the opera genre. Many lectures accompanied the event, among them one by Stephen Rush entitled "Post-Modern Opera: Welcome to the 21st Century." Rush looked at the works of Glass and John Cage, not simply as a historian, but as a composer and performer about to travel to Brooklyn to premiere his own radical rethinking of the form: U.S. Grant--A Fluxit Opera. Using a board game to queue random texts from Grant and Gertrude Stein and Civil War songs, Rush combines improvisation and composition to create performances that can never be repeated. To Rush, the pursuit of eclecticism in the defense of invention has never been a vice; he seems to have spent all his life anticipating the twenty-first century.
Rush is a professor like no other. He directs the Digital Music Ensemble. He has written chamber works, symphonies, and concertos that have been performed by some of the world's leading orchestras. He is a virtuoso pianist and occasionally picks up the trombone, melodica, or a duck call.But when I think of him as a performer, two complementary images come to mind. First: at midnight on the last day of the school year, in some obscure place on campus with a piano, people of all ages sit on the floor in a candlelit room listening as Rush performs the complete cycle of John Cage's pieces for prepared piano. Second: in the original Bird of Paradise jazz club the same man, dressed in outlandish garb and standing behind an almost antique electronic instrument, wildly leads a small jazz ensemble through the works of Sun Ra.
This is an artistic personality that can move from opera to Cage, play a jazz concert, go fishing on the Huron River, and then fly to India, where for years he has been
studying Carnatic singing. Closer to home, for years he has been leading a jazz mass with a small band at Canterbury House; he has written about his experiences there in the book Better Get It in Your Soul: What Liturgists Can Learn from Jazz, co-authored with Reid Hamilton.
In the jazz world, Rush is best known for his collaborations with the great woodwind player Roscoe Mitchell and for his performances and recordings with his own group, Yuganaut. Among his other working groups is a duo with his former student, percussionist and electronic music specialist Jeremy Edwards, joined on some pieces by multi-instrumentalist and composer Andrew Bishop, who sticks to clarinet in this context. Their first album is entitled Naked Dance, and the music can perhaps best be summarized as twenty-first-century dance music, sometimes funky, sometimes dissonant, mixing various rhythmic forms, but always instilled with a modern, eclectic sense of swing. They perform at the Kerrytown Concert House on Sunday, July 8.
[Originally published in July, 2012.]
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