Live Review: Exposure Series 2019, Chicago, May 2-4, 2019

The Exposure Series is a residency sponsored by Elastic Arts, a Chicago-based non-profit center for artistic and community action. The Series’ iterations take a different form every year, but the purpose is always the same: to acquaint Chicago’s creative music scene with under-exposed musicians from other locales. This year the organization invited three musicians, each of whose aesthetic approach differs profoundly from the others, to present solo concerts and play with local improvisers and each other. MAGNET writer Bill Meyer and photographer Julia Dratel followed percussionist claire rousay (San Antonio), guitarist Ava Mendoza (Brooklyn), trumpeter and electronic musician Forbes Graham (Boston) and 10 Chicagoans as the Series unfolded at two locations on the city’s north side. 

Exposure Series 2019 was structured symmetrically; each of its three events consisted of a solo set by one of the guests, plus two first-time encounters between at least one visitor and their local counterparts. The first two events took place on successive evenings at Elastic Arts’ multi-purpose space, which presents visual and intermedia art as well as musical concerts. The third occurred during the afternoon at May Chapel.  

Forbes Graham

The first set brought together transgender Texan percussionist claire rousay and local vocalist Carol Genetti. While they had never played together before, each musician quickly found ways to complement the other’s approach. While past recordings indicate that rousay has ample chops as a conventional kit drummer, she currently uses two drums, some small gongs and metal bowls, and various found objects to create assemblages of perpetually changing sound. Genetti is a vocalist who has been searching out the common source where language and music converge for decades. At one point rousay echoed Genetti’s electronically distorted, back-of-the-throat rasps with slurps from her whiskey glass; at another, the friction between lullaby-like coos and scraped drum heads generated a tension that could not be denied. 

While the duo’s improvisations carved music out of the unknown, Ava Mendoza’s solo performance made a forceful argument for standing on the solid ground of familiar forms. The electric guitarist’s CV includes stints with Carla Bozulich and William Hooker. She possesses prodigious technique, combining flat-picking with intricate fingerpicking that allows her to amalgamate staccato punk assaults, rustic blues themes and jagged intervallic leaps. However far into noise she adventures, she always returned to song-based form. Several times during her set, she stepped up to the microphone to deliver plain-sung verses that recounted earnest grievances. 

claire rousay

The first night’s final set underscored the no-net riskiness of free improvisation. Forbes Graham has a diverse background that encompasses free jazz, heavy metal and electro-acoustic sound exploration. He was joined by free-jazz bassist Kent Kessler, new-music cellist Lia Kohl and spiritual jazz singer/clarinetist/pianist Angel Bat Dawid. All are worthy players and game improvisers, but their starting places are so disparate that it took some searching for them to figure out how to work together. The key to their eventual success lay in each musician’s willingness to yield to one another, which made the moments when one mode of activity shifted to another the most compelling parts of the performance. 

The second night began with a duet between Mendoza and one of the festival’s organizers, alto and tenor saxophonist Dave Rempis. While Rempis is an old hand at free improvisation, he embraced the crunchy solidity and forward momentum of Mendoza’s chord progressions, inserting long, fluttering lines that supported them from within. Their set built gradually but inexorably to a climactic blowout of stentorian cries and pulsing, pure sound.

Ava Mendoza

Next came Graham solo. Playing his trumpet while seated at a table behind a laptop computer, he sounded like a Polynesian sentry blowing warning conch-shell cries. The computer served as both sound back and processor, dropping fuzzed-out piano notes, disembodied drumbeats and snatches of podcast chatter around the periphery of his horn cries. The music seemed to represent an internal conversation between the Graham onstage and the Graham who had assembled the computer’s audio archive; eventually the former seemed to disassociate himself with the computer’s sound stream, rather like a person tuning out the omnipresent media blare to figure out for themselves what they’re thinking.   

The second night’s final set was another first-time ensemble, but there was little of the first night’s searching for commonality between rousay, trumpet/electronics player Graham Stephenson and classical cellist Katinka Kleijn. The three musicians instantly found concord. The cello and horn created thick, stable textures that both grounded and contrasted with the percussionist’s more dynamic activity. Ranging from bold bell tolls to light swarms of sound made by scraping crumpled cans against the drum heads, she complemented the static bulk of Kleijn and Stephenson’s sound masses with quick, lightly asserted movement and change. 

The final gathering of Exposure Series 2019 took place in the afternoon at Graham Chapel, a small sanctuary located in the middle of Rosehill Cemetery whose stained-glass windows proved a welcome change after Elastic’s dim lighting. Changes of venue, time and circumstances shone new light on Forbes Graham’s skills. His first set was a duet with cellist Tomeka Reid, who lived in Chicago until recently but grew up near Washington, D.C. There, she and Grahams lived in neighboring suburbs and played in youth orchestras around the same time. The music they played probably didn’t sound much like what they played as kids, but it highlighted some commonalities that date back to their shared experiences. Each musician worked with reduced resources; Reid had no bow until someone passed her a loaner late in the set, and Graham played without amplification or electronic enhancement. Their improvising incorporated classical counterpoint and bluesy slurs, and when Graham shifted from one mute to another, you could hear both his engagement with his horn’s jazz history and his sense of how to complete another improviser’s ideas. The music felt simultaneously sparse yet complete, conscious of the past yet dialed into the present.

During the final set, Graham proved just as attentive to building a whole by listening to the parts while playing at much higher volume. He and Mendoza, joined by local bassist Joshua Abrams and drummer Tyler Damon, engaged in a burning, free-rock blowout. Their jousting interactions caromed around the space, melding into looming sonic critical mass. In between, rousay played a solo set in which the visual poetry of her physical gestures dovetailed with the symbolic communication of her sound choices. No instrument or object was taken for granted, and during a passage where she kept metal bowls rocking on her drum skins while she played, each sound underwent a transformation as it was played. This brought a biographical/existential dimension to her that gave it a power that had nothing to do with physical force.