Back in 1989, right here in Kansas City, NCECA introduced what would become a hallmark of the conference’s opening festivities: The Randall Session. And right now, I have the good fortune of introducing you to the mastermind behind this year’s session, Mark Southerland, and the group of esteemed artists joining him on stage to perform Wit & Menace: An Operetta.
First, here’s a quick history lesson: Named in honor of one of NCECA’s founders, Ted Randall, the vision for the session was articulated in that year’s program:
The uniqueness of Ted’s contribution to ceramic art was, in large measure, the result of an extra sharp intelligence focused, not on narrow issues of ceramics alone, but on broader questions of aesthetics and philosophy, particularly the inquiries of mankind into the nature of knowledge and meaning. Therefore, it seems appropriate to recognize and honor the major contribution that Ted Randall made to American ceramic art and especially to NCECA at the annual Randall Session which focuses on ideas that expand on Ted’s own broad interests.
Jay Lacouture, 2015 Providence on-site liaison, recounted the inaugural session in a previous post on this trusty blog:
Victor Babu gave a moving tribute to his mentor and we heard a recording of Ted’s voice discussing some of the beautiful ceramic objects in the Nelson-Atkins Museum. We sat in Unitarian Church and listened to two Beethoven sonatas for cello and piano. It was a very introspective and spiritual moment separated from the usual hustle of an NCECA Conference.
In the intervening years, musicians, poets, mimes, storytellers, critics, activists, and other genre-bending artists have graced the stage and given NCECA members myriad expressions of the creative spirit.
Returning to Kansas City for its 50th, NCECA carries forward the tradition of the Randall Session—but it is perhaps the very first time that ceramics are so seamlessly united with other art forms in a singular performance. When tasked with identifying talent for this session, Paul Donnelly and I exchanged a knowing glance as thoughts of Mark Southerland and Linda Lighton’s sculptural ceramic/horn instruments flashed across our minds.
Southerland is an experimental jazz musician and multi-disciplinary artist with a distinct gift for bringing people together for ambitious environmental installations and happenings, from tiny stadium concerts to large-scale outdoor fashion shows. Linda, as many of you, dear readers, know, is one of NCECA’s own: ceramic artist, arts advocate, and recipient of this year’s Outstanding Achievement Award.
Another distinguishing feature of this year’s Randall Session is that the performance was created expressly for NCECA and for all of YOU. It’s not culled from a repertoire, rather, it draws on the spirit of creative collaboration that characterizes relationships between mentors and mentees, colleagues and friends, and the joys and struggles in art and life.
The key players include Mark Southerland (creator/producer, horns), Victoria Sofia Botero (soprano), Annie Ellicott (jazz vocalist), Russell Thorpe (bass clarinet, sax, other woodwinds), Nick Howell (trumpet, assorted brass), John Kizilarmut (drums), Jeff Harshbarger (bass), J. Ashley Miller (music and technical director) and not least, Linda Lighton, whose porcelain forms are integrated into and emerge from Southerland’s instruments.
Loosely inspired by the fantastical paintings of Remedios Varo and Heironymus Bosch, Southerland conceived of Wit & Menace as a tableaux vivant brought to life through a duet and duel between two sets of musicians and vocalists entwined in Southerland’s wearable, playable horn sculptures. So, how will it unfold? Mark was kind enough to entertain a few questions over email. Here are some of his hints at what’s to come:
Wit and Menace will have times of distinction – Victoria Botero (opera singer) will put the fear in us all, in that way only an opera singer can. Conversely Annie Ellicott (jazz singer and improviser) will have moments of great whimsy. But a majority of the time it will be passed around, distorted, even refused. The clown becomes the killer, the bunny becomes the wolf.
Southerland has used the saxophone as a medium for exploring sound and performance for 25 years, reinterpreting jazz traditions and reinventing the horn as a hybrid instrument, garment, and work of art. His first such horn sculpture was used in a burlesque show:
I played it on my wife Peregrine Honig. Many in the audience were amazed at this strange innovation and also nearly embarrassed by its intimacy. I quickly moved it out of this mid-brow world and began integrating it into my fine art. I love that it was born in burlesque, much like jazz was born in brothels. It’s great to have that lusty grit to go back to. They are compelling as art objects because they directly reflect the human form and are mingling with beautiful voices. They are now a nearly perfect nexus of my art life, drawing equally from creative music, sculpture, and performance art.
A few years ago, Southerland’s horn sculptures evolved away from the body and on to the pedestal to include a series of works with Linda Lighton’s porcelain forms emerging from the bells. With Wit and Menace, though, Lighton’s forms blossom forth and bubble up into the realm of live performance. Southerland shared a few insights about their collaboration and the polarity between their materials:
Linda and I speak a similar visual language very naturally, and we recognized it almost immediately. We often talk about our work very differently, but we work about our work very similarly. My horns are assemblages made from graveyard band instruments. This sets a nice contrast to Linda’s more pure expression, building forms from water and “beautiful mud”. From feculence to fecundity our work cycles through life having conversations all the while.
As a Kansas City native, Southerland is steeped in Kansas City’s jazz vernacular, but he is continually pushing its boundaries and immersing himself in other traditions, thus slipping between the familiar, the foreign, and a fusion between the two. Here are a few parting thoughts on one of the key ingredients in his creative process, and shots of the new horn sculptures-in-progress:
Learning jazz improvisation is like learning Latin – a language that lets you learn other languages. It’s a way of communicating that only partially relies on the actual type of music you are improvising with. Most of the great communication that happens does not rely on the song form or sub genre being engaged at that moment. Musical improvisation is a meta language, therefor it can easily be applied across all disciplines. If you have a sense of someone’s artistry and skills you can start to improvise with them inside the parameters of the piece. You figure out the right people to invite to this very complex conversation, and then trust in your exchanges.
Join us for the premiere of Wit & Menace and other opening festivities to kick off this historic gathering on Wednesday, March 16 beginning at 7 PM in the Grand Ballroom. We’ll see you there!