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It's not uncommon to see art galleries doing double duty as live music venues around town, but music and art museums still don't seem to mix. Not unless you count the unsung jazz and chamber music ensembles that give ambiance to events where guests are more into the cheese platter than the music.
That's why I was intrigued when Modified Arts/Stinkweeds owner Kimber Lanning told me about "Art Inspires Music," a new show at the ASU Art Museum that resulted from a brainstorming session with John Spiak, a curator and big thinker (credit him with much of the creative juice that flows out of ASU) over at the museum.
"They never invite songwriters into the museum environment," Lanning explained a couple months ago, when she first mentioned the project.
So Lanning and Spiak did. Lanning asked four local performers -- Aaron Gerwien (Black Feet), Steven Reker (Reindeer/Tiger Team), Robin Vining (Sweet Bleeders and Colorstore), and Yolanda Bejarano (Snow Songs) -- to select a work of art from the museum's collection, compose a song in response to it, and record the song. She also asked each to record a cover song of their choice. Museum visitors can hear the tracks on headphones as they view the works that inspired them.
At the show's opening last week, each musician performed live. I heard Vining's haunting whistle echo through the cavernous rooms of the museum as I tiptoed up concrete stairs to the top floor, where about 80 people were seated in front of the four songwriters.
It was a starkly different environment from the dim, smoky, softly buzzing clubs where you'd usually see these musicians strumming their guitars. Instead, the lights were bright, and huge, graphic canvases surrounded a crowd that included older folks and young children along with the requisite twenty- and thirtysomethings. There was no slinking into a corner, or chatting with friends -- all energy was focused on each singer.
The gallery had a different sound quality, too: deeper silences, more poignant guitar textures, richer applause. While performing her original Spanish-language composition, Bejarano hit a high note that hovered in the space, making people almost gasp at its beauty. And when Gerwien channeled Nick Drake's near-whisper for a contemplative song that went, "Let me appeal to your heart if you've got one," I heard a baby giggle on the other side of the gallery. Moments like these felt as helplessly spine-tingling as a stab of heartbreak or the spark of falling in love.
Then everyone headed downstairs to check out the show. Vining's music accompanied a large-scale piece covered in minuscule pencil and ink drawings of satellites that resemble hieroglyphics from a distance, while Gerwien's was matched with an intricate print of some wizened, forlorn-looking people. Bejarano wrote music to go along with a portrait drawing of a man who stares right back at the viewer, his arms crossed defensively across his body. And Reker's choice was a mysterious pastel drawing of a fleshy woman whose features are almost completely faded away, except for her pink lips.
No doubt, this exhibition is not only a different twist for the museum, but a stretch for Lanning, too.
Lanning must have spring fever. The day after the opening, I found out that she recently made the decision to sell her Tempe Stinkweeds store to a young couple from Salt Lake City; they're buying the inventory and launching their own shop in SLC, called Slow Train. Lanning is still keeping the Phoenix Stinkweeds location, as well as Modified Arts. But nevertheless, Tempe is losing a favorite record store (there will be a 19-year anniversary party on May 6, and the store will be open until about May 25).
She's making the move, Lanning says, in order to devote more time to her new position as executive director of Arizona Chain Reaction, which started off as a public awareness campaign to support independent local businesses and is now morphing into something more substantial. AZCR got its nonprofit license last October, and formed a board last month. With the sale of her Tempe store, Lanning says she'll now spend much of her time educating the public about the benefits of shopping locally, including trying to persuade the Arizona Legislature to pass small-business-friendly laws.
Indeed, Lanning acknowledges the irony of selling one of her own small local businesses to find the time to promote small businesses on a grander scale, but she also admits she just had a desire for change and personal growth. "For a while I did the band thing, and then I opened Modified -- I'm constantly reevaluating things," she says. "I'm not one to settle into a comfort zone."
My wish came true. Sunday afternoon was a gorgeous day for a party: sunny, in the high 80s, and a little breezy. And so this year's New Times Music Showcase felt like an unofficial kickoff for summer, with everyone in tee shirts and sunglasses, kicking back on the lawn in Hayden Square while Drunken Immortals played the first set on the main stage. The optimistic groove continued with The BlackMoods' classic rock sounds, and with sophisticated house music from DJ Maji and DJ Senbad -- most likely, a taste of Miami from their recent trip to the Winter Music Conference -- right next door at Margarita Rocks.