Classical renegades: The genre-bending experimentation of Liquid Music

L to R: Julia Holter, Sufjan Stevens, and Helado Negro performing at Liquid Music // Photos by Jayme Halbritter

L to R: Julia Holter, Sufjan Stevens, and Helado Negro performing at Liquid Music // Photos by Jayme Halbritter

When you imagine a concert presented by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, you probably picture the classical pros playing Beethoven in their new concert hall at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. Think again.

Picture indie siren Zola Jesus and pianist Stephen Prutsman at the Amsterdam Bar & Hall. Picture rapper Serengeti collaborating with singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens and producer Son Lux in a gallery at the Walker Art Center. Picture Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche playing with Third Coast Percussion at the SPCO Center’s Music Room.

It’s all part of an innovative series called Liquid Music—a series that takes classical music as a point of departure to explore adventurous new terrain with unique performances and fascinating collaborations among artists from different genres. “Liquid Music exists to get people excited about music they don’t know,” says curator Kate Nordstrum, “which is good for classical music and good for music in general.”

Operating under the auspices of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO), Liquid Music aims to push the traditional boundaries of what listeners classify as “classical” music and explore the vast space between genres—where classical music flows into jazz, indie rock, and electronica—hence the series’ name. “It’s about taking off from one starting point and flowing into another,” Nordstrum says.

Steve Seel, who hosts a podcast associated with the series, calls it “third way” music. “It’s not really classical and not really pop,” he says, “but it’s adventurous and exploratory and experimental—yet accessible.”

Third Coast Percussion performing a song by Glenn Kotche of Wilco // Photo by Jayme Halbritter

Third Coast Percussion performing a song by Glenn Kotche of Wilco // Photo by Jayme Halbritter

Some performers in the series are artists you’d quickly associate with experimental music—people like multimedia artist Laurie Anderson, who was part of the series’ first season and will return this year. Buzzworthy singer-songwriter Julia Holter, whose new album topped many 2015 best-of lists, performed last season with the Spektral Quartet. The same season also featured freewheeling composer Bryce Dessner, best known as a member of The National, in concert with SPCO musicians and many others.

Some Liquid Music performers are widely known, but are showing new sides of their work. In 2014, for example, Liquid Music co-commissioned a self-titled LP from Sisyphus, a group made up of Sufjan Stevens and hip-hop artists Serengeti and Son Lux, to coincide with the opening of Jim Hodges’ art exhibition at Walker Art Center. The album layers Stevens’ signature melodies and space-age synth beats with waggish hip-hop lyrics for a sound that’s equal parts comical and earnest. Also that year, acclaimed violinist Hilary Hahn and the prepared-pianist Hauschka experimented with new melodies and sounds inspired by their collaborative album “Silfra.” And this May, Devendra Banhart promises a two-night exploration of his “musical worlds” at the Walker Art Center.

Hilary Hahn and Hauschka perform their Liquid Music set at Aria // Photo by Jayme Halbritter

Hilary Hahn and Hauschka perform their Liquid Music set at Aria // Photo by Jayme Halbritter

Nordstrum came to the SPCO with a unique background. She trained as a dancer and a musician, then went to business school and worked at a handful of organizations, including Lincoln Center. She came to her present position following a stint curating a series of performances by trailblazing artists, including Nico Muhly, at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. When the Southern experienced a financial crisis and most of its staff had to leave, the SPCO reached out to Nordstrum to ask how they could help sustain the kind of shows she was booking.

“We rebranded the series as Liquid Music and also rededicated it to classical music,” she says. “Although not everything [in the series] is classical, there is a commitment to the classical realm.” The SPCO saw Liquid Music not just as a way to reach new audiences, but also as something that’s artistically important—something that helps to foster “a culture of exploration.”

Next page: Closer to the mainstream than you might think

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