Liquid Music: Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra series melds genres and blows minds

Noveller performs in the Liquid Music seriesLiquid Music

February 02, 2016

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, though.

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."

Now in its fourth season, Liquid Music has become an essential series of new music, welcoming some of the world's most innovative artists to create and perform work in Minnesota. Operating under the auspices of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO), Liquid Music spotlights contemporary classical music. But the purpose of the series goes beyond the traditional boundaries of what listeners classify as "classical" music — it explores 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."

Some of the performers in the series have names you'd quickly associate with experimental music. The multimedia artist Laurie Anderson was part of the series' first season, and she returns this year. Buzzworthy singer-songwriter Julia Holter topped many 2015 best-of lists with her new album, and she performed last season with the Spektral Quartet. In the same season, freewheeling composer Bryce Dessner, best known as a member of The National, was at the center of a concert featuring SPCO musicians and many others.

Some of the performers in the series are widely known, but are showing new sides of their work. In 2014, Sufjan Stevens joined Serengeti and Son Lux for a performance as Sisyphus. Also that year, acclaimed violinist Hilary Hahn and the composer-pianist Hauschka performed together at Aria in the Warehouse District. In May 2016, Devendra Banhart promises a two-night exploration of his "musical worlds" at the Walker Art Center.

As one example of the kind of project that Liquid Music makes possible, Nordstrum cites last year's appearance by singer-songwriter Roberto Lange, aka Helado Negro. "It was a real labor of love," she says. "We worked with a couple of composers to create music for string players, we had electronic music from an artist on stage, and percussion and guitar — all these special guest artists."

The resulting performance took place in a sold-out Ordway Concert Hall, whereas Helado Negro typically plays venues like the Turf Club. "He's the kind of artist who has the vision and expertise to be able to scale up and do a show like that," and Liquid Music made that exceptional show possible, Nordstrum explains.

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. 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."

With Liquid Music's offerings being so diverse, what does it mean to be rooted in the classical realm? Fundamentally, Nordstrum says, it's about composed music — often, though not always, using instruments that are associated with the classical world. She says that Liquid Music is a "project-based" series: a typical Liquid Music performance involves the presentation of a coherently conceived work, as opposed to a concert that draws from songs spanning an artist's entire catalog.

Beyond that, though, all bets are off. When you go to a Liquid Music show, don't expect a conventional classical concert — but don't expect a traditional rock show either. "I thought a middle place was really important," Nordstrum says. "Kind of this place between a concert hall and a rock club. I wanted to create a space where special projects could happen."

Seel was asked to host the Liquid Music podcast because of his wide ranging musical interests; he's been a DJ for both The Current and Classical MPR. He says that new, hard-to-define music such as the kind featured in Liquid Music is closer to the mainstream than you might think.

"Kanye West collaborated with Arca, who's one of the artists we talked about on the podcast, and you can't get any more successful or mainstream than Kanye," Seel points out. When it comes to popular artists taking experimental turns, "it's not just Björk" any more," he says. "There's a great deal of cross-pollination happening right now. More and more people have ears that are increasingly open."

Nationally, Nordstrum says, what's unique about Liquid Music as a series is that it grows out of classical music without being necessarily bound to the venues, instruments, or styles that are traditionally associated with classical music. Comparable series in other cities tend to intrinsically involve orchestra members; while SPCO musicians often participate in Liquid Music concerts, "it's a little freer-form," Nordstrum says. "We can present in any space we want to, we can use whatever kinds of players we want to."

In some ways, the series transcends conventional ideas of venue altogether. This season, local band Poliça are partnering with German "renegade classical ensemble" s t a r g a z e on what Liquid Music is calling a "virtual residency": audiences can follow the artists via Liquid Music's blog as they create a new piece to premiere in fall 2016.

Though there were some bumps early on in the series — Nordstrum remembers a few audience members who walked out when they weren't quite ready for just how adventurous the sounds they'd hear would be — Nordstrum is excited to see the series growing, and to see connections between the orchestra and the diverse local music community deepening.

"It's something you can't force," Nordstrum says. "There's growing pains with a new series starting, and especially one that functions in such a different way from the orchestra." She says she's been learning from working with the SPCO, and that the orchestra has been learning from the new frontiers — in terms of music, audience, and space — being explored by Liquid Music.

"It's a high-risk, high-reward" enterprise, says Nordstrum. "Sometimes these performances are the first time the work has ever been played. In premiering work, you risk that it won't be in its strongest incarnation — that with the artist living in the project longer, it'll be better. But we've helped make it happen, and I think that as a whole, the audiences here get it. They feel very excited that they get to be part of the birth of new music."

This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between 89.3 The Current and The Growler, a monthly craft beer lifestyle magazine covering the best stories in beer, food, and culture. Find this article online and in print in the March edition of The Growler.