Magazine article Artforum International

Northern Soul

Magazine article Artforum International

Northern Soul

Article excerpt

AS THE ARREST OF HENRY LOUIS GATES JR. on the steps of his own house made clear, the dynamics of racialized subjection are particularly vexed in ivory-tower towns like Cambridge, Massachusetts. On the one hand, black bodies are continuously surveyed and assessed as either "hood," "Harvard," or "homeless"; on the other, the city and its environs play host to a range of the most visible African-diasporic cultural institutions and practitioners anywhere. Yet there are, of course, much-needed escapes from these specular extremes of life lived black.

It was just this kind of phenomenal experience--of solace and sublimity, communion and catharsis--that Alicia Hall Moran conjured into being for an intimate crowd in February at Cambridge's Regattabar, a jazz venue in the upscale Charles Hotel. A classically trained soprano, Hall Moran has increasingly come to work within the spaces of the art world, collaborating with conceptualist Adam Pendleton on his 2007 performance The Revival and unfurling one of her song installations--a series of site-sensitive vocal interventions--at a soiree musicale, curated by artist Whitfield Lovell. Migration across locales and audiences also undergirds her Motown Project, reprised here after first being presented in December 2009 at the Kitchen in New York. Aptly described by musicologist Guthrie Ramsey as a kind of "Schubertian song cycle," the Motown Project primarily mixes 1960s Motor City classics with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century operatic hits.

In the age of the mash-up, Hall Moran's conceit might sound jejune, but what her arrangements achieved was less a conjoining of opposites than an embodied recombination of musical traditions that somehow yearn for each other across lines of race, class, and nation. Accompanied by an equally brilliant and worldly ensemble--operatic baritone Steven Herring, guitarist Thomas Flippin, bassist Tarus Mateen, taiko drummer Kaoru Watanabe, and Hall Moran's husband, jazz musician Jason Moran, stepping in for harpist Adan Vasquez, on piano--she wended her way through an hour-long set that moved effortlessly among affective registers while pursuing the shared motifs of desire and infatuation that unite the genres: Mozart meets Marvin Gaye.

Hall Moran's navigation of these traditions was as striking as it was clever: After singing the refrain from the Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)," which was then taken up by Herring, she launched into "Non So Piu Cosa Son," an aria from 'The Marriage of Figaro about male helplessness in the face of womanly charms. While the rendition of the former tune initially brought appreciative chuckles from the audience, Hall Moran performed both classical levity and pop sweetness with fierce vocal commitment, inexorably pulling in her listeners. In the process, she not only united the two songs and alluded to their unspoken trajectories--the Four Tops later recorded a version of their single in Italian--she also deftly turned them out: The irrationality of opera transformed the clean mechanical sensibility of Berry Gordy, even as Motown's sure melodic pleasures were inflected to fit opera's demands for hyperbolic feeling. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.