REVIEW: Jason Moran and Joan Jonas – A Lecture-Demonstration at Tate Modern

Jason Moran at Tate Modern
Photo by AJ Dehany (*)

Jason Moran and Joan Jonas – A Lecture-Demonstration 
(Tate Modern Tanks 16 to 18. Review by AJ Dehany) 

“Making language happen on the piano,” is a slightly different conception to conventional thinking in jazz, one which pianist Jason Moran has had to confront in the 12 years of his ongoing collaboration with artist Joan Jonas. Opening a major exhibition of Jonas’s five decades of pathfinding work, they performed a two-hour multimedia concert collaboration in the South Tank underneath Tate Modern, using video, movement, live drawing, sculpture, sound, and musical improvisation.

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Extract of a still from Reanimation (2012) documentation of video performance
featuring Jason Moran and Joan Jonas
Photo by AJ Dehany(*)

Video footage of glaciers melting, beehive structures, long mirrored interiors and breathtaking landscapes from Nova Scotia were accompanied by Moran in a range of styles from spare atonality to densely rhythmic inventions including what  Jonas refers to as his “stride music” which drives along the exhausting physical rigour she herself brings, painting large figures across the stage floor, moving in dance rhythm, talking and making sound, or scrunching up paper.

Jonas read telegrams, pieces of art criticism and philosophy, with Moran playing off her, investigating the convergence of word and music. It was pianist Nikki Yeoh who introduced Moran to Hermeto Pascoal’s use of recordings of children, politicians, soccer announcers, Pascoal tracing the speech on the keyboard. As a traveller Moran has collected his own voices and dialects, and here played along to an extract of a conversation a woman was having with her mother in Istanbul. His virtuosic unpacking of the melodies inherent in speech was thrilling.

They had to improvise through some technical problems with some of the visuals. Jonas gamely noted that such problems are for a video artist “Like a painter having the paint come off the canvas,” a surreally disturbing thought. This had never happened to them in 12 years but now it had she asked with amusement: “Why am I making video art?”

They talked together in detail and performed with an easy, confident rapport. In one memorable exchange, Moran asked her “What is improvisation?”

“I’m not sure,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

A slight pause. “I’m not either,” he said.

She asked, “How do you locate the thing you thought you wanted to share with someone? We think of improvisation differently but circle round each other.”

Moran had a go at explaining Jonas’s performance practice with reference to jazz. To him, “this is just like Wayne Shorter, Geri Allen, Sam Rivers… she’s improvising with objects and arranging.”

Except, she said, “I’m not improvising! Once I get it down I keep doing it that way.” Similarly, she said Moran will use the same tune and same tempo but play it differently each time: “Jason as a jazz musician has encouraged me to open up with certain things.”

Joan Jonas and her dog after the show, Tate Modern
Photo by AJ Dehany(*)

The collaboration is rich in the political, and ecological themes are important to both their work. A previous collaboration referenced the ‘ring shout’ ritual practiced by slaves in the US and West Indies, with a trumpeter moving around in a circle in performance. At the Tate Tanks, Kate Fenner joined the stage to sing Pastures of Plenty, a song by Woody Guthrie that Jonas dedicated to “the children out marching in the street about gun violence”.

Creatively risk-taking to the last, they kept up the improvisatory dialogue between visual, spoken, musical and physical elements right up until the end of a wholly improvised piece, after which Jonas said flatly but finally: “That was something we wanted to try, something new as a last gesture. Thank you, that’s the end of the show.” It is, one senses, far from the end of the conversation.

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk
(*) Permission to use these photos was given by Tate’s Press Department

LINK: Tate Live

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1 reply »

  1. Fascinating – sorry I was not able to attend, myself, so very pleased to read your piece. Just on the point '“Like a painter having the paint come off the canvas,” … – several oil paintings of Albert Pinkham Ryder (American painter 1847-1917) are painted so heavily and are mixed with all sorts of organic (and inorganic) substances, including tobacco juice from his oft-replenished spittoon, that the paint remains soft and unstable to this day and can be seen slipping incrementally down the canvases and off their lower edges – a conservator's nightmare! This was be witnessed at the rather wonderful exhibition of his works exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in the 1990s.

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