We Went There: Saul Williams and Mivos Quartet (+ dj/rupture) at the James J Hill Library

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If feels silly, bordering on sacrilegious, for me to try to summarize the performance of Saul Williams and Mivos Quartet at the James J. Hill Reference Library on April 26th. It was one of those nights that the greatest wordsmiths in history probably couldn’t capture, and I’m far from that category. But lack of confidence in doing something well hasn’t stopped me from trying so far in life, so here we go.

In the center of the historic James J Hill Reference Library in Downtown St. Paul, on a stage backed with the ornate columns and three stories of books, basked in light reds and blues, the Mivos Quartet from New York kicked off the evening with a piece titled “Moonblood” by Mario Diaz de Leon. It was the only instrumental piece of the evening, but that didn’t mean it was tranquil or boring. Ranging from screeching chaos to drones that sounds like tornado sirens harkening an incoming disaster, it felt like a twitchy maze of melodies dancing underneath electric wires. It served as a great stepping stone into the rest of the night.

When the piece ended the group was joined by the star of the evening, spoken word artist/writer/rapper Saul Williams. The second piece found the Mivos Quartet performing music by Ted Hearne as Williams read his poem “The Answer to the Question That Wings Ask.” It was the first chance for us to see this combination at work, and it was stunning. Williams was measured in his performance, letting space and tension build as he jumped in and out of the swelling and collapsing music. If they had stopped the performance after this track, the night would have been considered a smashing success, but we were only about halfway done.

Up third was a track called “.d.u.s.t..s.t.a.r.c.h..m.e.a.t.s.” that was written by Jace Clayton, better known as dj/rupture. Featuring poetry from NY poet N.H Pritchard, it saw the four string players joining Williams in the scattered calling of words and phrases that bounced around like popcorn against the fluid rhythms the Quartet were creating. While the strings danced and numbers and phrases were being shouted, the sounds were being manipulated live by Clayton on stage. Probably because it wasn’t an amalgamation of two distinct artists like the 2nd and 4th pieces, it felt like the most uniform piece of the night and was a good bridge towards the apex of the evening.

After a short intermission (fancy!), the night ended with the long, emotional and richly captivating “NGH WHT (The Dead Emcee Scrolls).” It was the most jarring piece of the night, both from the string section and from Williams. The first piece by Williams & the Quartet was more abstract, but the pieces from The Dead Emcee Scrolls took no prisoners and went straight for the knockout from the opening seconds. The music was great, but it felt like window dressing when matched with William’s performance on this number. His cadence was sharp and his delivery was powerful. His voice cut through the fussy surroundings and had the sold out audience eating out of his hands, even if some seemed like they might be at their first show that featured a rapper or spoken word artist. William’s writing jumps off the page when reading it, but it reaches epic proportions when delivered in his confident flow. The fact that there was a talented group of supplementing this with an orchestrated piece tailor-made to intertwine with his work? Magic.

I’ve been to enough shows where I stumbled out into the cold night with the “that isn’t going to happen again” feeling, but that feeling is actually a stone cold fact with the show Tuesday night as it was a one-off performance with all of these artists together. Even if this had been a single stop on a world tour, it would have been a special night of music. The fact that it was being premiered and that it brought together these incredibly talented artists to our small corner of the universe made the night even more special. Kudos to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Liquid Music series for their work to make this special performance happen, and kudos to the artists for bridging different forms of art and music to create such beautiful, challenging and entertaining pieces that those of us who got in were lucky enough to witness.

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