“Music is an informing energy” in his work, said artist Jim Hodges at a Thursday morning media tour of his new retrospective Give More Than You Take. Knowing that, the Walker Art Center invited Hodges to curate a musical series in association with the exhibit, which opens on Saturday and runs through May 11. Hodges welcomed the opportunity and sent a list of artists he’d like to invite. One of the names was Sufjan Stevens, an artist he’d long admired for reasons including “the complexity of the narrative” in his songs, Hodges said.
“We’d always wanted to do something with Sufjan,” Walker director Olga Viso told me, “so we reached out”—and got, happily, much more than they (or Hodges) had bargained for. Stevens loved Hodges’s work, and suggested to performing arts curator Philip Bither that the Hodges exhibit could be the occasion for a new recording by S/S/S, a group that includes Stevens, the rapper Serengeti, and producer Son Lux.
When they asked whether the Walker could in some way support the recording of a new song collection, Bither told me, “I said, ‘in our world, that’s called a commission.'” The resulting album, Sisyphus, ended up being a co-commission of the Walker Art Center and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series.
The name of the 11-song album is also the new name of the group itself, since the previous name—under which the trio released an EP in 2012—”started to sound like the Nazi Schutzstaffel with a lisp,” Stevens said in an interview for the Walker’s magazine. The new name was inspired in part by Hodges’s Untitled, the trio of shiny boulders that have sat on the Walker’s lawn since 2011; the entire album was recorded in a room hung with images of Hodges’s work (and the album cover features a photo of a Hodges lightbulb piece), though you likely wouldn’t guess at the songs’ relationship to the art if you weren’t told about it.
Hodges is a major multimedia artist, and the exhibit has been painstakingly co-curated by Viso with Jeffrey Grove of the Dallas Museum of Art. Though Hodges’s work is highly conceptual, most of it isn’t the least bit obscure. If you think Untitled is groovy, you’ll definitely enjoy pieces like Ghost (glass flowers in a vitrine), Another Turn (four constellations of light bulbs, corresponding to each of the seasons), and the eerie dark gate, a room-within-a-room that might be described as an existential sauna.
Sisyphus is “a great record,” enthused Hodges. Of course he’s biased, but you can take my word for it as well: the LP is a deft blend of Stevens’s delicate melodies and Serengeti’s rhymes, over a pulsing, diverse soundscape that seems made for Minneapolis with its similarity to the work Ryan Olson has done with GAYNGS and Poliça. The album will delight Stevens fans, and might appeal to listeners who find that Stevens solo gets a little precious at album length.
Local music buffs have a can’t-miss opportunity starting tomorrow night, when the Walker begins selling a limited number of vinyl copies of the album, 50 of which will be signed by the artists. Buying vinyl from the Walker will be the only way to legally obtain the album until its national release next month. Meanwhile, the trio have released a lyric video for the single “Calm It Down” (below) and are offering a free download of the song via their website.
Stevens, Serengeti, and Son Lux will be in town for the Hodges opening; Bither confirmed that they’re expected to play “five or six cuts” tomorrow night in Gallery 8 during the Walker’s After Hours party (which will also feature a DJ set by Dirty Projectors’ Olga Bell, in town for the debut of a new composition tonight) before appearing in dialogue with Hodges on Saturday afternoon. Other musical performances in the Sound Horizon series curated by Hodges will include local jazz great Dave King (March 6), Shelley Hirsch (April 10), and Kevin Beasley (May 8)—a musician who studied visual art with Hodges earlier in his career.
“It’s great to be at an institute like the Walker,” said Hodges, “where there’s this opportunity for artists to meet.”