Midwinter is a compelling idea. Pitchfork’s new event, held at the Art Institute Of Chicago over the past weekend, brings together world-class art and music you might not see booked at bigger summer festivals in a limited-capacity venue, in the dead of the winter, when no one has anything nearly as spectacular going on. It has sparked think-pieces on the state of the festival and what an event like this could do better, and, rightfully, a lot of criticisms about accessibility, elitism, and the like. The A.V. Club attended all three nights of the inaugural event, and while it was undoubtedly weird, occasionally Kubrickian in some respects, our staffers largely came away with positive experiences. There are plenty of kinks to work out, but Midwinter was an idea worth trying where the music, above all, was well-curated, and where—thanks to features like pop-up gallery performances—attendees could experience rare senses of discovery and immersion. Here are some highs and lows.


Friday, February 15

William Basinski and the Chicago Philharmonic, The Disintegration Loops

Photo: Matt Lief Anderson

William Basinski sets are often enveloping and dreamlike, but to see one that lifts the ambient artist’s signature drones off the computer and onto an array of instruments offers a different kind of experience. In the sweeping, yawning Rubloff Auditorium on Friday night, the Chicago Philharmonic performed Maxim Moston’s symphonic arrangements of Basinski’s most famous piece, The Disintegration Loops. Brought to life via strings, horns, and percussion, the piece’s rolling drones still radiate their spectral lull, but, for the listener, there’s a tactile nature to the performance that also intrigues. The precise uniformity of the string section, for example, was hypnotic in itself, while the shifts in tempo hit harder, allowing the disintegration to resonate not unconsciously, as in the original piece, but more like a structure that loses a key part of its foundation. The quake rocks that much harder, but the collapse remains beautiful. [Randall Colburn]

Yves Tumor

There were a lot of one-percenters milling around Midwinter, giving the thing an occasional Kubrickian vibe, but this was part of the appeal: watching some of our more subversive popular musicians transform the halls of a cultural and financial institution into something earthier, and stranger. Few shows exploited this quite so well, at least in premise, as Yves Tumor performing his genre-obliterating music in the Daniel Burnham-designed floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange. It was a short set, pockmarked with audio problems, but Tumor was radiant, his voice more naked than on record; he spent much of the performance in the crowd, stoking the audience’s affections. The set list leaned heavily on new material that sounded like another quantum leap forward for the artist: equal parts Max Martin, disco schmaltz, hair metal, and Prince at his most histrionic. A glimpse into that future was worth the price of admission. [Clayton Purdom]

Slowdive

One of Midwinter’s best features was its limited attendance—capped at 4,000 per night—which meant that even sold-out shows like Slowdive, for which die-hards were lined up more than an hour early, were relaxed and easy to settle in to. Arriving 10 minutes before showtime, I was able to walk up and sit in the second row of the 1,000-seat Rubloff Auditorium, which felt downright criminal. The music, of course, was as flawless as the English shoegaze veterans’ catalog, with Rachel Goswell’s swirling synths and the delay-drenched guitar interplay between Neil Halstead and Christian Savill holding the audience spellbound. In a weekend showcasing experimental music and many burgeoning voices, Slowdive’s set—drawing from its latest, self-titled record back to its debut nearly 30 years ago—felt as vital and captivating as anything else on the program. [Kelsey J. Waite]

DJ Koze

Photo: Maria Louceiro

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How do you throw a music festival in an art museum? Well, quietly, for one. Midwinter’s “soundscapes” ended up just being a couple of Sonos speakers playing an ambient loop, and the larger sets too often felt like background music to a vaguely interested crowd. (You shouldn’t be able to hear the guy behind you casually failing to impress a fellow attendee with boasts about the quality of his cocaine, for example.) Still, a sort of miracle occurred during DJ Koze’s set, and for the first time on Friday night, the volume finally wrangled the crowd into submission, uniting everyone in a wash of delirious house beats and the producer’s signature sense of easy, alien melody. Koze lit a stick of incense, which wafted through the air, and I could’ve sworn I saw a group discretely hitting a vape pen in the crowd. Maybe you really can throw a music festival in an art museum! [Clayton Purdom]

Mary Lattimore

Most of harpist Mary Lattimore’s sets overlapped with bigger, ticketed shows, but I did rush over Friday night to catch the last 15 minutes of her set in the museum’s Grand Staircase. It was, honestly, a huge disappointment. Not because Lattimore sounded bad; her hypnotic harp loops and celestial improvisations sounded as good as they do on records like last year’s Hundreds Of Days—when they were loud enough to cut through the din of the room. A bar was also set up in the Grand Staircase, meaning a lot of people congregated there, and their buzzed, excited chatter ricocheted around the room’s hard, polished-marble surfaces, and it was a nightmare to try to hear a delicate stringed instrument above it all. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Soundscapes

With time to spare when the doors opened Friday night, I made a beeline for Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s soundscape inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe’s Sky Above Clouds IV. Smith, whose synth-based work draws heavily from the natural world, was a logical pairing for O’Keeffe’s panoramic painting, which measures 8 by 24 feet and hangs high above an elegant stairwell in the museum’s interior; Smith’s composition, called “Stillness In The Night,” featured buoyant, polyphonic tones and washes of sound that brought to mind the weightlessness of flight and seemed to extend the sense of space in the already massive painting. When the room was quiet, it was fantastic, but the crowds quickly caught up, and it became clear that, like the Grand Staircase, the space would be a major thoroughfare for attendees. Smith’s work was largely drowned out for the rest of the weekend—or at least every time I passed through. [Kelsey J. Waite]


Saturday, February 16

William Basinski, On Time Out Of Time

To sit through a William Basinski set is to dislodge yourself from reality, to be lulled into a state of half-consciousness where time is more or less irrelevant. I’m always shocked when his sets are over, blinking through a fuzzy brain and wobbly legs, and his Saturday-night performance was no different. There, clad in leather and deep, vibrant washes of purple light, Basinski unleashed his new composition, On Time Out Of Time, which was born out of gravitational waves emitted by two supermassive black holes that merged 1.3 billion years ago. As always, the artist himself remained a stabilizing force on stage as his sloping, intergalactic loops swelled and collapsed in a haze of melancholic grandeur. Its fading, almost imperceptible culminating loops made me feel as if I were floating back down to Earth. [Randall Colburn]

Deerhunter

“Duuuuude—interactive art!”
Photo: Matt Lief Anderson

Deerhunter hammered away at a career-spanning set that was all but guaranteed to be the heaviest and most purely rocking of the weekend (give or take a Slowdive), leaving precious little space for the god-level stage banter of frontman Bradford Cox. Fortunately, when he got his shot to commune with the audience, he didn’t throw it away. Cox wound up for a cameo introduction, before turning attentions to stage left and “this light!”, a rotating LED spot that responded with tremendous psychedelic zeal during “Desire Lines” and “Disappearing Ink.” Dubbing the light “Chauncey” and describing it as a 15-year-old with a fresh learner’s permit in their pocket who’s just ecstatic to be at a concert, Cox then launched into “Coronado,” where Javier Morales’ saxophone interlude provided further fodder for Chauncey freak-outs. Once properly introduced, I couldn’t take my eye off the little guy; his malfunctioning-droid spasms practically stole the show. [Erik Adams]

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serpentwithfeet

The primary draw of serpentwithfeet’s albums is his remarkable voice—lithe and emotive, like a modern dancer. Go see him live and you will get a lot of that voice. He improvises runs, singing greetings to the crowd and providing expository information about each song, often teasing these moments out for minutes at a time, all in that same unearthly tenor. This might fall flat were it not for the artist’s remarkable good humor, extolling the virtues of softness and laughter at length, and detailing, in one prolonged interlude, how he recently turned 30 and found himself magically less petty. (He then performed what was, by his own reckoning, a profoundly petty song.) His was an infectious sort of warmth; it’s hard to imagine any other artist at Midwinter led quite as many full-crowd sing-alongs. [Clayton Purdom]

A crowd gathered in the Grand Staircase.
Photo: Kristina Pedersen

Grouper

The upside of Midwinter’s obtuse ticketing system, which required a base ticket to get in the door and then add-on tickets for any of the actual shows, was that each show got a devoted audience, with at least a financial investment in showing up, sitting still, and letting the artist perform. This led to a remarkable sense of quiet to Grouper’s performance; the crowd seemed unwilling to exhale too loudly, lest they disrupt the conjuring occurring on stage. Grouper sat bathed in darkness before a series of halogen bulbs, looping her prayerful voice and tweaking a bank of cassette tapes into an ambient sound that seemed to have its own dark will. You could hear each fret shift echo through the barely yellow room, until finally she twisted her knobs into an eruption of leonine sound and disappeared backstage. Had she stayed to catch the reaction in the audience she would’ve seen a sea of eyes wide as dinner plates. [Clayton Purdom]

Kamasi Washington

“You know, I’m from L.A.,” Kamasi Washington said on Saturday night, as the wind howled and temperatures dipped beyond the Art Institute’s doors. One of Midwinter’s fundamental draws for locals was its antidote to post-Valentine’s Day cabin fever; for an out-of-towner like Washington—whose go-to, draped stage wear seemed as much meteorological necessity as personal style—it provided the chance to reenact overheard musings on truly extreme weather: “Last week, it was really cold.” Things were cozier in the Rubloff Auditorium, where the seven-piece ensemble riffed its way through selections from the bandleader’s records Heaven And Earth, Harmony Of Difference, and The Epic, peppering in some of its own compositions along the way. Washington’s arcade homage, “Street Fighter Mas,” served as the set’s low-end-heavy fanfare, but keyboardist Brandon Coleman provided the real highlight with the anthemic “Giant Feelings.” Coleman’s clavinet intro alone could’ve heated the auditorium for the remainder of the weekend. [Erik Adams]

Jlin

Photo: Kristina Pedersen

Jlin’s music can sort of kick the shit out of you, a fractious blast of kitchen-sink percussion that operates according to its own logic, like a rogue algorithm bringing humanity to heel. But if this is what judgment day sounds like, bring on the T-1000s. Watching the producer stitch together quantum-mechanic beats like these felt like attempting to keep up with a magician’s sleight of hand magician; you had to forgive her for occasionally flubbing a transition, which she did more than once, shaking her head ruefully at her laptop. But when she was locked in, so was the crowd, many helplessly attempting to find the rhythms buried deep within her postmodern productions, twitching in anticipation of hi-hats that never fired quite the same way twice. The appropriate course of action was to just let the music win; resistance, as they say, is futile. [Clayton Purdom]

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Panda Bear

Deerhunter eventually reclaimed the spotlight from Chauncey with a bruising coda of “Monomania,” Cox testing the length of his mic cord as he milled his way through the Griffin Court crowd. That was a harder ask for Noah Lennox, a.k.a. Panda Bear, whose bedroom psych has proven an awkward fit for Midwinter’s summertime predecessor. “Comfy In Nautica” felt more at home in the high-ceilinged chamber of the Griffin Court—though, aside from the occasional bones Lennox threw to the dance floor, the Animal Collective member’s solo material still feels best suited to headphones. The sequencer cacophony had some stunning visual aids, however, with strobe flashes bouncing off the blank canvas of the court’s walls and three screens containing projections of morphing pop-culture ephemera, a dancer in kabuki-like makeup, and streams of marbled liquid. Some Midwinter artists juxtaposed their music with the museum’s collection; Panda Bear brought the art with him. [Erik Adams]


Sunday, February 17

Laurie Anderson

So much of Laurie Anderson’s body of work is defined by an art-school archness: Her crisp, sing-song spoken-word delivery, her way of re-contextualizing everyday phrases—“Hello, I’m not home right now,” “Good evening. This is your captain”—to make them sound alien and unnerving. There was plenty of that sense in her closing-night performance, from an anecdote about corresponding with then-Senator John F. Kennedy while both were on the campaign trail (she for class president, he for the White House) or the joke, from “Another Day In America,” about a dysfunctional married couple who, when asked why they’ve divorced in their 90s, reply “we wanted to wait until the children died.”

But the thread of sincere mourning that colors recent projects like Heart Of A Dog and Landfall was present, too, the loss of Anderson’s dog, her experiences during 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, and the death of husband Lou Reed building to an unexpectedly emotional climax as Reed’s disembodied voice crept between the notes of a string duet. It was a heartfelt wallop, made all the more surprising given that the Reed sample came from one of his least-beloved recordings, his Metallica-aided swan song, Lulu. By the time Anderson was describing her partnership with Reed as “a nonstop conversation that lasted 21 years,” I was a total wreck. It was the moment in which I was most grateful for Midwinter’s novel location, because all I could do after hearing one American master grieve for another was zone out while staring at paintings. [Erik Adams]

Weyes Blood

The Art institute’s Fullerton Hall is a gorgeous space, illuminated by the golden hues of a Tiffany dome overhead. And at a capacity of 370, it was a perfectly intimate venue for Weyes Blood’s opening show Sunday night, a stripped-down set featuring singer-songwriter Natalie Mering on her Guild dreadnought guitar and a keyboard player who also occasionally worked a sampler loaded with dreamy chimes. Mering’s melancholic psych-pop, for all its beautiful, lilting melodies and clever chord changes, does feel more dynamic on record with a full band, particularly upcoming fourth album Titanic Rising, from which most of these songs came. Her idea of injecting “drama” into the set was an excellent but pretty straightforward cover of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” But the real drama followed in Titanic highlight “Something To Believe,” in which, both hands gripping the mic and eyes toward the spotlight, Mering stretched her powerful alto in the rising, generative melodies of the outro. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Photo: Maria Louceiro

Sudan Archives (pop-up)

Though I missed her headlining set Friday, I’m delighted to have caught a pop-up performance from Sudan Archives, the stage name of L.A. violinist Brittney Parks. Across 20 minutes, the artist, clad in a gold bodysuit, demonstrated her signature fusion of Sudanese fiddle and experimental electronic via a storm of dizzying violin loops, the likes of which she punctured only briefly with her atmospheric vocals. There’s a visual dynamism to Sudan Archives as well, a physical embodiment of her music’s ferocity; one can only imagine how that manifests when there’s not priceless sculptures surrounding her on every side. [Randall Colburn]

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Oneohtrix Point Never

There’s no overstating how weird it is to watch Daniel Lopatin do a Oneohtrix Point Never set with other musicians—nor how much more it brings to the OPN live experience. While not as immersive as MYRIAD, the performance piece Lopatin and Nate Boyce developed alongside last year’s Age Of—no Wild West choreography during “Black Snow,” for instance—the Midwinter appearance did feature the band that was assembled to perform Age Of’s harpsichord noodling, digital scrapes, and erratic percussion. Turns out the secret to recreating such inhuman recordings is hiring superhuman players, like keyboard virtuoso Kelly Moran (who happened to be celebrating her birthday on Sunday) and percussionist Eli Keszler. More than once, Keszler drew a round of applause by working the rim of his snare drum like the keys of a cartoon typewriter; the oomph and depth he and his bandmates lent to the songs of Age Of was felt most keenly among the VHS-closing-credits grandeur of “Babylon,” meeting the Auto-Tune Peter Gabriel atmosphere with some Phil Collins drum fills. [Erik Adams]

Soundscapes

It was easy after encountering two or three inaudible soundscapes to give up on the rest. Still, noticing Midori Takada’s was in a gallery tucked away from the main flow of traffic, I decided to seek it out, and I’m glad I did. It was what all of them should’ve been: quiet and transportive. Takada’s piece, “Rin Air,” contrasted the dark minimalism of the Tadao Andō-designed space with bright singing bowls and faint, quickly evaporating percussion. Facing out from the room’s tall black pillars toward brightly lit Japanese screens, painted with cherry blossoms and pastoral scenes, was like gazing out of an open window or doorway, and Takada’s installation cut through like the breeze. [Kelsey J. Waite]