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The Visual Music of Mind Over Mirrors

Jennifer Kelly
Photo: Saverio Truglia / Courtesy of Paradise of Bachelors

Jaime Fennelly of Mind over Mirrors has long incorporated color and textiles into his transcendent live shows, but for Bellowing Sun he went further out onto the spectrum with a 15-foot drum-shaped zoetrope suspended over the stage and a full band.

Bellowing Sun
Mind Over Mirrors

Paradise of Bachelors

6 April 2018

A round sculpture of colored cloth and frame and lights hung seven feet off the stage at a recent set of Mind over Mirrors shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Shaped like a drum and 15-feet in diameter, the zoetrope was designed by Jaime Fennelly and the artist Timothy Breen, fabricated by a team of artists and designers and programmed to coordinate with the 73 minutes of radiantly transportive music on Mind Over Mirrors' Bellowing Sun. Under the zoetrope, Fennelly and his bandmates -- Death Blues percussionist Jon Mueller, Freakwater/Eleventh Dream Day's Janet Beveridge Bean and Jim Becker of Califone -- recreated that album end to end, in a performance that may not be repeated, exactly, any time soon, but which represents the product of some three years of work for Fennelly and his colleagues.

"The zoetrope acted as a focal point that was kind of bellowing and breathing and emitting light and animation and drama, a theater in the sky that was the focal point for this whole project," says Fennelly.

Fennelly's latest project began in 2015 on a trip to Milwaukee when Jon Mueller introduced him to David Ravel, long-time curator of the Alverno Presents series Ravel was interested in including Mind Over Mirrors in his festival, and Fennelly had been pondering a larger scale version of his synth and harmonium project; working with Haley Fohr of Circuit Des Yeux had got him thinking about putting together a full band. Collaborations with NYC dance artist Miguel Gutierrez had whet his appetite for incorporating visual elements into his performance process, as well. Alverno seemed like an ideal place to premiere the new work.

Alverno Presents folded, though, in 2016, due to funding difficulties, ending a more than 50-year run of art, music, and performance. Fortunately, Ravel had introduced Fennelly to MCA curators Peter Taub and Yolanda Cesta Cursach in the interim, and they ended up commissioning Mind Over Mirrors' new immersive work.

Photo: Saverio Truglia / Courtesy of Paradise of Bachelors

Multidisciplinary Collaboration

Fennelly turned to his friend and collaborator Timothy Breen, a visual artist who had designed tee-shirts and posters for Mind Over Mirrors and produced a stop-motion animated video for the band. Breen had also designed the textiles that Fennelly wrapped his harmonium in for a tour with Tortoise. "That textile that he made was the first visual idea of us moving together to working on this zoetrope idea," says Fennelly.

Breen was appealing as a collaborator for several reasons, Fennelly explains. "One, his color choices are, I feel like really complementary to each other. They're the color tone and palette I find to be, in my own perspective, definitely relating to my music," he says. "Also, he uses a lot of collage at least in development of his work but also sometimes in the result, so our work processes are similar. I find that he understands what I'm trying to do musically and he's able to translate those ideas visually." Add to that a strong personal relationship and the partnership made sense. Fennelly and Breen began trading ideas.

"There was a lot of exchange of art books and anthropological texts and photography," says Fennelly. In particular, Fennelly locked onto a book called Visual Music which delineates the connections between Brian Eno's musical and visual art. "In sharing it with Tim, we were both really drawn to using light in ways we hadn't obviously used it before in our collaboration," he adds. Fennelly brought in lighting designer named Leonore Doxsee to help with that aspect of the project. When Dobson passed away in May of 2017, Keith Parham completed lighting design. Fennelly also brought in metal artist and fabricator Eliot Irwin to translate these ideas into concrete form.

Different Textures, Different Rhythms

The zoetrope may be the most obvious difference between Bellowing Sun and previous Mind Over Mirrors records, but it's not the only one. For one thing, Fennelly downplayed his signature instrument, the harmonium, in favor of synthesizers.

Specifically, Fennelly plays a pair of Oberheim synthesizers, an SEM Oberheim he's had for years and a new OB6 he bought for Bellowing Sun. "I'm drawn to these particular synthesizers that I have because of their tone and the way that I find that they complement the brass reeds of the harmonium," he says. "I feel like I've reached a little bit of a limitation of what the harmonium could do as an instrument and wanted to create more animation in my sound."

Fennelly explains that on the first and second Mind Over Mirrors records almost all the music was made with a harmonium. "I was using a harmonizer and a tight harmonizing pedal to create pitched delayed sounds, so basically it sounded like a synthesizer, but it was being created by the harmonium," he explains. "I realized that [with] these synthesizers I could really delegate the harmonium to fulfilling more of a drone role or a filtered, a rhythmically filtered drone. And then things that I would also want the harmonium to do, I could do that with the synthesizers. So, it expanded the instrumentation."

That switch introduced a stronger rhythmic element, which was in turn amplified by the members of Fennelly's newly convened band. "Jim [Becker] and Jon [Mueller] certainly have the ability to play very static drone pieces, but I feel like I brought them in specifically for their wider breadth of approach to music."

Fennelly found himself thinking about rhythm in the context of how David Byrne and the Talking Heads incorporated afro-beat, as well as experimental polyrhythms of Francis Bebey's African Electronic Music. "I'm totally drawn to rhythmic music but in kind of a trance sensibility. The way that drone music can be ecstatic or active is intriguing to me," he says.

Light and Darkness

Bellowing Sun was named while Fennelly was applying for grants before a single line of music had been written. However, even so, the name implies the bellow of the harmonium and a preoccupation with light and optics and darkness which permeates the album.

For instance, the Paul Bogart book, The End of Night with its global reporting on light pollution inspired "Zeitgebers". "It's really about the effects of increased artificial light throughout the world and what that does to biorhythms, what that does to all beings in a biological, metaphysical, historical sense," Fennelly says. He found another touchstone in Henry Beston's Outermost House, a book about living in a remote part of Cape Cod in the 1920s in harmony with nature. "Lanterns on the Beach" draws its title from a chapter in the Beston book, while "Vermillion Pink" echoes a reference to a sunset sky in the book.

Logistical Challenges

Fennelly can pack his zoetrope up in his Honda Fit, but it takes most of a day to put together and requires the kind of electrical and physical capabilities more often found in theaters than rock clubs. While he's looking for opportunities to present Bellowing Sun in its full, visually-augmented form, he recognizes that most shows will just offer the music.

However, it emerges in the world, Bellowing Sun now represents a good chunk of Fennelly's creative life, one that he is both eager to put forward and impatient to get beyond. "I go through a lot of different emotions about it. I'm excited to do these shows and have the album come out and finally just push it out into the waters. But it feels like it's been a private experience for a substantial time. I think that's maybe the part of it that I'm a little weary of," says Fennelly.

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