Our favorite Madison cultural moments of 2016

Tone Madison writers share their favorite shows and memories of the year. | By Liz DiNovella, Emili Earhart, Scott Gordon, Chris Lay, Grant Phipps, Chali Pittman, David Wolinsky

Ken Vandermark played a September 30 show at Arts + Literature Laboratory. Photo by Scott Gordon.

Ken Vandermark played a September 30 show at Arts + Literature Laboratory. Photo by Scott Gordon.

As the year wraps up, we asked our contributors to sum up the best concert and other cultural moments they experienced in 2016. Here's what a few of them had to say.

GLS12

Our brains are wired to read finality and bold statements from swan songs, even though life can’t be summed up tidily by year-end lists and we realize we live in a longer timeline. This year marked the twelfth and last Games Learning Society Conference, which has historically provided a Midwestern hub for people at the overlap of academia and the videogame industry to come together to share their research findings and also questions about the future. Although there were plenty of sessions this year navel-gazing at the ineffectual and impractical minutiae that academia tends to concern itself with, it’s also worth remembering that real progress and revelations occurs only from probing the unknown with patience and no concern for what the end result will be. Perhaps it was the organizer’s self-consciously realizing the conference’s legacy will be shaped by these last sessions, but the very last panel in August giving voice to the ever-growing chasm between the videogame industry and its ability to create jobs and reach people who don’t already care about the sector and its possibilities can ultimately be chalked up as a positive: It was a conference not celebrating its past but realizing just how much more work there is to still do in the future. Things came to a close with an invitation—a challenge, really—for others to take the baton, go further, and build something better. —David Wolinsky

Sound Out Loud: Steve Reich’s "Music For 18 Musicians"

The best standup I saw in 2016 was SNL’s Michael Che, who handily steamrolled a Comedy Club on State crowd in August with a good chunk of the material that would end up on his new Netflix special Michael Che Matters. But far and away the most magical experience I had this past year was something much more intimate. In the world of minimalist classical music, few works are as broadly known as Steve Reich’s "Music For 18 Musicians." Originally released in 1978, it’s a complex hour-long piece that’s composed of 11 distinct sections, or “Pulses,” designed to be performed by a group of, you guessed it, 18 musicians. The recently formed new-music ensemble Sound Out Loud performed it in the fresh air of the UW Humanities Building's courtyard during the lunch-break hours of 12:30 and 1:30 on a crisp spring-feeling Friday in April. I could not have asked for a better venue for my introduction to the group. There was a comfortably familial vibe down there, spotting unexpected pals as they wandered in while the band, dressed casually, set their instruments up. Hearing all the warmly percussive mallet instruments in person for the first time as they effortlessly fell in and out of step with the other layers of sound, the vocalists especially, was an exceptional way to mark the end of winter. Mark your calendars now for their presentation of another minimalist classic, Philip Glass’s "Einstein On The Beach," in March. —Chris Lay

Improvised and far-flung sounds

I think at least half of us wanted to talk about Sound Out Loud's "Music For 18 Musicians" performance as one of our favorites of the year. I'll co-sign that, and I'll say that it was an uncommonly good year in Madison to get out and experience the experimental, boundary-pushing reaches of music. My personal favorite was a show from free-jazz giant Roscoe Mitchell on June 18 at Arts + Literature Laboratory. With Junius Paul on bass and Vincent Davis on drums, the saxophonist plowed through two sets of sweaty, fierce, endlessly melodic improvisation. Pianist Vijay Iyer's April 14 solo show at the Memorial Union Play Circle and saxophonist Ken Vandermark's September 30 solo show at ALL would have to compete for a close second, in terms of far-reaching jazz shows. Another unexpected treat was seeing songwriter/ambient artist Benoit Pioulard (real name Thomas Meluch) play a March 17 show at The Frequency, even though the show was dreadfully under-promoted and Meluch for some reason ended up playing before the scheduled opener. And as a guitar nerd, I can't forget the inventive playing and deep historical knowledge Marisa Anderson brought to her April 16 set at ALL. —Scott Gordon

Minimalism and experimentation on display

Seconded to all the praise foisted on jazz acts previously mentioned—particularly Roscoe Mitchell and Ken Vandermark. Experimental rock found some footing in an explosive performance by saxophone masters Horse Lords in May at Williamson Magnetic Recording Company. Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld delivered a powerful polyrhythmic performance at the Shitty Barn in August. Califone’s Tim Rutili and Joe Westerlund delivered an intimate and hilarious “living room show" at Kiki’s House of Righteous Music in May. House & Land, a collaboration between Sarah Louise and Sally Anne Morgan, delivered impressive soft-spoken and intimate folk tunes in a June ticket split with Page Campbell, Bill Nace/Jake Meginsky, and Pat Best. The Mead-Witter School of Music brought some minimalist delights in Emili Earhart’s performance of Philip Glass’s first ten Etudes and the Sound Out Loud Ensemble’s outdoors performance of "Music For 18 Musicians." Several MMoCA exhibits were delightful, particularly their retrospective of the minimal abstract painter and printmaker Frank Stella—I had to return several times to absorb its full impact. I was particularly pleased with the representation in this year’s Wisconsin Triennial, and of course the recent Municipal pop-up art show in Madison’s Municipal Building did a good job exhibiting community artists. It was a treat to hear Sally Mann talk about her works and photographic approach at the Union Theater, and to hear Caledonia “Swoon” Curry talk about her practice at a Visiting Artist Colloquium. —Chali Pittman

Bold, eclectic sounds in small spaces

Madison is known for its robust downtown music calendar at campus halls as well as the Orpheum, Majestic, and Overture, but I tend to seek out fringe acts who congregate in more intimate or out-of-the-way places. And, fortunately, 2016 was another fruitful year for experimental shows in the accommodations of the east-side. Programming flourished in regular restaurants and bars near Willy and Atwood but also in cozy new galleries (Art In, Arts + Literature Laboratory) and the heavenly reverberations of Gates Of Heaven synagogue that promoted local and national talent. The latter space even facilitated the noteworthy GateSound series that this very site co-curates, and it was home to the most vivid and dynamic performance of the year with the tenor saxophone quartet Battle Trance (October 10). Other favorite moments include: Simon Hanes, bassist of sublimely fun and loopy avant-rock sextet Cloud Becomes Your Hand, extending his instrument into Mickey's Tavern's light fixtures during a measure break in "Aye Aye" (July 23); the dexterity and creativity of estimable solo percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani after two haunting compositions by Madison duo Midwaste at ALL (August 5); a stirring selection of brand-new songs and well-rehearsed art rock favorites alike from Bent Knee, another sextet who was greeted by a remarkably appreciative audience at Mickey's (September 10); the small- and large-scale Halloween-themed theatricality of Koto-furunushi/Jen Clare Paulson and Amoebaggedon at ALL (October 29); and, last but not least, the very beginning of the year (January 9), which brought an exclusive bill of Wisconsin musicians to Audio For The Arts recording studio. The show featured an electroacoustic mix of improvisatory and prepared pieces with Nude Human, Willis/Grimm duo, and Bell Monks. —Grant Phipps

Visceral jazz and rock

My favorite shows this year were by musicians I’ve been lucky enough to see perform live over one or two decades. This long view allowed me to appreciate how artists change. I, too, loved the Ken Vandermark solo set At ALL. There is something so visceral yet playful about his sound. I had first seen Vandermark play at the Chicago Jazz Festival on a side stage nearly 25 years ago. On a gorgeous late summer afternoon, Vandermark played sax and created incredible noise and beauty on a riser while the waves of Lake Michigan lapped in the background. His music demanded attention. And it still does. One of the most striking things about Vandermark’s performances is how kinetic they are. There’s a specific visual component to his improvisation that’s worth experiencing first-hand.

Another exceptional concert I saw was Emily’s D+Evolution in October at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Emily is an alter ego of Esperanza Spalding, a renowned jazz bassist, composer and singer. I had last seen Spalding at the same Wisconsin Union Theater on February 15 2008. She electrified me and my closest friends as we sat, mouths agape, in the front row, completely awed by her dexterity on the bass. She was a major young talent in jazz about to blow up. And she did. But now, Spalding's work goes far beyond jazz. Her Emily’s D+Evolution show was a beautiful musical play that included rock and funk and guitar licks Prince would’ve been proud of. Her character Emily was something Bowie could have created. Spalding assured me we would make it through without those musicians, for their influence is so wide and deep.

Last, I loved watching Damsel Trash do a cover of Taylor Swift’s “Shake it off” in a post-election show at the Frequency. Sometimes you just gotta scream, and Damsel Trash is so much fun to scream with. —Elizabeth DiNovella

The year of the saxophone

A lot of us have mentioned Ken Vandermark’s performance at ALL as being a highlight of this year’s spread of adventurous events in Madison. I too must acknowledge the absolute brilliance and inspiration of his performance, demonstrated through a nearly aggressive level of vigor balanced by an incredible sense of control in his playing. Horse Lords’ performance at Willy Mag is also worth noting as a particularly energetic set––one that really complimented the intimacy of the space, yet pushed the boundaries of what one might expect from a math-sax group’s performance in a cozy recording studio. While we are on saxophones, I will go ahead and say that my singular highlight of the year was Battle Trance's show at Gates of Heaven this past October. I have seen some great shows at Gates of Heaven, but nothing compared to the whirlpool of sounds produced by these four un-amplified saxophones that sometimes scurried through the room, and often barreled towards the audience. —Emili Earhart