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A Case for Midwinter: Can High Art Save the Music Festival?

on February 14, 2019, 4:30pm

To paraphrase weatherman Phil Connors: Well. It’s music festival season. Again.

We come by that ambivalence honestly; lately, much of it stems from the long shadow of Fyre Festival, whose spectacular 2017 flameout (and the dueling documentaries it inspired) helped the entitled millennial excesses of the festival scene’s worst side spill out into the general cultural consciousness. Our lack of enthusiasm also comes from the relative homogeneity and lack of real surprises to be found in this year’s major festival announcements.

Mostly, though, we’re bummed out because it seems like we’re really, truly starting to see the long-rumored festival bubble begin its popping process; last year saw a spate of high-profile cancellations, from big names (FYF, Panorama, Sasquatch, Warped Tour) to small (Okeechobee, LouFest), from artist-curated happenings (Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires, The National’s Homecoming; both officially “taking breaks” in 2019) to the festival we once called “the best young music festival in the world” (Day for Night).

That festival officially shuttered in November amid mounting debts and sexual assault accusations against founder Omar Afra (similar charges were also leveled at FYF’s Sean Carlson), leaving the 2018 festival season without its expected high-art capstone and with plenty of questions about where the scene goes from here.

With all that in mind, it’s fitting that this year’s festival season doesn’t start in the clubs of Austin or the Indio desert but on the frigid February expanse of Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. There, amid the world-class galleries of the Art Institute, you’ll find Midwinter, an experimental music weekend from the tastemakers at Pitchfork that places acts from Slowdive and Panda Bear to Laurie Anderson and Kamasi Washington alongside the likes of Warhol and Van Gogh. For attendees, the event promises an amuse-bouche for the city’s festival season that won’t start up in earnest for months. For observers in the industry, it just might provide some potential means of egress from the festival world’s latest bout of doldrums.

Bringing Music Indoors

Midwinter 2019 at Art Institute of Chicago

Art Institute of Chicago

Though it caught some of us in the music world by surprise, the intersection between the worlds of Pitchfork and the Art Institute where Midwinter sits is a natural extension of both organizations’ recent work. Pitchfork’s been cultivating an ongoing partnership with Chicago’s museums for years; in 2016 and 2017, the publication hosted talks and performances by artists from Solange to experimental electronic musician Holly Herndon as part of a partnership with the MCA. The Art Institute has also beefed up its own live events schedule; associate director of live arts and lecture programs Michael Green describes Midwinter as adhering to the museum’s evolving live performance “template,” which covers everything from the gallery-based Artists Connect series to recent live sets from Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Thurston Moore Band. For both organizations, it’s the highest-profile collaboration of its kind so far, but that’s a fact that Green finds more invigorating than daunting.

“While this is certainly the biggest concentration of live performance that we have happening in the museum at one given time (which, because of that, takes on the identity of an event or festival), the type of programming itself is actually stuff that we do fairly regularly,” Green said.

According to Adam Krefman, Pitchfork’s senior director of festivals and activations, Midwinter grew out of a “small movement of people who want to make human-sized events that speak to a specific kind of music listener,” citing events including FORM Arcosanti and Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival at MASS MoCA as fellow players and inspirations in a “microtrend” of art-minded music festivals in the United States. It was equally inspired by the publication’s growing realization that much of the audience for its summer festival remains in Chicago during the colder months, and, as Krefman put it, “You need things to do in the winter.”

The move indoors didn’t just introduce a change of climate. It also opened up Pitchfork’s bookers to grab acts whose material wouldn’t necessarily mesh with the softball-diamond dust storms of your typical summer festival. Rather than acquiescing to the algorithms or courting the dwindling pool of possible reunion acts, Midwinter instead aims for the philosophy of careful curation that powered everything from All Tomorrow’s Parties to Afropunk (which Krefman calls “one of the best festivals in the country for knowing their audience and speaking really well to it”) to the origins of Pitchfork’s own summer festival.

Thus, while you’ll still find some overlap between the two lineups (Tortoise, Deerhunter, and Oneohtrix Point Never are just some of the Midwinter artists who’ve also graced the stage at Pitchfork‘s summer fest), you’ll also find acts like Laurie Anderson and William Basinski, the avant-garde composer who credits Pitchfork’s 2004 coverage of his series The Disintegration Loops with getting him out of $30,000 in debt. Basinski’s not your typical summer festival artist, even by Pitchfork’s standards; at Midwinter, he’ll join the Chicago Philharmonic for a rare live performance of his opus on digital decay, as well as selections from his new cosmic-minded electronic work On Time Out of Time. In a recent conversation, Basinski linked his upcoming Midwinter appearance (and Pitchfork’s continued enthusiasm) to his ongoing effort to get The Disintegration Loops established within the worldwide orchestral repertoire.

“They contacted us very early on and told us what they were thinking of doing,” Basinski said. “I picked the concert hall, which I believe is the oldest building in the Art Institute, and said, ‘We want to do Disintegration Loops with orchestra,’ and they were like, ‘Love it! Will you do a solo show, too?’ They were just right on board.

“And then we got the Chicago Philharmonic. This is the first philharmonic for me,” he said. “We had the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra last summer, which is one of the top orchestras in Europe, but to have this happen in America, where I’m from, is really wonderful.”

One Event, Many Possible Futures

Pitchfork Schedule

Despite the intrigue surrounding Midwinter’s live lineup and venue, Krefman is quick to correct any assumptions about the aims of this inaugural event (Pitchfork and the Art Institute’s preferred label, since, as Krefman told The Chicago Tribune’s Steve Johnson, the word festival “has become shorthand for all kinds of things in pop culture that I think don’t necessarily apply to Pitchfork in the summer and definitely will not apply to Midwinter”).

“I don’t think it’s a grand statement on the future of festivals,” he said in our own conversation. “I think [Midwinter] does something that works for us because we aren’t an average promoter. […] Our aims are a little bit different.”

Even with that expectation-setting in mind, it’s still easy to identify a few qualities that might perk the interests of organizers and promoters in 2020 and beyond, the biggest being the blend of timing and location. If there’s anything approaching a dead spot in the festival season, especially in America’s northern cities, the span between December and March might be it. It’s especially stark this February; when you look at the other festivals of note running this month (San Francisco’s venerable Noise Pop, Red Bull Music Festival Los Angeles, III Points in Miami), you’ll find locations that shun winter rather than embrace it.

By successfully staging a wintertime gathering in a northern population center that brings well-curated music into an unexpected (and culturally rich) indoor space, Midwinter inspires visions of tantalizing possibilities: a multi-venue festival across the Smithsonian’s campus, for example, or a cold-defying weekend of music at the New York Botanical Garden’s Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. In the hands of the right organizers, such theoretical events might spark the same kind of elevated collaboration that puts the music and the collections on equal, and equally thrilling, footing.

Then, there’s the issue of exclusivity. While many bigger festivals evoke the VIP experience through ever-expanding tiers and ticket prices, Midwinter does it by sheer numbers: the Tribune puts the attendance cap at 4,000 people per night, making Midwinter one of the smallest major multi-day music events planned for 2019. Such planned compactness, paired with a ticketing structure designed around a la carte scheduling, guarantees a level of Instagram-worthy intimacy at every turn; even the biggest Art Institute venues where the shows will go down have capacities that hover around one thousand people, and most number in the hundreds, capacities that also allow for the riskier or more avant-garde bookings that Pitchfork delivered.

Midwinter artists

Stars of the Lid, Nico Muhly (by Samantha West), and Julia Holter (Rick Bahto)

Finally, Midwinter also uses its unique synergy between booking and venue to amplify its own you-had-to-be-there-ness. The festival’s most alluring music might not be on stage, but in the galleries themselves, where commissioned acts including Stars of the Lid, Nico Muhly, and Julia Holter and Tashi Wada designed exclusive soundscapes inspired by the artworks on display.

For Muhly, whose piece “Étretat Cycles” combines an ever-shifting chord cycle with live drumming to evoke Monet’s understanding of the tide, this synthesis of sound and scene results in music that’s less like ambient accompaniment and more like a docent providing added insights on the art on hand. He described his work as “connected but oblique,” adding that “it takes us through a different itinerary of something that we think we know.”

Meanwhile, Holter and Wada, whose work “The Flying Fix” unravels the layers of meaning and inspiration collected upon Isamu Noguchi’s Miss Expanding Universe, identified another one of the soundscapes’ avenues for innovation: the ability for artists to contribute to a festival’s musical conversation without actually being present at the festival itself.

“It was a fun challenge, thinking about projecting sounds into a space in a different way where we’re not literally driving it on stage,” Wada said, with Holter adding that, especially for touring artists, “it’s something different. We can compose something, and it’s not reliant on our bodies being there.”

Like the hypothetical venues above, it’s easy to imagine potential evolutions for these commissions going forward: maybe it’s a series of fest-exclusive 7″s or a mobile recording studio where acts lay down new material onsite before hitting the stage. But really, why stop there? Maybe it’s an entire festival themed around debut material, tailored for audiences more interested in hearing songs first than bobbing along to hits. Whatever form it takes, this festival-first music may yet find its way into the plans of Midwinter’s bigger summer brethren; Krefman admitted in our interview that the soundscapes “opened up [Pitchfork’s] minds” for application in the publication’s other live events. What form that may take is as unknown as it is exciting.

Wintertime Reveries Meet Reality

Pitchfork Midwinter 2019 at the Art Institute of Chicago

Pitchfork Midwinter 2019 at the Art Institute of Chicago

If Midwinter tells us anything, it’s that there remains room for surprise and agility within the festival space. However, while the biggest innovations may catch us all off guard, they seem, at least in the short term, most likely to come from established players in the festival scene, ones that have the financial latitude, cultural cache, and willingness to take risks needed to play and succeed in more left-field spaces. Coachella may not show up at the Getty any time soon, but something else from AEG might.

For Pitchfork’s part, Krefman is realistic about the mounting financial pressures felt by festivals and the ever-present need to match lofty aspirations with bottom-line numbers. “There’s a lot of festivals out there that are losing big and have gone away because of it,” he said. “If you lose money, how can you possibly justify coming back? If you’re losing six or seven figures? I don’t blame them at all.”

The book on Midwinter’s financial success and artistic influence remains unwritten, at least for now. If nothing else, for those in Chicago this weekend, it’s one more enticing reason to spend a few long winter nights exploring the Art Institute’s vast holdings and dreaming about the possibilities of the 2019 season that might, against all odds, catch even the most jaded among us by surprise. It’s an opportunity that Muhly relishes.

“I find music festivals in traditional venues very stressful, just in terms of bodies and motion of bodies,” he said. “So, I like that you’re somewhere where there’s a separate kind of stillness and where there are these constants, which are works of art that aren’t going anywhere. They make their own kind of light show.”

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