At 6 p.m. on April 4, Joe Tiefenthaler opened Mission Creek 2017’s Hancher component with a short statement about the enduring importance of the arts in terms of building what is essential within human communities. In addition to thanking sponsors, it was a necessary statement (given the current political backdrop in which the arts risk no longer being funded by the government), and a welcome invocation of the need to remind ourselves of the essential ingredient that the arts play in our experience of being human.
Kelly Link, award-winning storyteller, followed. What was most impressive to me was the effusive generosity of her creative gifts. Link’s creativity is generative: It gives itself to anyone who happens to be nearby, spawning the sense that stories lurk within and around anyone and anything in any room or place. Genius expresses itself in life, unfolding in the presence and not just the works of the artists who compose it.
Listening to Link made me want to write stories. Being in a room with her brought four plots to stories to mind, likely all quite silly and all unrelated to the story she was telling. The point isn’t the quality of what I will produce, but the moment of inspiration. This is why Mission Creek is great: it offers access to artists who bring the desire to express truths to audiences who hadn’t thought to think that way before. And, as Tiefenthaler mentioned, every literary event in Mission Creek is free: It is a gift to the entire community — and a gift that promises to keep generating gifts in abundance, as anyone touched by the presence of artistic genius understands that it is something we can all do.
Link’s reading was the first time I had ventured beyond the lobby of Hancher, and I was impressed at the beauty of the place. Seeing the main auditorium in anticipation of My Brightest Diamond was even more striking: The building itself, in each of its spaces, is also a work of genius. There’s a beauty not only to its shiplike exterior but also to the gracious waves and curves on the inside.
I saw My Brightest Diamond during her performance in the fall of 2014, and was struck again last night by the dissonance between her undeniable and ferocious talent and the way that her songs leave me feeling unmoved. She seems to impose her talent on her songs instead of cultivating her talent to flourish in the work, alongside others, with the spark that Link has. Her set let me appreciate Link’s artistry all the more. Shara Worden’s voice is undeniably powerful; her musical instincts are catchy — but her technical excellence only reached what felt like true moments in the final two songs: a lullaby for her son, and the standout “Inside a Boy.” These songs sounded as though they came from a place of more authentic honesty than even her clearly well-intended politically-oriented songs.
Her biggest misfortune was being followed by Andrew Bird, whose genius for songwriting is just as copious and abundant as Link’s gift for stories, and whose musical ability exceeds that of Worden. This is no fault of Worden’s: Bird is an absolute master at every level of songcraft, from construction to instrumentation to lyrics to stage presence. He looked absolutely relaxed, natural and inspired throughout his almost two hour set.
This was my third time seeing Bird perform, and I believe that it was his strongest performance — largely due to the incorporation of a band, which joined him after his first two songs. The first songs gave the audience an excellent taste for what makes Bird a truly distinctive musician: It is his way of making space. Each song is constructed on a combination of precisely-timed plucked violin, played violin and guitar, and his voice and whistle. Each loop creates a certain amount of space, and as Bird allows the loops to blend and build, they deepen and enrich the space provided by the first layer, plucked notes serving as percussive rhythms that obviate the necessity for drums.
Part of Bird’s genius is his absolute precision; this comes through in his ability to space his loops and his astounding command of pitch as he whistles. Equal to this is his precise knowledge of English, shown in his astounding ability to choose the perfect word for each moment of a song. This allows him to sing joyfully about rather macabre images (flies on an effigy, blood replaced with formaldehyde) in a way that seems true and necessary.
Bird hears songs the way Link hears stories, and channels them through his instruments in order to bring them to life. He knows the depths of each small part of each song, and is thus able to assemble them with the bow of his violin, or with a whistle, or with his voice. Everything can become a conduit for the truth of the song, everything becomes an instrument. Put otherwise, in spite of his virtuoso abilities on his chosen instruments, one feels that Bird could integrate any instrument into a song at a moment’s notice, that he would understand, instinctively, where it would fit in a song and why.
I realized, as the band entered, that my fears about their distracting from his perfect attunement to the song were mislaid: They became attuned to him, just as the audience was. With the band backing, Bird was able to relax — but without relinquishing his grasp on the truth of the song. He invited the song to inspire the musicians around him in the same way that he invited the song to spring forth with golden, honeyed tones from his violin. Not only that, but Bird invites the audience into the space of the song with him: We all become attuned to the place that opens from him, all become part of a community that expands with each delightful, joyous note plucked from the strong or struck on the xylophone, with each soaring rise and fall of his whistle, or his voice. In listening for the songs and inviting them forth, Bird also creates a way for them to emerge in and through the listeners.
The acoustics of Hancher made Bird’s performance even more incredible: From my seat near the back (as I assume from each seat in the auditorium) I could hear each inflection of tone and pitch, the nuances of bow on string, the breath falling at the end of a whistle. I had never heard such rich textures in a live performance, which I believe was a result of Bird’s mastery and the genius of those who created the space. There was an absolute sense of intimacy to each of the sounds, none of which were lost (even when the entire band was playing). Each sound from each instrument was clearly distinguishable in each song.
The band occasionally came together, physically clustering on the middle of the stage, for what Bird called “old fashioned music.” It provided a greater sense of intimacy among the musicians but sacrificed much of the depth Bird accomplishes on his own, through the loops that he creates. The songs from the new album also tended to be more straightforward, as Bird was able to relax into a collaborative endeavor instead of birthing the song completely on his own.
Although I personally prefer his solo approach, the value of his new mode of music making became apparent in his performance of “Valleys of the Young.” It’s a more straightforward rock song, off his new album, about having children, even children who will die — and die unnecessarily. But the lack of intricacy in the music allowed me to focus more on the lyrics, especially the repeated refrain, which seemed to shift in this performance from the album’s “Is it selfish or is it brave?” to a different question: “Is it foolish or is it brave?”
As I thought of the question — both the lyrics I heard and those on the album — I was struck by its relation to the nature of art and creativity, and Tiefenthaler’s opening remarks. When it comes to making art — which audiences do as much as the performers inasmuch as the creation of art is a collaborative moment that courses through the community — when it comes to making art, there’s something selfish. There’s something foolish. And there’s something brave.
We need art to remind us of the courage to be selfish enough to take the time to write a song, or a story, even if we never share it with others. To be selfish enough to listen for our own muses, whatever shapes their presence takes within us. To be foolish enough to inspire creativity in others, to risk, vulnerably, performing and sharing our first clumsy attempts at art. To be good critics of each other’s attempts at work, to cultivate it in others and heart that voice within ourselves. And that foolish, brave, selfish work is what we need more than ever.
So: Come to Mission Creek. Listen to art. Find where the muse attunes itself to those who have selfishly and foolishly devoted their lives toward becoming artists. Come to the free literary readings — not because “famous” authors are there, but because good communities form around those who have disciplined themselves to listen to art. Find community while listening to music you’ve never heard. Listen to the truth in the humor of comedians. Taste the artistry of the food of the restaurants, the blend of textures and flavors. Appreciate the work behind the mix of sounds in the venues where bands perform. Challenge those near you to become better listeners, better readers. More brave. More selfish. More foolish. More vulnerable.
And if you see those responsible for Mission Creek — thank them. There is an art, too, in arranging a festival. The organizers consistently do it well, year after year.