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Pitchfork’s Midwinter fest at Art Institute explores intersection of art, music

The 6:30 p.m. Sunday set by Laurie Anderson will take place in the Art Institute's Rubloff Auditorium.

The 6:30 p.m. Sunday set by Laurie Anderson will take place in the Art Institute's Rubloff Auditorium. | Ebru Yildiz

Pitchfork Festival is coming early this year: While the annual summer event in Chicago’s Union Park will still take place at its regularly scheduled time in July, the music media giants will introduce a brand-new sister event this month. Called Midwinter, the three-day festival (February 15-17) will be indoors, but its unconventional choice of space at The Art Institute of Chicago is a unique one where there is an intentional intersection of music and art, including exclusive, commissioned soundscapes that respond to specific pieces hanging on the museum walls.

MIDWINTER FESTIVAL
When: 6 p.m. to midnight February 15-17
Where: The Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan
Tickets: $50 for Friday or Sunday (Saturday and 3-day passes sold-out)
Information: midwinter.pitchfork.com

“As a summer festival, we are coming up on our 14th year this July, and as a media company, this is our 22nd year. We know we have this core audience in Chicago, a group of music fans that go to a lot of shows and have shown us over the years that they are ready to be challenged and willing to follow us down different musical rabbit holes. That, combined with the fact that there’s just not enough to do in February in Chicago, we figured let’s see how far [music fans] are willing to go to experience something new with us,” says Adam Krefman, Pitchfork’s senior director of festivals and activations.

Though Pitchfork has worked routinely with the Museum of Contemporary Art in the past for one-off programming, Krefman admits this is its first collaboration with The Art Institute.

“We have been really trying to make the museum a place where a variety of different forms of art happen,” says Jacqueline Terrassa, Women’s Board Chair of Learning and Public Engagement, about the well-timed collaboration. “From the beginning, when we had our first press event in the 19th century, [late Chicago businessman and philanthropist] Charles Hutchinson described the Art Institute as ‘a museum of living thought.’ The idea that the Art Institute is alive and dynamic has always been part of our thinking. And I believe both Pitchfork and the museum saw Midwinter as an opportunity to put something together that was very different from what either of us has done before.”

A Midwinter performance Saturday by Deerhunter is sold out.

A Midwinter performance Saturday by Deerhunter is sold out. | Courtesy of Deerhunter/4AD

Per typical Pitchfork fashion, the lineup is expertly curated, an amalgamation of headlining talent such as English shoegazers Slowdive, indie greats Deerhunter and solo artist Panda Bear (Noah Benjamin Lennox from Animal Collective), as well as avant-garde acts including experimental electronic composer Oneohtrix Point Never, jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington and dark folk queen Zola Jesus, plus over-the-top performers like rapper/activist Mykki Blanco.

There’s also a good dose of local talent including rapper Joey Purp, ambient noisemaker Haley Fohr and Laurie Anderson, the composer, filmmaker and visual artist who grew up in Glen Ellyn and has had her multimedia works exhibited at The Art Institute of Chicago. Local rock experimentalists Tortoise will also present a special 21st anniversary performance of their 1998 album “TNT” especially for the festival.

“[The Art Institute] seems like the perfect venue for such an epic self-reflection of this legacy [work],” says the band’s percussionist Dan Bitney. “It will be a strange experiment for us to recreate and perform this record. ‘TNT’ was our first using digital recording technology to blend elements of electronics, jazz and rock to create our sound.”

The percussionist for Tortoise says the museum will be the ideal venue for a sold-out performance of the band’s 1998 album “TNT” in the Rubloff Auditorium. | Andrew Paynter

In total, there will be 30 acts taking part in scheduled performances, recorded soundscapes and pop-up shows and also many participating in Pitchfork Radio’s programming, which will offer DJ sets and intimate Q&A sessions broadcast to those outside Chicago, too.

“Midwinter will quite literally take place in every corner of the museum,” says Terrassa, noting that the 900-seat Rubloff Auditorium and 400-seat Fullerton Hall will be used for the larger acts while there will also be events in the Stock Exchange Room, at the museum’s Grand Staircase at the Michigan Avenue entrance and Griffith Court, near the doors of the Modern Wing. There are also planned events in the Impressionism gallery and Sculpture Court, where the exclusive Soundscapes will take place.

“This festival is the only place you can hear these pieces for the time being,” says Krefman. “They are really meant to live around or within specific pieces of art so hopefully it creates a cross-medium dialogue of what you are seeing being altered by what you are hearing and vice versa.”

Claude Monet's “Boats on the Beach at Étretat and The Departure of Boats, Étretat" is the inspiration for a new composition by Nico Muhly. | Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

Claude Monet’s “Boats on the Beach at Étretat and The Departure of Boats, Étretat” is the inspiration for a new musical composition by Nico Muhly. | Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

Examples include composer Nico Muhly with a piece called “Étretat Cycles,” inspired by “Boats on the Beach at Étretat and The Departure of Boats, Étretat,” by Claude Monet. “The piece is a cycle of chords, which recycle every seven minutes, with a set of increasing and decreasing energy; the rhythm of the sea (both small, as in the repetitive crashing of the waves, and large, as in the slow pulls of the tides) provides the framework for these large cycles and variations,” Muhly said in an artist statement.

There’s also ambient duo Stars of the Lid’s work, “Installation for People with Special Powers on the Run from Government Exploitation,” inspired by the Sculpture Court location where it will be performed. “[My grandparents] resided out in the west suburbs in the tiny village of Glen Ellyn. Most of my early life, summers were spent in Chicago, and I have forever been sitting and gazing in wonder at the beauty of the Sculpture Hall, and the epic Shedd Aquarium just across Grant Park, as they are literally two of my earliest memories,” reads their artist statement. Compositions from Tashi Wada and Julia Holter, Helado Negro and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith will also be presented, among others.

“The other component we have are creative opportunities throughout the museum,” adds Terrassa. “We will have brief gallery conversations and opportunities for people to sit down and sketch what they are inspired about, and you don’t need to have drawn before. We are just hoping people explore and look more closely.” She continues, “We really want to promote the museum and the idea of experiencing art as not something you do passively but from a lot of different modes of participation. People are seeking immersive experiences like these in our digital world, and we really hope it attracts younger visitors and non-regular visitors that might find a new appreciation for art and culture at large.”

Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.