Mind Over Mirrors | Chicago Museum Of Contemporary Art | 15 May
My first Mind Over Mirrors show occurred at Cactus Club in February of 2014, a performance that featured Chicago visionary Jaime Fennelly alone in the middle of the dancefloor with just his array of gadgetry (harmonium + about 800 knobs and wires and I don’t know, you’d have to ask him). I was there for the headliner, Chris Forsyth, and knew almost nothing about Fennelly, but the small crowd gathered around him and he absolutely blew us all away with the indescribable sounds he made. (Well, they were at least quasi-describable; I did write about the show here.)
As enamored as I was of that pure drone bliss, it was probably only gonna take Fennelly so far. After the performance, there was a lot of chatter between him and various local musicians about ‘we should do this’ and ‘here’s a collaborative idea I have’; from my outsider perspective, it didn’t sound like bullshit coming from Jaime. He has this infectious enthusiasm about him that takes over the room whether he’s playing music or just shooting the shit, apparently.
It was thus no surprise when Mind Over Mirrors projects started to expand to include other favorite musicians of mine. In 2015, he released an album that featured vocals by the incomparable Haley Fohr, a name I didn’t know yet but whose Circuit Des Yeux project I would soon become obsessed with. (That Chicago experimental/jazz/avant/drone scene runs incredibly deep, in case you weren’t aware.) Then the following year, MoM rolled through town for a show at Acme Records, and it was a full-on band all of a sudden, with none other than Jon Mueller on drums. This seemed immediately very correct. The 2017 album Undying Color featured both Mueller and Fohr, and it’s a beaut; a full fleshing-out of Fennelly’s melodious but still droney aesthetic. Once again, though, it felt like the extent to which that strategy could be taken.
It’s gotta be tough being a fringe artist with a limited budget, having grand ideas and no means to put them into action, but people do manage to find a way. When MoM’s latest, Bellowing Sun, appeared, the record was the tip of the iceberg, but, uh, what a tip! It stands as a magnificent musical statement on its own; I still have trouble trying to do it justice with words, but I can confidently say that you’ve never heard another album like it. Its majesty only deepens when you explore the themes it’s laced with that you might not grok just from listening.
This brings us to the performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It came with a pamphlet detailing the inspiration behind the whole operation, but I didn’t even dig into that until after the show. (Look up writer/naturalist Henry Beston for more info.) Do you guys know what a zoetrope is? Lit from inside and out, one of these hung over the stage we seated ourselves around. The thing was coated in a painting that…I wouldn’t even know how to begin to do this. The painter, Timothy Breen, had used paints that would pop depending on what color lights were illuminating them and where from, so while the cylinder spun around at various speeds and whatnot, completely different images emerged throughout the performance. Some of those fleeting repetitions are burned into my memory; I can almost take myself back to that headspace just by conjuring up bits of the painting.
Of course, there is no taking myself back, really. The full experience of light, color, and music (speakers, too, were strategically placed all around the room, although the primary din still emanated from the center) combined into a dizzying cocktail of mindfuckery about as potent as any drug you’d ever be advised to enjoy. The zoetrope told story after story and the music guided the journey through the mind; normally at a show like this I would want my eyes closed but obviously…and there were moments where I felt like I really was going to have to tune out some aspect of the sensory overload before I keeled over, because the effects of the lights and the movement created the illusion at times of the entire stage slowly sliding to one side or rotating, or else we were moving, or, uh, you get the idea.
It was the kind of experience that required some time afterwards to reacclimate to reality. It was all over in the span of an hour but it felt like a long weekend. It opened up new possibilities in terms of creative expression, as far as my experience goes. Fennelly keeps doing that. It made us all want to go out and create something. In its aftermath you have trouble believing your senses, but that doesn’t matter. What I experienced was the reality; how much of it was actually there is irrelevant. I don’t know how Fennelly is gonna top this, but it seems his ambition knows no bounds, and I’m in for whatever he dreams up from now on.