Bright Lights, Big Cello

Michelle Kinney followed the musical avant-garde to New York--and back again.

"There's all this wonderful energy in New York," says Kinney. "The musicians and people who go through New York and live there are among the most brilliant and creative and energetic and happy and fulfilled. It's a fantastic way to learn. But then you reach a point in your life, especially if you have children, where you have to start thinking beyond the thrill of the moment--or the agony of the moment--and try to get some view into the future. I would have slugged it out in New York for sure, but you just have to change your perspective when you're a parent."

While Kinney was lugging her cello all over town as a hired gun, she was also writing her own stuff, at least in the rare moments that she had the time and energy. Her music is a cerebral mix of disparate styles. At times it bears the influence of her former bandleader Henry Threadgill, but then it will start to sound like Tom Waits, and next like refracted Bach.

"I used to think that it was too many weird things happening at once," says Kinney, "but the older I get the more I enjoy that." The music is lovely in spots, noisy in others, sometimes heavily improvised, sometimes tightly composed. Besides being a first-rate player, Kinney is a very good singer, as demonstrated by her elegantly harmonized if somewhat pretentious piece "Phoebe," which she plans to perform at the Walker with a band of local and New York compatriots: guitarist Brandon Ross (Cassandra Wilson, Threadgill), singer Timothy Hill, pianist Myra Melford, bassist Anthony Cox, and drummer Kevin Washington.

Kith and Kinney: Composer and instrumentalist Michelle Kinney on her family-friendly acre in Golden Valley
Jana Freiband
Kith and Kinney: Composer and instrumentalist Michelle Kinney on her family-friendly acre in Golden Valley

Much of the Walker show will be devoted to Kinney's recent adaptations of poetry into what she reluctantly characterizes as art songs. She'll perform two musical settings of W.S. Merwin poems, which some raw recordings suggest might be Kinney's strangest and prettiest stuff to date. She'll also debut a composition built around local poet Wang Ping's "Tsunami Chant," an unsparing indictment of U.S. foreign policy, and present a take on Edna St. Vincent Millay's "The Bean-Stalk," with music inspired by Nick Cave.

For now, the only way to hear these tunes is at shows such as the Walker date. "I've recorded tons of records but I haven't actually put anything out," says Kinney. "By the time I get it recorded, I'm on to something else. I'm going to try to change that, I'm going to try to go back and put out at least one record of good stuff that never got released."

Indeed, no more dillydallying. Sure, early forecasts suggest that 2004 will be the Year of the Hooky Dance Number about Male-Female Interaction, but one never knows. Perhaps the time for the cello-driven W.S. Merwin-inspired art song is about to arrive.

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