It’s been almost 20 years since Radiohead last performed in Minneapolis, so having one of the five members of the band play a show in town is a big deal. Philip Selway will take part in the two-night Music for Merce festival at the Walker Art Center tonight and tomorrow. The performance is part of the museum’s sprawling Merce Cunningham retrospective, Common Time, honoring the choreographer’s distinguished career and legacy.
Ahead of Selway’s performance on Thursday night (part of a stellar program that includes David Behrman, Christian Wolff, Joan La Barbara, Quinta, Ikue Mori, John King, Fast Forward, and George Lewis), we chatted with him about his ties to Cunningham’s work, the similarities he’s found between dance and playing the drums, and how honored he is to be participating in this musical celebration in a museum so closely tied to the choreographer’s groundbreaking career.
City Pages: How did you first get involved with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company? I know Radiohead composed the music for his Split Sides performance in 2003. How did that originally come about?
Philip Selway: We did the Split Sides piece to mark his 80th birthday at the time. We did that with Sigur Ros at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and that kind of set up the bond there. The first time I actually worked with John King, who is curating this series of concerts, was at a Cunningham event at the Barbican in London. It was quite mad, actually. It was completely improvised – for about an hour and a quarter – with three musicians in each concert. It was just back-and-forth, playing off each other.
Then three years ago, I did a piece with Rambert Dance Company in London. They just moved into their new home on the South Bank in London, and they wanted a piece to mark being in their new venue. So they had permission from the Cunningham Trust to reinterpret excerpts of music and choreography from various pieces. Jeannie Steele, the rehearsal director from Cunningham, is based in London now, and she was able to pull all this together. I wrote a piece with Quinta and Adem, an hour’s worth of music, and Quinta and I will be doing a couple of pieces from that concert on Thursday night.
CP: How much inspiration do you draw from the world of dance into your music? Is it a rhythmic thing that you tap in to?
PS: Yes, that’s definitely how I respond to dance. But then you work with Cunningham’s choreography, and the instruction is you don’t want any strong rhythms in there, or any strong melodic hooks that will distract the dancers. Because they’ve got their whole routine in their head, and they’ve got an internal count going on.
It’s fascinating going to rehearsals when they are going through it, because there is no music. They've just got their rehearsal director doing the count for them, so they’ve got that drilled into them. But with that, they don’t want anything that will throw the dancers’ count, so you can’t have any four-to-the-floor rhythms going. So that was a very interesting challenge in itself, writing music that has rhythmic and melodic interests and texture, but making sure that it complements the dancing – envelops the dancing – rather than driving it along.
CP: And is it true that you aren’t allowed to see the dance that you are composing the music for?
PS: Correct. And, if you are being strict about it, when you are performing you’re not supposed to watch the dance either. The dancers have their stopwatch and you have your stopwatch, and that’s it, and you all finish at the same point. I have to admit, I sneak a few peaks. When you’ve got his choreography with those dancers performing, you’ve got to watch some of that. You can’t let that pass you by.
And it changes every night, as well. Cunningham and Cage worked very much with the concept of chance, and rolling the dice and seeing which particular pieces would come up against each other on that particular night. It’s been a really, really inspiring process to go through, working within those kind of parameters. It changes the way that you approach music.
When you’re trying to do something rhythmically interesting, but it doesn’t have these rigid, rhythmical motifs going through them – how do you construct that? Particularly when you come from a very song-based background, where a lot of Radiohead is about just trusting the groove, and when you take the groove out of the drumming, it’s a very interesting place to be.
CP: You’ve worked with Quinta before. How did that musical partnership start?
PS: That goes back quite a while, actually. Back in 2008, when Radiohead were touring In Rainbows, Quinta was playing with our opening act, Bat for Lashes, at the time. And that’s how I met her. She very kindly came and played in my live band in support of my first solo record [2010’s Familial]. Since then we’ve done a lot of work together over the years, including the pieces we’re playing Thursday night.
CP: How does your musical approach change when you perform in an intimate venue like the Walker Art Center versus the arenas, stadiums, and festival shows that you’re accustomed to playing? How do you adjust and manage to scale back?
PS: The nature of the pieces dictates how you perform. It all starts from the dance, and the environment where the dance will happen is naturally a smaller scale. If you’re in tune with that, then you do the right things in terms of the performance. It’s a completely different musical experience then doing a big Radiohead show. That’s all very song driven, and this is much more bound up in the textures.
I’m very interested to see all the pieces in their own right. These are pieces that have been conceptualized in the first place to accompany dance, even though it’s not written to the dance. You know, the whole Cunningham approach, where you go out and write a thirty minute piece and I’ll go off and do a thirty minute piece, and we’ll bring it all together in the dress rehearsal and see where we are. But even with that, it’s music that is made with dance in mind. I think it’s going to be very interesting seeing how that comes across.
CP: In recent years you’ve managed to keep busy in between Radiohead releases and tours by putting out two solo LPs and getting involved in projects like this one. Are these outlets a means for you to stay sharp creatively, or is it more just taking advantage of the down time to finally express these creative ideas that have come to you over the years?
PS: I think it’s a bit of both, actually. I like the challenge of throwing myself into different kinds of projects, and I think that really does sharpen your musicality. Within the context of Radiohead, when you come back into that, you’ve got a larger toolbox to use. There’s also, for all of us in Radiohead, there’s what we can do in the band to make that work, and then beyond that there’s a lot of other ideas as well which need a home and which need to be expressed. And this fits very much into that bracket for me, I think.
I’m turning 50 this year, and I remember reading Twyla Tharp’s autobiography, Push Comes to Shove, and she was writing about when she turned 50, and she gets through that and says, “I actually feel like I’ve done my apprenticeship now. I’m actually just coming up to the starting line.” That’s how it feels a bit, really. I’ve just got that desire to make a lot of music.
CP: I recently read in the Times about Merce Cunningham’s initial arrival here in Minneapolis in 1963. It was him, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and some dancers, with Rauschenberg’s set pieces strapped to the roof of their Volkswagen microbus. How rewarding is it for you to take part in this retrospective in the very place where so many of Cunningham’s groundbreaking works were born?
PS: First, it’s a huge honor to be part of this. Because his work, Cage’s work, Rauschenberg – anybody who was associated with that circle – they were the most influential artists of that period, and we’re all still kind of feeding of that. And to be part of this is a huge honor.
It’s also an education as well, because there’s so much I don’t know about it. I’ve had my take on it, and I’ve got a good awareness of John Cage and David Tudor, but actually immersing yourself in it, you find out there’s so much to learn. There’s such a prodigious output, they were all unbelievably prodigious. Just getting a good look at it, and realizing I’ve only taken a fraction of it in. It’s nice to come here and actually find out more.
And then to play with these musicians, like Christian Wolff, Fast Forward, and Joan La Barbara – these are immense people who’ve been at the forefront of all these movements. That’s pretty amazing. We’ve only just done our soundcheck, but just sitting on the same stage with them is a treat. I’m quite fortunate, because all of this is just fantastic.
CP: Merce was known for having legendary artists create stage sets and backdrops for his work – Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol. And I’ve noticed that Radiohead has consistently had great stage sets, light shows, and dramatic backdrops, which adds a stylish visual element to the overall concert experience. Do you see some parallels between the two, performance-wise?
PS: We’ve been extremely lucky. Our lighting and stage director, Andi Watson, has been doing that for us for since about 1994. If there’s an identifiable creative current running throughout, that’s completely down to him. He’s got so many good ideas, and he just wants to keep on expanding on those and bettering each one. There’s a lot of trust there. You choose to work with somebody because they have that drive and those ideas, and, to a certain extent, you just let them go with it. There’s a conversation at the start, and that conversation happens more between Andi and Thom [Yorke] and Jonny [Greenwood]. When it eventually comes together in the shows, it brings that extra dimension to the performance and you do respond to that. That is hugely inspiring.
CP: So, the last thing I’ve got for you is more of a selfish request -- it’s been 20 years since Radiohead have last played Minneapolis. I don’t know what it’s going to take to coax you all to come back to Minneapolis – I’ll make breakfast for the entire band if you ever play here again. What do you say?
PS: Well, there you go. How can we possibly turn that down? I’ll hold you to it.
Read our review of the first night of Music for Merce.
Music for Merce: A Two-Night Celebration
When: 8 p.m. Thurs., Feb. 23 and Fri., Feb. 24
Where: Walker Art Center
Tickets: $28 ($22.40 Walker members); $50 for both nights; more info here