Michael Zerang

Describe your career in sound and performance work in Chicago and internationally

An Interview with CAR Dance Researcher Rachel Thorne Germond

I have been working a lot internationally for the past 10-15 years. But before that I was a Chicago artist working mostly in Chicago and in the United States. I mean, it took a while to get to the level where I can travel as much as I do. I have been doing this now for 33 years. It certainly didn’t happen overnight, all of this traveling I have been doing.

The thing that I loved about growing up as an artist in Chicago (I started being active by the time I was 17) was that it had a very good “Do-It-Yourself” kind of vibe here. It was a relatively cheap place to live, and at least in music (experimental music and the crazier stuff that I was doing), if there wasn’t a venue that was presenting it there was always someone who had a loft or some kind of alternative space. They’d come and go of course, but there was always a place to perform, and there was always an audience. Even though sometimes it was a small audience, there was always the potential for the give and take you need of the audience. So it was a really great place to develop.

Coupled with that, at least with music (free jazz, experimental music, the stuff that I’ve been dealing with a lot), there are a lot of great artists here. And there always have been. It’s a city of very innovative music and it has been for about a hundred and fifty years. New Orleans has this reputation as being a great music city, which it is, as well as Austin, and Memphis, but with Chicago the thing that always struck me is that it’s a great music city, but also a great innovative music city. A lot of the greatest innovations happen here, and artists who come from here go on to make major contributions to experimental music and free jazz.

Why do you think that is?

I think because it’s a big city and also because it’s the capital of the Midwest, whereas the coasts have their own thing going on. If you come from anywhere in the Midwest, Chicago is the place, it’s the big city.

When jazz was invented, it was because they all came up north on the Mississippi River. People from all the regions surrounding us sort of gravitate here. A lot of innovation happens that way. In a real sense it’s a crossroads in the country, and by the very nature of that you get a lot of cross fertilization and really interesting juxtapositions that happen over time, and I think that’s probably the reason.

This is coupled with the fact that historically, unlike New York and Los Angeles, it hasn’t been such a big media market and isn’t so expensive and competitive. People can come and really stretch out and explore here. They might not get famous or well known here, they’ll have to go off to do that, but it’s a good place to work and develop.

There are also the other artists, the audiences and the spaces to perform. This isn’t about music, but I like to remember that in the late 70’s there were seven or eight off-Broadway theaters and then by 1990 there were 350! That’s because people would get storefronts, a theater company or group would rent it, they would all chip in and do shows and pay the rent. It was very do-able. That makes it a very rich place to develop.

On the other hand, the media has been pretty provincial. Audiences are not huge, but they are definitely there. They are also kind of hard-nosed audiences, they don’t just accept anything, and so it really is kind of a challenge.

There are situations where if I wanted to, I could play a gig almost every night of the week in Chicago with different musicians, and that’s remarkable in and of itself. I can’t necessarily make a living doing that, but I do it just for the development. That’s been invaluable. That’s the aspect of Chicago I cherish the most as being an artist here.

As I got older, and I started to go off more and more and more, it developed from there. Now I perform in Chicago a dozen times a year, whereas before I was performing a hundred times a year. It’s just a progression.

When I think about innovation in Chicago, I also think about architecture: how when Mies Van Der Roe came here he brought with him lots of change. What do you see as being the beginning of innovation here?

In terms of music, you have the blues coming up the Delta to Chicago and then jazz started to take hold. Then in the 1960’s you have the great innovations: AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) is still active and going strong. Those were huge innovations in music. You also have a lot of popular stuff, like rock music, which has a real home in Chicago; there are so many bands here. It’s hard to identify one person as the leader…

Is there one school where people study, like the Berkeley School of Music in Boston, for example?

Not one school; there are plenty of schools here, but not one central school. In some of the arts maybe it needs to work that way, but not in music. It doesn’t need to work that way because you have the potential for cross fertilization of collaborators, you have different styles of music, different genres of music coming together and existing in the same place and influencing things.

How about places like the Hothouse…?

Those were later in time. When I was growing up there certainly were some clubs, but in the early 1980’s the scene was so different here. Now you have everything split out into its own world, but not back then. For example, at midnight you’d go down to some loft on West Randolph Street, and it would start as an art opening for some new painters, and then there’d be a performance art happening after that, and then a band would start and 500 or 600 people would show up, and it would go until seven in the morning. It was much more integrated. Everyone really knew what every one else was doing.

Was that the time of MoMing and Randolph Street Gallery?

Yes, MoMing and Randolph Street Gallery were among those places, but aside from these set places there were just these lofts and spaces. Even Marc Ritte who ran Hothouse, back then he was running the Salon of Odalisque, which was just a big loft that had art exhibits and music concerts. What was remarkable was that the audiences were huge and it was all the different disciplines; we all knew each other.

It’s not like that now. I try to keep involved as much as I can with what’s going on in dance and theater, but it’s not like that anymore. May be for the best, maybe everything has progressed and developed to the point where everything has found its place, but there was a real vitality to knowing the painters that were having a show before your band played, or working with the performance artists with your music.

Jim Self, who is now at Cornell University, was one of the founders, along with Sally Banes, the dance writer. Choreographers like Trisha Brown, Meredith Monk, and Bill T. Jones were also performing there.

Sure, I remember working with Bill T. Jones before he was as popular as he became. In the early 1980’s I did a workshop with him. I was providing the music for his workshop and finally for his performance. It was such a wonderful place. I mean to meet someone like him…

At that point in his career, how did the dance community here receive him? Was his work considered controversial?

It was great. He came and he shook things up quite a bit, especially with his… I like to call it the walking and talking thing, dancing and talking thing. Sometimes I curse him for that because after he left everyone started doing it here. Sometimes it was so self-conscious and terrible nonsense. But when he would do it - it was just: wow, here’s this beautiful guy, a great dancer who would open up his mouth and would say these profound things and everything was integrated. Then it became this movement here and then, well, sometimes people really should just shut up and dance [laughing] or go home and write. He made a big impact and it was received quite well, but really, it was wonderful.

MoMing was a very vital place. It integrated a lot of what was going on in contemporary dance, and it was a school of dance. Even people who were not professional dancers would go there. It was really popping.

What did you do there?

I was an accompanist there from the time that I was 17 to age 24. That was hard-core full-time, sometimes 30-40 hours a week.

Where was MoMing?

It was located in Lakeview, near Links Hall. A block south and west of there. It was beautiful. A big old church annex with a 2-story main space.

What happened to it?

Like everything else it was gutted and made it into condos.

MoMing never bought it... they probably should have. But if you look at it now it’s a corner building in the middle of a residential area.


When did Links Hall form?

It was at the same time. In 1978, Links Hall got going. Charlie Vernon, Bob Eisen, Carol Bobrow founded it.

How did you get involved with Links Hall?

I started working up there in 1981 with my music groups. We would rehearse up there and I knew Bob because of my accompanist work, so I started using the space as an artist.

Then in 1985, Bob decided that dance in Chicago was completely dead. A lot of the innovations of the 1970’s had sort of taken their path, a lot of stuff was getting retread. A lot of choreographers were doing the same old stuff, and he was always into the investigative part of movement and dance, so he got tired of it. He felt like there was nothing happening at Links Hall, so he asked me to be an artistic director and book shows up there – and I said to him, well I know music. So he said, go ahead and do that, so I did, and then I also added some poetry and fiction readings as well. In those years, 1985-89, I was the artistic director, primarily booking this kind of stuff at Links Hall.

You’ve been on the board there for a long time and seen alot of changes…

20 years!

How do you feel about where it’s heading now?

Right now there’s this complete renaissance. For 20 years, based on Bob Eisen’s model, he’d invite me and a few other people in to do programming, and he’d invite people to come in and they’d do some fundraising, and they would get burned out and Bob would step back in again. It worked like that, but now it’s a real organization.

The organization is really making major strides, consolidating as an organization, looking down the road. Possibly getting new facilities, having a real staff, a larger budget, and a broader scope of artists that come in.

I noticed LInks Hall doesn't have an Artistic Director.

No, CJ Mitchell is currently the Executive Director. We don’t have an Artistic Director at Links Hall, and that’s a really interesting distinction. A lot of people argue that that’s a problem because there is no singular artistic vision, but Links Hall has always been a more egalitarian, doors-open space. In our mission we state that one of our goals is to provide a facility for this sort of movement-based work. Rather than give artistic direction, we want to provide the resources for the artists. The artists come in; they are curators for the events. We have a rotating cast of artist-curators and all the resources that they bring. So that way there is always a fresh perspective, not just one perspective.

Links Hall has always been an artists’ workspace, and we want to maintain that spirit as we expand and grow. We want to open the door as wide as possible to bring people in to do movement-based research and development. And it’s not even so much about performance, although, clearly one of the main elements we have is a performance space. It’s more about artists and artists’ development, and to that degree Links Hall is growing from its history and not just turning into something else.

Michael Zerang
was born in Chicago, Illinois and is a first generation American of Assyrian decent. He has been a professional musician, composer, and producer since 1976, focusing extensively on improvised music, free jazz, contemporary composition, puppet theater, experimental theater, and international musical forms. He has collaborated extensively with contemporary theater, dance, and other multidisciplinary forms and has received three Joseph Jefferson Awards for Original Music Composition in Theater, in 1996, 1998, and 2000.

This article was co-developed for the Chicago Artists Resource Website and Cultural Chicago E-Zine.

Published by CAR_Ania on Fri, 09/26/2008 - 5:00pm
Updated on Tue, 01/14/2014 - 1:27pm
Michael Zerang | Chicago Artists Resource


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