(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Modern masterpieces, cutting-edge composition, dance, drag, film, jazz, hip-hop, video games, electronica, ecology, and activism all converge at the inaugural season of DIRECT CURRENT, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’s new 15-day celebration of contemporary culture. Focusing on works new to Washington, on interdisciplinary creations in which artistic worlds collide, and on innovative responses to topical concerns, this new spring immersion showcases some of the most potent, provocative, and original voices in American arts today. DIRECT CURRENT takes place on March 5–19 at the Kennedy Center and beyond, extending throughout the District of Columbia through new partnerships with four key alternative venues, to expand the growing audience for contemporary culture in the nation’s capital.
Innovation, gender identity, and environmental conservation are among the pressing themes addressed in the programming. All told, DIRECT CURRENT’s inaugural season traces an artistic narrative from the 1960s to the present through a thoughtfully curated collection of work – almost all of which draws on multiple disciplines – by some of America’s foremost cultural risk-takers.
DIRECT CURRENT’s wealth of offerings spans the artistic spectrum, from the D.C. premieres of contemporary classics to original arrangements of video game music, impromptu instrument building, and bold new experiments in hip-hop. Three of the Kennedy Center’s resident artistic leaders – Composer-in-Residence Mason Bates, Artistic Director for Jazz Jason Moran, and DEMO series director Damian Woetzel – contributed to the inaugural season programming, which includes collaborations with National Sawdust and the DC Environmental Film Festival. John Adams, Derek Bermel, Philip Glass, Paola Prestini, Nathaniel Stookey, and Julia Wolfe are among the composers in attendance, and performers range from the National Symphony Orchestra under Music Director Gianandrea Noseda to the radically subversive playwright and drag artist Taylor Mac. Selected events are supplemented by educational workshops and talks with such prominent thought leaders as Sister Helen Prejean and Godfrey Reggio.
Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter explains: “We in the nation’s capital are long overdue for a contemporary culture immersion. DIRECT CURRENT aims to bring new work directly to the public while it is as current, fresh, and provocative as the world we experience each day. This is in keeping with our mission as Washington’s cultural center. Here, where leaders grapple with the day’s most critical challenges, we at the Kennedy Center can collaborate with leading arts pioneers and risk-takers to explore some of those issues in depth, maybe even inspiring fresh insights and more creative solutions.”
Mainstage events, plus ancillary workshops and talks DIRECT CURRENT kicks off with a pair of appearances by Taylor Mac, the genre-defying winner of a 2017 MacArthur “Genius” Grant and 2017 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama, and a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Chronicling the past 240 years of American culture and dysfunction through song, the drag artist’s hit show A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (1776–2016) – named one of the “Best of 2016” by the New York Times – receives its D.C. premiere in a condensed version featuring local Washington performers. In a special, invitation-only event conceived in collaboration with the Kennedy Center Youth Council, Mac also joins D.C.-area high school students to talk about identity in an educational workshop on Making Our Own History.
Damian Woetzel, the former New York City Ballet principal turned director, choreographer, and thought leader who was recently named as the next president of the Juilliard School, curates and hosts the third season of his interdisciplinary DEMO series. This new installment of the series presents recent commissions and D.C. premieres from some of today’s most creative voices in dance and music. The evening includes a new work choreographed by Pam Tanowitz with music by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw, and the Kennedy Center premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s solo Fandango, danced by New York City Ballet star Sara Mearns and set to the music of Boccherini. Additional artists appearing include the game-changing string quartet Brooklyn Rider, modern dance luminaries Silas Riener and Rashaun Mitchell, and Memphis jookin street dance pioneer Lil Buck.
To celebrate John Adams at 70, DIRECT CURRENT mounts the D.C. premiere of the American composer’s Passion oratorio, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, which has been hailed as “an extraordinary work, containing some of Mr. Adams’s richest, most daring music” (New York Times). His unorthodox retelling depicts Jesus’s final weeks from the viewpoints of Mary Magdalene and her siblings, Martha and Lazarus, imbuing an old form with contemporary sounds, ancient texts with new material, and a traditional story with modern meaning. Starring mezzo-soprano Kelly O’Connor, who reprises her “utterly convincing” (Los Angeles Times) account of the title role, the opera's two Kennedy Center performances represent a highlight of Gianandrea Noseda’s much-anticipated first season as Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra. The conductor will conclude the opening night with an AfterWords post-performance talk.
Adams himself will also be in attendance, and takes part in “The Ministry of Mary Magdalene,” a far-reaching, one-of-a-kind talk before the second performance. To investigate some of the themes underpinning his oratorio and the ways they resonate today, he will be joined by Sister Helen Prejean, the influential death penalty abolitionist whose first book, Dead Man Walking, inspired both the film and opera of that name (the latter presented by Washington National Opera earlier this year), and her fellow Christian thinkers Yolanda Pierce, Dean of the Howard University Divinity School, and Joan Fowler-Brown, Chief of Staff at Washington’s Catholic Charities.
Marking Philip Glass’s Kennedy Center debut, the 80-year-old American master composer takes part in a live, five-pianist account of his complete Etudes. In an unprecedented collaboration, this will draw on the jazz improvisations of Aaron Diehl, Devonté Hynes, Jennifer Lin, and Kennedy Center Artistic Director for Jazz and MacArthur Fellow Jason Moran. Each pianist will perform four of the 20 etudes, bringing a fresh and personal perspective to the work that Glass composed over a 20-year period and considers something of a self-portrait.
A journey in ambience, rhythm, and texture, California Mystics – a new edition of Mason Bates’s immersive KC Jukebox series – explores the trajectory of visionary California composers from Lou Harrison and Steve Reich to the present day. The program includes Bates’s Mass Transmission, which looks to early radio broadcasts to comment on today’s interconnected communication, and concludes with Sō Percussion’s East Coast premiere of Nathaniel Stookey’s Junkestra, “a concise, rhythm-heavy work of considerable emotional scope” (Philadelphia Inquirer), played on instruments created for the occasion from locally sourced garbage. With a DJ spinning the decks both before and after the concert, California Mystics takes place in the Kennedy Center’s Atrium space, where tenting and pillows will make for an invitingly bohemian environment.
The program is supplemented by two free events. John Bertles, Kennedy Center Teaching Artist and co-founder of Bash the Trash Environmental Arts LLC, presents DIY Junkestra, a hands-on educational workshop in which participants – adults and supervised children aged twelve and above – build their own musical instruments out of recycled materials. And in a dedicated recital, Sō Percussion, noted for its “exhilarating blend of precision and anarchy, rigor, and bedlam” (New Yorker), performs the D.C. premieres of Taxidermy by Caroline Shaw and Water, Wine, Brandy, Brine, a piece for wine glasses by Vietnamese-American composer Viet Cuong, alongside works by John Cage.
The Bang on a Can All-Stars, Choir of Trinity Wall Street, and conductor Julian Wachner give the D.C. premiere of Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields, reprising their Grammy-nominated account of the Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio in which historic photomontages help recall Pennsylvania’s coal-mining past. The Los Angeles Times calls Anthracite Fields a “riveting” work “that gives powerful expression to the consequences of labor and the American labor movement.” Immediately after the performance, the composer will join Mason Bates for a post-show discussion about the Appalachian experience and the importance of giving a voice to a segment of the population rarely represented in classical music.
Philip Glass returns to DIRECT CURRENT for the Kennedy Center premiere of Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, his iconic 1982 multimedia collaboration with experimental filmmaker Godfrey Reggio. A prescient reflection on the imbalance between humans and our environment, Glass’s cinematic tone poem resonates anew with audiences today. The Philip Glass Ensemble makes its eagerly anticipated Kennedy Center debut alongside The Washington Chorus in a live performance of the cult-classic score. Before the screening, the composer reunites with filmmaker Reggio for a rare live appearance together, when they join moderator Mason Bates for an illuminating pre-concert talk.
In collaboration with the renowned Brooklyn-based nonprofit arts incubator National Sawdust, DIRECT CURRENT presents the live D.C. premiere of The Colorado, a co-presentation with the DC Environmental Film Festival, and anchored by Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. Exploring the Colorado River Basin from social, ecological, and historical perspectives, this groundbreaking, music-driven eco-documentary draws on the combined talents of filmmaker Murat Eyuboglu; composers Paola Prestini, Shara Nova, Bill Brittelle, Glenn Kotche, and Pulitzer Prize laureate John Luther Adams; and Academy Award-winning narrator Sir Mark Rylance.
Immediately after the screening, Brad Forder, Director of Programming for the DC Environmental Film Festival, will moderate “Knowledge, Love, Action,” a panel discussion in which composer and National Sawdust Artistic Director Prestini, director Murat Eyuboglu, Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William Baker, and D.C. Greens Community Outreach Specialist Asha Carter will consider the challenges of inspiring a connection to nature, providing education about environmental and related social issues, and protecting the ecosystems that impact our lives.
DIRECT CURRENT draws to a close in collaboration with National Sawdust. The D.C. premiere of M is Black Enough (aka Miyamoto is Black Enough) explores meaning and conversation through the hard-driving rhythms and biting social commentary of poet Roger Bonair-Agard, composer-percussionist Andy Akiho, and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler. Performing on steelpan, cello, drums, and poetry/vocals, they offer a complex, aggressive, and bold narrative about people, justice, struggle, joy, and celebration.
Beyond the concert hall: new partnerships with four key D.C. venues
DIRECT CURRENT takes Kennedy Center artists and programming out into the world beyond the traditional concert hall, reaching new audiences throughout the Washington area by means of innovative new ongoing partnerships with four key alternative D.C. performance spaces. The first of these is the Phillips Collection, the gallery where more than 4,000 major artworks make their home. In a pair of free pop-up concerts, pianists Jason Moran and Myra Melford offer personal, improvisatory musical responses to Ten Americans After Klee, an exhibition exploring the Swiss-born painter’s profound influence on ten mid-20th-century American artists including Jackson Pollock.
Further free pop-up concerts inaugurate new relationships with Union Market, a bustling, warehouse-style urban village that serves as a culinary and creative hub, and the Dupont Underground, an experimental arts space housed in a converted subterranean trolley station. It is there that the Grammy Award-winning Washington Chorus will collaborate with a local DJ for a pop-up party with music, lighting, projections, and drinks.
Finally, at the landmark 9:30 Club, a nightclub and music venue with a capacity of 1,200, new music will meet electronica, projected visuals, and immersive stagecraft in Mason Bates’s signature series Mercury Soul. This visceral “classical rave” features new music by some of today’s most talked-about composers, with the D.C. premieres of works by Derek Bermel, Ted Hearne, Jennifer Higdon, Missy Mazzoli, and Bates himself, who does double duty as house DJ alongside DJ Justin Reed of Chicago’s illmeasures collective. Free multi-genre performances on the Millennium Stage and other Kennedy Center spaces.
Each evening during DIRECT CURRENT, free live multi-genre performances will be presented on the Millennium Stage and in other Kennedy Center theaters to amplify the wealth of mainstage contributions.
The lineup includes appearances by two local student ensembles. Founded in 2005, the University of Maryland’s student-run Gamer Symphony Orchestra is the first collegiate ensemble to draw its repertoire exclusively from the music of video games, and to use that music as an educational tool. The orchestra makes its Kennedy Center debut with arrangements of music from iconic games, in From Bits to Brass: A Symphonic Adventure through Video Game Music.
Baltimore’s Peabody Institute presents a performance by its newly formed contemporary music group, Now Hear This (NHT). An ensemble of varying size, NHT delivers imaginative new-music programs in genres ranging from classical to crossover, and from minimalism to modernism.
Besides appearing at the Phillips Collection, avant-garde jazz pianist and composer Myra Melford leads her quintet in two sets at the KC Jazz Club. A 2013 Guggenheim Fellow, Melford impressed the San Francisco Chronicle as an “explosive player, a virtuoso who shocks and soothes, and who can make the piano stand up and do things it doesn’t seem to have been designed for.”
DCDIT, which stands for Do-It-Together in D.C., presents saxophonist Keir Neuringer and his Irreversible Entanglements collective. This Philadelphia-based, politically driven free jazz group formed in early 2015 at a Musicians Against Police Brutality event. According to NPR, the collective’s self-titled album debut “wakes the frozen body to move, the dead mind to react, the mute mouth to scream resistance.”
Also under DCDIT’s auspices, in the first of two hip-hop events, Baltimore’s Abdu Ali raps and sings over unorthodox, post-apocalyptic future sounds. Working to transcend musical boundaries, he “is one of the most versatile MCs out there right now – his willingness to rap over everything from experimental noise to explosive hip-hop makes that clear” (The Fader).
Heralded as “the future of hip-hop” (The Stranger) and described as “avant-garde, cerebral, and at times utterly baffling” (The Guardian), Shabazz Palaces is a Seattle-based duo comprising multi-instrumentalist Tendai “Baba” Maraire and Ishmael Butler, alumnus of the Grammy Award-winning Digable Planets.
Curated by local hip-hop artist and veteran arts organizer Jamal Gray, the Uptown Arts Showcase is a new collective of D.C.-based artists, offering progressive, explorative responses to today’s social questions. A protégé of Dr. Dre, Gray records as The Last Emperor, and has opened for artists including Common, The Roots, and KRS-One, besides appearing as guest MC for Gorillaz.
DIRECT CURRENT turns to dance with the world premiere of Remnants by the Orange Grove Dance company. A new evening-length performance that showcases the company’s trademark virtuosic athleticism and provocative multimedia design, Remnants explores the nature of recurring dreams in which familiar stories and new experiences collide.
Produced and commissioned by the UK’s Asian Arts Agency, PunjabTronix fuses cutting-edge live electronic dance music and digital art with the traditional sounds of the Punjab, in a new international multimedia collaboration between award-winning British-Indian electronic music producer DJ Swami and Punjabi folk stars including Vijay Yamla and Naresh Kuki, all synchronized with original live-mixed digital projections.
DIRECT CURRENT presents the Horse Lords, whose innovative sound blends drums, bass, saxophone, guitar, and percussion into deep, hypnotic grooves of bold new American rock and roll. Using a just-intonation tuning system, the Baltimore-based band constructs layers of punching, syncopated phrases that call upon elements of Krautrock, African polyrhythms, and classical minimalism.
DCDIT presents a live set from pioneering electronic artist and five-time Grammy nominee Suzanne Ciani. Dubbed “America’s first female synth hero” (The Guardian), Ciani has been performing on her Buchla synthesizer since the 1970s. She was the first solo female composer to create a Hollywood soundtrack, and holds the distinction of creating Coca-Cola’s signature “pop and pour” sound effect.