Sound and Vision: Heavy Color transforms performance into art at TMA

Listen Up Toledo  |  By Ryan A. Bunch  |  11/03/2015

The group’s very name proposes some kind of psychedelic scientific improbability. And perhaps, that’s what Heavy Color is, more of a living art lab than a band.

Over the past couple of years, local musicians Ben Cohen and Sam Woldenberg have been honing both the soundscape and visual appeal of their “future beat / psych jazz duo.” No strangers to the Toledo music scene, Cohen and Woldenberg have been playing music in the area (and dabbling with coupled visual components) since they were teens in the late ’90s, perhaps most notably with their group, The Antivillains. Yet, Heavy Color seems to be the realization of a bevy of projects the duo has been pecking at for years, a cataclysmic yet well honed multimedia arts experience that brings popular music performance into the 21st century in a way that is fresh, exciting, and quite frankly, trippy.

On Thursday, Heavy Color will unveil perhaps their most fully realized version of the vision of the band yet as they set up shop at the Toledo Museum of Art. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting venue for a show that promises not just original live “soulful electronic haze coupled with the organic textures of African and Latin percussion-centric music […] and experimental pop psychedelia,” but also a 360 degree spectrum of projections, animation, and lighting.

Regularly performing with a variety of area musicians, for this performance, Heavy Color will feature guests including Drew Parent (Marimba, Percussion), Michael Swain (Percussion), and Tyler Stephen Fowler (Clarinet, Saxophone).

In anticipation for what is certain to be one of the most unique, original, and exciting performances of the year in Toledo, we caught up with Heavy Color mastermind Ben Cohen to discuss the art, the music, and his recent trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to work with students there to create a cross-cultural blend of music and goodwill.
Check out the interview below.

Heavy Color // Installation Collaboration takes place at the Toledo Museum of Art Glass Salon (2445 Monroe St) on Thursday, November 5th, 6:30 - 8:30. Free Admission. Seating to be provided but it is encouraged to bring Yoga Mats to view overhead projections.

You've been working in this field of multimedia performance for a few years, and it seems you're continuing to hone that. What is the value to you of this kind of performance versus a typical straight music performance? Meaning, what does the added visual component do for you and what affect do you think it has on the audience?

I think setting a space is so important in how a listener/audience commits to a performance. In our performances, we are trying to create an experience that reaches people on many levels. The music we make with Heavy Color is layered and vivid. The projections we create are as well. The layering of colors and patterns juxtaposed against the serenity of natural light in a forest..... I see those things when I hear our music I think it's important to present the full vision. It's emotional.

What is the importance of this particular show being presented at the Museum? Does that particular space or entity play into this presentation?

The Museum has been extremely important in the realization of this performance.

As a musical and visual project, we are constantly seeking the appropriate space for us to truly present our work. We put a lot of intention into our performances and in doing so, are asking the audience to join us in that space. A gallery, alternative venue or listening space is a natural fit for us.

The specific architecture of the Glass Salon was inspiring in creating the circular stage design for this performance. Working with an institution like TMA has made this event possible for so many other reasons. We are working with Anthony Mccarty of the FARM to build us four 6x8 foot screens to be set up surrounding the performance.... we have collaborated with local artist Will Laasch to create animations that represent the structure of the individual pieces of music. We have composed music for an ensemble (Marimba, Clarinet, Pitched Handpans, Drum Set and Piano)......  creating an event on this scale would not be possible without the support of such an amazing institution like the TMA.  (not to mention the Arts Commission of Toledo who helped us secure the use of projectors for the installation. )

Aside from you and Sam, what role do the additional featured musicians play in this performance and how did you go about choosing them?

We have been listening to so much music from all over the world for the past few years. And really paying attention to the rhythmic and tonal languages that cross-cultures.

Some of the music we have written for this event is based on the architecture of the room and the building. Rhythmic and Tonal Circles within Circles all resolving at different points. Like an eclipse..... the patterns, once started only line up once in a long cycle. 

The Marimba is a perfect instrument for this. It is both tonal and rhythmically adept. Drew Parent (Marimba) is a teacher and percussionist at the University of Toledo and is familiar and has experience playing with the percussive music of Steve Reich and other modern composers.... he was a natural fit for this performance. Tyler Stephen Fowler is a  talented Clarinetist and Saxophonist studying at UT.... he has worked with Heavy Color in the past and has a great commitment to learning, experimenting and hearing new music.  Michael Swain is a multi-instrumentalist living just outside of Detroit.... he is a producer, insanely talented percussionist, and pretty much can play whatever you put in front of him..... he shares a lot of the same sensibilities as myself and Sam and it is a joy to play with him.

You recently traveled to the DRC to work with students there. How did that experience and the music you created there affect the sound and sights of Heavy Color?
In intensity. The DRC is a heavy place. It has joy and light and hope and resilience. But it also has a huge weight that is tangible the minute you cross the border. But, in spite of the trauma, there is so much music everywhere I looked. Aggressive haunting tribal drumming. Joyful Choral music. Funky Highlife. Hip Hop, Entire Villages dancing and singing. It was some of the most inspiring musical landscapes I have ever encountered. Traditional music, so close to the souls of those singing. What we are doing with Heavy Color is connected to that.  We are creating our own traditional music that pays respect to the cultures that have inspired us.