Thursday, June 18, 2015

Northern Spark

Northern Spark is an all-night urban party that takes place every summer and we're all invited. So many events are running throughout the night that it's virtually impossible to get a bead on the goings-on. The event organizers have prepared a website making it easier to read descriptions of the activities and create an individualized schedule, but the descriptions tend to be outlandish or incomprehensible. 

Your best bet is to identify a few must-see events, and beyond that, decide which parts of town appeal to you. So many guests were expected this year that a number of "rooms" were prepared in several parts of the city: The Walker Art Center, The Mill Ruins riverfront, the University of Minnesota's East Bank campus, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, to name a few.

Our plan was to meet some friends at the Mill Ruins, see the local opera company briefly, and then wander the building, where twenty or thirty exhibits and activities were to take place. Stop two would be the U of M Mall, where various tents had been set up and a gamelan orchestra would be performing throughout the night in Northrup Auditorium.

We arrived at the Spark, cheery and well fed, from our niece's graduation party in Woodbury, and were surprised to find a parking spot on Washington Avenue only a few blocks from the Mill Ruins. Well, it was only eight o'clock: we were early. 

At nine we were allowed to enter the roofless confines of the ruins, where revelers had paid $60 to get an early start on the drinking and eating. (Hilary and I had just finished off an order of fish ($8) from the Anchor Fish and Chips food truck on the street just outside.)

Members of the Mill City Opera began to belt out arias from Puccini, Verdi, and Delibes from the catwalk thirty feet above the ground, but it was hard to hear them above the chattering of the multitudes who had just been listening to the electrified sounds of Adam Levy and the Professors.

Inside the building we met up with another musical event—Instant Composer: Mad-libbed Music. An assortment of musicians were on hand—violin, bass clarinet, keyboard, drums, tenor sax, nine in all—to perform music in the style dictated by anyone who felt the inclination to sit down at the computer kiosk and fill in the blanks: What mood, what instrumentation, what pace, what duration? 

The music was entirely improvised, needless to say. There were precious few melodies to be heard, but the sounds were rhythmic and interesting, and the concepts involved, projected on a screen so the musicians could find out what they were supposed to play, were also visible to the audience, who could decide for themselves: Did this piece fit the requirements? At the very least, it was a fun place to grab a table, buy a beer, and relax—although the mood chosen by listeners was seldom "relaxed."

Several choirs were performing upstairs, but it seemed odd to see them singing their hearts out within the confines of an old mill, badly lit and with the rough-hewn limestone walls encroaching on every side. Bad acoustics, and nobody listening.  

When we reached the eight floor, we found ourselves in the offices of Meyer, Sheer, and Rockcastle, one of Minnesota's premier architectural firms. There were at least twenty desks covered with huge drawings, many of them half rolled-up, though the lights weren't on and the desks had been shoved together to keep people from snooping around. In any case, most of us were up there to ogle the view out across the Mississippi River toward the Stone Arch Bridge.

Back on the street, our friends got some food and we sat on the steps in front of the Guthrie Theater, just taking in the passing scene. Nordstrom's department store had sponsored a booth where you could stand with your girlfriend (or boyfriend, or grandmother) and have a giant selfie taken that would be projected a few minutes later high up on the surface of a grain elevator nearby, with the word NORDSTRUMS written in large letters across the top and bottom. By now it was pitch dark, and fame is fleeting, and why not join in the fun? (But we didn't.)

We probably should have wandered out onto the Stone Arch Bridge to see the photos of Syrian refugees, but we opted to jump in a car and drive across the river to the U of M campus (where our friends knew of obscure parking spots very close to Northrup Auditorium) to hear the Schubert Club's gamelan orchestra. You could listen for minutes, or hours. It would seem the same. It was great.

There were other artsy activities going on in Northrup. You could fold little pinwheels out of origami paper, or turn a photograph of yourself (which they would take)  into a Chuck Close digital rendering using a computer, a pencil, and a big piece of tracing paper.

Out on the Northrup Plaza there was a booth where you could sample water from three different municipalities to see how water quality differed even within the metro area. Plenty of idealistic young students were on hand to explain the niceties of water resources to you if you got the bug.

You could also follow the labyrinthine pathways within a heavily sheeted booth to meet up with an oracle. But I walked in one side and came out the other without ever meeting up with the gal. Perhaps that, too, is a sign?

Down on the mall itself we enjoyed standing barefoot under an illuminated pyramid to gather in its power. (Spending five minutes under that shape, I'm sure I extended my lifespan by five years and won't have to shave for a month.) We also listened to a band at the nearby Wiseman Museum, which I enjoyed even though I couldn't understand a word the vocalist said.

Out on the terrace, we watched as, a hundred feet below us, some art students poured molten lead into a mold of the Mississippi River. Another group on the Washington Avenue bridge was doing a dance. But each dancer was dancing to a different tune and beat, using ear buds and an iPod. It looked crazy. It looked pointless. But it was pretty clear the dancers were having fun.

But isn't it fun just to be out on campus at midnight? On our way back to the car, I was reminded that the last time I'd been on that stretch of campus turf, I was a recent high school graduate, on my way to an interview with Professor David LeBerge, hoping to get into his honors class in psychology. I got in. But looking back on it now, from a distance of forty years, I suspect it was less because of anything I said during the interview than because I had succeeded in finding the man's office.  

Our friends drove us back downtown and deposited us near our car. They returned to the Mill Ruins to revisit one or two of the events we'd bypassed earlier, and we went home, with the sounds of Indonesian gongs, desultory rock bands, and throngs of happy youths ringing in our ears.

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