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Inside Kamasi Washington’s New Ode to Unity

Saxophonist/composer on how the troubled state of America inspired Whitney Biennial multimedia piece ‘Harmony of Difference’.

Since its formal introduction in 1973, the Biennial at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art has earned an enviable reputation for tapping into the aesthetic and cultural zeitgeist. And the show’s reach extends far beyond the art world: In recent years, alongside names such as Matthew Barney, Cindy Sherman and Raymond Pettibon, the Biennial has hosted musical acts ranging from Gogol Bordello and Antony and the Johnsons to Gang Gang Dance and Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))).

Now, add to that list the jazz saxophonist, bandleader and Kendrick Lamar collaborator Kamasi Washington, whose Harmony of Difference, a multimedia piece featured in the just-opened 2017 Whitney Biennial (on view through June 11th), is Washington’s first new work since The Epic, his acclaimed 2015 triple-CD debut. Addressing his participation in the prestigious show by phone from Los Angeles, Washington says that that Christopher Y. Lew, co-curator of this year’s Biennial, saw his performance during the 2016 NYC Winter Jazzfest, and then flew to Los Angeles to discuss a project for the Whitney.

“I had a few different ideas of what I might do, because I’m interested in art; we talked about my interest in textiles and fashion,” Washington says. “At that point I was working on – and I’m still working on – the graphic novel that goes to The Epic. But as the year progressed, it felt like there was this constant looming shadow: problems among all the different people coexisting in this country. I never looked at it that way; my experience living in Los Angeles was that I appreciated the fact that there were so many different cultures, so many different people here, and us all being thrust together was a cool thing. How do I use my music to speak to that? And I started thinking about this idea of counterpoint, which is basically taking things that are different and finding the connection, to have each one elevate the other.”

What resulted was a 32-minute, six-part composition for Washington’s crew, the West Coast Get Down, complemented with extra musicians and accompanied with video filmed by A.G. Rojas, a Barcelona-born director best known for working on music videos by Jack White (“Sixteen Saltines”), Gil Scott-Heron (“I’ll Take Care of You”) and Earl Sweatshirt (“Earl”). Retaining and refining the brawny playing and ecstatic grooves that won The Epic widespread renown, Harmony of Difference uses musical qualities to evoke both diversity and unity.

Washington with director and collaborator A.G. Rojas

“The Biennial looks at the diverse ways artists come together, whether it be by working as a collective or individual practices that fold in others,” Lew said via email. “Kamasi’s genre-breaking approach to music, along with supporting fellow musicians in the West Coast Get Down, speaks to central themes of the show.”

Actually, Harmony of Difference flips the script on much of what’s included in a Biennial dominated by works that deal openly, at times bluntly, with political dissent, economic unease and social conflict. (A white artist’s painting inspired by open-casket photographs of Emmett Till has provoked protests, while a lifelike simulation of bloody violence, enacted in virtual reality, is restricted to viewers 17 and older.) 

By contrast, Washington’s work eloquently proposes coexistence and collaboration. During the first five movements – “Desire,” “Humility,” “Knowledge,” “Perspective” and “Integrity” – a video plays on flat screens hung on three walls of a darkened room. In each, the camera pans slowly across an abstract painting by Washington’s sister, Amani, rendered in bright colours and assertive patterns, as music echoing hard bop, funk, calypso, soul and more sounds out from speakers overhead.

The end of the “Integrity” segment, when details from the five paintings combine to form an abstract face, offers a hint of what’s to come. In “Truth,” the final section, music from the preceding movements fuses into a rich, buoyant mix augmented with strings and chorus. On the sole bare wall, a video awash in subtle luminosity shows images of people representing various cultures and walks of life: a boy with his mother; a girl and her family; young women dancing on a street corner; two men who could be wrestling or dancing, ringed by flower petals. The images come first in slow alternation, then in tighter sequence as the music nears its climax.

Kamasi Washington’s ‘Harmony of Difference’ at the 2017 Whitney Biennial

Putting it all together, Washington explains, involved a laborious process of refining elements to make the first five songs compatible. “What I ended up having to do was, as I’m creating one song, think about the next song, and then as I create the second song, think about where that would leave room for a third song,” he says. “I probably wrote 12 songs to make the five, because I wanted it to be natural. When people would hear it all together, I wanted it to be like, ‘Oh, wow, there are five songs happening here at the same time.'”

Likewise, Washington’s sister worked and reworked her paintings to suit both the music and the intended goal. “And a similar thing with A.G. and the film: I had a vision where the paintings and the music are the abstract [version] of this idea,” the saxophonist says. “And I wanted the film to be also abstract, but to bring it to life: to show the reality of people not just of different cultures, but different sexes, different lifestyles, different experiences.”

Washington says that he hopes to release Harmony of Difference in some home-media format eventually, so that it will be available to viewers who can’t visit the Whitney. Still, one further effect he built into the piece can be witnessed only in person: viewers watching the first five segments on three separate screens turning as one to view the finale together, a simple gesture providing a hopeful alternative to the more caustic works around it.