5 Questions to Lia Kohl and Nick Meryhew (Mocrep)

Mocrep, one of the newer ensembles on the burgeoning Chicago contemporary music scene, is making waves with provocative performances that call into question some of the fundamental assumptions about making music. We spoke with ensemble members Lia Kohl and Nick Meryhew to find out more. 

What is Mocrep’s background and driving aesthetic?

LK: Founded in 2014, Mocrep (mah-krep) is a Chicago-based group of eleven performers dedicated to the presentation of radical 21st century works that are focused on the synthesis of music, theatre, performance, and contemporary culture. Our aesthetic is grounded in the idea that any performance situation most importantly consists of humans in a space together, that our bodies, voices, and movements should all be as significant as the instrument-objects that we use. To that end, we are developing and working within a repertoire of both written and devised works that utilize found objects, DIY or “broken” instruments, and our bodies, in addition to our western classical instruments.

And there is also a political dimension to your work?

NM: A huge part of our curatorial practice has to do with our politics. We are really making an effort to identify traditional performance hierarchies—between audience and performer, performer and instrument, instrument and other sound producing objects, etc.—and turn them on their heads. Most often this manifests in performances that give immediacy to the performing body and that expose classical instruments as the products of historical and cultural privileging. By creating spaces for audiences to actively engage with the work, by treating performers as people with bodies and agency, and by treating instruments as just a subset of potentially many sound producing objects, music gains a new, radical potential to address further political concerns. I’m thinking here specifically of our next concert featuring Jennifer Walshe’s XXX_LIVE_NUDE_GIRLS!!!

Composer Jennifer Walsh (photo: Blackie Bouffant)

Composer Jennifer Walsh (photo: Blackie Bouffant)

So, what can we expect from your Jennifer Walshe concert?

LK: On February 11, 2016, we are presenting a program of two U.S. premieres by Jennifer Walshe, an incredible Irish composer who we worked with last year and who is really aligned with our aesthetic and political goals. The centerpiece of the concert will be her Barbie opera, XXX_LIVE_NUDE_GIRLS!!! (2003), which draws on both the opera and marionette traditions. The main characters are played by Barbie dolls who are controlled by puppeteers, and the set is a huge, gaudy dollhouse. Singers and instrumentalists (also significant in the action of the opera) stand visibly behind the dollhouse.

The opera grapples with sexual violence and gender relations through a series of almost kitschy, soap opera-like scenes. The work deftly navigates the traditional operatic divide between imagination and reality, contemporary culture and myth, in that Jenny is using culturally significant objects—Barbie dolls, telephones, polaroids, wigs etc.—in a story that is vaguely Lysistrata-esque, but she manages to use these devices in a way that brings the pertinent issues to the forefront.

As a puppeteer in this production, I find myself reckoning back to the imaginary worlds of my own childhood, and how real and vital they were. It feels like her use of Barbies as the main action in this opera creates an extremely visceral friction between the vividness of that child-world and the reality of an issue like rape and sexual violence.

In addition to Mocrep members, we are very happy to be working with singers Jessica Aszodi and Kayleigh Butcher and pianist Mabel Kwan as guest performers on this concert.

Mocrep doll house set for Jennifer Walshe's XXX_LIVE_NUDE_GIRLS!!! (photo: Lia Kohl)

Mocrep doll house set for Jennifer Walshe’s XXX_LIVE_NUDE_GIRLS!!! (photo: Lia Kohl)

What can you tell us about your project with composer Steven Tagasuki at Darmstadt this summer?

NM: We first met Steve last February when we performed his work Strange Autumn. As a composer who navigates the integration of theater into music so incredibly well, we jumped at his proposal to work together at Darmstadt.

We collaboratively decided on a workshop for 6-8 participants, called Just Beyond Our Instruments is the World, that will focus on music beyond the classical instrument. This can mean a lot of things—makeshift instruments, broken instruments, found objects as instruments, or no instruments at all, focusing perhaps on movement, light, or theater in musical performance. Also, we’re looking for artists who are interested in creating collaborative projects, so as soon as the participants are announced in early March, we hope to begin talks and whatever advance work we can do remotely. The process will culminate in a two week intensive collaboration period at Darmstadt this summer.

This is an exciting opportunity for us to explore this radical potential at the heart of our work. When the sound producing mechanisms are limited to only the classical instrumental pantheon, so many other options are ignored or overlooked. This is not only politically problematic, insofar as these instruments are inextricably tied to Western/white privilege and cultural imperialism, but it’s also just aesthetically limiting. We are so looking forward to seeing what kinds of projects get proposed, for our work at Darmstadt, and for how this will enhance and broaden our practice back in Chicago.

You also view Mocrep as an instrument of community building; how so?

NM: Another focus of our practice that we’ve tried to tackle more intentionally this season is music as a catalyst for community building. We’re fortunate in Chicago to have an incredibly strong community around new music, and we’re hoping to build and expand on that. This manifests itself in a lot of different ways. Thus far this season we’ve collaborated with Chicago comic book artist Rob Kelsey and co-curated with Ryan Muncy of ICE. The rest of the season brings commissions by a series of Chicago composers—not least of all a 4 hour piece created by composer Sam Scranton and visual artist Molly Roth!—and partnerships with Goethe-Institut Chicago and Lumpen Radio.

LK: I think that the question we are ultimately trying to answer here is how can performance affect our ‘real’ lives? The answer to that question has to come not only through being catalysts for dialogue and thought, but also by changing the ways that we interact with each other and the community around us. We are excited for that process to grow and expand.


Mocrep Presents: Jennifer Walshe at Manna Contemporary Chicago, Thursday, February 11, 2016, at 8:00 PM

Call for Concepts: Just Beyond Our Instruments is the World; deadline for submissions:  February 21, 2016