Combining musical and spiritual traditions, Theaster Gates gives new meaning to the phrase “moving songs.”
Theaster Gates can’t access certain notes except from his toes. It’s a matter of emotional, not musical, range. To sing, he has to move.
At a performance during the Divinity School’s Wednesday Lunch, Gates hunched and swayed, buckled and levitated. He leaned on the podium for support during strains of warbling blues and held his heart through echoes of spirituals and monastic chants. Using even the pen in his hand, he played a click-click-click accompaniment with his thumb.
After his third and final song, an audience member asked Gates, the University’s director of arts and public life, about the significance of his physical embodiment of the music. “This tradition,” Gates said, “sound don’t work without my body.”
He meant the black-church tradition of his youth. Gates recalled how, as a kid, he laughed at people who were so overcome with the spirit that they would roll on the floor, “laying out and wailing.” Then, in front of rows of full tables running the length of Swift Hall’s Common Room, Gates got down on the floor and rolled around himself. He understands where that desire comes from now and no longer resists his own; it’s an expression of the spiritual abandon that nurtured him. “I think that rehearsal, that performative rehearsal, gave freedom to, like, stand in front of a bunch of white people and roll around on the floor.”
When he performs, Gates doesn’t lay out like that—he never stepped outside the width of his own shoulders, conveying pain with a stooped back or hope with a hand held high—but he does wail, singing of earthly injustice (“They tried to take my daddy's building under eminent domain.”) and spiritual reward (“I need sugar, sugar Lord. Heaven tastes so sweet to me.”). His sound reaches far beyond a single tradition, combining gospel and blues, Buddhism and folk activism, influences that flow together like a confluence of rivers.
Although solo last Wednesday, Gates performs with a group called the Black Monks of Mississippi, a name that reflects the ensemble’s eclectic founding spirit: “I wanted to meditate on the gospel form. I thought chant would be a great way to take 300 words and turn them into one word and just kind of be on that word. And the blues form would be my monastic structure, it would be the tonal structure that would allow me to kind of reimagine, slow down, go back to a very slow root. Then if I went way back to a black American slave spiritual, that slave spiritual and the Buddhist chant might actually have a lot in common.”
The Div School crowd appeared to tap into the music’s universal essence, closing their eyes and bobbing their heads, absorbing lyrics that were by turns angry, nostalgic, mournful, and spiritual. Moving in their own ways as Gates moved in his, listeners shared an experience that could have been called transcendent, if it weren’t so rooted in the physical.
“One of the beautiful things about the black church is that there were ways in which, in some traditions, one didn’t have to forsake the body in worship to get to god,” he said. “In fact, you needed to bring your whole self,” a spirit Gates has applied to his art.
"Clay in My Veins"