Juana Molina is a tremendously accomplished performer, a world-class artist with a unique gift for weaving tapestries of sound. That said, her performance Saturday night at the Walker Art Center put me in agreement with Peter Graves’s character in Airplane: “Guess I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.”
Molina was at the Walker as part of the celebration surrounding the opening of Guillermo Kuitca’s career retrospective Everything. Kuitca and Molina, both Argentines, are friends, and Kuitca was in the audience on Saturday night along with Walker director Olga Viso. It was a very special occasion for the performer (Molina), the artist (Kuitca), and the institution.
The perfect fit between performer and venue was not just because of the occasion, though. Molina is a singer-songwriter whose work is both gorgeously accessible and seriously challenging. Her voice is a fine instrument, and she’s pretty handy at keyboards and guitar as well; she uses loop pedals to layer the three instruments’ textures atop one another, building complex compositions that nonetheless have a certain flat quality to them. In some ways, her work is the folk-pop analogue to the work of minimalist composers like Philip Glass: you haven’t heard all the Philip Glass pieces if you’ve only heard one, but you’ve certainly got the general idea.
It’s fitting, then, that Molina spends time in the company of cutting-edge contemporary artists like Kuitca and David Byrne. In program notes for her Walker appearance, she notes that she’s been experimenting with randomness and repetition in music—precisely the kind of project that might interest a composer like Glass or Cage. It’s my impression that Molina, like Glass or Cage, doesn’t necessarily intend her music to hold your full attention all of the time. There’s a strongly ambient quality to her sound: you have to let go, I think, to really get it.
It’s important to note that, having scored in the eighth percentile on the SAT subject test for Spanish, I can’t understand Molina’s lyrics, so that element of her music is inaccessible to me. I was left, then, to experience only her sound—which is surpassingly beautiful, but at the duration of an evening casts the kind of trance one may or may not welcome. To call the sound kaleidoscopic is consistent with Molina’s interest in the music of chance and random combinations of sounds, so carry that metaphor to the next step: Have you ever seen a kaleidoscope that wasn’t very pretty and kind of fascinating? But have you ever looked in one for more than a few minutes? If the answer to the former question is no and the latter, yes, then Juana Molina is definitely for you.