Maximal emotion from minimal means.
SOMETIMES SOUND LIKE:
The ancient world, a force of nature, the voice of gods and ancestors.
Viola, voice, Persian poetry, erhu, tuba, time, space, eyeglasses.
Jessika Kenney flapped her arms up and down like wings twice, flying. Wearing big glasses and permanently alert expressions, Kenney and her collaborator, Eyvind Kang, already looked a little like birds, maybe owls. Onstage to win their Genius Award in music, they were the opposite of glam. They were the curious creatures they always are. "This is completely unexpected," Kang said. "I didn't think we stood a chance against Katie Kate and Jherek Bischoff, because they're fucking awesome."
Minutes earlier, Katie Kate had rocked the stage with a composition that involved hard-rhyming, soft-cooing, and playing the flute, demonstrating her magnificent hiphop to pop to classical range in collaboration with Seattle Rock Orchestra. And Jherek Bischoff had started the night by charming the pants off everybody—hunched over his ukulele, plucking giddily, dancing on tiptoes, singing.
Kang and Kenney gave a performance that will go down in Genius history. It was a Persian song that filled the whole body of the Moore with incantations of breath and sound, and Kang and Kenney performed it unamplified and unlit, wandering along the aisles of the theater. It felt both intimate and otherworldly, probably because this world so often fails to be intimate. These two musicians never fail to be intimate.
Their music—her voice and his viola, commonly, though he is a full-on multi-instrumentalist, and her voice often sounds like something else entirely—is unfailingly present, live. They wring maximal emotion from minimal means, and this is why your body responds to them even if you have no interest in whatever style they happen to be playing. Everyone wants to work with them. In the months since the Genius Award nominations were announced, Kate and Bischoff have been unabashed about declaring their admiration for the duo.
Cellist Lori Goldston, last year's Genius Award winner in music, opened the envelope that set Kenney to flapping-flying, and after the ceremony, a lot of people said this was like a lifetime achievement award for Kang and Kenney, not unlike Goldston's last year—richly deserved recognition after so many years of excellent work done relatively under the radar, even though it was international in scope and incredibly far-ranging stylistically. Kang and Kenney have performed around the world, making album after album, and have studied and collaborated with musicians from Persian master Ostad Hossein Omoumi to metal bands Wolves in the Throne Room and Sunn O))) to Beck, Gamelan Pacifica, the Decemberists, Bill Frisell, and composer Lou Harrison.
"Genius—I mean everybody's talking about geniuses," Kang said in his acceptance speech, pointing up at a slide of a brain drawing wearing a crown. "They have a picture of a brain? And then the brain gets the crown? But we're not random geniuses, and we're not cutie-pies that just came up out of nowhere, we've got... we're part of a family, a musical family. We've got cousins from hundreds of years ago and over a thousand years ago. We have friends yet to be born. So we're part of this continuum. We're really, really so grateful, so thankful to do what we do. Sometimes you would think, in the world, it's not actually possible to do this, so everyone gathered here—it's just so meaningful and thank you so much."
Onstage, wearing their white satin winners' sashes, Kang and Kenney took their time speaking. They paused often, shifted weight from foot to foot, and looked around as if absorbing the scenery rather than acting as performers for an audience. When Kang finished trying to distance them from the word "genius," they gave one final look back at the people in the seats and were about to walk offstage when, as if on cue, Kenney's sash fell away from her body of its own accord and sailed to the ground.
Kenney had given her version of an acceptance speech before Kang's. She'd stepped up to the microphone and spoke in a language other than English, then translated what she'd said: "I don't know the place I was at, that place I was at last night." She stopped and was silent for a moment, then she said, "Maybe tomorrow, you'll all be thinking the same thing."
The next day did bring a search, to anyone wondering about the origins of the words she'd quoted. They were a line from a poem called "What Was the Place," by 13th-century dervish Amir Khusro, according to the helpful PoemHunter.com. The first two lines:
I wonder what was the place where I was last night,
All around me were half-slaughtered victims of love, tossing about in agony.
After Kang and Kenney went backstage to reflect, the Seattle Rock Orchestra played Madonna, and everyone stormed the stage and danced.