Chris Strouth is something of a musical Renaissance man. A longtime fixture on the Twin Cities music scene, for three decades he has been playing music, composing, writing, making films and producing recordings, in a bewildering variety of projects.
In one famous episode, Strouth even directed an opera, in which he floated soprano Maria Jette down the Mississippi river in a barge covered by her capacious dress, to the strains of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
Never a man to sit still, Strouth's latest project typically breaks new artistic territory.
With his band Paris 1919 — named for the period of intense artistic experimentation that followed World War I — he is presenting a new piece, … For Now, in the context of this weekend's Art-A-Whirl celebrations in northeast Minneapolis.
Is it possible to describe the type of music that Paris 1919 normally plays?
"Absolutely not," Strouth says. "It's indescribable. I've been part of the Minneapolis scene for a really long time, in every genre you can imagine. House music, free jazz, rockabilly, experimental electronic music, classical. It confuses people."
Strouth's penchant for genre-hopping is reflected in the ensemble of musicians he has gathered around him in Paris 1919. They include cellist and composer Randall Davidson, guitarist Mykl Westbrooks and lap-steel player Mike Croswell.
… For Now draws on that multiplicity of influences, and has a distinctive mix of musical ingredients.
"There's a choir in it, led by master of Eastern European singing Natalie Nowytski," Strouth explains. "There's serial minimalism, huge harmonic clusters and a Renaissance folk song."
There also is a visual element, with "bleeding-edge projection technologies and digital manipulations" provided by video artist Tony Biele and painter Nicholas Harper. "What we do above all is try to create emotion," Strouth says.
The venue in which Paris 1919 will be performed is, he adds, a key element in the … For Now project.
Strouth has chosen the Church of St. Boniface in northeast Minneapolis, in a deliberate attempt to get away from what he calls "music created in bars," with people drinking, clinking glasses and chatting.
"St. Boniface is beautiful; it's all kinds of mystic. People walk past it all the time, but they've never gone in because they're a little afraid of it," he says.
"We're not promoting religion as such, but I am saying don't be afraid of a building. If you can go in a building, maybe it starts a dialogue."
… For Now is the first of what Strouth hopes will be a string of concerts under the banner head "Avant Music in Churches."
"When I was young, I loved going to churches just for the architecture, and I knew St. Boniface from when I was a kid," he explains. "I want to get people into venues that are gorgeous but underused, and northeast Minneapolis is dotted with them."
Referencing Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson's description of the album Smile as a "teenage symphony to God," Strouth calls … For Now his "middle-aged symphony to God."
… For Now is certainly to some extent symphonic in structure. Strouth identifies eight separate sections in the music, which runs without pause for approximately 90 minutes.
"A number of sections are fully scored," he says.
In other sections, Strouth sets certain parameters — a set of chords, for instance — within which band members have the freedom to improvise and use their imagination.
The "really intricate mosaics" that result are not, for Strouth, the be-all-and-end-all of why he wrote … For Now in the first place. The new work, he says, also carries a specific message.
"I came up with the idea for the piece after watching one of 10,000 horrible news reports about gun violence in schools," he says. "To take the old blues term, it made me 'wanna holler.'"
And "holler" Strouth did, drafting the basic musical outline of … For Now the very afternoon he saw the news of the school shooting broadcast.
"We live in a weird time, a time when for a lot of people nothing feels quite right," Strouth says. "… For Now is just my small way to call to the universe for mercy, peace, or at least a bit more understanding and compassion.
"It's a not so silent prayer to try and find peace and beauty in turbulent times, because in the end it's times like these that truly define who we are, and what we will become."