Miami's genre-bending Nu Deco Ensemble is on the cusp of closing its third season, but before the musicians move on to forthcoming projects, they're taking a step back in time with indie-pop singer-songwriter and violinist Kishi Bashi for the world premiere of Improvisations on EO9066 at the New World Center. The multimedia presentation will combine elements of film as well as recorded and improvised music to explore the dark period of Japanese-American internment during World War II.
Bashi first collaborated with Nu Deco early in the ensemble's second season, and the concert marked the first of several significant milestones for the budding hybrid orchestra. For starters, the string of concerts marked the first time Nu Deco Ensemble sold out the Light Box Theater in Wynwood for three consecutive shows. More significant, composer Sam Hyken and conductor Jacomo Bairos say Bashi gave them a new vision of the ensemble's musical potential. Bashi was the first guest artist to compose his own arrangements for the group, and though Bairos was initially apprehensive, he says Bashi "brought out the best in us, having the orchestra improvise and do different things. It taught us that we were just scratching the surface artistically. At the same time, we all met the moment with him."
Hopes for another collaboration stirred in the musicians, and when Bashi conceptualized Improvisations shortly thereafter, he knew he wanted Nu Deco to help bring the piece to life. Bashi, who is Japanese-American, journeyed to internment campsites with documentary filmmaker Justin Taylor Smith and cinematographer Max Ritter to learn about the history of Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942 and leading to forced Japanese relocation. Recorded musical performances created during the pilgrimage will play on the New World Center's five screens at the premiere, while improvisational accompaniment will be provided by Nu Deco Ensemble, and the performance will be part of a larger documentary titled Omoiyari.
"I wanted to experience it myself because my parents, they weren’t interned," Bashi says. "They’re postwar immigrants. So I really had no connection to that at all, except that it could have been me in that position back then. What I wanted was a visceral experience, to go see what it was like and talk to some survivors and just see how I could bring that into the concert hall."
"This hall, the New World Center, it's built for something like this. The immersive technology here is really second to none," says Hyken, who was a New World fellow when the Frank Gehry-designed building was still under construction.
Hyken says guest presenters don't often make use of the facility's full potential because it is in-house and expensive. Improvisations in EO9066 was funded by a Knights Art Challenge grant, which also awarded Nu Deco Ensemble its initial seed money.
"The more [Bashi] explained [the project] and the more he started to dive into what this was going to be, I started to feel like this is actually exactly what our mission is, which is to speak to society today, be relevant, and also to really present compelling, transformative art that stirs your soul," Bairos says. "It just felt like it was the right time and the right moment both socially and consciously, but also artistically. This is a story that needs to be told, and it's not really a political statement. It's a story. It's a fact — something that happened that, for whatever reason, where we are in our country and where we are in the world, it’s a relevant thing."
Bashi says that allowing himself to be vulnerable during the process was the key to creating a compelling piece of art from which others might learn as well. "History is a lot of numbers, it’s a lot of names, it's a lot of places, but there’s no humanity in it. So you have to put the story in there. You have to put yourself in that place. You have to bring people back into the same place to really absorb the lesson so we don’t make these kinds of mistakes again."
Nu Deco Ensemble Featuring Kishi Bashi. 8 p.m. Friday, April 20, and Saturday, April 21, at New World Center, 500 17th St., Miami Beach; nu-deco.org. Tickets cost $50 to $70.
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Celia Almeida is the digital editor of American Way and the former arts and music editor of Miami New Times. Her writing has been featured in Venice, Paper, and Billboard; and she co-hosts Too Much Love on Jolt Radio.