Last Tuesday night a circus rolled in to McMenamin’s Mission Theater. Calling itself The Traveling Imaginary it was a two-show stop on a tour organized by ringmaster Julian Koster to promote his band The Music Tapes newest album Mary’s Voice.
Last fall Koster, probably best known as a member of The Neutral Milk Hotel, launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund The Traveling Imaginary. The money raised was used to purchase a custom circus tent that the band is playing shows in across the country along with games, stories, films and amusements.
People arrived in the lobby of the theater to find games set up in front of the red and white striped tent. Julian walked around banging a pan lid with a drumstick and announcing games through an electric megaphone: “The Penny and The Bell!” “Flooded The Sailor School!” “Traditional Bag Toss!” Most required a blindfold and winners were promised prizes after the show.
After about 45 minutes of games the tent was opened and the roughly 30 people in attendance sat on the checkered floor in front of instruments and a seven-foot tall metronome. It was the start of a surreal swirl of music, performance art, storytelling and even a magic trick.
The music was at times distantly grainy and at others powerful, with the sounds of live instruments, samples and orchestral arrangements blending with Eastern European elements and Julian’s wailing voice into emotional and earnestly whimsical pieces. The orchestral banjo (played with a bow), singing saw, tuba, organ and tubular bells were prominent instruments. At one point an entire song was sung by Static the singing television, his animated face in a jagged, lopsided smile.
Songs morphed into stories and stories morphed into songs throughout the show. Julian talked about his family history, imaginary games children play, and visions. Questions were incorporated into the stories and volunteers in the audience answered. Everyone had blindfolds “for their safety” (acquired while playing the pre-show games). At one point the audience put them on and listened to a recorded story complete with sound effects. Blindfolds came off to find a giant snowman in front of everyone and a request for an audience member to throw a snowball at a target (the moon) in order to melt him.
The evening culminated in a present suspended from the ceiling of the tent. Everyone was instructed to focus on the present and more questions were asked, seemingly randomly. The present was lowered and unwrapped by a volunteer while another stood on stage. Inside the present was a diorama of the tent containing another, smaller, wrapped present and a cassette tape. The cassette was given to the volunteer at the front and the smaller present was unwrapped. Julian read the printed short story inside which incorporated the answers various audience members had given during the course of the show, including those that had been given just a couple of minutes earlier. The tape was played and it contained a recording detailing a conversation that occurred while the large present had been suspended over everyone. Minds were blown and the show ended.
Julian invited those who won prizes throughout the evening to meet him in the center of the tent. He opened a suitcase containing inedible candy canes, marbles from his childhood marble collection, antique keys and pieces of silver Mylar that were once part of Andy Warhol’s Silver Floatations exhibition. Winners could pick whatever they wanted. Julian remained to talk, sign autographs and draw pictures for anyone who was interested. It was a fitting, interactive ending to a wonder-instilling performance experience. If the upcoming Neutral Milk Hotel reunion shows are anything like The Traveling Imaginary they will be well worth making an effort to see.
Words and Photos by Mike Herman
Photos on Flickr.