Aspen Times Weekly: The Best in Culture, 2016 |

Aspen Times Weekly: The Best in Culture, 2016

Mike Mills and Robert McDuffie at the Benedict Music Tent in August.
Courtesy photo |

It wasn’t all bad in 2016.

On the culture beat in Aspen, we saw the big names and high-caliber events we’ve come to count on around here. It was a year when Jazz Aspen Snowmass paraded music legends across its festival stages, including long-awaited local debuts by Stevie Wonder, Duran Duran and Diana Ross. It was the year of Twenty One Pilots’ high-flying spectacular at the X Games. The year we escaped a dark year in American politics by singing ABBA at Theatre Aspen’s jubilant “Mamma Mia!” And it was a year (like most years, honestly) where Belly Up continued raising the bar with memorable shows from the likes of Garbage, Drive-By Truckers, Miike Snow, Buzzcocks, Anderson East, Lupe Fiasco, Graham Nash and Mick Fleetwood.

Along with those high points, a handful of truly remarkable cultural happenings in Aspen felt like they might actually end up in the history books and shape the world. At the very least, they were unforgettable. If you witnessed them, 2016 was a lucky year for you indeed.

* ‘Gonzo Arabia’ at the

Gonzo Gallery

After what appeared to be an April grand finale at its Hyman Avenue space, the Gonzo Gallery re-emerged in the summer, taking over the former Boogie’s Diner space with an ambitious effort in art as diplomacy titled “Gonzo Arabia.”

The exhibition included work by 11 young Saudi Arabian artists. Organized by the cultural exchange organization Culturunners, former Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis, the Open Mind Project and the Gonzo, the show aimed to break down Saudi stereotypes and start dialogue.

“The cultural understanding we hope to promote with these artists is very important,” Braudis said at the opening in July.

* Mike Mills and Robert McDuffie, ‘concerto for rock band at the benedict music tent

The Aspen Music Festival and School pushed the envelope a bit in 2016, with a residency by cutting-edge composer Kaija Sariaho, an extraordinary (and extraordinarily weird) performance of John Luther Adams’ outdoor percussion piece “Inuksuit” and a genre-bending performance of R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills’ “Concerto for Rock Band.”

Performed with classical violinist Robert McDuffie — a childhood friend to Mills in Georgia — at the Benedict Music Tent, it was a tour de force concert that bridged the pop and classical worlds in a way few pieces of music, and fewer performers, can. The piece harnessed Mills’ genius for pop music composition to forge something new, something more than the familiar classical cover versions of rock songs. The movements in Mills’ concerto sounded like classic R.E.M. but with McDuffie’s virtuosic strings subbing in for Michael Stipe’s voice — a dynamic that was highlighted most literally in the reworked rendition of “Nightswimming.”

* Maria Semple’s ‘Today Will Be Different’

Released in September, the latest novel by the Aspen native and best-selling author belongs on every bookshelf in Aspen. The book offers a hilarious romp around Seattle with the brilliant, beleaguered Eleanor Flood. But it also gives us Semple’s first fiction tackling Aspen, mining her childhood here to paint a realistic picture (quite literally in an illustrated insert) of Aspen in the 1970s.

“I hope I did right by Aspen,” Semple told The Aspen Times in September. “It’s very close to my heart and I hope that it serves as a love letter to Aspen in the ’70s and that people feel like it’s worthy of the town and the time.”

This is likely to become an iconic Aspen story. In mid-December, production of a new television series adaptated from the book – and starring Julia Roberts as Eleanor — was announced.

* Anna Deveare Smith’s

‘Notes from the Field’

Before it went to Broadway and earned international acclaim, Anna Deveare Smith’s vital one-woman show about race in America played the Aspen District Theatre during Ideas Fest.

It’s a heroic feat in political art and a call to action for the new civil rights movement. Smith traveled the U.S. and interviewed some 300 people to craft her “verbal portraits” of Americans on the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.” The show brings us into the minds and souls of incarcerated youth, of law enforcement officers and teachers and friends of Freddie Gray.

“Notes from the Field” held up a mirror to a troubled country and called all Americans to action.

“I’ve been trying to become America word for word,” Smith told The Aspen Times in June. “My hope is that when you come and see what I’m going to offer, I hope you get moved emotionally and you’re going to figure out what you want to do.”

* Judith Scott’s ‘Bound and Unbound’ at the Aspen Art Museum

The late artist’s first comprehensive career retrospective filled the museum’s largest gallery through the spring and early summer. It included 47 untitled pieces by Scott, who was deaf and mute and had Down syndrome. Shrouded in yarn and fiber, Scott’s found objects appeared to be transforming into something new and extraordinary.

“I think they are among the most important art made in the United States or anywhere, in fact, from the postwar period,” curator Matthew Higgs said of Scott’s work. “I think Judith’s work should not only be shown in the Brooklyn Museum and the Aspen Art Museum, but one of these objects should be in every major collection of postwar contemporary art.”