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Ritchie ends ICA residency with myth, music, and multimedia

Matthew Ritchie’s 18-month residency comes to an end with the multi-media live performance  “The Long Count/The Long Game.”
Matthew Ritchie’s 18-month residency comes to an end with the multi-media live performance “The Long Count/The Long Game.”Jennifer S. Altman For The boston globe/Globe Freelance
Matthew Ritchie.
Matthew Ritchie.Jennifer S. Altman for the boston globe

NEW YORK — The artist Matthew Ritchie was a teenager when punk rock blossomed like an angry bruise in his native England. Destruction and transgression were the fashion, and in some ways they have been ever since.

So is it an act of rebellion if he prefers unity and cohesion, systems and layers? For Ritchie, there’s not a lot of appeal to what he calls “this idea that you need to break everything.” Instead, he builds and builds — collecting things that are similar, connecting things that are not.

He’s done both in “The Long Count/The Long Game,” the multimedia live performance coming to the Institute of Contemporary Art on Thursday and Friday nights. Featuring Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National, Kelley Deal of the Breeders, and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, it’s a rock show set in a Ritchie universe. And if that seems an odd undertaking for a visual artist, he argues that it’s really rather British of him.

“When I went to art school, it was a place you went to join a band. No one was going to be an artist,” Ritchie said the other afternoon in his studio, a few stories up on a gritty block in Manhattan’s Garment District. After a quarter-century in this country, he speaks with an American inflection; only occasionally does his native accent flicker through.

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The show, which premiered in 2009 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival and has been reconfigured for the ICA, is the capstone of Ritchie’s 18-month residency there. It’s also one in a series of collaborations with Bryce Dessner that began when Ritchie met the guitarist at a benefit in 2006 and professed his fandom for Dessner’s lesser-known band, Clogs.

Conceived by Ritchie, with music by Ritchie and the Dessner brothers — who, as identical twins, can be sorted into the something-similar category — “The Long Count” is framed by Ritchie visuals, and includes an 11-person ensemble led by composer/clarinetist Evan Ziporyn of MIT.

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The show’s convoluted narrative fuses some pretty disparate elements, such as Mayan mythology and American baseball: specifically, the 1976 World Series, in which the Cincinnati Reds, the Dessners’ hometown team, demolished the New York Yankees. “The Long Count” is also concerned, in part, with the beginning of time.

To John Andress, the ICA’s associate director of performing arts, the complexity is part of its appeal.

“The great thing about Matthew is you have these sort of multiple viewing levels,” he said. “You can go as deep as possible into astrophysics — we’ve had so many conversations with Harvard professors about those things — but it also rests on an aesthetic level. At its very core, it’s still a rock show.”

The Dessners play the hero twins, the central figures of the myth. Deal and Worden embody assorted characters, including the waxing and waning moon.

Over the phone from Dayton, Ohio, Deal would admit to understanding this much of the plot: “The twin brothers play ball, and they make so much noise that they wake up the gods with their infernal racket,” she said.

Sometimes when she’s performing with R. Ring, her guitar duo with Mike Montgomery, they do a song from “The Long Count.” The patter they use to introduce it, she said, begins with Montgomery pretending to hand her a joint. Then there’s some mimed toking up. “OK, listen. Listen up,” one of them will tell the audience. “This song is about a Mayan creation myth — wait a minute. . .” — more mimed toking —“and the Reds and the World Series Big Red Machine.” Exhale.

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Deal says that Ritchie, who turns 51 on Thursday, seems at first like a soccer dad, and this is true. And yet, Deal said, Ritchie is also the smartest guy she’s ever met, and he has somehow managed to unite the show’s peculiar components. “There is this apparatus that is connected,” she said. “But only in Matthew’s mind, I think, can he see the full, strange design of it.”

Indeed, Ritchie sees this iteration of “The Long Count” as being related in various ways to each of the other pieces of his ICA residency. “All these parts sort of nest together,” he said.

“The Long Count” performed in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2009.
“The Long Count” performed in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2009.Julieta Cervantes

At the ICA, the show will exist in two parts. The second part, in the theater upstairs, is the ticketed performance. But the first part is free: a series of live installations in the lobby, including tarot readings and an improvised performance by Deal and Ziporyn — the exact nature of which, Deal said the other day, was a mystery to her.

“I am absolutely at sea,” she said. “At times, I’m angry about it.” Still, she added, “I would say yes to anything Matthew suggested. ’Cause it’s gonna end up cool.”

And Ritchie knows he’s pushing his performers.

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“These are amazing musicians,” he said. “They’re at the top of their game, and they’re doing things that even for them are experimental and unusual. So they’re exploring their unknowns. If you can put all that into motion, there’s the chance that people will experience something maybe unnameable, but also ineffable. It’s of course not the easiest way. But you get this opportunity to open the door to the unknown. You can’t not do it.”

But is it possible, in wonky Boston, for spectators to enjoy such a performance without getting bogged down in trying to decode it? Must they understand all of it?

“They will not understand any of this,” Ritchie said amiably.

Then why combine so many esoteric elements with such finely detailed care if they’re merely going to wash over an uncomprehending audience?

“It’s an epic show,” he said. “It’s all there to make you go, ‘Oh my God, what a beautiful sunset.’ You can’t have a beautiful sunset just by hanging a lightbulb up. You gotta make the sunset. You can’t fake any part of it.”


Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes@gmail.com.