NORTH ADAMS — Performance artist Taylor Mac is about to tackle the show of his lifetime, and his country's life as well — 24-Decade History of Popular Music, a 24-hour-long musical examination of the history of the United States, organized decade by decade.
The day-long show will take place this fall in New York City, but the lead-up sees Mac perform select blocks of decades as he finesses the show. That's what brings him to Mass MoCA, where a residency will culminate in a six-hour performance on Saturday, covering the decades from 1836 to 1896.
Mac's show, which begins at 4 p.m., will examine slavery and institutional racism, bringing the audience musically through the Civil War and Reconstruction, as well as looking to the future.
The first show from the larger work that Mac ever performed included a decade from the 1970s. Mac felt he should start the project with an era of music that the audience would know, rather than trying to entice people to come for an evening of music from the 1770s. After that, he performed the 1880s and the audience embraced the older material. Mac has found this dynamic growing as the performances have moved along.
"We put them a lot into modern musical vernacular," he said in a phone interview from New York, "so we will do an old song as rock and roll, and sometimes we'll do a rock and roll song and make it an old style. We mix it up that way as well."
This is one way that Mac links songs through the eras — sometimes with musical styles, though other times with subject matter. One of the most fascinating aspects of the piece is the way concerns of different eras reoccur and unite through history.
"We'll sing an old song, an agitprop song about women's lib from the 1780s," Mac said, "and then you fast forward 100 years and there's another women's lib agitprop song and then fast forward another 70 years and there's this punk song that you could see a distinct connection between the two previous agitprop songs and that punk song. To put them all in a punk musical vernacular is really interesting and it frames the whole piece."
Mac is interested in utilizing certain musical vernaculars like punk to unite themes from songs that are decades apart — or to illustrate contemporary concern for issues that are contained in older work. This helps keep the audience from succumbing to monotony.
"You can feel the audience fading away because it's starting to become routine," Mac said, "so they're not into the conversation anymore. What can we do in the music to help surprise them so that they come back? A lot of the early music is like that oom-pah-pah oom-pah-pah drinking songs nonstop. So we say, what happens if we take it out of three/four, or what happens if we make it minor, or if we do something interesting to it, just to bring the audience back into what we're doing."
Mac's song choice is fueled by the political narrative of the time period that structures a performance. He points to 1786-96 as the decade of the earliest women's movement in America, and so he will hunt for songs that either that offer lyrics that he can use to address the concerns of this movement.
"You say, look, this song about 'oh, dear, what can the matter be, Johnny's too long at the fair.' Well, why doesn't she just go to the fair? She can't go to the fair because she doesn't go to the fair alone," Mac said. "Why can't she go to the fair alone? Because she's a woman. They're saying women's brains are smaller than men's, that they can't inherit, they can't this and they can't that."
Mac attempts to do the same with more recent events, using music to examine moments that generally aren't focused on in popular history.
"We're used to hearing about what happened on the March to Washington, but we're not used to hearing about what happened on the bus ride to the March to Washington," he said. "Can we frame all the music so that these are songs that were sung on the bus? Can we talk about what that community is, that is going into action? Rather than inaction, that anticipation of action?
"We do a whole decade of songs in that particular act that were popular on the jukebox in the Stonewall Tavern during the riots. So what's the soundtrack of the Stonewall Riots? What was playing on the jukebox?"
At the core of Mac's show is the idea that oppression creates community. To some, this might be a provocative suggestion, but to Mac, it's an idea that became obvious while he was examining the history of the United States.
"Every decade is dealing with a different community that is building itself under dire circumstances," he said. "(In) some of the decades, we deal with that head-on, in literal ways; other ones are very figurative."
As he looked through history, he found a recurring dynamic in society that really shapes American culture.
"There's wonderful things about that and horrible things about that, so we're not really trying to say 'yay, oppression is good for people because it builds community!'" Mac said. "But it is an interesting (idea) to explore and think about in terms of what it means to be an American and what it means to try to dream America forward, and how we can support communities that are being built under dire circumstances, because those are the people who are going to solve those problems for the rest of the world."
Mac first encountered this dynamic when, as a kid, he witnessed the first AIDS Walk in San Francisco. It opened his eyes to the flow of communities through history. The spectacle of thousands of openly gay people at a time when Mac had never seen one gay person, coming together to show pride in the face of an epidemic, stayed with him through the years, creating a drive to replicate it through a performance that is finally coalescing years later.
"I felt like I needed to make a 24-hour concert," he said. "What's the form that best represents that experience? For me, it was that I want the audience to be falling apart during the performance, I wanted to be falling apart during the performance and the band to be falling apart, but as a result of going through this longevity together and deteriorating together, and because of the things we have to do throughout the whole concert together, we'd build some kind of connection with each other."
Who: Performance artist Taylor Mac
What: New segment from 24-Decade History of Popular Music
When: 4-10 p.m. Saturday
Where: Hunter Center, Mass MoCA, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams
Tickets: $24 (preferred); $20 (day of); $14 (advance); $10 (students)
How: (413) 662-2111; massmoca.org; in person at box office