Chris Strouth’s art embraces complexity and explores the frontiers of sound. To bring his conceptually ambitious work to life, he works in many different media, making him difficult to pigeonhole: He’s a composer, bandleader, filmmaker, writer, producer, designer, experimentalist, culture remixer. Music is at the heart of his work as leader and songwriter of the postmodern ensemble Paris 1919, but it is just one part of the whole—crossing genre borders at will, the group’s performances fuse music, theater, film, performance art, and dance, creating huge, immersive spaces that draw in listeners more deeply and pervasively than sound alone can. The intention is not to overwhelm, but to build a shared intimacy with the audience, bringing them closer to his often introspective and intensely personal music by literally placing them inside the work itself. It’s a way of making potentially difficult or challenging music accessible to a larger audience, and to create a sense of wonder.
Strouth creates huge, expansive sonic spaces so he can better explore quiet, intimate, sometimes dark territory. Paris 1919’s latest project, “Safe as Houses”—a multisensory postmodern opera using song, movement, installation, and video—is partly inspired by the post-bubble housing crisis of the last decade. His third collaboration with renowned choregrapher Deborah Jinza Thayer, artistic director of Movement Architecture, “Safe As Houses” creates an immersive experience turning the theater into a giant dollhouse. In 2013’s “Antarctica,” Strouth converted an art gallery into an ethereal polar ice cave; the cold and solitary setting became a concrete expression of his experience with a life-threatening kidney disease, dialysis and transplant. For the 2011 work Czeslaw’s Loop, he conducted an orchestra consisting of 30 musicians on a floating barge in the middle of the Mississippi River.
One key part of Strouth’s approach to music is a focus on turning disadvantages into strengths. His unorthodox approach to composition and instrumentation has roots in a learning disability, dysgraphia, which prevents him from playing an instrument in a traditional way. Faced with an inability to play the way everyone else does, Strouth found his own path, and learned how to approach music in a way very few have. “I can’t play Chopin on the piano,” he says, “but I can make the piano do things you’d never think it could. Granted, that often involves power tools.” Paris 1919’s music begins in the studio, where Strouth deconstructs the sounds of guitars, synthesizers and vocals, bending and reshaping and recombining them to create new structures with painstaking technical precision. Some of the pieces are built out of more than 1,000 edits, in a process that can take months to complete. The compositions also draw from a healthy diversity of genres, merging elements from prog, classical, techno, musique concrete, world, ambient, and death metal.
Paris 1919’s core membership comes from a broad cross-section of the Twin Cities music scene, and represents some of its finest talent.
Strouth has been a mover and shaker in the alternative culture and art scene in Minneapolis for decades, starting with his early roots in the now-legendary Rifle Sport underground art gallery in the mid-1980s.
In the 1990s, he was a vital part of the early house and techno music communities, developing pioneeering early EDM events House Nation and Depth Probe. He later formed Future Perfect, an experimental dub sound system that played frequently at the Walker Art Center and had a three-year residency at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art as well as releasing two albums, The Nature of Time and Music For Listening. He also started the Red Eye Collaboration’s Difficult Music series, the first new music series of its kind in the Twin Cities. Before Paris 1919, he was a member of such diverse bands as proto-noise experimentalists King Paisley and the Psych-o-delics, synth-pop combo Ex-Boyfriends of Pamela, and the highly experimental group A Most Happy Sound.
Besides performing, Strouth has been active behind the scenes helping other artists create and promote their work. Through the 1990s, he was the Director of Artist and Product for the Twin/Tone Records Group, where he oversaw dozens of releases and a stable of 10 labels. and later for Innova Recordings, record label of the American Composers Forum, where he worked on Stuart Hyatt’s Grammy-nominated record The Clouds. Strouth also produced and hosted the TV series What, which documented the 1990s Minneapolis pop explosion, and, with Rick Fuller, produced Holiday in Dirt: 14 Short Films of the Music of Stan Ridgway.
He also founded his own label, UltraModern Records, which has released albums by Ousia, Savage Aural Hotbed, the Vibro Champs, and Stan Ridgway. Currently he serves as the “Minister of Propaganda” for Stand Up! Records, the largest independent comedy label in the world, and writes a regular column for Twin Cities alt-weekly City Pages.
As a producer, Strouth has made records with dozens of artists including Michael Yonkers, Stan Ridgway, Revolutionary Snake Ensemble, George Cartwright of Curlew, Microscopic Septet co-leader Phillip Johnson, and Deniz Tek of Radio Birdman.
In the six degrees of separation between John Cage and Judas Priest, Chris Strouth is number three.