Monkey Kings and Severed Heads 

The Singular Genius of Alexis Gideon

ALEXIS GIDEON Are you just about done, man? We kind of need our ceiling lamp back.

ALEXIS GIDEON Are you just about done, man? We kind of need our ceiling lamp back.

THERE ISN'T ANYONE doing anything remotely like Alexis Gideon. The songwriter/guitarist has just completed his second multimedia-animated-hiphop-film-opera, Video Musics II: Sun Wu-Kong, and it's an absolutely mind-boggling piece of work. A retelling of the 16th century Chinese epic novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en, Gideon has crammed 1,500 pages of narrative into 65 minutes of brilliant animation and music, with Gideon's own crude drawings sitting alongside work by animators Ezra Claytan Daniels, Becca Taylor, Cynthia Star, and Shelley Short. It tells the story of the monkey king, Sun Wu-Kong, and how he angers the gods, then atones for his sins by serving Tripitaka, a monk on a sacred quest to retrieve a sutra, or religious text, from India.

The idea for Video Musics II came after Gideon had toured for the first Video Musics, a retelling of old Hungarian folk tales through hiphop-flecked songs and rudimentary animation done entirely by Gideon himself. "I had a little journal where I would just write down things about what I wanted the second one to be about," Gideon says. "Really random, like 'Twin Peaks,' or 'severed heads'—'cause I had this weird dream where there were severed heads. Then I took this list of very random things and went to the library and got all these books about them, and it was a sort of funneling process where it just kept getting more and more focused. Somehow one of the books I got was Monkey, a translation of Journey to the West done by Arthur Waley.

"So I'd had this dream about Twin Peaks and severed heads, and these heads float to the top of this river. And as I was reading, one of the things is that there's a monster by a river, and he eats people and throws their bones into the river, and they always sink—except for the nine skulls of these pure-hearted pilgrims, which float to the surface to the river. It was really similar to this dream I had two weeks before. I decided that this is so strange that I have to make this be what it's about. All these really weird, intense visual images that I thought would be fun to make into a video."

Gideon received a grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council, which allowed him to give the immensely ambitious project a nominal backing. The animation was the bulk of the labor for Video Musics II, but Gideon's music should not be overlooked. Interpolating themes and motifs throughout, he's written something compellingly unique, combining hiphop, prog, Eastern modes, and some very psychedelic rock. Following its live premiere at Disjecta, Sun Wu-Kong will be released later this year as a DVD/double-vinyl package. The music didn't need to be excellent in order for the project to be impressive, but Gideon's compositions are weird and gorgeous, more than strong enough to stand on their own.

Not that the visual element isn't important: "I've always been interested in the visual," he explains. "I never really studied it, but I feel so much of music translates: consonance and dissonance, pacing, colors, timbres, soundscapes. I think I kind of reached a point with music where I felt kind of limited—you know, 'Okay, now make another album.' I wanted it to go somewhere else, to be bigger. I wanted to engage the audience in a different way. Having the visual element really interested me, to try to mess with those lines between narrative and abstraction—not really have everything be clear."

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