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Nick Jaina talks the art of ceremony

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Musician Nick Jaina says there's reason why it's tea and not coffee he's serving during his current series of performances.

Nick Jaina arrives in Wichita on Friday for an artistic residency that will include performances of his Spektrum Tea Service.

During the event, the musician will host an hour of conversation, tea, music and reading from his most recent book, “SPEKTRUM.”

Many may know Jaina from previous Wichita performances or through his multiple musical albums or through his prose writing. But the current run of performances combines virtually all facets of his life as a performer and human being.

Jaina has performed more than 50 of the ceremonies to date and notes that performing in Wichita has an extra reward because it’s a place that has long embraced his music, writing and performances.

“First of all, there are wonderful places and wonderful people there,” he says, speaking from his home base in Oakland, California. “But people there also pay attention in a way they wouldn’t in Brooklyn, where you’re the millionth person and you’re fighting for scraps of attention from people who are bored with everything.”

The Spektrum Tea Service performances run Saturday, May 6, through Monday, May 8, at Fisch Haus’ Bildlab space, 524 Commerce St.

Jaina will also provide music for the Fisch Haus/Ballet Wichita event Living Statues on Friday, May 5, which resumes after a three-year hiatus. Jaina will provide live music while dancers strike poses for three to five minutes, and event attendees sketch the dancers.

Interview Highlights

What can you tell me about the Spektrum Tea Service performances? What was the origin and what, exactly, is it?

It’s based on an art installation that I co-created in the Santa Cruz mountains of California five years ago. That art installation was a process of alchemy or a way of practicing one’s own death by moving through the stages of life. We did it where each room of this building was a different color of the rainbow. People would walk through, one at a time, in silence and move through these spaces. They weren’t told what it was before. Some people thought it was a haunted house or something maybe.

They moved through it, and they suddenly realized that it was all about love. It’s witnessing. Everybody said, “It was just amazing to feel that it mattered so much that I was there.” I wanted to write a book that gave that same feeling [that] it mattered that you were reading it. That sounds kind of silly because you would think that every book has that feeling, but it’s actually a really challenging thing to make the reader feel witnessed and seen, like they’re the only one that’s reading this book.

That was my challenge in writing the book. When it was published, I was thinking, “I don’t want to just go read it at any bookstore with fluorescent lights, with people walking in and out and not really paying attention.” It’s important to me [that people hear it]. The intent’s in creating a solid hour of focus where, even if it’s a small group of people, we’re all committed to putting our attention to this moment. And also, building into that space [the idea that] it matters that you’re there.

If you want to talk and share something about your ancestors or a time when you almost died, there’s time in the hour when you have that opportunity, where people are listening and drinking tea and being very quiet and respectful. Again, that’s an unusual aspect of performance: You usually don’t get to talk at a show or share something or talk about your grandmother, anything.

That’s how I built this hour. Then the quest became, “Where do I go around the country that can create little pockets of quiet and peace where I can do these tea services that aren’t necessarily at a coffee shop or a bookstore or a bar?” [Instead I opted for] art galleries, cabins, places where I can have this ceremony, change the lighting to be a different color every time and have these small gatherings where it feels safe and protected.

People show up early, they come in, they pick a card. What follows from that?

I have seven cards for each color of the rainbow. We pick one card for the whole group. That determines the lighting. I install these LED lightbulbs where I can change the color. I can change it to blue and then we have a conversation that’s dictated by that color. Questions that arise from that as we sit in this blue lighting, and I slowly blow out the candles and I serve tea. The whole idea is that people can kind of shake off the outside world and get into that space. Then I read from the appropriate chapter in the book.

Every chapter of the book is a different color of the rainbow. It’s all set by this random choice of the card: the color of the lights, the conversation that we have, then the chapter that we read. What ends up happening … I call it a coincidence machine because it starts to spark all these resonances and coincidences and overlaps between things. Sometimes people share things that I end up reading in the chapter later, coincidentally. Or a name comes up that’s said later, or people randomly know each other and they had no idea that they were going to the same service. It becomes this special little hour of coincidences. It’s all started by random by the card that we choose at the beginning.

So, I’m going to ask a naïve question: If you pick the color blue and someone says, “Blue was the color where my father died,” is that where the conversation begins?

Not that literal, no. I know the contents of the chapter in my book that is that color. It’s not asking a question about the color or memories about the color necessarily. Although I’m sure that memories are triggered by colors as people sit in that lighting. It’s just an energetic area that we focus on.

People will go into this and find things about each other but I think a rewarding thing for you might be that you find out something about yourself.

Absolutely. The whole idea is … even when I read when a chapter that I’ve read before, it’s a different experience each time. Sometimes people are laughing at what I’m saying. Sometimes it just feels really funny. Other times people are crying. The spirit of the moment takes over and dictates [what happens from there]. It’s directed the conversation before, what mood people were in when they came in. Sometimes people just lost a pet, or their dad just died. That informs how we feel for the hour, which I love because normally your whole goal [as a performer] is to keep it consistent. Just this is just kind of riding the waves of the group’s emotions. “We want to be joyous and happy? OK! Then we’ll go this way!” I’m just piloting the ship over these waves as I feel them in in the room.

Tea calls for ceremony in the way that coffee doesn’t.

It’s more delicate than coffee. Coffee is more suited to American lifestyle of, “I gotta get up in the morning and be productive.” Tea is more about slowing down, gathering, being delicate, being intentional, being sensitive. The teacups that I use are Japanese style, which are very thin and small. You have to be careful to hold it up to your lips and drink very carefully. It’s just a way of gathering everyone together and focusing on something. I’m not a tea master or anything. I have friends who are, and I’ve been at their ceremonies and you can see just how bringing a lot of disparate people together, without any specific subject or purpose -- we’re not playing a basketball game or debating politics -- tea is the gathering point and wherever it goes from there can be anything. But it’s kind of lowered our hackles because of that. Because it’s so gentle.

This resonates, I think, with the times we’re living in: People talk about how we’re shouting at each other rather than talking and listening, and this is about gathering after a long period of time when we weren’t doing that.

I was planning this last summer and thinking, “Is this the worst thing to do in the COVID era?” Eight people in a small room, talking to each other. I think we’ve crossed a threshold where we’re actually OK with getting together again and extra appreciate the opportunity to do this kind of thing because we didn’t get it for so long. We’re with each other not through a screen. Sharing something. All the little nuances that you get when you’re together. It feels extra rich now. grateful that this happened at this time and that we’re able to do this.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.