[DISCLAIMER: As noted here, this is an alternate, lengthier version of my report published by East Lansing Info. Consequently, this post features, in parts, a more “formal” style than is typical for this blog.]
Last Saturday 08.08.15, I attended a concert that was so geographically close and yet so environmentally far from East Lansing’s Great Lakes Folk Festival and the neighboring Lansing Jazz Fest. In the shadows of these competing annual mainstays, another day-long musical event was taking place in a quiet Hunter Park-adjacent Lansing neighborhood: the Contemporary Music Potluck.
Being an all-day event, I could only attend a few hours between childcare responsibilities and hitting the road for a Borghi | Teager gig in Rochester, MI.
The Contemporary Music Potluck was created, organized, and hosted by my friend David McCarthy, a Lansing-area native who is now a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. (Though now dormant, his largely evergreen blog is great if you have the time.) At work on his dissertation, he’s been back in the area for about a year. Having been inspired by intimate performances he’s attended at both small venues and private homes in LA, Harlem, and Brooklyn, McCarthy decided to host a concert at his home he shares with his younger brother Colin, an undergraduate at Michigan State University.
Earlier this year, David told me of his plans to possibly start hosting occasional musical events at his home. If I remember correctly, we’d been discussing the paucity of intellectually stimulating non-canonical concerts and other events outside of the local academic systems (and to some degree within them). (I believe one anecdote we discussed was a local contemporary music concert in which the ensemble all but apologized to the audience for performing an abstract contemporary piece…) In describing his intentions, he envisioned a day of stimulating performances broken up by food and socializing, but outside of an academy or another hosting or patronizing institution. The Contemporary Music Potluck was just that. Performances and rehearsals occurred in the living room, with a couple rows of chairs and assorted seating branching out in different directions. Instruments, cases, stands, sheet music, technical equipment, food, utensils, and plates were scattered about. The kitchen, backyard, porch, and deck all acted as both lobby and green room, with performers and observers mingling throughout. Attendees came from as far as Cleveland, OH and Rochester, NY, and Minot, ND, with performers representing a variety of music programs throughout the Midwest and into the East Coast. The schedule was as follows:
9:00 AM: Breakfast for performers
10:00 AM: Open rehearsal
12:00 PM: Introduction and small ensemble recital
1:30 PM: Potluck lunch
3:00 PM: Solo recital, Dr. James Fusik
4:30 PM: Large ensemble recital
The first recital, which I unfortunately couldn’t attend, featured two duos. Violinist Dr. Isoa Chapman and double-bassist Spencer Phillips performed Krzysztof Penderecki’s Duo Concertante, and Chapman and pianist Meghan Schaut performed Arvo Pärt’s Fratres. (One performer had to back out due to illness, otherwise works by Luciano Berio and György Kurtág would’ve also been presented.) While McCarthy oversaw the event, the first recital was programmed by East Lansing resident and MSU alumnus Isoa Chapman. Chapman is an active performer and teaches for the Marshall Music Strings Program.
The featured performance was the solo recital by saxophonist Dr. James Fusik, a Muskegon, MI native who is now Assistant Professor of Woodwinds at Minot State University in Minot, ND. (Jim and I have been friends for years, having met in a high school honors orchestra and later attended CMU together with David.) He performed Ravi Kittappa’s KUBA for tenor saxophone and electronics, Marilyn Shrude’s Trope for tenor saxophone and tape, Fredrick Gifford’s MOBILE 2014 for solo soprano saxophone, and finally Giacinto Scelsi’s Tre Pezzi for solo soprano saxophone. Tre Pezzi was the oldest piece on Fusik’s program (1956) by at least a half century, and two of the works (KUBA and MOBILE 2014) were written for the performer. Fusik’s commanding performance of the difficult and varied literature was a nice representation of contemporary music, ranging from the experimental use of electronics and extended instrumental techniques in KUBA – the world premiere of which he gave in France last month – to the at times more melodic passages in Trope and Tre Pezzi.
(Pictured above: Fusik solo recital performance)
The day’s final recital featured a performance of selected pieces from Christian Wolff’s Exercises, a series of works that Wolff has written since the 1970s that now numbers in the thirties. The Exercises may be performed by any instruments or combination thereof so long as there are at least two performers. The CMP large ensemble – including flute, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon, violin, bass, assorted percussion – performed Exercises 3, 5, 6, and 14, which were all published in ’73-4. The performers included the aforementioned Chapman, Phillips, and Fusik as well as McCarthy on clarinet and percussion, Aaron Gilbert on bassoon, Paul Jacob Mizzi on flute, and Dr. Jessica Narum on percussion. For variation, Mizzi and Gilbert performed Exercise 5 as a duet, having prepared it in advance.
I asked McCarthy why he chose Wolff for the final recital and he responded, “I wanted a piece for any instrumentation (I didn’t know in advance how many musicians I would be able to recruit or what instruments they would play), and I knew that we would need to be able to put something together with no more than a 90-minute rehearsal.” Beyond practical considerations, McCarthy felt that the piece encapsulated the event. “I realized it was perfect for what I was trying to do—in some ways, the pieces seem to have been designed with an event like the Potluck specifically in mind. They’re challenging to perform successfully. However, the challenge is not to your chops, per se, but to your musical intelligence, your ability to listen to others and to make creative decisions on the fly in a collaborative situation.”
(Pictured above: discussion before large ensemble performance)
Overall, the CMP lived up to McCarthy’s expectations. People came and went throughout the day, with a best guess of approximately 50 attendees throughout the day. (“We used up all 48 plastic forks.”) As for regrets, he said, “My biggest regret is that we weren’t able to get anyone under 18 to perform… The Saturday afternoon potluck makes the event family friendly, but you have to be more than friendly if you want to really engage people.”
McCarthy hopes to host CMP 2 in February, with another “every six to twenty-four months.” He hopes to build on the momentum of and connections made at CMP to help overcome the financial overhead. He wrote to me, “The biggest challenge will always be recruiting the musicians and, for at least as long as I’m based out of a small town like Lansing, paying for their travel. We were lucky this time to have people who were able to get here on their own dime. But I do want to have a mechanism to get the ‘local community,’ whatever that might be, paying for some plane tickets [for artists].”
I could only attend the afternoon events, unfortunately. However, what I attended was great. I was surprised and pleased to see old friends, more recent acquaintances, and strangers alike come together for a “salon” of sorts at which fellowship and ideas could be freely shared, connections could be made (though not in a sterile “networking” manner), and thought-provoking music enjoyed in a comfortable, mindful environment. As an observer/attendee, I consider that a true success. My only regret/complaint is that I couldn’t attend the whole day’s festivities.
(Photos by yours truly.)
Q&A: Below is an interview — lightly edited — that I conducted with David via email after the day after the event. Some info is included in the above report, but I found his answers to be very much worth publishing in full, particularly the final paragraph.
MT: What inspired you to create and host the Contemporary Music Potluck?
DM: A few great performances at casual events in small venues or private homes allowed me to see how well contemporary music works in that sort of space. Peter Yates of UCLA hosts an annual Summer Solstice Party in his Los Angeles home, and I was lucky enough to be invited to one of them in 2013 by my colleague, a brilliant musician in the fullest sense of the term, Alexandra Grabarchuk. I had also seen James and his Color Field Ensemble host some events in a Harlem basement as part of a series called Permutations. And the great folks at the Panoply Performance Lab in Brooklyn do most of their events in very small spaces scattered somewhere along that horizontal grey line they call the “L.”
MT: Who helped you put together and host the event, if anyone?
DM: It was a potluck, so I can say more literally than sentimentally that everyone there helped to put together the event. But I owe especially big thanks to Isoa Chapman and James Fusik who programmed the main recitals and recruited many of the musicians, to my brother Colin McCarthy, who agreed to open our home and who ran all kinds of errands for me, and to Josh and Shan Soma, who prepared the pulled pork and the baked beans and who took charge of seeing that everything went smoothly with the food service all day long.
MT: How did you decide the lineup and selection of pieces (including Wolff’s Exercises)? How did you get in touch with the various performers?
DM: First I contacted James and got him to agree to program a recital for himself. Then I sent out a Call For Performers and asked people to propose recitals or portions of recitals. I retained veto power, but didn’t have to use it. In one case, I nudged a performer away from a piece I didn’t think would make the best addition to the day, but that felt to me more like a critical discussion than like me doing the programming.
The Wolff Exercises were programmed by me, and it took a little bit of work to settle on them. I knew that I wanted a piece for any instrumentation (I didn’t know in advance how many musicians I would be able to recruit or what instruments they would play), and I knew that we would need to be able to put something together with no more than a 90-minute rehearsal. Initially I proposed a performance of Terry Riley’s In C, which is still something I would like to do someday. But it really seemed as though we needed at least fifteen performers for that piece, and for this first event, we weren’t quite able to reach that number. I had been listening to a great recording of the Exercises called Ten Exercises put out by New World Records, and the more I listened to it, the more I realized it was perfect for what I was trying to do—in some ways, the pieces seem to have been designed with an event like the Potluck specifically in mind. They’re challenging to perform successfully. However, the challenge is not to your chops, per se, but to your musical intelligence, your ability to listen to others and to make creative decisions on the fly in a collaborative situation. My brother helped me get my hands on a score in a timely fashion, I selected seven for consideration—they’re extremely varied, and I tried to give people a sense of that—and in rehearsal, we whittled them down to four (3, 5, 6, and 14). They reward precisely the sort of sensibility I’d like people to cultivate, and I hope to revisit them before too long.
MT: What were your expectations going in, and how did yesterday’s CMP live up to those? Approximately how many attendees were there throughout the day?
DM: I’d say the event pretty much lived up to my expectations. I wanted to have a group of people from very different walks of life, which we did, and I wanted to see at least a few people I didn’t know, which I did. Hopefully people will spread the word so that in the future we can have even more diversity.
It would be nice to find some better ways to engage children, especially children in my neighborhood. My biggest regret is that we weren’t able to get anyone under 18 to perform. I need to think about how to deal with that challenge. I don’t necessarily want to do a “children’s concert,” but there are probably some strategies I haven’t considered. The Saturday afternoon potluck makes the event family friendly, but you have to be more than friendly if you want to really engage people.
I’d say that at any given point, we probably never had much more than about 30-40 people on the premises. But there was a fair amount of coming and going, which I was glad for: it gave the event a festive atmosphere, and I had tried to facilitate that sort of movement by posting a schedule in advance. In total, there were probably something like 50 people who dropped in over the course of the day (we used up all 48 plastic forks). We have room in the house for more than that, but it was a good number to start out with.
MT: Where did the attendees and performers come from?
DM: Some of the musicians were recruited through a network of personal acquaintances. I knew Isoa, and he recruited Meghan Schaut and Spencer Phillips. Others responded to a Call For Performers I emailed to representatives of the major music departments within about a 150-mile radius: Aaron Gilbert and Paul Jacob Mizzi are BGSU undergrads who responded to the CFP. Colin is an undergraduate at MSU. Isoa and Meghan are working musicians based out of East Lansing and Grand Rapids respectively. Spencer is doing graduate work at the Eastman School of Music.
[MT: NOTE: He didn’t mention James because the three of us are personal friends. That needn’t have been “researched.”]
MT: What are your future plans for CMP, if any? Do you hope to host another? Do you envision it becoming a series of sorts, even if only occasionally?
DM: I’m already testing the waters for a Contemporary Music Potluck 2 in February. I’m hoping to raise some funds to buy paper supplies to program Benjamin Patterson’s Paper Piece, and a few people have already expressed interest in programming a recital. I’ll send out another Call For Performers sometime in the early fall (I’m hoping to reach people filled with optimism at the start of an academic year). In the long term, I’d like to try to do at least one Potluck every six to twenty-four months, and I’d be excited if people who liked the model would adapt it to their own purposes. It could be done anywhere there was a little space, a few chairs, and a kitchen. I like the idea of numbering them (CMP, CMP2, etc.). It appeals to the acquisitive spirit in me.
The biggest challenge will always be recruiting the musicians and, for at least as long as I’m based out of a small town like Lansing, paying for their travel. We were lucky this time to have people who were able to get here on their own dime. I have no interest in making this a “profitable venture” for either myself or the musicians. That’s not how the economics of contemporary music works, I don’t really think that’s how it should work, and if it ever does work that way, it will be because we’re living in a completely different society from the one we currently inhabit. As far as our current society goes, we have institutions which are supposed to be patronizing contemporary music—whether they’re doing a very good job is something to debate, but that’s what they’re supposed to be doing—and I’m extremely skeptical of the whole “start-up” ethos among certain members of our generation. But I do want to have a mechanism to get the “local community,” whatever that might be, paying for some plane tickets. It’s the twenty-first century. Local scenes need to be enriching themselves using the marvels of jet travel.