Contemporary Music Potluck: Big Music in a Small Venue

Tuesday, August 18, 2015, 8:29 am
By: 
Michael Teager

On Saturday, August 8, I attended a concert that was geographically close and yet 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 (CMP).

The CMP was created, organized, and hosted by 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. 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 had envisioned a day of stimulating performances broken up by food and socializing, but outside of an academy or another hosting or patronizing institution. The CMP was just that. Performances and rehearsals occurred in the living room, with a couple of rows of assorted seating branching out in different directions. Instruments, gear, food, and utensils 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 Ohio, New York, and North Dakota, 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 (i.e., a rehearsal open to viewing by guests)

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 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.

While McCarthy oversaw the event, the first recital was programmed by Chapman, an East Lansing resident and MSU alumnus. He is an active performer who also teaches for the Marshall Music Co. String 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. 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 and Giacinto Scelsi’s Tre Pezzi, both for solo soprano saxophone.

Tre Pezzi was the oldest piece on Fusik’s program (1956) by at least a half century. His performance of the difficult and stylistically diverse literature was a varied 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 more melodic passages in Trope and Tre Pezzi.

The final recital featured a performance of selections from Christian Wolff’s Exercises. The Exercises may be performed on any instruments or combination thereof so long as there are at least two performers. The CMP large ensemble – flute, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon, violin, bass, assorted percussion – performed Exercises 3, 5, 6, and 14. The performers included Chapman, Phillips, and Fusik as well as McCarthy (clarinet, percussion), Aaron Gilbert (bassoon), Paul Jacob Mizzi (flute), and Dr. Jessica Narum (percussion).

Asked why McCarthy chose Wolff for the final recital, he responded “I wanted a piece for any instrumentation…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 … They're challenging … [h]owever, 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.”

Overall, the CMP lived up to McCarthy’s expectations. People came and went throughout the day, with approximately 50 attendees throughout.

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…paying for their travel. We were lucky this time to have people who were able to get here on their own dime.”

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, and thought-provoking music performed and absorbed. My only complaint is that I couldn’t attend the whole thing.