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Muslim Women’s Voices at Wesleyan Documentation Intern Brittany Benham reflects on her behind the scenes experience with Muslim Women’s Voices.

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It was 9am on a Saturday and instead of being curled up in bed, I was running through the Usdan University Center, spilling coffee, scarfing down a croissant, and waving to other tired souls also awake at this hour. In my haste, something yanked me back and I embarrassingly had to unlatch my sweater from the door hinge and hurriedly tumble out onto the steps leading to the CFA. That morning I was not playing the role of the average college student, but putting on my hat as the Documentation Intern for Muslim Women’s Voices at Wesleyan.

Muslim Women’s Voices at Wesleyan is a year-long program at the Center for that Arts that is designed to expand awareness, knowledge, and understanding of Muslim cultures through the lens of performance. As the student intern with Muslim Women’s Voices (MWV), my job is to oversee the documentation of the performances, lectures, and residencies of the artists who have been chosen to be a part of the program. In the effort to create a series of mini-documentaries for each individual performer and a larger film that features all of the events included in the program, interviews are a prime resource for personal background information and greater context. In this particular morning’s rush, I was heading over to Crowell Concert Hall where the women who would perform later that night in Beckham Hall as part of the Planet Hip Hop Festival Concert were waiting to be directed towards their one-on-ones with the MWV program manager and journalists from the Islamic Monthly magazine.

Interviews can be awkward – do I look at the camera or at the interviewer? Is there something in my teeth? What happens if I can’t think of anything to say? These are the kinds of uncertainties that we as program leaders have to address to make sure our interviewees are comfortable and can focus on the questions that we ask. Usually, that means starting with easily answerable questions which can guide the interviewees to harder or more personal questions as the interview progresses.

Before we could begin, the camera needed to be set up in a favorable position and adjusted for changes in light and sound levels. Our videographer kindly asked me to sit in the interviewee chair so he could make the necessary arrangements and although I knew the camera was not rolling and questions about my childhood and my faith were not being aimed in my direction, I still felt a bit of unease. I was happy to hand the seat over to each performer when the time came and marveled at the confidence with which they carried themselves, something I had internally lacked while I was being put on the spot.

While the interviews were taking place, I was quietly seated off to the side listening to what each performer had to say – heard their stories, their triumphs and their failures, their histories – and I was inspired by their words. The ease with which these women were able to convey some of their most innate beliefs and intimate personal memories allowed me too see past their performance persona and into their lives. And although I knew that they were being taped for documentary purposes and I was specifically seeking out sound bytes that would be appropriate for our videos, I was also able to listen to the back-and-forth conversation between my program manager and the performer as if it were just that, a conversation.

I considered this idea – that how one presents oneself in a conversation could be drastically different from how one presents oneself knowing that whatever is said will be recorded – and realized that this must be how these women feel when they are performing. One woman was wearing neon trainers to her interview that morning then came out on stage later in the night in the most amazing zebra-print platform heels I have ever seen. Maybe we all do this, dichotomize our life in the form of multiple identities – our life in our trainers and our life in our stilettos.

Once the interviews were finished, the videographer prompted each performer to convey a series of emotions towards or away from the camera. “It feels really awkward but it comes out really beautiful” we all promised. And it did – in the final video, the emotion and sass and personality of these women seemed so effortlessly captured. Perhaps with a camera staring them in the face, the only thing that they could do was stare back, and in an infinite moment, something real was captured. It seemed amazing how an interaction with the vast darkness of a lens felt more invasive and scrutinizing than the gaze of hundreds of students at the final concert.

Our videographer calls these shots “moving portraits” and I would like to think that it is not the slow panning of the camera that he is referring to, but the reaction from an audience that views such an intimate and personal image. Somehow, the seconds of awkwardness and insecurity that inevitably arise as a consequence of this type of videography creates something only reserved for the world of fine art, a portrait.

As I considered the emotional intensity of the interviews and the off-camera personalities of these women I wondered, is identity a performance or a conversation? Maybe the performers, lecturers, and participants of Muslim Women’s Voices at Wesleyan can help us figure that out.

Erinn Roos-Brown, the CFA’s Campus and Community Engagement Manager, discusses hip hop artist Meryem Saci’s residency as part of the opening week of the Muslim Women’s Voices at Wesleyan program.

Last week, the Center for the Arts at Wesleyan University hosted the opening events for the Muslim Women’s Voices at Wesleyan program. There was an fantastic Islamophobia panel discussion on September 18 as well as hip hop workshops and a performance with three women who either identify as Muslim or are of Muslim heritage. One of those women, Algerian-born/Montreal-based Meryem Saci, was in residency at Wesleyan for the entire week. I had the great pleasure of getting to know her when I escorted her to her class visits, lunches and dinners with students and faculty, and interviewed her for the documentary we are creating around the project.

Meryem had a busy week. She visited two Arabic language classes and a French literature course, “Negotiating Gender in the Maghreb.” She watched and discussed the film Battle of Algiers in religion course, “Muslim/Western Engagements in Film and Performance,” and shared her story in “World Music”. She had dinner with students at the Turath House, Wesleyan’s program house for students who identify as Muslim or are of Arab descent, and she was invited by the students in Wesleyan’s RAP Assembly to be part of their weekly freestyle rap cipher.

Meryem Saci with students in Intermediate Arabic I with Arabic instructor Abderrahman Aissa.

Meryem Saci with students in Intermediate Arabic I with Arabic instructor Abderrahman Aissa.

Why do we ask artists to do such extensive residencies? At the CFA we believe in giving our campus community more opportunities to engage with artists and in turn giving artists opportunities to connect with new audiences. This is particularly important for the Muslim Women’s Voices program because we want to give people an opportunity to question what they really know and their stereotypes on Muslim women.

This is something that Meryem definitely did.

She speaks three languages. She writes her own songs. She was raised by a single mother in Algeria. She is working on releasing her first solo album. She’s a relator. She grew up during her country’s civil war. She can walk for blocks in three-inch wedges. Her high school in Montreal had over 80 ethnic groups in attendance. She sang Whitney Houston and Maria Carey songs as a teenager. She tried to write love songs in English as a child before she even knew the language.

This project also gave Meryem an opportunity to question her own stereotypes of college students in America. She was surprised to learn that American students are studying the Meghreb and told us that she never would have thought that Americans would ever be studying the part of the world where she grew up. At Wesleyan she found students who shared her interest in languages, hip hop and just learning itself. She asked them as many questions as they asked her and never hesitated to be her most authentic self.

By the time she took the stage on Saturday night in Beckham Hall she had a loyal following of Wesleyan students whom she had met throughout the week. In their excitement to see her they closed the gap in front of the stage and danced away. And I was right there with them. I think many of them, like me, no longer saw a woman who grew up in an Islamic state in North Africa, but instead saw an amazingly cool, talented and funny twenty-something sharing with us her creativity and contagious enthusiasm.

Matthew Chilton ’16 talks to Adjunct Professor of Music Jay Hoggard ’76 about the Oliver Lake Big Band, who will make their New England debut as part of the 13th annual Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra Weekend on Saturday, April 26, 2014 at 8pm in Crowell Concert Hall.

Oliver Lake. Photo by Yasmin Grogan.

Oliver Lake. Photo by Yasmin Grogan.

When spring hits Wesleyan, musical sounds flower in all corners of our campus. The outdoor concerts echo through the amphitheaters of fields and buildings, prompting us music majors to emerge from our sonic hibernation caves in the practice rooms. We wander up to our clusters of friends on Foss Hill, acoustic guitars in hand, content to strum the day away as we prepare for the next night of music.

Among these cherished rites of spring is the Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra Weekend, when the school’s Jazz Orchestra [directed by Adjunct Professor of Music Jay Hoggard '76] and Jazz Ensemble [directed by Jazz Ensemble Coach Noah Baerman] gather in Crowell Concert Hall to present the fruits of their creative collaborations. This Friday, April 25, 2014 at 8pm, the Jazz Orchestra and Jazz Ensemble come together for an evening-long concert of works that traverse the spectrum of American improvised music – from the large ensemble works of Duke Ellington to the harmolodics of Ornette Coleman.

The music continues on Saturday, April 26, 2014 at 8pm, as the Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra opens an evening of music alongside this year’s visiting artist ensemble, the Oliver Lake Big Band. Fresh off the release of last year’s critically acclaimed album Wheels, composer, saxophonist, and bandleader Oliver Lake will lead the group through his challenging and stimulating compositional repertoire. You can expect a concert encompassing the history of African-American creative music, with elements of every aesthetic from swing to the avant-garde, all held together by the cohesion of Mr. Lake’s intuitive writing.

After our Jazz Orchestra rehearsal yesterday afternoon, I sat down with my teacher and ensemble director Jay Hoggard to reflect on his musical relationship with Oliver Lake and his works.

Jay, thanks for taking the time out for this interview. To start, how and when did you meet Oliver Lake? What was your working relationship like?

I’ve known Oliver since maybe 1975. I was in college [at Wesleyan] and I was playing different gigs in New York at times, and that was during the loft scene. So we were playing at [saxophonist, composer, sometime Wesleyan professor] Sam Rivers’ place, Studio Rivbea, [drummer, Coltrane sideman] Rashied Ali’s place Ali’s Alley, Lady’s Fort, which was singer Jolee Wilson’s place, and another place, a restaurant named Tin Palace. So I don’t remember where exactly I first got to know Oliver. It was somewhere in there, in all those places. After I graduated in 1976, moved to New Haven, and taught high school for a year, Pheeroan [AkLaff, drummer and Wesleyan Private Lesson Teacher] was playing with Oliver, and Pheeroan and I were playing in a band together. Maybe he [Lake] called me for a gig, I don’t exactly remember, but one night he and David Murray played a gig in New Haven, and stayed in my apartment.

Was it a gig by the World Saxophone Quartet, [Lake’s influential band with Murray, Julius Hemphill and Hamiet Bluiett]?

No, it was before World Saxophone Quartet. So then we played a few gigs together in that period, and I moved to New York in 1977. Some with [baritone saxophonist] Hamiet Bluiett’s group at the Public Theater, featuring a bunch of horns – Lake was on there, Baikida [Carroll, trumpeter] and [cornetist] Olu Dara, maybe [perussionist Famoudou Don] Moye, but it was a combination of the Art Ensemble [of Chicago] guys and the St. Louis [Black Artists Group] guys.

[These groups that Jay mentioned, the Art Ensemble of Chicago (affiliated with Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), and St. Louis’ Black Artists Group, which Oliver Lake was a co-founding member of, were vital to the development of creative music in the urban centers of the Midwest. Our beloved Emerita/us Faculty in Music Anthony Braxton was a member of Chicago’s A.A.C.M., and he and Lake came up as alto saxophonists in these environments that supported radical creativity.]

At a certain point, Lake had a reggae band called Jump Up that Pheeroan, [pianist] Geri Allen, [bassist] Jerome Harris, and [guitarist] Brandon Ross played in. We were doing something on the same label, so I produced a record for them [1983’s Plug It] that I always liked a lot. I had a copy of it, but it never made it to CD, maybe it did, in Japan. Then in the 1990s, we started working together and cut a record on Lake’s label [Passin’ Thru] called Talkin’ Stick [1997]. We did one of his tunes that he does with the big band, Maasai Moves.

So, speaking to that as someone who’s worked with Lake as both a musician and a producer, how have you seen his music evolve over the years?

I’ve always felt that Oliver was a great alto saxophonist. He plays soprano too, and flute, but I always felt that he had the Eric Dolphy thing, but also had this kind of sound of the alto saxophone. He doesn’t really come out of a Charlie Parker thing directly in terms of his lines, the way he plays changes is unique.

He’s kind of got a line that comes from a few different sources, so what I’ve enjoyed over the years is watching him create a lot of different recordings in different contexts, with different players. In doing that, he’s come up with “the Oliver Lake sound” in all these different kinds of settings. So the big band is a vehicle for the way he plays, and the writing has melodic, harmonic, improvisatory, and textural things.

You know, he’s a couple years older than Braxton and he’s got a different take than Braxton, and most other players on his instrument. He’s got a unique sound, and his writing mirrors that sound.

When I’ve listened to Lake’s music, I’ve enjoyed how he has the versatility to go from a specialized “avant-garde” scene in the 1970s and then explores everything along the way, to his reggae group Jump Up in the 80s and then his recent work with the Big Band today. How do you think this stylistic trajectory will come out in the work he’s presenting at Crowell Concert Hall this Saturday?

We try to do a range with the Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra as well, and when I choose tunes I think about the educational part of it – how to technically get a certain kind of sound [like the Ellington sound] and how to understand where that sound is rooted – voicings and all that, and how to then apply the improvisational language. Understanding the groove internally and out, how to play in different mindsets. So that’s what Lake does, he’s got a range of writing that touches on a whole spectrum of styles. Ultimately, it’s very accessible – it’s both art for the artist, and for an audience. It doesn’t smash you with a particular way of thinking, and gives a range of thinking on the side of creativity and innovation.

This stylistic versatility, in harmony with the creative impulse, is what ties together both Oliver Lake’s work with his Big Band and our work with the Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra. Presenting the musics side-by-side, we hope to tap into some of the sonic magic that has surrounded the Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra Weekend since its beginnings over a dozen years ago.

Oliver Lake Big Band
New England Debut
Saturday, April 26, 2014 at 8pm
Crowell Concert Hall
$20 general public; $18 senior citizens, Wesleyan faculty/staff/alumni, non-Wesleyan students; $6 Wesleyan students.

Co-sponsored by the Center for African American Studies and the Office of Equity and Inclusion.

Wesleyan University Javanese Gamelan in the Center for the Arts' World Music Hall, 1975-1976. Image courtesy of the Wesleyan University Library, Special Collections & Archives, University Photographers Collection.

Wesleyan University Javanese Gamelan in the Center for the Arts’ World Music Hall, 1975-1976. Image courtesy of the Wesleyan University Library, Special Collections & Archives, University Photographers Collection.

Matthew Chilton ’16 discusses the history of the Center for the Arts’ World Music Hall, using research and ethnographic interviews with University Professor of Music Sumarsam and Winslow-Kaplan Professor of Music Mark Slobin conducted for his final project in ANTH101, “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology.”

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the Center for the Arts, I’m excited to explore and investigate the insides, outsides, and backgrounds of our enigmatic stone blocks of cultural activity. As a musician and student of anthropology, I believe that there is far more to these buildings than immediately meets the eye or ear. My combination of disciplines leads me to interrogate the spaces physically, in terms of their sonic characteristics and potential to inspire music, as well as culturally, reading their uses and significance within a larger cultural narrative.

The most fascinating space at Wesleyan to investigate from both of these angles is the World Music Hall: not just because of the large range of musics, dances, and other arts that students engage with there, but also because of the space’s revolutionary position at the forefront of the Western institutionalization of “world” musics. The World Music Hall is an exceptionally rich symbol of the complex adaptations and translations that global music traditions experience as they meet American institutions and education systems, not to be “corrupted” or consumed by modernism, but to be transformed into new, hybrid traditions.

When the World Music Hall was constructed with the rest of the CFA and opened in the fall of 1973, it was the first building on a Western university campus erected with the express purpose of housing a gamelan ensemble and global music traditions. The way the ensemble is laid out in the space, however, is distinctly non-traditional. Javanese gamelan ensembles are traditionally contained and played in a single-level complex, indoors but with no walls, whereas the Wesleyan gamelan is housed in the innovative architecture of the World Music Hall – which displays the gamelan on three tiers above a dance floor, and which has an innovative system of basement and side entry. Certain elements of the architecture, however, like the floor-to-ceiling side windows and open floor area, reference the traditional wall-less performance space as well as Indonesian home architecture. As a result, the “oriental-traditional” instruments seem paradoxically at home in the “occidental-modernist” architectural space – for the space itself references hybrid identities.

The tripartite performance area represents another cultural adaptation, as it displays the gamelan for performance and makes every instrument and player easily visible from the audience. This increase in visibility heightens the overall spectacle and intrigue of the ensemble, keeping the audience’s attention. The space’s emphasis on the gamelan’s visuality hearkens back to the fascinating yet problematic history of this particular set of instruments. Wesleyan’s first music department heads, Richard Winslow and David McAllester, purchased the gamelan directly from the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The gamelan’s three-tiered display scheme was first used at this World’s Fair’s Indonesian Pavilion, as a way of better displaying the crimson and gold opulence of this particular set of instruments. This situates Wesleyan’s gamelan within a narrative of culture-as-spectacle, orientalist fascinations, and one-sided cultural “exchange.”

However, Wesleyan’s approach to the gamelan helps distance the instruments from their problematic history by using the gamelan’s three-tiered organization as a learning tool, a visualization of the ensemble’s musical processes. The divisions of the ensemble imposed by the tiers lend transparency to the musical activity of the group, acting as a method of translation that demystifies the complex interweaving of sounds. The instruments on the highest tier, the large gong and large bonang bells, enforce the largest structural divisions of the melody. The middle tier’s large kenong bells and small kempul gongs demarcate smaller structural divisions while the xylophone-like peking, saron barung, and demung carry the basic melody. The instruments in the lowest, frontmost tier play the most complex melodic patterns, in the smallest divisions of the cycle that often equate to the Western eighth note. Though this description is by no means comprehensive, it highlights the way in which the non-traditional division of the performance area can serve as a tool for teaching and learning.

Core issues and problems of world music ensembles are embedded in the World Music Hall and Wesleyan’s gamelan. The format of the hall lends itself to problems of representation – mystifying the gamelan through display of the full visual spectacle – but also engages in helpful cultural translation by demystifying musical processes through division of the ensemble. The presentation may be “inauthentic,” but it makes clear the complex patchwork of cultural meanings inherent in the ensemble. The path of the gamelan and its transformations in configuration from Java to the 1964 World’s Fair, then finally to Wesleyan and the World Music Hall represent multiple processes of translation: from its traditional role as a locus of communal music activity, to a spectacle of Oriental exoticism, and finally to a hybrid identity of display, musical community, and intercultural learning.

And the history of the World Music Hall continues, perpetually being transformed as an ever-widening variety of classes, concerts, and performances take place between its window-walls. From Gamelan and Taiko courses to Javanese dance and puppetry, all the way to musically diverse senior theses, experimental sound installations like Christine Sun Kim’s Self Notary Public, and the performance art puppetry of Who’s Hungry, the World Music Hall and CFA at large perpetually demonstrate their flexibility to accommodate many worlds of music and art.

Creative Campus Intern Sewon Kang ’14 reflects on the Creative Campus course “Blood, Muscle, Bone: The Anatomy of Wealth and Poverty,” and the “Blood, Muscle, Bone” Performative Teach-In.

Creative Campus Intern Sewon Kang ’14 (right) during the “Blood, Muscle, Bone” Performative Teach-In on Monday, November 11, 2013 in Fayerweather Beckham Hall. Photo by Sandy Aldieri.

Amber Smith ’14 (left) and Creative Campus Intern Sewon Kang ’14 (right) during the “Blood, Muscle, Bone” Performative Teach-In on Monday, November 11, 2013 in Fayerweather Beckham Hall. Photo by Sandy Aldieri.

I’ve been thinking back on the course “Blood, Muscle, Bone: The Anatomy of Wealth and Poverty” and I must say that it was a total interruption in my squarely traditional education. Throughout the intensives, my fellow students and I explored difficult problems related to wealth distribution in the U.S. with our instructors, Liz Lerman and Jawole Zollar. In my prior post, I discussed my enthusiasm for the interdisciplinary nature of this course and the deep processing made possible through artistic exploration. Now that the class has ended, I want to share how it continues to impact my life.

Even though it was primarily a dance course, we explored the realities of disparity in a traditional, academic way—we learned facts and figures, read literature, and applied the knowledge by considering how it affects the Wesleyan community. What was unique was that once we had all of this information, we were given the freedom to respond to aspects that resonated with us. Our expressions then gave shape to the structure of the performative teach-in, the culminating event for the course. It was a truly collaborative outpouring and was the perfect way to end a process that is in reality constant and continuous. The teach-in allowed us to take some of what we learned and put it in a format that we could share with our fellow students and community—something that doesn’t happen in a typical classroom.

The night began with a talk by Anne Farrow, a journalist and author who studies enslavement in New England. She shared passages from her new book about the life of a slave trader who lived in Middletown. As performers, we listened to the lecture and responded with our bodies in ways that disrupted the usual speaker-listener dynamic. These interruptions continued during Professor William Arsenio’s lecture on economic disparity and recent psychological studies that examine how people understand wealth distribution in this country. We analyzed the facts and statistics he presented, reflected on our past experiences, and translated information visually. For the rest of the teach-in, we took numbers and words and made them tangible by sharing personal stories through song, spoken word, and movement.

This exploration was incredibly intense and was only made possible by an extraordinary willingness to participate in experimental learning—a leap that I’m grateful to my classmates for taking with me. Everyone was fully committed to the class, showing strong enthusiasm for the topic at hand and complete dedication to the process, even during times when everything was uncomfortably new. The class was a learning community so unlike any I have ever experienced.

One of the most challenging and exciting aspects for me was the act of performing. Throughout the course, Liz and Jawole expertly drew out flickers of performance from each of us and helped us develop strong structures that we could be proud of. Such in-class dynamics translated into powerfully moving moments of the teach-in, revealing how wealth and poverty touch everyone’s lives. During a discussion about white privilege, I was able to share my frustrations with other students of color in the class. Jawole and Keith Thompson, who assisted Liz and Jawole in the course, helped me eventually become comfortable with sharing my struggles with the audience at the teach-in. They taught me that vulnerability can be useful, and because I believed so strongly in the work that we were doing, I knew that my story needed to be shared.

This opened doors for me as a student who is used to articulating ideas through very specific structures, such as the five-paragraph analytic paper. What I learned is that like the academic paper, performing is a method of processing, albeit one that is less frequently encountered outside of certain circles. During “Blood, Muscle, Bone,” I was asked to perform my thoughts and became a student of a different kind of processing. For some of my classmates, it was liberating to engage in this alternative way of knowing because they had been searching for this kind of creative outlet.  Personally, I learned that this kind of communicating works for me because it’s an effective way for me to address problems in a constructive manner. Once I leaned into the discomfort of vulnerability, I could let the process of performing take over.

As I walk away from this course, I do so with more awareness of my position in the world. I understand better how I operate within the global structures of wealth and poverty. I know how profoundly unequal things are; it runs hot through my blood and weighs heavy on my muscles and bones. Whether I’m complicit or not, whether I’m an agent or a casualty, wherever I situate myself, what am I going to do about it? How am I going to use my voice? We, the participants of “Blood Muscle Bone,” move to declare ourselves as a group of people who will no longer abide by inequality. We establish ourselves as a group of people who are dedicated to bringing about change and invite others to join us in this stance.

Matthew Chilton ’16 talks to Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music Nadya Potemkina about directing the Wesleyan University Orchestra, who will perform Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Overture to “Don Giovanni” and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 at a free concert on Saturday, November 16, 2013 at 8pm in Crowell Concert Hall.

Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music Nadya Potemkina. Photo by Pavel Terpelets.

Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music Nadya Potemkina. Photo by Pavel Terpelets.

Russian week at Wesleyan reaches its apex tonight when the Wesleyan University Orchestra performs under the direction of Nadya Potemkina. Ms. Potemkina has deep roots in the Russian classical music tradition, and this will be her inaugural performance as conductor of Wesleyan’s student orchestra. We sat down in her office to talk about her musical life, the formative experience of Tchaikovsky’s symphony, and making music from both sides of the podium.

When you were growing up, did classical music feature into your home life? How did you find your interest in it?

My parents were musicians, and I grew up in a very small town in the Leningrad region. My family moved to St. Petersburg when I started school, but when I was a kid I was growing up in a small town. There wasn’t much to do there for children, but we were fortunate enough to have a music school, a small program. I had a choice of violin, piano, choir singing, and playing accordion. Violin just seemed closest to me at that point. I was five at the time, and it went pretty well. I changed to viola when I was twelve. Pretty soon I couldn’t see myself doing anything else besides music.

I’ve been in a similar place since I started playing electric bass at the age of eleven, then getting interested in more and more instruments as I came along.

How did you get your start in conducting, more specifically? Were there any concerts or moments when you realized “this is my calling, this is what I want to do?”

Well, it’s interesting. This moment sort of relates to the program that we will be playing tonight. When I was studying at the Pedagogical College in St. Petersburg, we all had to take classes in choral conducting. And I liked it, but I never thought even of trying my luck with a symphony orchestra. At that time, it wasn’t something a woman would do easily in Russia. But when I came to the United States for my Master’s Degree in Viola, taking conducting lessons was easy – you didn’t have to be anybody special, you could just sign up for class and practice with a teacher and a full group as well.

For one of my final tests in that class, I had to conduct the first few pages of the first movement of Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4. I remember the opening brass fanfare just had such an impression on me that I had never experienced this feeling of being in the center of the sound. I was very impressed and thought that, “wow, this is something that I would like to try again in the future!” So I decided to continue my studies in conducting.

I’m really interested in that notion of the relationship between the conductor and the performer – like what goes on on either side of the podium, and the fact that you were able to experience the sound in a different way as a conductor. What’s it like to create music from both sides of the podium, and how has it influenced the way that you think about music?

Conducting most definitely changed me as a performer, and I’m trying to keep my viola playing skills in shape. I continued playing through my six years of study for a doctorate in conducting. It has its own pros and cons, you learn so much about the technical side of conducting that you see each and every nuance in another conductor’s work. You see all the things that go bad also, so at times I started to notice that I find myself following conductors a little too closely. A section is staying more like a group, they at times ignore some of the stupid things conductors do and save the performance [chuckles]. You know, we all make mistakes but I had to consciously think about staying with a section while I’m playing, not just following all the little things I see out there.

As a conductor, I think it’s very important that I do play an instrument actively, because I know what to ask for from players. I’m trying not to demand something that I feel might not be possible at the moment, and chances are that I know the technique of a string section better. I can word my requests in a more precise way.

You’ve touched on a lot of things that I find very interesting about the classical ensemble, but there are certainly some people I speak to who don’t understand the role of the conductor. Which is pretty interesting having played in an orchestra and realizing how much work goes into getting an ensemble ready in rehearsal.

Any words for people who may think that a conductor is just a “timekeeper?”

Timekeeping most definitely is a very important part of the process. You do need to be able to keep time, keep in certain tempos, and start in a certain tempo right away. But performance consists of so many other parts – it’s a very complex puzzle, and the younger the orchestra is…When you’re working with professionals, chances are that they already know how to play certain things, and all they want from you is to tell them what you want to hear – what quality of sound, what mood, what tone color, and all that. But with students, it’s very important to be able to explain to them what technical tricks and tools may help them to get that certain sound and mood, as well as to be able to demonstrate them. Also, on the other hand, we wouldn’t want to be too technical, dry, and robot-like. So when the concert comes, it’s very important to just be able to let it go. To let them be artists, and stop dictating every note and everything.

In light of that, what are some different types of groups you’ve worked with? How does that background approach how you lead the Wesleyan Orchestra?

I was very fortunate to have worked with both youth orchestras and professional orchestras as well. I served as an assistant conductor in summer festivals with professional musicians, and participated in workshops conducting professional groups. But also, I directed a couple youth orchestras over extended periods of time. It teaches you both the technical and educational side of things, as well as the performance and artistic-creative process. At Wesleyan, we have students who are in the orchestra who come from very different backgrounds, and they are at different levels of technical abilities. I feel like having experienced both worlds, I hope I’m able to bring it all to one common, golden median – to bridge any gaps there might be.

Wonderful! Striving for unity, that big cohesive orchestra sound. Moving back to Saturday’s program, there’s the “Don Giovanni” overture, then Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 – are there any notes or experiences you’ve had with this music that inform your interpretation, or any sort of working moments where the students have taught you new things?

Hmm, interesting. I feel like whenever you work on a piece with a new group of musicians, it’s different. It doesn’t matter how many times you have done it. As I said, I first started studying Tchaikovsky ten years ago, and I have done the whole piece for the first time last year. So it’s my second time approaching the entire composition. And it’s never the same, you can never say, “I’ve played it before and it’s not fun for me anymore.” Players always bring something from their side of the music. They all have different difficulties with certain spots, and they treat solo melodies differently also. It’s all new for me once again, because all the players are different and they are new. So it’s a completely fresh reading of the piece. I’m not sure even how to compare it with the past, because it’s always new.

I love how there’s always that changing relationship between the stable notated materials and the music brought to life by the orchestra. Thanks so much for your time and words, Nadya.

You can find out more about the music and the people bringing it to life in the program notes for the Wesleyan University Orchestra’s Fall Concert.

Aileen Lambert ’16 meets with Emmie Finckel ’14 to talk about her time at Wesleyan, her senior thesis in scenic design, and her involvement with the Theater Department production of Anton Chekov’s “The Seagull.” Directed by Associate Professor of Theater Yuri Kordonsky, the play explores the question of “What defines art and how can we create something new?” In order to further exemplify this theme, Professor Kordonsky is leading a production set in an unusual environment where the boundaries between the actor and the audience member dissolve, designed by Ms. Finckel.

Photo by John Carr

Photo by John Carr

Give me some basic background on your theater experience here at Wes.

So I transferred here, that’s a thing that happened. Second semester of sophomore year I stage-managed Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights (directed by Associate Professor of Theater Cláudia Tatinge Nascimento). Which was really nuts that I stage-managed a faculty show after only being here a couple of months. That was really a crash course in Wesleyan theater. And then first semester last year I designed The Tempest (directed by Nicholas Orvis ’13) And then second semester last year I stage managed Eurydice (directed by Sivan Battat ’15) for Second Stage, and I also designed the set for Under Milkwood, which Nick also directed.

Your thesis focuses on breaking the boundaries between the audience and the actors. What prompted this idea?

The whole way through I had been planning on doing either a directing thesis or writing something, because I’m a sociology double major, and I think there’s a lot of interesting theoretical overlap between performance studies and sociology. And then I took set design, and Marcela (Oteíza, Assistant Professor of Theater) stole me. Marcela really showed me how the set is a mediator in the audience/performer relationship. What is most interesting to me about theater is that it’s the only art form that you really can’t do without an audience; the audience is an absolutely essential part of that. So, that’s why this idea of the audience/performer relationship became what I wanted to focus on.

Then in taking that class with Marcela, we did a lot of reading, a lot of Richard Schechner stuff, which is all about environmental theater, and trying to make the audience and performance space one cohesive thing. Richard Schechner was this guy in the 1960s who came up with this idea for environmental theater, which tries to treat the space as it is, and not trying to hide it in any way. You go and see these shows that have these painted flats up against the walls very clearly pretending to be something they’re not, so the idea behind environmental theater is that you’re not trying to pretend—the set is the environment. So it’s a lot of thinking about how different pieces function rather than how they look. And it’s also a lot about trying to use the space to impose upon and affect the audience in a way that will serve the play.

All the pieces fell into place, when that was what I decided I wanted to focus on theoretically, and Yuri (Kordonsky, Associate Professor of Theater) decided that was what he wanted to focus on physically. I was talking to Marcela about designing whatever this show that is happening right now as my thesis, and then it all just kind of—I mean, Jack (Carr, Chair of Theater Department) always says that he got my thesis proposal and Yuri’s concept idea for The Seagull at the same time, and was just sort of like, “Wow, ok cool.”

What has been your greatest lesson learned so far in the production process?

This has made me realize just how important communication is, and that means a lot of different things. On one hand, there’s just the fact that theater is a collaborative art and everyone needs to know what’s happening at the same time, and that can be tricky. Then, when you’re trying to talk about these visual elements, I can say that I want a blue chair over there, and the blue chair that I have in my head is definitely different than the blue chair that you have in your head, which is different than the shade of blue that the guy who is going to paint the blue chair is thinking of. So trying to establish a language to communicate about these more abstract ideas is definitely the biggest challenge, but also sort of the most fun thing to try and figure out.

Is scenic design something you want to go into? Do you have career aspirations that relate to this?

Well, I think I definitely want to do something in theater because I think that theater is really important, and I think that you can communicate things through theater that can’t be communicated any other way. But, I think that a big problem is that people don’t really know how to engage in theater, so they get thrown off by these more abstract productions that I think have a lot of power to do things. One of the greatest things about theater is that you don’t have to know how to engage with it, you just have to let it happen to you. I don’t know what avenue it’s going to take, but I want to help people to understand that. I could see myself trying to do the design route, but, for me, the idea of having to jump from project to project and not have an actual job—I don’t like that. But then I could also see myself going into theater management and the business side of things, and I could also totally see myself going the academia route and working towards being a professor, and really getting into the theory/performance side of it.

What has been your favorite class so far at Wes?

Any class?

Any class.

Linear algebra was totally my favorite class. I actually initially was going to be a triple major, with math also. I love math. Linear algebra was the first class I ever took that made me realize how little I know about everything because we were learning how to add and subtract and divide and multiply again but with different things, instead of just single numbers, which made the world of math go from being this big to being just so much you can do with it that I have no idea what it is. That was really cool.

What has been your favorite moment so far in the production process?

My favorite moment was definitely that first day when we got everything in the space. It was all lined up against the back wall of the theater, and then Yuri gave his little spiel—the whole cast was going to play, and were going to figure it out. Then he said, “Emmie, can you tape out the platform?” That took about 10 or 15 minutes, and then I stood up and looked around, and the whole set was there. And it was awesome! It was awesome because I didn’t actually have to touch a single piece of furniture to make it move, but it was also cool because the thing that’s most important for me in thinking about this process is that the work that I’m doing is happening with the work that is happening in rehearsal. There were a bunch of times when Marcela would say to me, “You’ve really got to think specifically about how this is going to look visually.” I would go to my room and start sketching and I would feel really weird because I was like, this, whatever I’m coming up with right now, is going to be so radically different from what they are coming up with at rehearsal, and it seemed very disconnected. It was really nice to have that moment where it felt like the work that I was doing was happening with everybody else, and happening collaboratively, and knowing that all these people who were moving stuff around the space were working with this material in rehearsal and were being conscious of how the things that they were doing were working with the play. That was the first moment when I felt that my world and the actor world were really coming together, and it happened so seamlessly.

Creative Campus Intern Sewon Kang ’14 discusses the intensives that have been part of the Creative Campus course “Blood, Muscle, Bone: The Anatomy of Wealth and Poverty,” as well as the free “Blood, Muscle, Bone” Performative Teach-In which will be held on Monday, November 11, 2013 from 7pm to 11pm in Fayerweather Beckham Hall. (The doors will open every 30 minutes—come and stay as long as you like.)

2012 residency of "Blood, Muscle, Bone" in Tallahassee. Photo by Aubrie Rodriguez.

2012 residency of “Blood, Muscle, Bone” in Tallahassee. Photo by Aubrie Rodriguez.

Having recently emerged from the “Blood, Muscle, Bone” intensives, adjusting to the rhythm of school again is almost like switching brains.  For five days, I employed a radically different mode of thinking and processing than I ever have before.  I moved, thought, and felt about many different issues surrounding wealth, poverty, and the body, and collaborated with my instructors and fellow students in surprising and new ways.

Our first few intensives were committed to the creation of a collective toolbox.  Our guest instructors, Professors William Arsenio, Wendy Rayack, and Lois Brown, gave lectures related to wealth and poverty through the lens of their particular fields.  From recent fiscal and experimental data, to the days of early American slave trading, the range of information presented to us walked us through an issue that transcends time and place, and affects all humans.

While listening to these lectures, Liz, Jawole, and their associates Vincent Thomas and Keith Thompson encouraged us to take on the role of the artist in addition to the role of the student. While listening, we posed questions and problematized the information, but we were also challenged to explore the information in ways that we would not necessarily have the freedom to do in other classrooms.  We paid attention and took note of the visualizations and soundtracks floating through our heads, and responded to the lecturer’s body language and cues with our own bodies.  Such prompts helped me realize that there are hundreds of angles from which this issue could be addressed which got me excited to further develop some of them with my classmates.

The lectures were punctuated by creative exercises and movement studies designed to give us more tools for our arsenal.  The artists devised activities that allowed us to explore deeper and respond to what we learned with our thoughts and emotions.  I was able to use my intellect and my body in combination to process the weight of the information.  Wealth disparity in the U.S. is at an all time high; the richest 400 individuals are worth $2.02 trillion dollars, more than the net worth of the bottom 50% of the population.  The immediacy of creative opportunities to process and react to such information was incredibly beneficial for me, as it’s sometimes difficult to take in facts, figures, and histories without taking into consideration their humanity and reality.  There was an amazing collaboration between the artists and guests lecturers, allowing us to experiment and process with total freedom and comfort that I deeply appreciated.

I find the prospect of communicating and translating my ideas into movement a bit daunting, but mostly thrilling.  Throughout the remainder of the intensive, Jawole, Liz, Vincent, and Keith had us create in small groups within limited timeframes.  Working like this helped me get more comfortable with the act of communicating my ideas in an artistic way.  I also got a taste for how creative and talented my peers are, and am excited to see what I can learn from working closely with them.

At one point, we all sat around in a circle and conducted an “asset inventory.”  Everyone in the room shared a skill or an aspect about themselves that makes a contribution to the community, and the diversity of responses and experiences in the class opened up so many possibilities.  I shared that I love to backpack and that I enjoy the challenge of carrying everything I need to survive on the strength of my own back.  Using this idea as a metaphor, a small group of students and I got together to figure out how to create a backpack for change and reported back to the group.  We created a movement piece that reflects on the meaning of carrying and sharing weight, and the necessity of being prepared for the tough times ahead.  Since then, we’ve been workshopping the piece with Keith and other students who have joined in on the process.  I’m really looking forward to where it will all go from here.

My fellow students and I have explored a lot of difficult problems and ideas in this course, some of which really hit home.  We’re continuing to process the material creatively through songwriting, photography, and movement among other things. We’re currently honing in on ways to articulate what we’ve learned to a wider audience.  As concerned citizens who are deeply disturbed by these inequities, we’re finding ways to express how to respond both personally and intellectually to the fact that there is something seriously wrong here.  We’ve become witness to these problems in our country and are determined to do something about it. We’re carrying this heavy reality on our backs.  We’re trying to deal with the weight of what it all means.

Our efforts will culminate in a special performance-based teach-in that will take place on Monday, November 11, 2013 from 7pm to 11pm every half hour in Fayerweather Beckham Hall. This teach-in is inspired by the activist movements that came before us, which emphasized the importance and need for knowledge first.  This experiential event is going to be multifaceted, with elements that enlighten, shock, and ask the audience to participate and think with us.  We’re going to use our bodies and various art forms to demonstrate the physicality of these issues to make issues of disparity tangible.  We’ll invite participants to move, feel, explore and engage in dialogue with us, because the only way we can address these issues is to do it together.

Rebecca Seidel ’15 interviews the free exhibition “Faces of China, 1981: Photographs by Tom Zetterstrom,” on display at the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies Gallery through Friday, December 6, 2013. The exhibition will be closed from Tuesday, November 26 through Tuesday, December 3, 2013.

Tom Zetterstrom, "Combing," Shanghai, 1981, original gelatin silver print.

Tom Zetterstrom, “Combing,” Shanghai, 1981, original gelatin silver print.

In an interview this past August with curator Patrick Dowdey, photographer Tom Zetterstrom spoke about the approach he took to capturing everyday life in China through portraiture—a project for which he was commissioned by the Yale-China Association back in the 1980s, and whose results are now on display for the first time in nearly three decades. Above all, he said, he tried to get as up-close to his subjects as possible, ideally shooting at arm’s length.

“Dangling around my neck were three cameras, so I presented myself as the obvious photographer and not someone who was trying to sneak a shot on the run,” he said. “So I was able to engage with the subject on an individual level, one on one.”

Mr. Zetterstrom’s focus on one-on-one engagement shines through quite powerfully in “Faces of China, 1981,” a collection of photographs now on view at the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies Gallery. His physical proximity to his subjects makes for portraits that are both intimate and inviting. But by interspersing these portraits with photographs of billboards, religious artwork, and other relics he encountered during his visit to China, Mr. Zetterstrom also steps back far enough to capture a bigger and more complex picture—that of a culture in flux.

In the early 1980s, China was still emerging from the shadows of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. In 1981, when Mr. Zetterstrom and members of the Yale-China Association landed in China and started traveling from city to city, the country was moving towards a large-scale transformation, following the path set by Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening Up” policy. As this process unfolded, China became open to foreigners in a way that it hadn’t been for years.  Given this new access, many people were eager to get a closer look: what was China like in the midst of these changes? What were the people like? What kind of effect was the reform having on them?

Mr. Zetterstrom’s photographs (some in black and white, some in color) offer answers to these questions—or at least fragments of answers—in a rich and evocative way. His portraits document people of all ages and occupations, catching snapshots of simple moments from their lives: a woman gathering tea from the countryside, two friends smoking together, a man caught in the middle of eating a popsicle.  A common feature among these portraits is that many of their subjects are looking straight into the lens, creating a line of communication between the subject and the viewer that is almost startlingly direct.

None of the images seem stiff or posed—even though, as Mr. Zetterstrom emphasizes, “these are not candid shots.” The sense of mutual trust between photographer and subject radiates from the page. This rings true with something Mr. Zetterstrom noted in his interview: that he went into this project without any preconceptions about the people he was photographing. As a result, his photographs have a simple and organic quality to them. Though the scenery might be foreign to many Western viewers, the expressions on the subjects’ faces are deeply familiar.

While these portraits are timeless in many ways, the other images interspersed with them—images of advertisements, older socialist art, religious artwork—provide a more concrete time frame, offering information about the historical and cultural crossroads in which these people are living. It would be impossible to draw complete conclusions from these images alone, but they do show China in 1981 as a place where residue of an earlier time remains, even as the society as a whole is taking steps forward.

The photos, arranged in a single row along the periphery of the gallery, are accompanied by only a minimal amount of text: after every five images or so, there is a list of each photo’s title and the location where it was shot. Mr. Zetterstrom reveals additional information about some of the photos in his interview with Mr. Dowdey, but walking from photograph to photograph without this supplementary knowledge is like progressing through a story with some general themes and key details but no fully tangible plot. This works perfectly given the content of some of the photographs—particularly the portraits, where the subjects and scenery speak for themselves. The objects that are showcased—religious artwork, billboards, a mannequin in a storefront—also tell their own stories, but it was difficult to fully discern their significance at first.

A few laps around the exhibition start to reveal more layers of meaning: a photograph of a dilapidated billboard depicting socialist art, for instance, presents a counterpoint to a newer, better-kept billboard showcasing commercial art. Contrasts and discrepancies like these hint at the direction in which Chinese culture was evolving at the time.

Still, for a viewer with minimal knowledge of the historical context of the photographs, more supplementary information might be helpful. The video of Mr. Zetterstrom’s interview is available for viewing in another room at the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies, so that’s a good place to start. Some transcribed excerpts from this interview are also printed in a pamphlet available in the exhibition room.

Mr. Zetterstrom’s approach to photography in China was both deliberate and impulsive: he noted in his interview that he was always carefully and thoughtfully observing his surroundings, but when the opportunity for a meaningful photo arose, he was prepared to seize the moment and act on it immediately. This effort translated into photographs that are at once fleeting and timeless—photographs that give immediacy to sweeping cultural shifts, especially when put in conversation with one another.

By piecing together this conversation for us, Mr. Zetterstrom offers a compelling lens through which to view this pivotal era in China’s recent history.  More than thirty years later, given all the transformations China has undergone since those early stages of reform, this lens is more valuable than ever.

Creative Campus Intern Sewon Kang ’14 discusses her experience in the Creative Campus course “Blood, Muscle, Bone: The Anatomy of Wealth and Poverty.”

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Liz Lerman. Photo by Bess Paupeck.

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Liz Lerman. Photo by Bess Paupeck.

This semester I’m taking “Blood, Muscle, Bone: The Anatomy of Wealth and Poverty,” a Creative Campus course taught by Liz Lerman and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. In my time at Wesleyan, I’ve had the privilege of interning for Creative Campus, an initiative that unites ideas and gets people thinking outside of their comfort zones.  Creative Campus hosts a wide variety of artists on campus, inviting them to employ their creative processes within the university setting for the mutual benefit of the artist and the Wesleyan community. Artists can participate by co-teaching courses with professors, experimenting with students in the classroom, creating commissions, and collaborating in community-based projects.  Liz and Jawole are choreographers, both heavily engaged in interdisciplinary work and community/cultural organizing.  In the spirit of Creative Campus, they are also teaching with professors from the fields of African American Studies, EconomicsEnglish and Psychology.  “Blood, Muscle, Bone” is designed to train and support students interested in discovering the bridge between academic and artistic research through the vehicle of a new performance work of the same name.  The course and the work explore the human price of socioeconomic inequalities, with particular emphasis on how to unveil and address hidden inequities through artmaking and various forms of activism.  Such collaborative Creative Campus projects allow artists to utilize resources that are unique to the university setting throughout the critical period of conceptual research that informs and drives their work.  The artist-university partnership is also designed to engage students and faculty members from diverse academic areas, bringing their different ways of knowing in communication with the arts.  The other students enrolled in “Blood, Muscle, Bone” have backgrounds in chemistry, music, and American studies, while my background is in Art History and History. The goal of the course is to open up traditional academic boundaries and encourage the exploration of a profoundly complex issue from multiple and varied perspectives.

I’ve found that the professors, artists, and students who tend to participate in Creative Campus projects are interested in exploring topics that are deeply multifaceted, so much so that it is virtually impossible to study these issues from one perspective alone.  I enrolled in “Blood, Muscle, Bone” because it addresses subject matter that is, in my opinion, impossible to study without taking the body into consideration.  Socioeconomic conditions/realities take place within the individual and collective body and should be explored within the context of the body and its social environment. The ideas that are compelling and asking to be probed require collaboration that is open to questioning from all possible angles and areas of expertise.  Creative Campus gives people a safe space in which to ask these questions and bring seemingly disparate ideas in communion with one another.  This method has been so liberating that participants of Creative Campus have found themselves completely changed upon being encouraged to think and do in this way.  Because of my work in this program, I’ve been witness to these very real transformations.  I read one student assert that the artistic element of a course “helped [her] to embody and reflect on our more traditionally academic material, and incorporate motion and emotion into a realm that is all too often static and emotionless.”  Another student said that the opportunity to consider something as complex as climate change through both artistic and academic impulses “has completely altered [her] understanding of the world.”  These are the kinds of intense impacts that Creative Campus has been able to instill in Wesleyan students, and I’m very much looking forward to experiencing it for myself.

“Blood, Muscle, Bone” was also appealing to me because of its emphasis on activism and the utilization of various activist tools to explore topics.  When it comes to academic pursuits, Wesleyan has always encouraged me to think about the whole picture, giving me the tools to consider all facets of an issue.  There are whole fields of study on campus dedicated to this idea that learning can only truly be achieved through input from multiple channels.  Creative Campus projects have taken this approach one step further by allowing me to embrace this way of thinking in my personal life, in addition to my pedagogical outlook.  Since I’ve been here, I’ve been lucky to meet and talk to many interesting artists like Eiko Otake, of Eiko + Koma, and Lucy Orta, of Studio Orta, who have generously taken the time to show students how to create with intention.  Artists employ research methods and ask questions that are challenging in ways that thrill and excite students who are in the process of discovering their own interests and passions, which is a major reason why I decided to take this course.

The issues that I’ve been challenged to think about and feel in my body at Wesleyan have forever changed me as a thinker and as a human being who aims to make an impact.  Since getting involved, I’ve been inspired to find my own form of political activism.  “Blood, Muscle, Bone” deals with the realities of wealth inequality, a topic that has always been on my mind.  Growing up in New York City, I’ve been exposed to both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum and have been amazed by how polarized the experiences of the rich and the poor can be.  Oftentimes I find this issue intimidating to talk about because of how pervasive and global the problem seems to be.  How does one begin to approach being proactive about poverty and how it affects the human mind/body?  How can one person, or a small group of people create something that speaks to these issues and affects communities in a positive way?  These are the questions I bring to the table before our first class intensive and I look forward to being able to explore these issues with my instructors and peers.  I know that the knowledge and experience gained from this course are going to give me the courage and motivation to tackle issues in ways that extend way beyond the scope of the classroom and long after I graduate in May.

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