When people talk about American music traditions, particularly in the Southern Appalachians, they’re usually talking about the interplay between banjo and fiddle, that danceable romp that’s folded into well-documented genres like Americana, folk, bluegrass and old-time. But experimental musical styles, which are less easy to categorize, have roots that are just as deep.
Black Mountain College, which operated 1933-57, challenged the scope of traditional higher education, attracting students who had a predisposition toward the unconventional. The college may have been closed for more than 60 years now, but its legacy has left a lasting mark on Asheville and its environs.
So, it makes sense that Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center is the location of a new festival celebrating uncategorizable music, running Thursday-Sunday, April 25-28.
Neo-Pastiche: Changes in American Music will offer attendees four days of programming which, according to the festival website, “will feature musicians working under the headings of experimental music, both improvised and composed, electronic and computer musics, contemporary dance music, Appalachian string music, honky-tonk, speech and text-based musics, video art and more.” More than a dozen artists will share their sounds.
Co-sponsored by other local organizations, including UNC Asheville and the Media Arts Project, the weekend was conceived by composers Alec Sturgis and Jack Callahan. (Both are now based in New York City, though Sturgis lived in Asheville for seven years.) Sturgis says the pair dreamed up the event through years of conversations about their need for more venues for their styles of composition. They guessed that such a thing could do well in music-loving towns like Asheville, where fans of the arts generally have an open mind.
“[Jack] and I both come from backgrounds in conservatory composition,” Sturgis says. “We were both seeking alternative pathways for our own music, which led us to get involved in more experimental and interdisciplinary practices. … We’d been thinking for a long time about the lack of representation for a lot of the music that our friends [make] in experimental music circles, or in other less publicized areas of the American music circuit. We just really wanted to try our best to put together an interesting program that tries to represent a wider context for underrepresented music in the U.S. — not just computer music or avant-garde composition, but a lot of other different approaches to making music outside of standard institutional support.”
Among the weekend’s performers are several Asheville locals, including Elizabeth Lang and Kimathi Moore, who call their collaboration Phenoma. The duo’s dreamy, transporting soundscapes can make listeners feel as if they’ve entered a different dimension, as the performers employ drone and ambient music.
“I try to always work with source material that I have a personal relationship with,” Moore says in a video for local electronic instrument creator Make Noise Co. “[It] can be from cooking eggs to a vacuum cleaner, from a specific model that I like. It could be a refrigerator sound. I have a lot of kitchen sounds. I have an old kitchen, so I have some interesting humming sounds that come from the pipes.”
It may seem unlikely that a vacuum cleaner and the hum of a refrigerator could be spliced together into anything resembling music, but that is where the artistry resides. Moore makes it sound easy, as if these other worlds are just waiting for us in the kitchen. Indeed, if one digs into the musical sounds inherent in American folk music, whether musical saw, spoons or washboard, it ceases to feel like much of a leap to make music from refrigerator pipes and vacuum cleaners.
Shane Parish, meanwhile, works with the more conventional instrument of acoustic guitar. Nonetheless, his soundscapes are no less visionary. Perhaps best known as guitarist for local avant-rock band Ahleuchastistas, Parish will be appearing solo during Neo-Pastiche. His fingerstyle technique creates dreamlike instrumental music, and he says he’s looking forward to being part of such an imaginative group of artists.
“Folks [who attend Neo-Pastiche] should expect a program of rich and diverse musical continuums, lovingly curated with curiosity and enthusiasm,” Parish says. “They should expect to attend the festival with this same sense of openness and be ready to feel more alive. I am most looking forward to the expansion of my ability to listen deeply and be present.”
WHAT: Neo Pastiche: Changes in American Music, avl.mx/5wg
WHERE: Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, 120 College St., blackmountaincollege.org
WHEN: Thursday-Sunday, April 25-28. $12 per day/$45 four-day pass