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The Emerson String Quartet

Far Afield

Three artists relocate for teaching jobs—and find new audiences where they land.

By Michelle Mercer

The Emerson String Quartet performing at a String Theory concert in Chattanooga, TN. Photo: Ashworth Photography.

A full-time position in academia presents a rare opportunity for stability and steady earnings in today’s volatile arts economy. But teaching jobs have to be taken where they’re offered, often far from the urban meccas where musicians are known to thrive. However, as the enterprising artists profiled here prove, audiences for small ensemble music lay waiting in all corners of the US—it's simply a matter of reaching them.

If you mention the University of Alabama to a coastal urbanite, art probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Alabama certainly wouldn’t seem like an ideal place for an experimental musician and scholar to land a tenure-track position. But as Andrew Raffo Dewar finished up his PhD at Wesleyan and prepared to move to Tuscaloosa for an assistant professorship in 2008, he knew it was the closest thing an artist-academic might find to a match made in heaven.

Because rather than a traditional music program, Dewar was hired by University of Alabama’s New College, one of the interdisciplinary units founded around the country in a late 60s/early 70s wave of educational idealism. “New College has always been a kind of vanguard experimental program throughout its forty-odd year existence, which is pretty rare and interesting at a place like University of Alabama,” says Dewar. “Alabama is otherwise a pretty tradition-based place and in some ways still coming to terms with contemporary life.”

There was another reason Dewar moved to Tuscaloosa with a sense of artistic possibility: “I already knew about these two really amazing, world-class improvisers in the area. LaDonna Smith, who’s a violist, and Davey Williams, who’s a guitarist.” Dewar had collected recordings from Smith and Williams’ label TransMuseq and was an avid reader of their self-published journal the improvisor. Within a few months of his arrival, Dewar, a saxophonist, began a series of gigs with Smith and Williams at Birmingham’s Green Cup Books. But as he spoke with Smith and Williams, Dewar learned the local history of experimental music went far deeper than he’d realized: “I found out that they were actually part of this whole community of really interesting and unique and eccentric Tuscaloosa artists in the 70s and 80s who formed an intermedia collective called the Raudelunas.”

With artists of all genres among its ranks, Raudelunas activities included a Dada-inspired big band and surrealist visual art. “The Raudelunas was all about the theater of the absurd,” says LaDonna Smith. “But we were all well-read, so our displays of anarchy had a point."

Empowered by this local legacy of experimental music, Dewar started the Sonic Frontier Series at the University of Alabama in 2010 with enthusiastic support from New College’s then-director Jim Hall. “The exciting thing was realizing we weren’t really doing anything new,” says Hall. “In fact we were going back to something that had come together previously in Tuscaloosa.” Appropriately enough for members of an interdisciplinary department, along with securing funds from the New College, they sought matching funds from the Honors College, the Dean’s Office, the Library, an initiative called “Creative Campus”—from a dozen departments and programs at the University of Alabama.

“I wasn’t ashamed to go ask anyone for money,” says Jim Hall. “And frankly Andrew worked in that mode too. We’re both coalition politics kinds of guys; we were interested in building the biggest tent we could. Ironically, the biggest challenge we ever had was getting the school of music to participate in the enterprise.”

Andrew Raffo Dewar and LaDonna Smith performing at Moundville Archaeological Park

Andrew Raffo Dewar and LaDonna Smith performing at Moundville Archaeological Park. Photo: Lydia Adkins.

Dewar’s own musical interests reach far beyond the traditional. He's studied and worked with Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, and Bill Dixon, musicians who experiment with both composition and improvisation, pushing at the boundaries of how music is performed and understood. Sonic Frontiers very much reflects Dewar’s own aesthetic.

“Sonic Frontiers is very quirky programming,” says Dewar. “Everything from intense contemporary new music to free jazz to very creative world music. Things that are bending traditions in some way or another.” Performers have included New College alumna Dr. Anne LeBaron, a composer and harpist, the Ghanaian saxophonist/instrument maker Nii Noi Nortey, and the New York free jazz group the Endangered Blood Quartet. Dewar’s programming also features a strong local presence. In 2013, Sonic Frontiers hosted a “Raudelunas Revival” in connection with a group retrospective at a local gallery. Birmingham writer and radio host Lee Shook curated the exhibit. “Basically, with these Sonic Frontiers events, Andrew helped revitalize this great radical era in Tuscaloosa, this largely forgotten cultural movement,” says Shook. “And then with the great newer performers he brings in, he connects that earlier era to the modern one in experimental music.”

“In big cities there’s a regular audience that goes to these things,” explains Shook. “The ‘heads’ who go listen for a deep listening experience. But even the people in Tuscaloosa or Birmingham who are interested enough to attend these concerts maybe haven’t developed the concentration to just get through one of these performances. This is where Andrew comes in, and what he does such a great job at: Setting the stage, telling people a little bit about they’re getting ready to hear, why they need to listen and why it’s going to be an enriching experience.”

Even with Sonic Frontiers’ educational component, and even with the local pride for Tuscaloosa’s rich experimental tradition, it took some time for Dewar to build support. “When I first started,” remembers Dewar, “I was poking around for a few hundred dollars here, a few hundred dollars there. It took a few years of success and photographic proof of audiences showing up for these things before I was really able to make the thing legitimate and start to get real funding.”

So far, Sonic Frontiers concerts have all been offered for free. The series’ crowning achievement was a weeklong residency with avant-garde musical icon Anthony Braxton in 2015, funded in part by a $40,000 NEA grant. “Over the course of the week, we had a couple thousand people come out for the shows,” says Dewar. “We had people flying in from Europe, we had people flying in from Utah, California. There were two or three carloads of people who drove down from New York.”

Dewar has managed to present and play experimental music for a diverse audience in the place where his academic job happened to land him. He owns a comfortable house with a large, wooded yard near a lake, property he likely couldn’t afford if he lived closer to an urban mecca. Dewar says the main thing he misses about the Northeast, aside from banal advantages like good espresso, is casual attendance at concerts. “You know, whenever the kind of event that I like going to is happening in Tuscaloosa, it’s usually because I organized it. Which is a different experience than just popping into a hall and listening.”

LaDonna Smith says Dewar’s presence in Tuscaloosa is deeply appreciated. “We have great gratitude for him being in Alabama,” says Smith. “We get a lot of bad publicity for past actions, which we should. But on the other hand, there’s a whole other creative side, and Andrew’s helping to show that better side to the world.”

In 2004, armed with a fresh PhD from the New England Conservatory, Gloria Chien took a tenure-track position at Lee University, a small Christian college about 30 miles from Chattanooga. She was grateful for the job but missed playing with her friends.

“After being in Tennessee for a couple of years, away from the world of school and Boston’s music scene, I was quite hungry for musical inspiration,” Chien says. She found that inspiration by studying at Music@Menlo’s Chamber Music Institute in California. “I was really energized by that whole experience—it was all chamber music! I wanted to bring it back and see how I could have more of that in my everyday life.”

So Chien decided to create the musical culture she wanted in Tennessee herself. The result was a chamber music series called String Theory.

Gloria had loved attending classical concerts at Boston’s Gardner Museum, so the Hunter Museum of American Art, in Chattanooga, was her obvious choice for a venue. And like Andrew Raffo Dewar, Chien found her strongest university support outside a music department. She went to the President’s office at Lee, specifically to the President’s wife Darlia Conn, a friend, who agreed Lee University would act as the fiscal agent for her series. “We generally have an attitude of giving to the community that involves all manner of non-profits,” says Conn. “We offer a good bit of support to the String Theory program because first of all, we love Gloria, but also because we see the value of it for the community and we see the value of our visibility in Chattanooga.”

Gloria Chien and cellist Paul Watkins

Gloria Chien and cellist Paul Watkins.
Photo: Ashworth Photography.

After her first local grant application was rejected, Gloria gathered a group of area arts supporters for a private concert and appeal. Some of those supporters are now on her advisory board. “She put herself in front of people and asked for money,” says String Theory advisory board chair Karen Kruesi. “We all loved her right away. Our board includes some of her major individual supporters. If you look at her donors, we’re right up there. That’s how much we believe in her.” Chien says her funding is currently about 50% individual donations, 20% grants, and 15% ticket sales, rounded out by some foundation support.

One of the first musicians Chien invited to String Theory was the clarinetist David Shifrin, who surprised her by saying yes. “I thought, wow, if David Shifrin wants to come then the possibilities are endless,” says Chien. “So from there on the trajectory of the whole series took on a much greater scale.” Many of the leading lights in the chamber music world have performed at String Theory. The Emerson String Quartet closed out the 2015-16 season.

It helped that Chien’s own career in chamber music soon began a meteoric rise. A year after launching String Theory, Chien was appointed director of the Chamber Music Institute at the Music@Menlo Festival. In 2012, she became a member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The fact that her prestige now rivals that of many String Theory performers isn’t lost on Bob Bernhardt, music director emeritus and principal pops conductor of the Chattanooga Symphony. “In Chattanooga we get to hear the same high quality of talent that they’re hearing in New York,” says Bernhardt. “That’s because Gloria has included Chattanooga in the rise of her career. She has stayed focused on Chattanooga being an anchor for herself and as her star has risen, she’s brought us the very best in the world of chamber music.”

About half the String Theory concerts are preceded by an Art Connection talk, in which Bernhardt and Hunter’s former chief curator Ellen Simik discuss works from the Hunter collection that relate to the music featured in the concert. “I think music and the visual arts have a very strong connection in terms of both portraying not only an individual spirit but a cultural spirit,” says Simik. “When Bob and I do talks, we might not find direct parallels between a program’s music and art in the collection, but we find themes and ideas that are similar.” So, for example, if Bernhardt discusses how Brahms built on existing musical traditions to create new ones, Simik traces the development of 20th-century glass sculpture in much the same way. “Art Connection might be that extra incentive for an art lover to come to the concert,” says Chien. “Or just create a richer experience for people who were coming anyway.”

String Theory concerts start at 6:30 and last only about an hour, a modest commitment that leaves plenty of time for dinner afterward. Gloria and the other musicians remain on hand after the performance to meet the audience. “She gets it that being inviting, being cordial and warm, shaking someone’s hand and making eye contact, these things are hugely important anywhere, but especially in what we call regional America,” says Bernhardt.

Now approaching its eight season, String Theory regularly fills the Hunter atrium to its 250-person capacity, and the audience has broadened from die-hard music lovers and museum supporters to general members of the local professional class. In the past couple of years, String Theory has started a Youth Initiative that trains high school students in arts administration, as well as a concert outreach program for grade schools.

Chien’s lifelong drive toward musical virtuosity is evident in her style of arts presentation, which is both passionate and meticulous. But Gloria says she actually had to learn to check her perfectionism at the door with String Theory. “You can be so detail-oriented and you think, ‘Okay I’m good on everything,’ but then the piano is two hours late! There’s always something. So now I just think, well, if you expect something will go wrong, you’ll be ready, and when things are good you’ll be really happy about it.”

And things do seem very, very good with String Theory. “You hear people talking about String Theory all over town,” says Bob Bernhardt. “Talking about chamber music! Where does that happen, except in big cities? Well, it’s happening here in Chattanooga now.”

Gloria Chien and Andrew Raffo Dewar both left the East Coast as newly minted young PhDs who’d found tenure-track positions. When native New Yorker and jazz veteran Ray Vega left the city in 2008, it was under entirely different circumstances.

“My son is autistic,” says Vega. “The special services for autistic children in Vermont are so much better than special services in New York City. We were willing to move for that.”

So when the University of Vermont offered Vega a full-time teaching job, he left the house he owned, his Puerto Rican community in the Bronx, a teaching job at SUNY Purchase, and the jazz and salsa cultures in which he’d worked and thrived for decades. Vega had been visiting Burlington since 2003 as an artist-in-residence at the Flynn Theater’s Summertime Latin Jazz Camp. “I’d met a bunch of musicians and had a feeling for the place,” says Vega. “But I’ve got to be honest, I didn’t know what to expect, because hanging out with people for one week in the summer is not seeing how the music scene works on a day to day thing.”

When Vega did experience the day-to-day music scene, he had some culture shock. “Major league culture shock,” says Vega. Though there were plenty of good players in Vermont, the scene didn’t have New York’s intensity. Vega had come of age playing with Latin jazz legends like Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaria, who demanded wholeheartedness from their sidemen. Vega had led his own bands through challenging shows and sessions in his work as a recording artist for Concord and Palmetto Records. Playing music was a form of devotion.

Ray Vega at the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival

Ray Vega at the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival. Photo: Courtesy of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts.

During his first year or so in Vermont, Vega’s solution was to drive to New York nearly every weekend. But after a couple years of “decompressing and teaching,” he had a change of heart. “If a person is coming into a community,” says Vega, “and that person has established his or herself in a larger community and has some knowledge, it’s a disservice to the music, the art in general, to take a job at an institution and focus on teaching and hide yourself and not get out there and play. First of all, I want to play. If it means I have to create a scene, I’ll do it. But also, I think it’s important for students to actually see their jazz instructors playing.”

Vega started a weekly series at Muddy Waters, a Burlington café. Brian McCarthy, a Vermont saxophonist who’s lived in New York, said Vega immediately fired up the scene. “Here in Vermont we’re all kind and gentle, which is a wonderful thing,” laughs McCarthy. “But when I came back here after my time in New York, I was missing that element of having that other person ready to take my gig at the drop of a hat. It’s not been in the culture of the Burlington scene. But when Ray got here, he raised the bar higher.”

In 2013, Vega moved his weekly residency to the Hotel Vermont, a newer upscale hotel in downtown Burlington. Writer and radio host Reuben Jackson is a regular at Vega’s weekly gig. “You can play at music, or you can play music,” says Jackson. “With Ray the music’s also got that deeper level of fun and commitment. I don’t feel like I’m missing anything as a listener. I don’t sit there and think, gee, I wish I were at the Village Vanguard. I’m reveling in being present for what they are creating. That’s important.”

And Vega wants that kind of presence from the audience. “Cannonball Adderly would tell the audience, ‘You’re 50% of this process,’ and I believe that, too” says Vega, who likes to take listeners inside jazz culture with stories and jokes about music and musicians. “That’s one of the things that makes Ray Vega Ray Vega,” says McCarthy. “He engages with the audience, he brings them in in a beautiful way. I pay real close attention to Ray. I learn a lot from Ray, not just in a playing sense, but in an entertainer-educator-historian sense.“

In the beginning, Vega estimates the Hotel Vermont audience was about “20% listeners and 80% talkers,” he says. “They didn’t realize that that’s not what you did.”

“I feel like the casual listeners, the guests at the hotel, the people who come by for a drink, seem more engaged than they used to be,” says Jackson. “At the same time there’s been an evolution in the crowd, cause the coterie of people who come on a regular basis has also increased.”

For Vega, cultivating smaller regional scenes is important to the overall development of the jazz art form. “Forty years ago, Philly, Detroit, and DC all had their own sounds,” says Vega. “LA jazz sounded different than San Francisco. Now that jazz education is where everyone learns the music, you have everyone working out of same two or three textbooks. Things have gotten really homogenized, so I think it’s really important that every community develops its own jazz sound. So if Burlington has a particular jazz sound, I’m going to respect that. I teach jazz at a college myself, so if I’m not going to be part of the problem, I’ve got to listen and say, ‘What is the sound of this particular community?’ It has to be nurtured.’

Vega moved to Burlington when he was 47, with thirty years of playing in New York behind him. Increasingly he meets younger musicians who want to leave the city. Depending on their goals and circumstances, Vega advises caution with the move. “If you haven’t established yourself, really think about making this change. It helps to move as a person who’s already created, who’s risen to the top of the game, and let the world know who he is.”

“To me looking at those Green Mountains, looking out across Lake Champlain, is a payoff for all those after-hours gigs in the Bronx, where I got off at 6 a.m. It’s a payoff for those years of endless traveling on tour for very little money. But I think up here I finally found a way to have the relaxed lifestyle and the art, too.”

Michelle Mercer is a regular music commentator for National Public Radio and the author of books on Wayne Shorter and Joni Mitchell. She’s currently at work on a cultural history of musicians making a living in the real world.

© 2016 Chamber Music Magazine