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Arts & Life

For experimental musicians in Kansas City, sometimes a traditional concert hall just won't do

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E G Schempf
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Musicians of Ensemble Mother Russia Industries performing at the Charlotte Street Foundation's Stern Theater in October 2021.

The grand concert hall may not host experimental music as much as traditional performances, but musicians creating new, more avant-garde compositions are finding homes and audiences for their work.

With vaccination cards in tow, Kansas City's music lovers have ventured back to venues where they can enjoy the anticipation of a live performance, buoyed by the energy of the musicians.

But even in the days before COVID-19, finding a space that embraced experimental music posed a challenge. Traditional concert halls and the accompanying, often unspoken "rules" for conduct seemed to conspire to dictate the audience's response — until a group of rule-flouting musicians led by Kansas City composer Tim Harte appeared on the scene.

Harte co-founded Mother Russia Industries, a group of musicians and artists, creating new spaces for experimental music looking for a home.

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E.G. Schempf
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Mother Russia Industries co-founder Tim Harte, his sister and some friends longed for a place to share their music.

“We started because there weren’t venues for me and my sister and a few other friends, and so we kinda went at it as a kind of oppositional force," Harte said.

"And over time, probably seventy people have been involved with it — it’s a lot of people. And, sometimes it feels like there’s these singular efforts to narrow the view of what music is and for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s because there’s only a handful of venues and getting into them is competitive and then, you know, sometimes if you’re going to introduce something new, it’s not necessarily going to make a lot of money. It makes sense but personally, you start to feel a little unwelcomed, so you try to create something that is welcoming.”

In partnership with the Charlotte Street Foundation, Harte launched a composition competition to form this welcoming space. The winning pieces were performed by Ensemble Mother Russia Industries in Charlotte Street’s Stern Theater.

Harte's intrepid commitment to pushing boundaries is reminiscent of a 1960 TV performance during which famed composer and iconoclast John Cage shared his piece “Water Walk” on the CBS panel game show, “I’ve Got A Secret.” As Cage moved around the stage with a stopwatch, he dropped things into a bathtub, watered plants and filled glasses with ice.

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Henmar Press, Inc.
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A page from the score to "Water Walk" by John Cage. Cage used written descriptions for each musical moment and numbers to represent the passage of time in seconds.

The studio erupted in laughter, prompting the announcer to say, "He takes it seriously. I think it’s interesting. If you find it amusing, you may laugh. If you like it, you may buy the recordings. John Cage and ‘Water Walk.’”

Advocates of experimental music raise the question: If the renowned John Cage had given the exact same performance in a concert hall or at a conservatory, would the audience have felt comfortable laughing?

Kansas City Symphony Music director Michael Stern reminds us that the traditional concert experience wasn’t always so buttoned up.

“Really, right up until the first decades of the 20th century, concert going was a much more interactive and relaxed affair," Stern explained. "Lights were not dimmed … there wasn’t this feeling of some kind of a ritualized service with something happening at arm’s length on the stage, away from the audience. It was much more bonded. And if you ever do concerts for young people, for little kids, you’ll see how viscerally they can react when they are not being told what the rules are.”

Multimedia artist and one of the winning composers in the Charlotte Street competition, Michèle Saint Michel, had struggled to find her place musically, but felt welcomed during the process.

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Ola Bonati
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Artist and composer Michèle Saint Michel was one of winning composers in the Charlotte Street competition.

“A lot of times when you think of this Western Classical Music history, you think of this kind of singular genius and they’re always male, and they’re always white, you know, and I think, ‘I don’t fit ... there isn’t a place in chamber music for my work right?' That’s kind of what I was thinking. So, I liked that it was all about collaboration and that it was about experimenting with chamber music.”

Craig Comstock, another one of the winning composers, has performed in non-traditional venues in Kansas City and Lawrence for nearly two decades as the one-man punk noise band, “This Is My Condition.” He worried the audience might not appreciate his musical style.

“Would they dance, or would they make like a mosh pit or like just shove each other in the classical venue versus a bar or a house or wherever. If you’re in somebody’s dirty basement, the bar is set rather low for decorum, and I enjoy that lack of decorum and introduction of more truthful energy from all the participants.”

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Craig Comstock
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Craig Comstock has performed at venues in Kansas City and Lawrence as a one-man punk noise band.

Comstock, along with his fellow experimental composers and musicians, have big dreams for this “truthful energy."

He said, “If I could get a whole orchestra to do this thing, I think I would kind of die a little bit … I’m actually almost kinda tearing up right now like thinking about it.”

A longer version of this story originally aired on Classical KC. Please click here.

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