by FSN’s newest team member Nandi Plunkett
After an exciting weeklong stint in the beautiful Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, it’s not easy to re-adjust to the Brooklyn office. Our corner of the room is currently being renovated, and specks of white paint dust swirl in the air. It makes us miss the mountains that surround Drury High School in North Adams, where for one week in mid-July, members of the Found Sound Nation team conducted a composition and recording workshop for a group of local middle school and high school students. With the Bang on a Can Summer Festival happening down the road at MASS MoCA, the band room at the high school was charged with a sense of musical exploration and discovery.
During the first two days of the inaugural program, we were in “pre-production” mode. Everyone had a chance to loosen up and get comfortable with each other by writing and recording short pieces as a full group. 14-year-old Epiphany shared with us a spooky dream she’d had recently, which then spurred the creation of an ensemble piece that took us through the shadowy realms of the psyche, and—in a section underscored by an eerie flute solo—to Saudi Arabia. Later, in another room, one small group of students produced a wild, free-form dubstep rendering of a Bach fugue, using Abelton Live software to record and manipulate sounds.
On Day 3, we began to focus more on such small-group pieces that would be recorded and performed later in the week. The kids were encouraged to explore whatever style of music they were interested in—whether it was pop, country, hip hop, or classical—and formed their groups accordingly. With the help of professional musicians from New York (members of Bang on a Can’s extended family), the students began to shape their tunes from scratch, selecting not only genre but also instrumentation and overall structure. “What sounds do you imagine incorporating?” we asked them. “Which sections should repeat, and how often?” It was ultimately their vision, which they brought to life using both the pro musicians and some of their own musical training. They also had the FSN mobile recording studio set-up at their disposal so that they could lay down their tracks and experience the production side of things.
Three days later, we were amazed to hear the variety and depth of what they had created. We rehearsed all the pieces one last time, utilizing MASS MoCA’s incredible array of industrial spaces to practice (with pieces by Steve Reich and David Lang being rehearsed by Bang on a Can fellows right next door!) The final performance took place at the DownStreet Art Festival, a monthly summer street fair in downtown North Adams. Despite the purple-gray skies that threatened storms and a tornado warning that extended across the county, the show went on in a covered alleyway, with a dedicated audience of parents, friends, and passersby looking on. And what a success it was!
The show opened with APE, the Ambient Percussion Ensemble, in which students Jason and Elliott played an array of live drums backed by the recorded track they had made days earlier, lending the piece a cool multilayered effect. Epiphany then narrated her dream sequence from our first group writing exercise, while the accompanying music filtered through the speakers. Next came Abby and Nick, who gave us an energetic rendition of their catchy pop tune about the summertime. Nick tapped out rhythms on found percussion instruments, while Abby belted out the words and played the keyboard. She then took center stage for her solo ballad “Chance.” Then it was Epiphany’s turn: she turned up the volume with a grunge rock tune, growling into the microphone with feeling and attitude in an impressively rich alto voice. The mood quieted with the next song, “Inseparable,” written by Sara and Emma, who lulled the crowd with a heartfelt country-folk tune, while Found Sound Nation co-founder Jeremy Thal strummed guitar and crooned along with them. Finally, to cap things off with a bang, Matty Blue and the Saxes Two—a jazz ensemble comprised of students Matt, Chris, and Connor on trumpet, alto sax, and baritone sax—wowed us with their tight performance, horn solos and improvisations on “A6 Ragtime.”
The Found Sound Nation in the Berkshires workshop embodied exactly what we’re about: bringing youth of different musical and social backgrounds together to create an incredible diversity of sounds and share in an experience of collaborative success. What was produced in just one week is truly astounding.
Special thanks to Tim Thomas, Chris Kauffman and Emily Windover, The Greylock Theater Project, North Adams Public Schools, Chris Caproni and Drury High School, Sue Killam and MASS MoCA, and Bang on a Can for their enthusiasm and support.