Rehearsing Philadelphia brings progressive and experimental concerts to public spaces across the city - WXPN
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Rehearsing Philadelphia is a new place-based public concert series conceived by Ari Benjamin Meyers, featuring music direction by Anthony Tidd and compositions by a whole host of musicians in all genres from Philadelphia and around the world: Ursula Rucker, Marshall Allen, Yolanda Wisher, Tyshawn Sorey, Xenia Rubinos, and so many more. Meyers is a classical and experimental composer and artist based in Germany, while Tidd is a UK-born, Philadelphia-based bassist, composer and producer who has worked with The Roots and Rucker here, as well as Ars Nova Workshop and the Kimmel Center (where he was my music teacher when I was young as fourteen).

The series, which begins Friday, March 25th, platforms over fifty musicians from around Philadelphia with disparate backgrounds in jazz, classical, hip hop, Hindustani, West African, and other folk traditions. Some have rigorous musical training and years of experience, while others have less training and have never played professionally. Meyers and Tidd felt it was essential to remove as many barriers to entry as possible in order to build a program that works like a public forum, representing Philadelphia’s population and cultures in microcosm. To do that, they commissioned all new works that don’t even require the performers to read sheet music.

The two-week program, which Meyers calls a “meta-score,” includes four different “modules” that place these performers in a way where the musical arrangements mirror different socio-politicial contexts: the solo, duet, ensemble and orchestra. Solo performances, for example, turn up in local seats of power, including City Hall, police headquarters, school district headquarters, and Community Legal Services; duets take place between strangers at monuments and seeds of memory, from Baltimore Avenue to Old City; ensemble performances imagine small musical groups like families or “pods” in quarantine. These two weeks conclude with three concerts by a new group called the Public Orchestra, which mixes instruments from all over the world with new work by Rubinos, Rucker and others, and which they hope will continue to perform and develop its own genre-less repertoire beyond this spring series. These three shows at Cherry Street Pier on April 8th through the 10th  represent a kind of culmination for this new project, but Meyers explains that he wants the orchestra to live, like a city, in a constant state of rehearsal and reinvention.

Meyers began developing the project in 2020 with collaborators from the Curtis Institute and Drexel University, and rehearsals have now been running for several months. Last week, I spoke with Tidd, Meyers, and vocalist Jay Fluellen – who will sing in the upcoming duet and orchestra performances – about the origins of the program and the Public Orchestra model, their feelings about rehearsing so far, and what they hope listeners and players will take away from these performances. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Rehearsing Philadelphia | photo by Conrad Erb | courtesy of the artist

TK: Could everyone start by introducing themselves and describing the work you do here in Philadelphia?

Ari Benjamin Meyers: My name is Air Benjamin Meyers, I’m an artist and composer. I’m from New York and I’ve lived in Berlin for a long time, and I’m the creator of Rehearsing Philadelphia! The instigator along with the producing partners, the Curtis Institute of Music and Westphal College at Drexel University. I’m specifically on the module called the Public Orchestra, working with Anthony Tidd as music director, making this happen together with the fifty amazing performers and musicians we have in the orchestra – of which Jay is one, and it’s also great to meet him for the first time!

Anthony Tidd: My name is Anthony Tidd, I’m a composer, musician, curator, I’m the musical director of the Public Orchestra and I’m very happy to be a part of it. I’m also an educator, as you know!

Jay Fluellen: My name’s Jay Fluellen, I’m a member of the Philadelphia Public Orchestra. I am a Philadelphia-born and -raised musician, composer and pianist, I teach music at Northeast High School, I’m also co-musical-director at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. And I’ve been enjoying being a part of the Philadelphia Public Orchestra, it’s been a really wonderful experience.

TK: How and when did you first come up with the concept for Rehearsing Philadelphia?

ABM: Yeah, it’s a long process. Almost exactly two years ago, Mary Javian from the Curtis Institute called me and asked if I would be interested in thinking about some kind of public project, centered around music, to take place in Philadelphia together with Curtis and Drexel. It was really on the eve of COVID, it has to be said, right as it was starting, and so I was thinking a lot about this idea of social distancing – we’re sort of used to it now, but I remember at the time it felt so radical and so foreign, this idea that we had to keep distance from people. We never had this before, if you think about other crises in the past: in the AIDS epidemic, you could still hug people. This was radical, you know: keep away from people. And I work almost exclusively with performance and with people, performers and all sorts of musicians. So I was thinking a lot about that, and at the same time as an American who lives as a kind of expat – I never looked at myself that way, but I guess that’s what it’s called – looking at what was happening in this country.

Trump was still president, and seeing the divisive situation here, everything happening in the racial justice movement, people going out into the street. And so those things were really making me think about people, how people come together, can we come together, will we be together again? And that’s what led me to think about sort of the most basic units as a composer, those basic units being the solo, the duet, the ensemble which is slightly larger, and the orchestra which is the largest classical ensemble. And so the project was thinking about those units, and what would they mean in a public sphere, what does a solo mean about being alone, and in this context about the individual versus power structures, the orchestra as a kind of symbol of society at large and what could it mean.

There’s something beautiful in that idea of an orchestra, and a choir, something very beautiful about a group of people coming together to make art. But we think primarily of the Western classical orchestra; there’s a certain image attached to that and there are certain issues there. I thought it would be interesting to use this project to imagine, can there be another kind of orchestra? Can there be another way we can come together as an orchestra but not in this Western classical tradition, but find some other way and try to open it up so we can work with all sorts of different backgrounds, different instruments – and to me, as someone who is coming as an outsider to Philadelphia, could be as vibrant and diverse and exciting as Philadelphia. And also deal with the issues and talk to each other, really the Public Orchestra as a forum. So yes we rehearse music, but also people come in contact with each other and talk about things that are important to them, and so that’s the basis where it came from.

And the other element is this idea of rehearsal. This idea of being in a process, and the idea of working and rehearsing together as kind of a model for how we might possibly try to come together and work on a lot of the issues that we’re dealing with today. As opposed to the idea that in my mind is somewhat antiquated, that you rehearse and rehearse and then it’s perfect, and that thing will always be perfect and never change. I think we live in a different way, we live much more in flux. And I think COVID has shown that, that things can happen that we can’t predict, so this mode of rehearsal is central to the entire project.

TK: The Public Orchestra, the largest ensemble in the program, was created through “an open call in the community.” Can you describe how that process worked?

AT: We used every possible method that we had at our disposal: emails, word of mouth, reaching out to particular community organizations where we thought those musicians that we were looking for might reside. Essentially, the word was put out that we wanted people to apply to become part of this Public Orchestra, and the ethos behind it was that we wanted a group of fifty people that would represent Philadelphia in a way that some of the other institutions such as the orchestra do not. We also tried to communicate this idea that the musicians donot need to be people who do music for a living. I hate to use the word “professional” but that’s the easy way to think of it – it wasn’t limited to those kinds of people. Say, for recreational purposes you play guitar; you could be a person that teaches music; you could be a person that used to be a musician fifty years ago but wants to get back into music.

And we wanted to make it as wide and as open as possible so as many people as possible could apply. One big thing that we included was that people did not have to read to become part of the orchestra, and if you think about most orchestras – or all orchestras, actually, as they are defined within the West – the backbone of the orchestra is the ability to read [music]. Another part of that backbone is that everybody more or less comes from the same tradition, so that when they see something on the page they all read it more or less the same. But the difference with this project was that we were removing reading as a requirement, even at that stage for the auditions, and then we went further and removed it almost completely. So that meant people from different cultures, like South Asian cultures, folk music cultures, could apply and become a part of this orchestra. We also wanted it to represent people who are in the hip-hop community, people who are in the jazz community, people who are in the Lithuanian pipe organ community or wherever! Anything you can imagine! We wanted people from every possible area in Philadelphia that make music to become part of this orchestra. That’s really what went behind the open call to make as many people become part of it as possible.

JF: For me, I found out about it on Instagram and email, and it was a really intriguing project for me so I was really excited to be able to audition. They just asked us to send in a couple videos of our work and some basic questions, and so I did that. And when I received the email that I got in, I was like a little kid! [Laughs] Wow, I actually made it into this orchestra! It was really exciting. And the process has been incredible – my forty-nine colleagues are just incredible people in addition to being phenomenal musicians, and I think it’s been fantastic to be a part of this amazing group. The one thing that strikes me is that we’re all committed to bringing the composers’ visions to life, really a committed group of musicians that really want to honor the essence of how this project was created. We have a lot of respect for each other, and a lot of respect for Anthony and the work that he’s doing, and for Ari creating this incredible vision. These five composers each have a distinctive voice, and we’re all super committed to being fully present in these performances. It really speaks to what Ari was saying, that no performance is going to be the same, we’re just happy to be a part of that process of these evolving pieces that will sound different every time they’re performed.

ABM: Yeah, Jay is talking about people and I wanted to stress that. Calling it the “Public Orchestra” has a bunch of meanings, but it has two big meanings: One is that it’s for the public, rehearsal is open to the public, that it’s a meeting place, like an agora. And the other is that it’s an orchestra of the public, and I mean that it’s really of people. And one of the things that’s so different is that it’s kind of a people-first orchestra, and I think that’s important because – as Anthony and Jay would agree – in the music world, things are very divided among “genre,” and in a weird way, things can be very separate. You know, you have the classical orchestra here, and there you have a jazz combo. Then when you try to put things together, of course there are many great examples, but there are many not great examples where you enter a weird crossover.

We all know that can often be musically difficult. And I think what’s so interesting artistically about this orchestra, is that we don’t approach it that way. Yes, we have all of these different genres and backgrounds, but we don’t say, Okay, you be this genre, you be this genre, and it’s all about coming together. And that’s why it was so important to commission new work, that we’re not playing any piece that was written for someone else, we’re really creating a new repertoire for this group. And if this group can continue – which I very much hope it can – I am sure the members would make work for the orchestra themselves, that the orchestra would choose to commission people. In other words, it’s a body forming its own repertoire that really has no genre.

Marshall Allen of Sun Ra Arkestra with Rehearsing Philadelphia | photo by Conrad Erb | courtesy of the artist

TK: How would you describe the music that the Public Orchestra will play? What does it sound like, even if it might not sound the same every time?

AT: A very big part of what the orchestra is doing, along the lines of what Jay was saying, is spontaneous creativity. It’s kind of related to improvising, but in a slightly different way – if you’re familiar with the work of Butch Morris, for instance, “conduction.” we’ve been looking for a way we can find a space within pre-written compositions the composers might bring, between improvisation that the orchestra might bring, and between the organization that a conductor might bring. We’re looking for a way we can create music together that encompasses all of those things. In terms of what could it sound like, there are so many different traditions in the orchestra, so what it sounds like really depends on which people are playing at a particular moment. We were very conscious about trying to include as many traditions within Philadelphia as possible, so we wanted to include the West African tradition, we definitely include the Indian tradition, we definitely include some of the Native American tradition, we definitely include some of the Western classical tradition as well, and some of the gospel tradition, some of the hip-hop tradition, some of everything.

JF: In rehearsals, we’ve all had to become deep listeners. So we’re listening to each other, we’re feeding off each other in terms of ideas, we’re following what the composer is giving us, but we’re also really listening to one another. And that’s been a really incredible process, in terms of developing, listening deeply and finding those spots where someone can be featured, someone comes out and we can support that. We’re really trying to support each other in this musical context.

ABM: Jay just spoke about deep listening and supporting. And this is what’s so interesting as model, because there grows a kind of empathy then of seeing things through other people’s eyes. Again, the Western classical orchestra is great for what it does but it’s very specific in what it does and it’s very hierarchical. You do have the conductor, the maestro who stands in front of the orchestra, and you do have these compositions which are usually very, very fixed, in fact in every detail. And I think working in this other way where we have scores, but there’s a kind of freedom as people are testing different limits, different boundaries, supporting each other, listening, this is thinking – through music – about how we can live together. We have laws, we do live under a certain score, there is a society that tells us how we need to function, what not to do and who society says we are. And we’re testing the limits of that, or when is the right moment to break out of that, the right moment to break a law sometimes. This is part of it, a political aspect to it as well.

JF: In a way, Ari’s created something where he’s giving voice to the musicians in the orchestra; he’s giving us a voice to be able to contribute, and that’s where I think respect becomes the underpinning. We have to learn to respect one another, and from that we can then have the conversations and the exchanges that we can grow from. So it’s a really wonderful metaphor, I think, for how society should look: all these different voices coming together, respecting one another so that we can grow. I’m growing every time I’m in a rehearsal, I’m learning something new, I’m engaging in a different way than I’ve done before, and that’s enhancing my development as a musician, but enhancing my development as a human being as well.

TK: I was excited to hear that the “Duet” module includes impromptu performances with musicians and strangers in public spaces, like on a sidewalk. How do the musicians prepare for this?

ABM: Yeah, duet is a piece of mine, the only work that’s actually part of an existing work, from 2014. It’s very simple, two pages of notes a cappella, no text, La La La, and I made the piece about having a situation where two strangers would face each other and sing together. Because this is a very rare and weird thing, beautiful thing, but it doesn’t usually happen in normal life, let’s say, [laughs] and I wanted to make that encounter. In a way it’s a very simple piece: you have two music stands, you have these notes, and you have someone asking someone else, Would you like to sing with me? If they say no, that’s fine, if they say yes, then again it’s about rehearsing. They teach them but they don’t have to read notes, they say, This is the first melody, this is the second melody, La La La, La La La. And they rehearse for about ten minutes or so, then they perform it together, then they go their separate ways, but they’ve had this moment together. And so musically it’s very easy to teach, and doing it is an experience! I’ve done the piece all over the world – what’s interesting is that it’s quite simple but it takes on the context of where you do it. So when I do it in museums or places like that, it becomes something about singing and music in a museum, and you’re putting this on display; when I’ve done it in Cairo it became very political, could a man sing with a woman, could a veiled woman sing with a non-veiled woman, it became controversial. And so in Philadelphia it will become about Philadelphia, about the interactions that happen there.

I don’t think any musician who’s doing it has ever done something like that before, but I do teach it to them and we do talk about how you can’t plan for everything, that’s how this is a piece but it’s never a finished piece. But it’s very generous, just asking, would you like to sing with me, is a generous offer, and usually people are very happy after they do it; it usually leads to nice moments. But for everyone performing it, from the choirs that we’re working with, for them it’s gonna be very new, and I’m sure they’re nervous about it but I’m sure it’ll be great.

JF: I am actually one of the singers in the duet!

ABM: You’ll see! It’s very special, singing with a stranger is very intimate. It’s kind of like you’re having a conversation with someone except it’s very little talking, not about Hello, what’s your name, it’s really about rehearsing this piece of music.

JF: And we’re going to be learning the piece on Thursday so we haven’t even seen the music. [laughs] It’s good – we’re into it.

TK: And the “Solo” module includes solo performances all over the city. How did you decide on these locations and who would perform at each?

ABM: Yeah, the “Solo” is very much about the individual in the face of power, so I knew that the locations had to be places of power. And I made a long list, and a lot of them just said no, no way, no no. [laughs] But for instance the police – in a way, surprisingly – said yes, and City Hall said yes, and some places did want to engage with us. It was really about thinking about what are the places of power in Philadelphia. So we have the police headquarters, we have City Hall, we have the school district headquarters which is such an important seat of power – even if we don’t always think of it, actually they determine the course of so many lives, in the sense of where children go to school and what opportunities they have. We are also at Penn Medicine, again COVID and hospitals [tell us so much] about Philadelphia, so that seemed to me important. And then it was really nice that a bit later, coming aboard as a kind of balance to those four kind of monolithic power structures we have Community Legal Services, which also has a kind of power but their power is a different kind of power, so I was very happy to bring that in and highlight the work that they’ve been doing for so long.

Then the way “Solo” works is that the performers are not “professionals,” but some people who were working at those places, so once we found the places it was about how to find who would be interesting and who would be interested, who would be willing to be a performer. And it was a long process but we finally were able to find performers at each location and pair them with artists who were making miniature solos for each of those performers.

TK: To wrap up, what part of the program are you each most excited for?

AT: I would say I am most excited – very selfishly – for the Public Orchestra. And I’m also the most apprehensive about the Public Orchestra, just because it’s a giant experiment. And for me, the combination of excitement and apprehension, those are two things I’m used to because I’m sort of a jazz musician, so that’s a natural state for me.

JF: Ditto to Tidd. [laughs] The Public Orchestra is going to be really exciting, I think we’ll really be able to communicate the essence of the project in those performances. And I hope people can come out and really tune into what we’re doing, because it’s gonna be special.

ABM: For me, of course the Public Orchestra is the largest module, it’s really the culmination of the whole project, a lot of the ideas about power and about being together – In other words, if you take solo, duet and ensemble, and you put them together – it’s all in the orchestra. I’ve worked with orchestras but this is really something new created in Philadelphia for this project. So, although I’m super excited about the whole thing happening, it’s the Public Orchestra and that last weekend I’m really excited about.

//

Rehearsing Philadelphia begins this Friday, March 25th, and runs until April 10th. Find a full calendar of performances, a map of their locations, and a list of all performers and composers at rehearsingphiladelphia.com. Notably, all the events are completely free and most are open to the whole public – even passersby who don’t expect to hear music – except for a few in indoor spaces which require free registration just to avoid overcrowding and promote safety.

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