Strange Beautiful Music Showcases Trailblazing Artists in the Motor City

Detroit’s annual new music celebration Strange Beautiful Music is back this week for its 16th year of imaginative and immersive performances. Presented by New Music Detroit — the city’s leading contemporary music collective — the three-day festival will feature trailblazing artists in marathon concerts on Sept. 7-9.

When New Music Detroit was founded in 2006 by members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, their mission was simple: to bring contemporary, avant-garde, experimental music to the Motor City. Today, New Music Detroit operates as a collective with six core members: saxophonist Erik Rönmark, cellist Una O’Riordan, percussionists Ian Ding and Joe Becker, soprano Jocelyn Zelasko, and pianist Justin Snyder, who was appointed creative director last year.

The diverse lineup at this year’s Strange Beautiful Music showcases Snyder’s refreshingly broad definition of what falls under the umbrella of contemporary music. “The festival has everything: we’ve got techno, experimental jazz, contemporary classical music, dance, and spoken word,” Snyder told me in an interview.

Justin Snyder -- Photo courtesy of the artist

Justin Snyder — Photo courtesy of the artist

To curate the selections from this alluring cross-section within the larger contemporary-music world, Snyder brings together local and visiting artists to share music from around the country with the Detroit community. His emphasis on collaborative and immersive work also plays a big role in his vision for the festival. “I want people to be able to connect with music not just through sound, but on an even deeper level,” he said. “I’m interested in having people connect with all their senses.”

While part of the appeal of multimedia work is dialogue between different media — like the way music can reveal new aspects of visual artwork in a gallery space — it’s also about accessibility. Audiences less familiar with the ins and outs of contemporary classical music are given multiple sensory points of entry and the opportunity to be immersed in a shared artistic experience. “I’m interested in bringing audience members on a journey where they feel like they’re actually participating,” Snyder explained. “I want you to have a full-body experience where you learn something about yourself, your thresholds, and your perceptual capabilities.”

Joo Won Park -- Design by Zac Bru

Joo Won Park — Design by Zac Bru

Strange Beautiful Music kicks off on Thursday at the Andy Arts Center, a contemporary art and community space in Northwest Detroit that more closely resembles an airplane hangar or warehouse than a traditional concert hall. Electronic musician Joo Won Park will open the evening with a set of visceral and fluid soundscapes that make full use of the spacious venue. Saxophonist, composer, and electronic musician Leith Campbell will fill the room with her contemplative and grooving music, and the Regenerate! Orchestra, under the direction of Clay Gonzalez, will encourage audience members to get involved in the final set of the evening.

“The audience is immersed within the orchestra — you are encouraged to get out of your seat and walk around,” Snyder told me. “Everywhere you go, you will get a different perspective.” Attendees will also be able to sing and play percussion, and there’s even a water element. “I warn people that you may get wet if you sit in the splash zone; it’s going to be a huge, joyous, chaotic celebration to end the night,” he said.

The second day of the festival will take place at Newlab at Michigan Central — the latest addition to Detroit’s burgeoning mobility innovation district, spearheaded by the Ford Motor Company. Originally designed by legendary Detroit architect Albert Kahn, the freshly renovated Newlab building features a massive three-story concrete atrium topped with a striking vaulted glass ceiling.

Vincent Chandler -- Design by Zac Bru

Vincent Chandler — Design by Zac Bru

Detroit jazz icon Vincent Chandler will open the evening with a set that digs into his experimental roots. Composer-performer Molly Joyce, backed by members of New Music Detroit, will perform a set of songs that focus on disability as a creative source, and the improvisational group James Cornish Light Opera will present an ecstatic exploration of sound and performance art. The evening will wrap up with a set by world-renowned electronic music pioneer John “Jammin’” Collins of Underground Resistance.

The final day, Saturday, presented by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, will take place back at New Music Detroit’s home base: The Cube in Orchestra Hall. Grey Rose Grant will open the evening with her folk opera based on death rituals, the funeral industry, and how impermanence shapes our realities. Pianist Vicky Chow will perform Philip Glass’ first book of piano etudes, which she released on Cantaloupe Music last October.

Grey Rose Grant -- Design by Zac Bru

Grey Rose Grant — Design by Zac Bru

New Music Detroit will be joined by percussionist Matthew Duvall of eighth blackbird for a set featuring music of and about the body, including Heart and Breath by Richard Reed Parry, from the indie-rock band Arcade Fire. The piece calls for the musicians to use the rhythm of their breath and the beating of their hearts as impetus for playing their instruments. The 2023 Strange Beautiful Music festival will wrap up with the contemporary chamber quartet Virago, joined by special guests Michael Malis, Dominic Bierenga, and Colin McCall, who will perform works by Malis and Harriet Steinke.

Snyder has a lot in store for New Music Detroit beyond Strange Beautiful Music, with plans to facilitate collaborative work across disciplines. “I want to establish further-reaching connections with artists in the city of Detroit,” he told me. “There’s a real sense of experimentation and risk here that’s inherent in the city, and I want to be open with the ensemble and see where it goes.”

Tickets to Strange Beautiful Music are available now through Resident Advisor.


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