ChamberQUEER 2024: Constellation Takes the Music Festival to Transplendent Heights

“Would you like a kiss?” Hershey’s, that is. A bowl of candy and cheerful decorations at check in were just the start of the fun at ChamberQUEER 2024: Constellation, the organization’s flagship Pride festival celebrating LGBTQ+ voices in contemporary and historical music. Every year since 2019 — including a 16-day virtual festival during lockdown — ChamberQUEER throws the music festival everyone wants to be; impeccably designed by classical musicians who know all the etiquette rules to break, and presented with the warmth and wisdom fueled by lived queer experience, everyone in attendance feels like they got inside the clubhouse.

Held at MITU580 in Brooklyn, the home of interdisciplinary performance company Mitu, the flexible venue’s black box theater, movable seating, and streaming capabilities allowed for a wide range of configurations. I was able to attend several performances throughout the weekend, though the whole week was packed with exciting programming. big dog little dog, the “post-minimalist groove americana” duo violinist/composer Jessie Montgomery and bassist/songwriter Eleonore Oppenheim, improvised a soundscape based on a lifetime of hearing the sounds of New York City. InfraSound and ChamberQUEER reprised their “Dancing to the Music of You” program (previously reviewed on ICIYL), and the festival closed with “electronic cinematic pop” by Ringdown (Caroline Shaw and Danni Lee), Thalea String Quartet’s premiere of a new work by Andrew Yee, and a lot of champagne.

Harpist Parker Ramsay performs at "ChamberQUEER 2024: Constellation" -- Photo by Sean Salamon

Harpist Parker Ramsay performs at “ChamberQUEER 2024: Constellation” — Photo by Sean Salamon

On the evening of Friday, June 14, there was an experimental harp concert and surprise wine tasting. Black Cat Wines and Heather Meyer of Winemonger Imports Wines paired wines by queer winemakers with Parker Ramsay’s performance of commissions by Lucy McKnight, Tom Morrison, Janet Sit, and Kennedy Dixon. Surrounded by custom-built percussion racks for Lucy McKnight’s when i am among the trees, Ramsay ambidextrously played harp and pots, bowls, wind chimes, and maraca shells hung on custom percussion racks. Throughout pieces by Janet Sit, Kennedy Dixon, and Tom Morrison, Ramsay filed harp strings with a nail file, stroked the wooden soundboard suggestively, and interacted with electronics that could score an action film — or perhaps a documentary about Outcalls, another featured festival artist that deserves a meteoric rise.

Someone please book Outcalls to play for the Supreme Court. On Saturday, June 15, the vocal duo performed Release the Gowns, an hourlong multimedia rock-pop extravaganza with book by Jessica Garrett, Britt Olsen-Ecker, and Melissa Wimbish. The work makes more than a splash in the fight for women’s equality and gives peak summer synth vibes. Justin Kruger as “Stage Boy” played percussion, guitar, and the soundboard from the drum kit while Olsen-Ecker and Wimbish powered the show with keys, absurdist sketches between songs, and vocals on “Call Sometime,” “Blast!”, and “Gatekeeper.” Juxtaposing theatrical exchanges and sequined costume changes with unexpected lyrics and stellar pop harmonies, this “radical feminism meets Vegas strip” proves that women can fucking do it all.

Outcalls (Britt Olsen-Ecker and Melissa Wimbish) perform at "ChamberQUEER 2024: Constellation" -- Photo by Sean Salamon

Outcalls (Britt Olsen-Ecker and Melissa Wimbish) perform at “ChamberQUEER 2024: Constellation” — Photo by Sean Salamon

Pianist Coady Green brought greetings from TEMPO QUEER, the Melbourne festival that shares ChamberQUEER’s spirit. Continuing the spirit of an earlier Queer Music History Coffee Hour event, featuring African-American studies scholar Isaac Jean-François and musicologist and queer history archivist Poe Allphin, Green wove the last half-century of Australian gay rights history through a recital featuring New York and Australian queer composers. Connor D’Netto’s The Seven Percent Etudes, based on an equation by the famous mathematician Alan Turing, spiraled patterns into a formal whirl of emotion. Although Turing was persecuted and died because of homophobia, the music portrays the precision, rigor, and elegance of his inner mathematical world.

Bryn Renard’s gentle My Voice in Shattered Shapes expressed their loving T4T (Trans for Trans) relationship and the need for intimate touch; composer and watercolorist Cameron Lam’s synesthetic etudes also expressed the human desire for connection. Inspired by Australian Leaf Green, Australian Red Gold, and Tasmanian Blue, the technical demands of Lam’s We Touch to Feel illuminated the touch relationship between a pianist and his instrument. Robert McIntyre’s Starlit Sands and Linda Kouvaras’ Shoalhaven Nightpainters also offered dramatic pastoral renderings of Australian natural beauty.

When he presents TEMPO QUEER in Melbourne, people still ask Green why it matters to have a music festival centering queer voices. His answer? Because telling stories freely, wherever possible, helps queer people survive in the knowledge of each other; because classical music still lacks active representation and inclusion; because in many places, homosexual acts have been only recently decriminalized, and prosecution, repression, or legal killing is still commonplace in many nations.

In programming Meta Cohen’s Delphi Songs, featuring vocalist Elizabeth van Os playing two singing bowls, Green confronts this aspect of danger. Dramatizing the last known words of the Oracle of Delphi Pythia (eventually silenced by the Roman Empire), van Os sang a powerful rendering of a woman’s power in both quiet moments and total rage. When van Os sang “Words that called down the lighting…” and flung charges against the interior rot of a falling empire, a real thunderstorm shook Brooklyn.

Coady Green and Elizabeth van Os perform at "ChamberQUEER 2024: Constellation" -- Photo by Sean Salamon

Coady Green and Elizabeth van Os perform at “ChamberQUEER 2024: Constellation” — Photo by Sean Salamon

If the 2024 festival expressed fury, hilarity, and energy, it also cultivated connection and welcomed participation. In addition to Composer Speed Dating, Luna Composition Lab’s Open Workshop, multiple sound baths, and a sight-reading party, a Circle Singing session on Sunday afternoon provided a fun and relaxing environment for musical improvisation. Accessible to any musical level and a space for classical singers to let loose, Gaia Music Collective founder Matt Goldstein led 13 people through a unique exercise in empathy, self-love, and creativity.

A stratospheric expression of ChamberQUEER’s impact was Saturday’s workshop performance of Enby, a new ballet composed and produced by Kebra-Seyoun Charles. Charles started work on Enby in 2022, graduating from Juilliard with a deep love for classical music, but frustrated by the genre’s classist structures and restrictive gender expectations. Joining forces with dancer-choreographer Kobe Atwood Courtney shortly thereafter, the two non-binary artists welded their personal experiences with expert craft.

Scored for horn, flute, string quartet, and percussion, Enby has a lightness that counterweights heavy topical inspirations. The music’s buoyancy and verve — pushing the far reaches of tonality while savoring hummable grooves — allowed for Atwood Courtney to choreograph movement critiquing minstrelsy, confronting the gender binary, and portraying performance anxiety without becoming exhausting or esoteric. Firmly anchored in classical ballet technique, Atwood Courtney’s elegant influences of contemporary dance, New York street movement, and voguing showcased a lifetime of dedication while deftly portraying the collision of beauty and modernity.

Kobe Atwood Courtney and Laura Perich Villasmil perform at "ChamberQUEER 2024: Constellation" -- Photo by Sean Salamon

Kobe Atwood Courtney and Laura Perich Villasmil perform at “ChamberQUEER 2024: Constellation” — Photo by Sean Salamon

During their live choreography rehearsal, Atwood Courtney explained that the gender binary exists not only in visual costuming, but also in physical expectations of lightness, weight, and step expansion. By adjusting technical executions and incorporating the verve of modern styles, they expand the dance beyond conventional gender roles. “Classical arts can showcase individuality and still have cohesion,” they insist.

Why did Charles compose a ballet, and not a concerto or an opera? It’s a mix of personal inspirations and deep structural analysis of the professional injustices they wish to confront. Although Charles experiences strong reactions to their nonbinary presentation, they sought to address the stronger power dynamics of race and class. Racial bias projects jazz upon them as a Black upright bassist, although they are trained and inspired by classical symphonic repertoire; and they see classism active in both the unspoken rules of behavior and in a hesitation to present audiences with new and challenging work. But “people have the mental and emotional capability to handle whatever is put in front of them,” Charles said during a talkback, and their choice to compose for dance links traditionally exclusive, stationary classical music with popular music that gets the body involved.

“We’re the next Stravinsky and Balanchine,” Charles asserts as Enby aims for performances at the Apollo Theater and The Joyce Theater. That kind of bold artistic vision, individuality, and a strong queer classical community is what ChamberQUEER champions. Beyond the reach of corporations, political pandering, and trauma porn, ChamberQUEER’s festival is New York City’s shining example of jubilant Pride, genuine hospitality, and world-class art.



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