Ann Arbor orchestra seeks to “de-homogenize” classical music by disrupting conventions

Part of the innovative vision for Ann Arbor’s Regenerate! Orchestra stems from founder/composer Clay Gonzalez’s unexpectedly inspiring experience as a young trombonist.

“In orchestra, the trombone never plays,” Gonzalez says. “My formative years, musically, were spent sitting in the middle of all of these musicians, and that is the sound that I fell in love with. … That’s what I want to give people, because that’s the magic.”

So instead of having performers play on a traditional stage while audience members sit quietly to listen, Regenerate! Orchestra projects often involve musicians dispersed across an indoor or outdoor space while audience members are invited to wander through the performance space. The orchestra often tailors original pieces to both the musicians involved and the group’s unorthodox performance sites, which include parks, art galleries, cafes, and more.

“The project is like, what if we rebuilt the orchestra … with human connection as the foundation?” Gonzalez says.

The group’s name was inspired by Naomi Klein’s book, “This Changes Everything,” because Klein “envisions a future where the economy is regenerative” and “the work we do helps heal society, puts energy into communities,” Gonzalez says. 

“That word ‘regenerative’ really stuck with me,” he says. “I want to make music that’s regenerative. I want to make music in a way that makes society healthier. That makes Ann Arbor a better place to live. … That’s the foundation of what we do.”

With the Regenerate! Orchestra, Gonzalez puts that theory into practice by upending numerous conventions of classical music performance. For example, in addition to occupying unusual venues, the orchestra innovates in unique ways to adapt to the unusual spaces it performs in. At one show held in a park, Gonzalez wrote a piece designed specifically for the unusual circumstances of musicians being spread out across an outdoor space. Instead of having a traditional time signature, he specified that each bar of the piece was to last 30 seconds. The musicians used the stopwatch app on their phones to keep time.

“Above each bar line will be a little time stamp, and I write the music in such a way so that it doesn’t really matter exactly how the notes line up,” Gonzalez says. “You have about 10 seconds of wiggle room. I’m more about creating these huge, messy clouds of sound that just immerse you, rather than precision, and so actually it kind of goes off without a hitch.”

Gonzalez begins the process each time by spending a lot of time in the place where the orchestra will next perform, and he builds the project from there.

“When he’s putting together a group that’s meant to play outside, he’s thinking pretty carefully about: how will the sound travel in a field, versus how will the sound travel in this brick cylinder of an art museum or art gallery?” says Justine Sedky, an alto flute player in the orchestra.

In addition to eliminating the space between performers and audience, the orchestra’s dress code is “first date casual.”

“No tuxedos, no all concert black,” Gonzalez says. “I want the performers to show some personality. I want them to seem like people. So many people in the ensemble are expressive with their clothing.”

And because Gonzalez is primarily a composer, many of the original works the Regenerate! Orchestra performs are created and developed right here. Gonzalez, a Kentucky native who’s stayed in Ann Arbor after studying composition at the University of Michigan (U-M), has written many pieces for the orchestra.

“Each performance is one of a kind,” Gonzalez says. “No other orchestra can play our music – which is very, very different from a classical orchestra. That model is: you write a piece that can be played anywhere by anybody. We put a lot of thought into venue. Place is very important. I think that art that connects with place does a lot to heal the disconnection and tribalism that makes our American life kind of unpleasant right now. So we find local venues that have a lot of character and local flavor. … We don’t want the placelessness of a concert hall.”

Gonzalez hosted his first show under the Regenerate! Orchestra name in 2020, although he organized two similar performances before that in 2018 and 2019. He estimates that he’s now overseen around 30 of these kinds of installations. The performances span the Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Detroit areas, and several have been virtual to make shows more broadly available and to raise money for the projects. (Two upcoming Regenerate! Orchestra virtual shows are scheduled for June and September.)

One musician who signed on for the orchestra’s journey almost immediately was Sedky, who came to Ann Arbor from New York to start a master’s program at U-M in 2018.

“I made it as known as I could that I wanted to play contemporary music, and that I was done with classical and orchestral music,” Sedky says. ” … I really wanted to be part of creating things, and making something together, communally. … I just felt so inspired by my composer friends who were sitting down and creating new things.”

Her first experience involved playing in a house with around 40 musicians. In the middle of rehearsing and recording, the group took a break to share a giant pot of lentil soup.

“A lot of them already had been in school together for a while, but to me, it just felt like, ‘oh my goodness, I have all these people now!'” Sedky says. ” … It was very community-building for me, personally. And musically, there’s nothing that connects you to people you don’t know quicker than being instructed to do these improvised, written, creative musical explorations together.”

It’s nothing short of a call to shift the classical music paradigm. And because the pieces Gonzalez builds for the Regenerate! Orchestra don’t require a conductor, he often finds himself walking among audience members during performances, encouraging them to wander, get close, and listen from different vantage points – so they can get that experience of being “in” the music. He bemoans the fact that the great works of classical music sound essentially the same no matter where they’re performed, and he envisions a world where classical music has been “de-homogenized.”

“We do live in a globalized world, so perhaps that’s an unattainable utopia,” Gonzalez says. “But I dream of a world where every city has its own orchestra, and that orchestra sounds weird and unique and of that place, and it couldn’t happen anywhere else.”

Jenn McKee spent more than a decade covering the arts for The Ann Arbor News and is now a freelance journalist and essayist. Follow her on Twitter (@jennmckee) and Instagram (@criticaljenn).

All photos by Doug Coombe.


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