Powerful. at is the only way to describe Vassar’s Modfest event “Music, Words, and Images,” a performance that helped kick off the festival on Feb. 2. Modfest is Vassar’s annual art celebration of 20th and 21st century art. For two weeks, the festival presents musical, oral and visual events in which the theme of the festival is explored. “Music, Words, and Images” was a collection of songs, piano, small lectures, animation, poetry, and acting all relating to the theme of “adapting” and featured faculty, guest artists and students alike.
“Music, Words, and Images” was divided into five mini-pieces. The first piece was entitled “Three Painters,” and was inspired by a quirky painting. The piece was comprised of a song sung by Courtenay Budd and piano by Zachary Wadsworth. Next came “Cristalli,” which consisted of a brief lesson about the nature of crystals and an animation timed with a piano piece played by Wadsworth. Artist and photographer Barbra Proud gave an introduction about “The First Comes Love Project” that features black and white photographs of same-sex couples. The exhibit is currently being displayed in the Palmer Gallery.
Next came “Four Women,” an excerpt from a larger piece called “Mean to be Free” that was developed by a class of Drama 228 students. The piece comprised writings from Black writers such as James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Charles Johnson, Tony Morrison and Alice Walker and explores different hardships of Black womanhood.
Lastly, “Music, Words, and Images” showcased German songs by Wadsworth and Brahms that featured sentiments about homoerotic love. Faculty members Cortenay Budd, Mary Nessinger, James Ruff and Robert Osborne sang while Darren Motise and Zachary Wadsworth were on the piano.
Evidently, “Music, Words, and Images” is an annual event that goes further than simply showcasing art in all its forms, but aims to provide the audience with a in-depth, explorative experience. The different pieces meld together and add to each other, each providing their own take on what it means “to adapt.”
This year’s theme of “adapting” speaks to the current political climate and the changes on Vassar’s campus. Modfest Co-Director Tom Pacio commented, “When we were thinking about the theme for 2018, we thought about how we are a year into this big change [politically] and that our campus is going through a lot of changes too. We are doing a lot of adapting as a campus community so it felt appropriate.”
Moreover, the central idea for the event was heavily inspired by the “Four Women” piece. “There was a course taught last spring by Tyrone Simpson and Shona Tucker that focused on African American literature being adapted to dramatic art. They made a devised theater piece that was the springboard for the theme,” commented Pacio.
While “Four Women” was a literal adaptation of written texts to dramatic script, it also centered the constantly adapting strength of Black women in the face of problematic conceptions of Blackness. It began with a song by alumnus Logan Pitts and was followed by a dramatic interpretation of readings by African-American writers performed by five students, four of which were Black women.
Miranda Amey ’20, a student who performed, discussed her role in the piece: “My role is the ‘tragic mulatto’ or the person who exists as mixed race. One of my lines is ‘my skin is yellow, my hair is long’ which are things that are often upheld in Blackness as good features. But essentially, [these features] are just attractive because they are closer to whiteness.”
Together, the roles within the “Four Women” piece aimed at making the audience think about the demeaning ways society views Black woman. Amey reflected on what she hoped people would take away from the art, saying, “I would like for [people] to think more about who constructs these characters and who makes [African Americans] into these characters. I don’t think any of the four women are the four women because of themselves. They are forced into these roles by society. And I think people should think about how this impacts [African Americans].”
The depth and complexity of “Four Women” meshed well with the other pieces in the event. “All of the pieces were very nontraditional,” Amey asserted. “The piano piece with the art projected (Cristalli) was a combination of multimedia. [The event] was all about mixing—mixing different media, different performance styles. It was about pushing beyond what would be expected and I think that was also true for our piece as well.”
Likewise, the final piece in the show “Walzer einer neuen Liebe” built on this idea of mixing. “Zachary Wadsworth had found this poetry from 1900 that had homoerotic language in it. He was able to apply to some Brahms waltzes, so the concert was composed of alternating pieces of Brahms and Wadsworth,” said Pacio. This piece specifically complimented Barbara Proud’s discussion of her work centering around people “who had clearly done some adapting,” as Pacio put it.
Thinking about what stood out to him, Pacio reflected, “I think my favorite part of it was just the breadth of the event. It was really varied.” He also commented on ways in which he hoped the event would improve in future years: “What I would like to see more of is faculty performing with the students and I think ‘Music, Words, and Images’ is a great opportunity for that to happen.” Audience member Tabraiz Lodhi, commented on the finale, stating “I really liked the German love songs and the nontraditionality of the piece. Overall, the event was fascinating and the combination of different mediums exceeded my expectations.”