Modfest evolves in harmony with expanding art forms

The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is the site of the exhibition Malick Sidibé: Chemises, a Modfest event showcasing a series of portraits and photographs taken in ’60s Mali, which will display until April. Photo By: Apicella and Bunton Architects
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is the site of the exhibition Malick Sidibé: Chemises, a Modfest event showcasing a series of portraits and photographs taken in ’60s Mali, which will display until April. Photo By: Apicella and Bunton Architects

Over a decade ago, Modfest Founder and Director Dee Wilson retired, but retirement was not an excuse to stop supporting art. Along with her husband, Professor of Music Richard Wilson, she started a small festival of 20th century music that started what has become an annual fixture in Vassar’s art scene—Modfest.

According to its website, “Modfest is a series of free performances and programs in dance, drama, visual art, film, literature, poetry and music taking place Jan. 23 to Feb. 7,” but Wilson emphasizes that it is far more than what a website can articulate—Modfest is about networking, expanding musical horizons and bringing cutting edge contemporary music to Vassar.

Wilson described some of her experiences with contemporary music that did not feel modern, and how they have shaped her and, therefore, Modfest.

She wrote, “As a student at Vassar in the late sixties, I attended a concert in Skinner Hall of the music of Roger Sessions. Even though I had played violin in county orchestra since young, I’d never heard contemporary music that had any edge. The most modern pieces we’d done didn’t sound modern. I was enthralled, intellectually and emotionally.”

When some of the composers commissioned to write for the festival include both Pulitzer Prize winners and Vassar alumnae/i, pioneering new pieces are a given, and this exposure is something that Wilson said is just one of the many important aspects to the festival.

She wrote in an e-mailed statement, “We try to balance having the VC alum composers and inviting other composers, such as Steve Reich, David Del Tredici, Mario Davidovsky, all Pulitzer Prize winners. All three write innovative music in what is very distinctly their own style—each person’s being completely different from the others.’”

She went on: “It is important for the students to encounter alum role models, as well as some of the most influential composers of our time.”

One ensemble that has had a networking opportunity is the Mahagonny Ensemble, which will premiere two new pieces from Vassar alumnae/i at Modfest.

The Mahagonny Ensemble is, according to Mahagonny Choir Director and Music Department Publicist Julia Boscov-Ellen ’15, primarily about the celebration of contemporary music.

“Since the purpose of the Mahagonny Ensemble (and choir) is to celebrate modern music, Modfest is always a really exciting venue for us. This year, both the choir and the ensemble are performing brand new commissions by Vassar grads,” wrote Boscov-Ellen in an emailed statement.

She went on to describe working on the piece the choir will premiere. She said, “The choir is performing a piece by Diana Hill ’07 called ‘Plane Boy’ that’s been a lot of fun to work on and I think the end product is fantastic.”

Commissioning pieces is one way that Vassar supports composers and therefore contemporary music.

“Any performance—if decently done—benefits composers! There are a lot of alums out there composing and performing, and conducting,” wrote Wilson.

Commissioned pieces directly benefit composers in more ways than just exposing the world to their music. Commissioning a piece costs a significant amount of money, and so composers benefit directly and monetarily for their services.

But Modfest is not just about music as art. As a campus-wide and interdepartmental affair, Modfest includes diverse artistic forms, from the visual to dance to translation as art.

Since art is always evolving, Modfest is an opportunity for emerging artists to have their work exposed to larger audiences. In an attempt to bring in artists from the greater Hudson Valley, the Palmer Gallery will display “Teen Visions ’14” which is, according to the Modfest website, a body of visual work from young artists in the Hudson Valley, including paintings, sculpture and photography.

Other opportunities for diversified art come in the form of projects from foreign language departments, and reaching out to the many departments is essential to the success of Modfest.

“One of the most complicated events is the Translation as an Art program. Lioba Ungurianu in the German department—with whom I had two classes in the last years—offered to put that one together and has it far better organized than I ever managed by this point,” wrote Wilson.

After over ten years of Wilson contacting various departments to include their talents in Modfest, it has almost become routine, and professors coming up with their own ideas are not unusual.

“The involvement has generally come about by my knocking on doors. By now the departments are used to this, so have things ready and in mind. What I really like is when they have thought ahead in their planning about what would work for the festival or they call out of the blue with an event,” wrote Wilson.

Student assistance is also essential to the success of Modfest. Boscov-Ellen, in addition to her part performing during the festival, also works to publicize the event.

She wrote, “As the Music Department’s student publicist, I want to get the word out about Modfest and encourage as many people as possible to come. I’m also directing one ensemble and singing in another, but that’s just in one of the concerts.”

Modfest has certainly evolved, changing from a small music festival to a far grander annual affair featuring an increasingly diverse set of artists, and it is only likely that it will continue to change to suit the ever-in-flux state of contemporary art, and especially music, in all its forms.

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