Modfest 2017 centers on community-building, activism

Modfest has been a yearly occurrence at Vassar since Adene Wilson initiated it in 2003 with help from her husband, Richard. A Vassar alum, Wilson drew inspiration for the festival from a method she employed as an elementary school teacher.

Adene elaborated: “ [I would] take one idea and find as many different disciplines as possible, social sciences, science, math, art, music, history, writing, to branch off from that idea to develop it with the kids.”

This philosophy informed the way the Wilsons organized Modfest for the next fourteen years, and although the festival’s structure has been flexible, the nature of its interdisciplinary core remained.

The Wilsons retired last year, but the festival’s new organizers, Chair of Music and Director of Choral Activities Christine Howlett and Interdisciplinary Arts Coordinator of the Creative Arts Across Disciplines (CAAD) Tom Pacio, have collaborated to deepen Modfest’s commitment to an interdisciplinary celebration of the arts. The Vassar music department has traditionally been the body central to Modfest’s organization, so this close collaboration between the music department and CAAD marks an additional step to integrate departments that wasn’t taken in the past.

The CAAD initiative is a three-year experiment on campus that is funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In fact, Modfest was one of the programs included in the grant proposal Vassar sent the foundation to showcase its ability to do interdisciplinary work. Thus, both Howlett and Pacio view their collaboration as conducive to achieving Modfest’s mission.

The festival began on January 26th with an ambulatory concert that traversed a variety of spaces on campus, and will culminate on February 5th with an event featuring broadway superstar Audra McDonald.

McDonald will perform some of her favorite works with music director, Andy Einhorn, and later sit down with faculty member, Mia Mask, for a conversation on some of her most passionate causes. McDonald has won many awards, including six Tony awards, and is best known for her roles in Ragtime, Raisin in the Sun and Porgy and Bess.

Although Howlett stressed her excitement for Modfest as a whole, she thinks McDonald’s presence alone would make this year’s Modfest truly special. “Having a singer like Audra McDonald, we’ve never been able to bring someone like that for Modfest… she’s a brilliant performer but she’s also an activist herself.”

The event featuring McDonald requires an online reservation, and all available seats have already been filled. Members of the Vassar community were so eager to attend the event that, according to Howlett, every ticket was claimed within two minutes of their availability.

February 5th’s “An Afternoon with Audra McDonald” is Modfest’s crown jewel this year, but the festival’s program is chock-full of additional events that would make Adene Wilson proud (and already have, she’s been to every event so far). Modfest connects different artistic disciplines, but music is still the core of the festival.

In addition to the opening concert, which showcased Vassar’s chamber music ensembles and the Vassar College Choir, there was a concert on Jan. 28 to honor Adene and Richard Wilson. Upcoming musical events include a concert by the Vassar Ensembles and Cabaret Night on February 4th.

However, due to CAAD’s influence on programming this year, there are also a number of unique interdisciplinary events on the docket. Last Saturday, Modfest hosted a professional development workshop in the Aula for aspiring artists of all kinds.

Pacio notes, “Something that I rarely see happen on this campus is an event where there’s a representative from music, dance, art and drama. What if we had a representative form all of those departments talking about the printed materials for the beginning of your career. It feels like a great follow-up for Sophomore Career Connections,” a networking event the college hosted the weekend before classes started. On January 27th, the Rosenwald Film Theater housed a panel discussion that focused on approaches to creative healing.

Panelists included Christine Rodman, an opera singer turned health attorney and speech pathologist, Shanna Richey, a social worker who specializes in treating children with selective mutism and Joe DeGrand ’17, who created a documentary film about the transformative effects of music therapy in hospice care.

DeGrand’s presence on this panel was a testament to the collaboration between CAAD and the music department. In the summer of 2015, DeGrand was part of a CAAD-funded team of students that created a multimedia project from narratives they collected from patients at Hudson Valley Hospice. A film major, DeGrand later went on to create a documentary for his senior project about the the music therapists he met there.

As a film student who hasn’t mingled much with the music world at Vassar, this is Joe’s first time being involved with Modfest, and he’s thrilled about it. “It’s largely been a music thing, and still a lot of it is centered around the music, English and art departments. So there aren’t too many people I usually associate with, but I’ve met people i’m very interested in working with and collaborating with. I’m glad I was able to interface with people in those departments through the documentary because I think, you know, music gets strangely relegated to a past time. Its bizarre. It’s universally heralded as a very moving thing. But at the same time it’s sort of like its kind of common to have moving experiences with music. Which I think kind of belittles the impact it can have on people. Like its just entertainment. But once you see the amazing things that music is used for, its pretty hard to deny the power of music.” Joe’s film, and the project he was involved with in 2015, embody Modfest’s theme this year: “Raising Voices.”

The theme is broad, and can be applied to almost anything, but this is by design. Matthew McCardwell ’17, one of Tom Pacio’s student assistants who was integral to CAAD’s involvement in Modfest this year, explained it best. “Raising Voices takes on a lot of different tenors in our office. We’ve been thinking a lot about how the spine to Modfest is the music department, so raising voices is inherently all about music, and we’ve made sure there’s a vast array of music represented… But we’ve also been thinking about how raising voices applies to all the arts, and that this is an era where we need to raise our voices and stand up for what we believe in. We need to make sure the arts are heard and that they can play their integral role in community building, community awareness and coming to our senses. That’s what we’ve been trying to facilitate.”

McCardwell’s explanation reveals the political slant that many campus events, including Modfest, have taken on in response to Trump’s election. This bias is most easily recognizable in the ongoing exhibit in the Old Bookstore called Engage! The Artist’s Voice, also a part of Modfest, which displays a bold collection of artistic works of political protest that ask “each of us how we might… SPEAK UP.”

Organized by McCardwell himself, The Old Bookstore is also the location of the upcoming event called Connecting Voices, which takes place this Thursday.

The event will be a workshop featuring artist Ann Daily and the Spanish musician Álvaro Marcos, who are collaborating on a translations project to preserve the voices of multiple generations of the Podemos Party, a group that opposed Francisco Franco’s fascist regime in Spain.

Political science professor Katherine Hite, who is teaching a class called “Politics of Memory” this semester, will also be present. Daily and Marcos were strangers before they began collaborating on this project, and that is the focus of Connecting Voices.

McCardwell hopes students who attend will learn to work together with people they don’t know, to use creativity to foster community and solidarity in the face of political chaos. Exhibits like Engage! serve as reminders that art is simultaneously a comfort, and a tool of political action.

Christine Howlett reminds us, “art, in itself, is hopeful.” Modfest has a lot to offer in the way of hope. Go check it out.

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