A space to be bad: music culture’s shortcomings in Sewanee

Boy Named Banjo, a nationally-touring band with Sewanee alumni Barton Davies (‘16) and William Reemes (‘16) performing in Guerry Auditorium, February 2017. Photos by Matt Hembree (C’20).

By Vanessa Moss
Executive staff

Only 30 or so people were in Guerry Auditorium, the performance hall for Sewanee: The University of the South, to see Paul Austerlitz play. Clustered in small groups, there were maybe 10 or so undergraduates, mostly couples who wanted a more ‘mature’ Friday evening pastime than the standard fraternity crawl, then perhaps a dozen visiting professors bearing lanyards and name tags in town for a music conference. For a 1,000-person performance hall, it was a weak turn out. As the lights dimmed, the scattered patrons settled into their squeaky and suspiciously lumpy leather seating that likely hadn’t been replaced since construction in 1961. 

After the hour of Caribbean-fusion jazz coiled to a close, the pianist came and dangled his legs off the stage, chatting with the few students hanging around to praise him. One guy named Alastair Ferenbach (C’20) was all gassed up about meeting some “real jazz cats,” and went to him, miming playing the piano, calling him “liquid,” while his friend, Charles Stehno (C’20), talked music theory and jazz influences.

The pianist was kinetic. These kids wanted to play, and he never wanted to stop. He was inspired to hang around, see the town, see the scene, go get a drink, go kick around his glossy, rhinestoned dress shoes. “Let’s go play!” he exclaimed. “Where do you make music? Where do we go?”

I lost the conversation, busy envisioning this two-time Grammy nominee careening over SAE’s two-legged baby grand piano and wondering how much it would cost him to Uber from Sewanee to his hotel in Chattanooga, when I realized that Ferenbach was talking all the while about his “Rock and Roll Nightclub,” unintentionally making it sound like a legitimate musical gathering.

To a New-York-based, world touring musician, this “nightclub” in “The Russian House” sounded like a hip music lounge where students went to jam. In reality, it was just students rolling cigarettes and, as Stehno puts it, “doodling around” on guitars in Ferenbach’s bedroom. But if this man wanted to play, there was nowhere else to go.

Musicians of the Modern Jazz Quartet perform in Guerry Auditorium, February 2018.

“A limitation?” Ferenbach asks, pushing back his rocking chair and rolling forward in exhale. “In the rock and roll tradition, noise complaints and fighting with bandmates are all just par for the course.”

Living in the Russian House, his neighbors have tolerated “Rock and Roll Nightclub” all year slipping out from under his bedroom door. With one keyboard, three guitars, an electric bass, an acoustic bass, a mandolin, an autoharp, a saxophone, and a c-flute all squeezed in between dorm-issued furniture, he’ll cram in as many people as possible to jam out to “anything that other people can play.”

Stehno, who splits his time between the “Nightclub” and his bedroom-turned-makeshift-recording-studio, peers over his black RayBans to echo the same. “A lot of people are always talking about making music, but it’s hard without the technical know-how and resources.”

When it comes to technical know-how, Ferenbach doesn’t exactly check people at the door: “Sometimes it’s even better to play with someone who has no idea what they’re doing. That can yield some really fun stuff. It’s just getting out there.”

Ferenbach is self-taught, quick to pick up any instrument and just mess around on it. It’s why he has a C-flute and an autoharp and how he started playing bass; at the beginning of this semester he signed up for the music department’s jazz ensemble and was handed a bass. He’s quit the program now, though eager to praise it and its director, Professor Prakash Wright. “He’s an awesome professor—It’s just that that’s a formal avenue of music and I didn’t have the theory or the chops for it.”

“A lot of people think that learning music in the classroom is restrictive,” Wright admitted. “But students have to keep in mind that these principles have been in effect for hundreds of years. And they worked not only for Mozart and Beethoven, but for the Beatles and Coltrane.”

“Which of you are playing what melody?” Wright asked his four students, all congregated in St. Luke’s Chapel one Monday evening for their first “off book” jazz band rehearsal. This was the performance space for the jazz ensemble and for Wright’s gospel choir, Sewanee Praise. Above them as they practiced, the large stained-glass window read: “Go Make Disciples.”

He scratched down notes on sheet music while each guy flagged a different song to solo on, arranging how each musician intended to open the song and find a close.

“Something with a ‘csshhhh’ drum sound?” Said Stehno at the piano, scrambling to translate his ideas into musical terminology. “And then maybe have the guitar fall out with a kind of ‘into-the-water’ type sound?”

As he teaches and instructs ensembles, he tries to show casual performers that, “if you learn these principles, then however you decide to apply them is what will set you apart as the musician you are.” But our society “is stuck on instant results,” and many young musicians think that they can circumvent that step. At the same time, student bands “gain certain skills that are best honed on their own,” without hand-holding from professors. From soloing alone and booking gigs to “a very basic understanding of risk and failure,” he doesn’t discourage student musicians from self-organizing.

After the four songs were assigned and rehearsed and stopped and picked apart and rehearsed again, punctuated by comments and questions like “Try e-minor-seven-flat-five instead,” and “Are we treating each chord as a measure?” Wright ended the rehearsal, followed by an immediate explosion of sound: the drummer, a kid called James Dickey (C’21), unleashed a wholly unrhythmic and rad solo, the saxophonist, Parker Johnson (C’20), abandoned melody to just let some sound waves rip, and Stehno ran rampant alongside the guitarist, Camp Spain (C’21).

“We’ve got to pack up quickly, because there’s a performance in here this evening,” Wright rallied them, and Dickey moaned before packing up his drums. “Dang, I was excited to play!”

Dr. Prakash Wright leads the University Jazz Ensemble in St. Luke’s Chapel, October 2016.

Dickey didn’t have long to wait. He, Spain, and Parker are all part of The Bloody Mary Situation, a student band on campus that runs the fraternity circuit covering blues-rock crowd favorites. 

Instead of St. Luke’s, they headed to the Mountaintop Musician Room in the basement of Guerry Hall, met by their guitarist Web Austin (C’21) and bassist Hunter Craighill (C’20). The only space on campus specifically intended for student bands, it’s separate from the other student practice rooms and keyed off to the public. “It’s not the best, but it’s not the worst,” reasoned Austin. In reality, it’s a repurposed makeup room, complete with white cinderblock walls and lined by mirrors with oversized light-bulbs on one side.

Drum parts, amplifiers, wires, pedal boards, crates of instrument cases, and miscellaneous poster boards of lyrics were stuffed under the old makeup counter, while overhead pipes were wrapped in busted christmas lights, marked with signs that read “DANGER: CONTAINS ASBESTOS FIBERS, AVOID CREATING DUST.” What distinguished the room from a derelict storage space is a hand-painted purple piano in the back, with “THE MOUNTAINTOP MUSICIANS” outlined in white.

The college’s annual music festival, Sewaneroo, was days away, so The Situation booked the room to run through their setlist. “War Pigs and Whipping Post are musts,” Spain said as they worked out the song order. With a 45-minute set, one song might have to get cut. “Why don’t we just stay on?” proposed Craighill, raising a brow and throwing his hands up. “What’ll they do?”

By the end of the second song, Dickey collapsed backward and wiped his forehead with the back of his arm. “It’s so f*****g hot.” There aren’t any windows, and no air conditioning; Austin moved in a mobile AC unit from his bedroom to fight the heat, but jerry-rigged with a piece of plywood and a drumstick, it hardly compensated.

30 minutes into their setlist, everyone had a groove going. Their opening song seemed like a warm up by comparison, muscle-memory, where they all tapped their feet out of metronomic necessity instead of a subdued urge to dance. But later, all of them were nodding their heads and rocking their torsos back and forth; Dickey lurched from side to side, biting his tongue and contorting his face as his drum solo picked up. 

I’m knocked back in my seat, awed and partially preoccupied, wondering how strong sound waves would have to be to displace asbestos fibers. Austin dipped backward with his guitar while he riffed, Craighill smiled to himself while the bass crooned, and Spain looked fittingly devilish, yelling into the mic with sweat dripping down his brow. “Holy s**t!” Dickey blurted out from the drums as the last chord faded. “That’s the best we’ve ever done that.”

“Let me break it down for you in three words,” said Wilder McCoy (C’20) bluntly. “Access. To. Drums.”

A guitarist in a two-man comedy punk band, he’d played with a lot of musicians on campus, and at almost every venue. From bedrooms to concert halls to the music department’s allotted rehearsal rooms, drums were one thing holding back his band, Live Safe//Die Hard, from supreme fame.

“There are two drum kits in Guerry, then one in the Mountaintop Musicians room, which only two people have the key to and both of them are in bands.” Chris Kuelling (C’19), an electric bassist, shrugged. Sewanee is where Kuelling began playing music seriously, but since members of his old band, the Tennessee Jedis, graduated, he’s not played publically much. “Unless you’re in that band you’re probably not going to get the key.”

The other key-owners were The Thumps, started by virtuoso Isaac Sligh (C’18). A graduate in English now employed at the Ralston Listening Library, music has always been a key facet of his life. When Sligh picks up a guitar, he’ll mindlessly start picking some mixture of bluegrass or folk tunes; His first band at Sewanee was actually a bluegrass group, which saw limited success. 

“People want to absolutely thrash at Sewanee. If you’re receptive to what your audience wants, you need driving, fast beats.” Sligh explained. Playing bluegrass at frat parties hardly works. As a cover band, the Thumps have strayed from acoustic toward crowd hits, relying more and more on drums as their sound has “gotten progressively punkier and punkier.”

Although perhaps creatively limited, Sligh sees Sewanee as an excellent place for up-and-coming bands: “You get paid because fraternities are desperate,” he explains. It’s more cost-effective to hire your own than to pay a band from off-the-mountain to travel up and back down again.

But when Bea Troxel (C’15) was at Sewanee, she never knew it was possible. “I never felt an energy of ‘you guys can just start a band.’” Now on her second major tour after the release of her first album, The Way That it Feels, it took her leaving Sewanee to realize that “all you have to do is get together and arrange songs. It’s so simple. You need to be sure you’re giving people in Sewanee the space to be bad.”

Boy Named Banjo performing in Guerry Auditorium, February 2017.

“There is a lack of performance space and rehearsal space on campus,” nodded Wright. “I would be the first to agree to that.” Without any small to medium-sized venues, visiting musicians and students alike are left standing on the lip of an otherwise empty proscenium, peering out on 30 person crowds in Guerry Auditorium’s sea of vacant seats. “But those things weren’t considered when the spaces that do exist were designed.”

Tori Hinshaw (C’19), a student who’s spent the past two summers working at recording venues like the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, believes having a legitimate recording space should be in the school’s development plan, and wouldn’t be impossible to actualize. “It would revolutionize what students could do, if they’re in the music department or not.” Stehno thinks much of the same, envisioning a Ralston-Room-esque scenario with sound technicians as work studies. “It’d ultimately just be a room with equipment and times.”

Stehno’s dream Sewanee also exists in a constant thrum of mellow performances, from Stirling’s to art shows to pop-up open mics in front of the library, where novices can “play as background music to events” like Troxel did as a student.

Other, perhaps more coy, instrumentalists want events that are “an invitation to play with people, but not to perform.” Kuelling envisions this through organized workshops with the music department:  “Have a bluegrass jam and pick a lead fiddle player who knows the tunes. Get one guitar accompanist and let people come, no matter what level, so they can just see what being involved in a jam, passing tunes around, is like. Have a jazz one, a bluegrass one, a rock one.”

Doing so would bridge a gap he sees between the classical musicians on campus and the people like himself and Craighill, “who just want to play loud.”

“We need more networking and more equipment, honestly,” Craighill agrees. “It’d be great to have opportunities to meet each other and jam out a bit.” Having grown up in Sewanee, he remembers when Mountaintop Musicians had been more popular, when it was a locus of musical creation on campus. Now, he doesn’t really know what they do.

The American Spirit Ensemble, joined by the University Choir, sings in All Saints Chapel, February 2017.

“Believe me, I know. We are a music house, and we cannot play music in the music house.” Fiona Charnow (C’20), director of Mountaintop Musicians explained, familiar with the question of why the Music House and Mountaintop Musicians are so quiet.

Mountaintop Musicians boomed in the early 2010s, founding Sewaneroo and highlighting musicians as often as possible. But over the past decade, the club has dwindled. At this point it has effectively merged with the Music House, a themed house located in a paper-walled duplex that fits five students. Manpower and money restricts them. Continuing Sewaneroo demands almost all of the group’s resources, limiting the rest of the year to one or two events per month (which doesn’t bring them enough influence in Residential or Student Life to warrant an upgrade) and precluding any chance to buy student-shared equipment.

“I wish we had a house like the Green House,” she grieves, though grateful to have a house at all. “Something that had its own space that could have its own drum kit, could have a living-room-area for coffee-style open mic nights, where people could just walk in and start playing. That was my vision.

Sewanee Acapella concert takes place in Guerry Garth, October 2016.

The Greenhouse, in the midst of hosting the bi-annual music blowout, Leg & Salmon, looked as if someone plucked a bar from Nashville’s Broadway strip on a Friday night (and mind you, this is the city that usurped Las Vegas as best bachelorette party location in 2015) then shook the contents, people and booze and paisley and all, into a living room. Scant for space, these honky-tonk lovers threw open windows and sat in the sills, stacked themselves on couches and armrests and side tables, gesticulating wildly and single-handedly as they chatted, occupied by mason jars of wine and bottles of craft IPA. 

Wobbly and frenzied at times, roughly 100 people planted themselves for a four-and-a-half-hour celebration of friends’ talent and springtime in Sewanee. Cowboy hats were passed like joints around a corner of the 30 or so people squeezed on the floor, while a line of couples nestled in the bottom of a misplaced bunk bed realized their mistake in taking up residence beneath the top-bunk drunkards spilling tequila down the wall.

This isn’t some honky-tonk fever dream, but the Greenhouse’s “420th annual Ass and Flounder,” as Masters of Ceremony Garrett Lucey (C’19) and Sara Thompson (C’19) dubbed it.

At 7:05 Thompson and Lucey opened the event, introducing a two-person act from a local band named Doctornorm; the only non-student performers of the evening. The crowd had settled in for the “marathon,” and refrained from picking up a third round of “Chug! Chug! Chug!” to hush one another and nod along as the guests picked and harmonized away.

Applause burst with dammed energy after their two songs, more passionate and encouraging than would ever be heard at a Nashville dive after a six-minute set. But after the ‘adults’ left the stage, the staccato of intermittent boisterousness quickly blended with the performances themselves. By 9p.m., Thompson and Lucey’s transition to the next performance was derailed by demands from the crowd to shotgun two Natural Lights, and after obliging, the two used a megaphone siren to get the program back on course.

Live Safe//Die Hard and friends close Leg and Salmon, April 2019.

“One huge question mark hanging out there is what the absence of the music from central campus will do to both campus culture and the department,” said Dr. Stephen Miller, head of the Music Department, in an interview with The Sewanee Purple.

In 2015, the University’s Board of Regents approved plans for Sewanee’s School of Theology (SoT), currently located on Tennessee Avenue in Hamilton Hall, to move back to central campus. The SoT had moved to Hamilton in 1983 after a 105-year stint in St. Luke’s Hall, which was then in desperate need of repairs. Now Hamilton Hall has grown overly-worn, and the search for a new SoT building has led to Guerry Hall.

“Probably the biggest question is whether the orchestra could actually rehearse in Hamilton Hall,” Miller said previously. “The orchestra certainly needs to rehearse adjacent to the office of the conductor. Adjacent to all of the staff that supports the orchestra… it seems inevitable that the orchestra would have to have a new home at Hamilton Hall.”

Wright spins the move positively, putting the department in a better position to collaborate with the theater department, and possibly provide the department with more space. “There’s room out there to construct more performance or rehearsal spaces, where central campus is limited,” and, he adds, retrofitting Hamilton would have to include a discussion of student rehearsal space. But in that regard, “students hold more sway than we do.”

Still, Miller worries about the distance between Hamilton’s theoretical classroom and practice spaces and the major performance spaces on campus. From the carillon and change-ringing bells in Shapard and Breslin towers, the choir’s “natural home” in All Saints’ Chapel, to the orchestra’s performances in Guerry Auditorium, music at Sewanee seems rooted on central campus.

But on the night of April 27, two students snuck into Guerry Auditorium. The proscenium curtain was torn from its rafter and three fire extinguishers were spewed across the stage and onto the grand piano. Spray paint tagged the upstairs, while storage rooms were ransacked. A snapped flag pole lay tossed between broken creaky seats in the audience.

… 

From fraternity stages to bedroom serenades to full orchestral ensembles, Sewanee has an interdisciplinary and pervasive capacity for the creation and appreciation of sound. Space to be good is typically revered, barring the occasional booze-fuelled rampage. And musicians have always had to find for themselves a space to be bad. But if vandalism or logistical inconvenience was all it took to smother musical expression, then The Rock and Roll Night Clubs, asbestos-braving musicians, and tiring professors would have given up years ago.

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