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SING, PLAY, MOVE: Charlotte Street makes bold new commitment with music-composition contest

You might at first wonder what artist-poet-filmmaker Michèle Saint-Michel has in common with singer-songwriter AJ Harbison or UMKC Conservatory doctoral student Yunfei Li. All are among the six Kansas City performing artists selected this summer as winners of the Charlotte Street Foundation’s first annual New Music Composition Competition. Each will produce a brand-new work to be performed by the locally based Ensemble Mother Russia Industries, at a concert on October 2nd at the Foundation’s new home at 3333 Wyoming St.

The south entrance of the new Charlotte Street building features a courtyard that can form a performance space, or (with the garage door to the right open), a spill-over space from the new Stern Theater. / Photo courtesy of Hufft Architects


The competition is one of several initiatives ushered in as part of the grand opening of Charlotte Street’s gorgeous new 20,000-square-feet facility. Many Kansas Citians have long associated the Foundation primarily with the visual arts, but it has in fact served the performing arts pretty much since its inception in 1997, chiefly through the Generative Performing Artist Awards and the Studio Residencies.

Nevertheless, this competition represents a grand stride forward in its commitment to music: And for the first time in its history, Charlotte Street has a dedicated performing space for such a purpose. The Foundation’s beautiful new black-box Stern Theater at CSF seems destined to become one of Kansas City’s most sought-after performance spaces.

One of the compelling features of Charlotte Street’s new home is the Stern Theater, which features state-of-the-art lighting, sound, and projection capabilities. / Photo courtesy of Charlotte Street


“Charlotte Street has supported musicians in grant-making, residency programs, pop-up festivals and other performances for well over a decade now,” said Pat Alexander, programming and studio residency manager. “But this particular competition is new this year.” Indeed, this might be the first such competition in Kansas City altogether, but like everything at Charlotte Street, it is not a routine “call for music scores.”

The key word is “interdisciplinary,” and each of the six selected applicants approaches music in a distinct way. The other three artists named as winners are: Kat Nechlebová Dison, who studied sculpture and fiber art at the Kansas City Art Institute and earned master’s degrees in counseling and art therapy; Craig Comstock, a computer programmer and experimental rock musician; and Mazzy Mann and Zach Garland-Foster, who form a team that combines music, art, film, and performance art.

Each of the interior spaces at the Foundation, including the main gallery shown here, is designed to be used for live performances. / Photo courtesy of Hufft Architects


“Each of these composers comes from a different background, and they all have their own audiences,” said Tim Harte, whom the Foundation chose to spearhead the process and the performance. An experimental composer himself (he was the first UMKC Conservatory student admitted with the computer as his “instrument”), he formed Ensemble Mother Russia Industries in 2008 as a non-traditional performance ensemble.

“In general, there’s been a lack of experimental-music performance” in our area, Tim said, “or a sustainable audience or venue.” Until now, at least. The competition is “right on the surface of what we’re trying to do,” he added, “which is break down the boundaries between disparate genres and ideals.” Often new-music initiatives become too narrow, he believes. “I’m always most excited when I go to an event and am surprised by what I see, versus knowing ahead of time what it’s going to be like.”

Tim Harte / Photo courtesy of Charlotte Street

Having a sleek new facility is a welcome relief for the Foundation’s programs, which have long languished in temporary facilities around town and at “pop-up” venues.

Many visual artists have found Charlotte Street’s generous funding opportunities a reason to stay in Kansas City instead of fleeing for the coasts: Now the Foundation hopes to expand this synergy to its music programs.

“Supporting really experimental visual artists has been part of our vision,” said Amy Kligman, the Foundation’s executive/artistic director. “If they didn’t have the support for their ideas in Kansas City, most of them would go someplace where they could find that support: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, places where there are more niche audiences for their work.”

Likewise, experimental composers need to feel that our community can sustain their work. “We’re trying to nurture the weirdness,” Amy said. “For a lot of artists, that’s the fun thing, it’s the thing they’re excited to explore.” Weirdness is not generally well-funded, however, and that’s where Charlotte Street has found a unique niche. “We want to make sure that artists are compensated … that they’re getting sustenance from this.”

The beauty of initiatives such as the Composition Competition is that “we can provide a platform that supports ‘the stretch,’ ” Amy added. “Artists stretching themselves, that’s what’s embraced.”

Pat Alexander / Photo by three three photography

A black-box theater is almost by definition a sort of blank canvas. “What we’re interested in doing in that black box is pushing the limits of how live music performance can be presented,” Pat said. “Artists are bored with the traditional ways: They don’t want to stage things, they want to be immersed with an audience.” Stern Theater features a set of risers that can be arranged in a variety of ways, or removed and replaced with chairs placed “in the round,” or theater style, or in any of a dozen other ways.

All this is in keeping with Charlotte Street’s overall goals. “There is research out there that the audience for experimental performance is really in sync with the audience for contemporary art,” Amy said. “So there are probably a lot of audience members out there on either side who don’t know they would love the other as much as they do. … Hopefully we’re doing a bit of audience-building for some of those more experimental things.”

The Composition Competition is likely to produce a wide range of surprises. “There really is no organization like Charlotte Street anywhere in the nation,” said Amanda Middaugh, development and marketing director. While most presenters focus on a single art form, “we’re focused on all the contemporary arts in Kansas City, and that’s what really makes us so dynamic.” Even in fundraising, the Foundation rarely solicits funds for a specific art form, but rather encourages donors with an interest in the arts as a whole.

Amy Kligman / Photo by Estuardo Garcia

The competition represents a sort of evolution of the cross-platform events the Foundation has long sponsored around town. “Instead of the money that we had budgeted for the monthly series of experimental music, I clumped it into this contest,” Pat said. “Let’s put out a call, start fresh. Who are these interesting people? … If it’s successful, there will be more. And when we’re writing the budget, we’ll see that yes, this is a thing that works … and here’s what we learned.”

As with visual arts, a primary goal of such a program is “keeping artists here,” Pat said. “If you’re graduating from the Art Institute or the Conservatory, this is what keeps you in Kansas City. … Here is somebody recognizing you, seeing that what you are doing is important. And that’s pretty rare.”

As with everything at the Foundation, removing limits is key. “The best events we’ve done are the ones that are diverse, in terms of aesthetics,” said Tim of his ensemble. “We like to think of ourselves as bringing in as many people as we can. For me music is the easiest thing to organize, but we try to get our hands on whatever we can.”

—By Paul Horsley


For more information on Charlotte Street Foundation and its activities go to charlottestreet.org. For more on each of the six composers, look here:

Craig Comstock
Instagram: @thisismycondition or @craig_comstock_
Twitter: @craig_comstock_
FB: facebook.com/craig.comstock.9279

Kat Nechlebova Dison
Instagram: @kat.dison.nechlebova
FB: facebook.com/kat.dison
Website: katnechleba.com

AJ Harbison
Instagram: @ajharbison
Twitter: cajharbison  
Facebook: facebook.com/ajharbisonmusic  
Website: ajharbison.com  

Mazzy Mann & Zach-Garland Foster
Instagram: @mx.mrs and @i.am.just.zach

Michèle Saint Michel
Instagram: @michelesaintmichel
Twitter: @allsaintmichel  
FB: facebook.com/michelesaintmichelx  
Website: michelesaintmichel.com

Yunfei Li
Instagram: @yunfeilimusic
FB: facebook.com/profile.php?id=100013224375288
Website: yunfeilimusic.com

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor; send an email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter (@phorsleycritic).

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.



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