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If It's Tuesday, I Must Be Modern 


The age of specialization has hit the arts. Poets and painters go to separate bars, to discuss their separate “career tracks.” Dancers don’t date violinists. Modfest, now in its eighth year at Vassar College, opposes this trend. This “festival of the modern” encourages novelists to study sonatas, choreographers to view photos.
Artists get their best ideas by stealing from other unsuspecting artists.

Harry Roseman is a case in point. Two years ago at Modfest, he heard violist Adrienne Elisha perform. Roseman, a painter and sculptor who is also chairman of the art department at Vassar, was impressed. “I thought it was wildly spectacular, so I e-mailed her, and we met,” Roseman recounts. The musician and artist collaborated on a performance and wall-painting (Woven Walls) at the Kleinert/James Gallery in Woodstock in July 2008.

As part of this year’s Modfest, Roseman will create a blue, brown, and orange abstract “wall drawing” on two 30-foot-high walls in the atrium gallery of the Loeb Art Center. He and six assistants will spend a month painting Hole in the Wall, an act of “unintentional performance art.” On January 29, Elisha will perform a piece for solo viola and voice titled “Circle Voices” in front of Roseman’s installation. She and Roseman have been conferring about their respective works, using Skype, while the musician was at a residency in Edenkoben, Germany. Music, like painting, may employ circular forms, straight lines, and repetition. “The 30-foot-high ceilings actually make for wonderful acoustics,” notes Mary-Kay Lombino, contemporary art curator at the Loeb Center.

On January 23, Joe McPhee and Friends (Richard Teitelbaum on keyboards and Thurman Barker on drums and percussion ) will perform. McPhee is a multi-instrumentalist (and Poughkeepsie resident) who solos on tenor, alto and soprano saxophone, trumpet, pocket trumpet, trombone, clarinet, cornet, didgeridoo, and flugelhorn. He also sometimes sings. Though McPhee, at 70, is a major figure in avant-garde jazz, his music is not hysterical or ear-splitting. His playing is gracious and considered. I asked McPhee what he calls his genre. “I call it ‘Po music,’” he replied. “’Po’ is a language indicator to show that provocation is being used to move from a fixed set of ideas in an attempt to discover new ones. It refers also to words like possible, poetic, positive, etc.”
Electronic music pioneer Milton Babbitt, who is 93, will engage in a public conversation with Vassar music professor Richard Wilson, followed by a performance of Babbitt’s work by the Argento Ensemble (January 24).
The Modfest is recession-proof. While many festivals have cut back in the past year, it has expanded. Modfest allows a first-rate art faculty, and their promising students, to strut ’n’ shimmy in the public eye.

For the first time, Modfest will include the theatrical arts. The Woodshed Theater Ensemble, a student-run collective, will present a staged reading on January 30. (At press time, they had not yet voted on a particular work.) Another innovation this year is a multilingual reading of Arabic, French, Japanese, German, Chinese, Spanish, Russian, and Swedish poems, with translations by Vassar students. The event will begin with the Mahagonny Choral Ensemble singing the Latin song “O Vos Ommes,” composed by Pablo Casals (January 27). All events are free.

Modfest 2010 will take place on the Vassar College campus in Poughkeepsie from January 21 to February 7. (845) 437-5370; http://arts.vassar.edu.

click to enlarge The Biava Quartet
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