Baltimore’s Mind on Fire offers a mind-bending alternative to traditional classical music performances
By Elizabeth Nonemaker
Dec 06, 2019 | 7:00 AM
For the self-described musical arts cooperative Mind on Fire, where you hear a concert is just as important as what you hear.
At a recent show staged at Lovely Lane United Methodist Church, the building was part of the performance. Stepping inside was like stepping into a hearth: The upholstery, the carpet, the rounded walls were the same deep, burnt orange; the dark wood of the encircling galleries created a sense of weight.
The effect might have been intended for religious purposes, but it worked just as well for music. As the show progressed through three distinct acts — first, a display of traditional Anatolian shadow puppetry, then a solo performance of abstract saxophone music by Horse Lords’ Andrew Bernstein, and last, a collection of contemporary choral music — it was hard not to feel as if we’d congregated there for something both arcane and intimate.
The crowning moment was the finale performance of Meredith Monk’s “Earth Seen From Above,” a circular, wordless chant in which unaccompanied singers echo each other like bells. Mind on Fire’s ad hoc choir fanned out along the upper gallery of the church; the lights dimmed. Leaning back, the domed ceiling of Lovely Lane — an enormous mural depicting a twilit sky, with clouds glowing at the horizon and constellations splattered across the center — consumed my vision. It was all too easy to imagine we were being carried off into space.
The setting was doubly appropriate, if you considered the history of the Methodist Episcopal Church as one founded on anti-elitist values. In similar fashion, it is the exclusive nature of many classical music concerts that Mind on Fire wants to do away with.
Created in 2016, Mind on Fire operates alternately as a concert series, a presenting organization and a database both of, and for, musical artists in the city.
It would feel inaccurate to describe them simply as a “classical music organization.” The group intentionally incorporates multidisciplinary performances into each of their shows; and its founders — consisting of executive director James Young, artistic director Allison Clendaniel and technical director Jason Charney — are much readier to align themselves with Baltimore’s generalized arts scene than with its niche classical music communities.
At different points, their dissatisfaction with that feeling of exclusivity threatened to push some of them out of classical music altogether. While all three attended Johns Hopkins’ Peabody Institute, Charney dropped out after the first semester of his master’s degree in computer music; he later moved back to Baltimore to produce concerts at The Bun Shop and pursue visual arts.
Clendaniel, a vocalist, abandoned her concentration in classical voice in favor of steadier work and the chance to make experimental pop music, citing her confusion at the time with classical music’s “place and value in the world.”
“I got very mad at it,” Clendaniel explained in an interview. “At the way that it’s presented and the gatekeeping that’s involved in it. I kind of stopped doing it.”
Young, a composer, had already been working to promote community-minded concertizing: He served for a time as executive director of Occasional Symphony, another organization that prioritizes marketing to a generalized audience.
But he continued to notice what he described as the “ouroboros” of classical music audiences — particularly those that operate outside of major institutions.
“Classical musicians go to classical music concerts,” he said. “Then they put on their own concerts. So the people on stage are now in the audience, and the people in the audience are now on the stage. It creates an interesting environment for dialogue, but it slowly becomes a tower going forever upward.”
Clendaniel had grown frustrated with the same phenomenon. “If I was going to a new music concert in Baltimore, I was always seeing the same 12 performers onstage” — this despite the fact that there’s a wide range of ability required to perform such music. Some pieces do require expert performers with years of training; others, like some Philip Glass pieces, are, in Clendaniel’s words, “more accessible to amateur musicians.”
“Why is this music reserved for people who have … multiple degrees?” Clendaniel wondered. “And not given to people who have facility with instruments and love making music?”
To be sure, the list of complaints lodged against Western classical music are not shared solely by Mind on Fire’s members. Nor is the list a short one. Classical music is expensive — both to study and, consequently, to consume. Long funded through systems of patronage, it has, historically, reinforced classism. Its history is riddled with stories of exclusion.
Over the past decade in particular, those working within classical music have sought to address this disparity between the art’s supposed ideal as an elevating gift to all humanity, and its reality as an artform that all too often caters to those with money and advanced educations.
The issue has become salient for larger institutions especially as that monied, elite audience has shrunk, leaving the question of funding in the balance. (In this respect, the current struggles of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra are just a symptom of a larger problem.)
But a problem that poses so broad a question — whether classical music has “place and value in the world” at all — invites a multitude of answers. Some organizations have doubled down on musical outreach; others have explicitly relaxed dress codes and concert hall etiquette.
Mind on Fire’s approach has been to envision classical music in Baltimore as something woven into the larger fabric of the city’s arts scene: that caters not just to musicians, but artists; and not just to artists, but to people who enjoy art.
Integral to that effort is increasing the number and variety of artists that participate in their shows.
“One of the things we did when we first got started was we made this big survey of notated music readers,” Clendaniel said. “We dispersed it to as many people we could.” Through that survey, they compiled a list of over 100 musicians around the city that had some ability on an instrument and that were interested in working with the collective.
The result has been a rotating roster of collaborators: Dozens of different artists have participated in the 30 shows they have produced since their founding. These artists range from those highly trained, expert musicians, to hobbyist players, to non-classical acts like Dan Deacon. They include, too, dancers, filmmakers, comedians and more.
For Charney, it would be an oversight not to capitalize on the diversity of Baltimore’s arts scene. “Artists have multiple interests and practices in this city,” he said. “Why does the presentation of them have to be siloed?”
Charney, after all, is one of those multidisciplinary artists who chose to adopt Baltimore as his creative home. A Kansas native, he moved to northwest Ohio after his time at Peabody to complete his master’s degree, but he felt pulled back to Baltimore “specifically because of the scene here.”
Clendaniel and Young, from Delaware and Texas, respectively, likewise regard Baltimore as a place of unique fertility.
“The performance ecosystem of Baltimore — I’ll hold it up against any other in the world,” said Young. “It’s incredible, the type of adventurous programming people do here. No one is afraid to fail. I think that should be nurtured as much as possible.”
The group has ambitious visions about how that nurturing might take shape. Long term, they dream of opening a new music center in Baltimore that would provide spaces for performance, rehearsal, recording, teaching and more. The key is that it would be “a space for everyone to participate at whatever level they want,” said Young.
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To them, opening such a place would address another barrier to classical music, in that it operates in a mentor-mentee capacity. Other types of music don’t necessarily work that way. Genres like jazz, rock and hip-hop have flourished, one could argue, precisely because there is a greater precedent of self-taught artists and peer-to-peer instruction.
But that’s a long way off. In the meantime, the group is dedicated to slow, holistic growth. Most immediate are the preparations for their upcoming concert, a collaboration with In The Stacks, a series that presents concerts in the George Peabody Library, and that draws from the library’s collection to source their programming.
That concert will feature music by Catherine Lamb, a spectral composer whose music is frequently meant to interact with the space it’s performed in. To pick up on that spatial theme, Charney will create a light show designed specifically for the library.
If you go
Mind on Fire joins In The Stacks to present “an evening of light, sound, spectralism and astronomy” at the George Peabody Library, Dec. 12, 7:00 p.m. 17 E. Mt. Vernon Pl. Free with a suggested donation of $10.
If you’re interested in joining Mind on Fire’s collaborators, you can learn more at mindonfire.org.
Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for The Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions. Nonemaker can be reached at email@example.com.