By Maria Wyllie
Explore Big Sky Staff Writer
BIG SKY – Warren Miller Performing Arts Center’s debut season ends Saturday, March 29, with The Frontiers of Music, a concert by Stanford University professor and avant-garde composer Mark Applebaum.
Applebaum teaches music composition and theory, and his solo, chamber, choral, orchestral, operatic and electroacoustic work has been performed throughout the U.S., Europe, Africa and Asia. He is also a jazz pianist and builds electroacoustic instruments out of junk, hardware and various found objects.
Working as a composer and professor, Applebaum has two very different but strongly overlapping roles. While he is deeply committed to teaching on one side, he also asks questions that haven’t yet been answered, working outside the boundaries of what is and what can be.
An experimentalist, Applebaum’s music is diverse and noncommercial. “In that music I explore all sorts of different kinds of ideas, many of which recently problematize the actual definition of music and its boundaries,” he said in a phone interview with EBS.
Defying boundaries has been one of the underlying themes of WMPAC’s debut season. Artistic Director John Zirkle began the season with a sold-out performance of the James Sewell Ballet during which dancers seemingly defied gravity, expressing themselves as athletes and artists through modern dance.
“The big theme here for me is adventure, and Applebaum is one of the most adventurous thinkers and performers and artists I’ve ever seen,” Zirkle said. “He has the perfect balance of this adventurous free thinking and this really poignant accessibility.”
The March 29 concert will feature Applebaum playing jazz piano, performing hand choreography, and playing his own instrument called the “mouseketier.” Much of what Applebaum is exploring is untrodden territory, and his various acts will be accompanied by lecture presentations explaining the thinking behind what he’s doing – for example, how the jazz improviser thinks while improvising, or the motivations behind building a new instrument.
“Many people find what artists do to be a deep mystery and perplexing aspect of our culture, so I’m hoping to demystify that,” he said.
Applebaum asks his listeners to take chances and step outside of what they know. “I’m interested in thinking about what kinds of questions I might pose that other people might not,” he explained. “Some of my impulse to be an experimentalist is related to an intrinsic need to be useful so I don’t see the point in repeating something that’s already been done.”
He isn’t against convention – he’s just not motivated by it in his own work. As a professor, Applebaum is constantly listening to music in order to keep up with what’s going on and teach his students. However, he doesn’t listen to it for his own entertainment.
“I’m tired of music,” he said. “Most people come to music for enjoyment and escape, and that’s not my principal motivation. For me, composition is a way to reanimate my fascination with music by creating new artistic problems.”
Consequently, his music is not typically inspired by the work of other musicians either. Instead, a lot of his compositions are extra musical, inspired by influences outside the music world. For example, years ago he was commissioned to create a special piece called “Asylum” in which he composed a musical articulation of psychological disorders in sound. He spent a year studying psychology in order to do so.
Because Applebaum is doing “weird” stuff, people often ask how he gauges the success.
“It should be a puzzle for the audience,” Applebaum says. “It should be strange and a little odd for them, but they should follow up with intrigue and fascination and wanting to further engage with it.”
Historically, the avant-garde artist typically meant establishing some sort of social, economic or political reform. Although Applebaum isn’t working with a specific reformative goal in mind, he says his work does have a political subtext.
“It is a metaphor for diversity and freedom of thought…I’m optimistic that if there’s a takeaway, it’s that we are all artistically free, and I want to live in a society that permits that kind of broad intellectual and artistic exploration,” he said.
Applebaum says his music is for open minded and curious people, those interested in learning about the frontiers of music. An all-ages show, the concert should appeal to anyone who doesn’t think music stops with Mozart.
The self-deprecating genius narcissist is a fitting closer for WMPAC’s debut season. As a performing arts center, WMPAC events aren’t just about entertaining. Rather, they are about freedom of thinking and expression, and about challenging the audience to think in new ways.
“We’re trying to present interesting ideas, and I think Mark is a perfect closer for that type of statement,” Zirkle said. “It’s a total one man show that’s almost in a way a recap [of the season] and a moving forward idea.”
Not only will the audience learn how a composer’s mind works, but they will get to listen to fun, uplifting music produced out of a beautiful sound-sculpture, hear jazz and classical standards, and perchance get on stage and learn from the mastermind that is Mark Applebaum.
As a thank you to the community for an amazing debut season, WMPAC is offering people a free pair of tickets to the final event. To claim your tickets, email firstname.lastname@example.org with the words “Outlaw Apple” in the subject line. Visit warrenmillerpac.org for more information on the event.