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April 23, 2024

Regenerate!: Community Orchestra for All


“Place a sound on the moon. Bury a sound in the earth. Emit a sound into the sun.”

Written by composer Akari Komura, these are the instructions given to members of Regenerate! Orchestra as they rehearse “Sonic Habitat #93.” Their interpretations create a cacophony of noise on varied instruments from the flute and cello to pieces of slate, forks, and mugs, as performers search for sounds to embody the prompt.

Regenerate! is a non-traditional orchestra. Open to all, regardless of musical experience, the ensemble isn’t trying to harmonize or blend, but is instead inspired by shape note or sacred harp singing, an American folk tradition of choir music. “Everybody is trying to sound their own specific way, very loudly. And it ends up sounding messy and very alive,” explains founder and conductor Clay Gonzalez. “In the orchestra, it’s really about the ecosystem of sounds. It’s about everybody sounding different and their voice fitting in with this ecosystem of voices.”

Regenerate! Orchestra plays at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse, April 2023

Beginning as a collaboration between Clay and Peter Littlejohn on orchestra house concerts in 2018, Regenerate! has evolved overtime, centering around shared values of community building and making music a more democratic civic space. “I definitely went through a personal transformation where the world of classical music, as it is practiced, no longer felt like a home to me. And so the group definitely became a kind of refuge from the strictures of the classical music world, a place where we could explore a different system of values,” explains Clay.

Peter, who often performs vocals with the ensemble, notes that the group’s development follows Clay’s personal compositional practice, observing what was naturally happening in music spaces and encouraging particularly exciting elements. He shares a key realization that “we didn’t just have to work with our friends from music school. Honestly, this is music that was perhaps even better played by people from multiple different backgrounds and even no background in music whatsoever.”

Bryce Richardson confirms Regenerate! is unique, because “anybody can show up and play any instrument, at any skill level. If you’ve never read music before, or if you don’t even play an instrument, you can join Regenerate! and enjoy music making with a group of people.” Bryce, who has been part of the orchestra for two years, particularly enjoys Regenerate!’s flexible instrumentation. In the upcoming performances, he’ll play the bassoon, two recorders, kindling, two pieces of slate, a fork, and a glass.

Mason jars of beans, egg shakers, and bells.

Regenerate! Orchestra’s found percussion instruments

Peter adds that a highlight of Regenerate! is getting to know the participants who make music together in a meaningful way. “I think many people are incredibly alienated and live lives that are really socially starved and without much meaning or connection to other people. I want to have a richer social tapestry, and Regenerate! is a really powerful example of how that’s possible with a pretty broad pool of people.” A key component of fostering this connection and community are shared meals, which Peter cooks for each rehearsal. “We are asking people to show up and be vulnerable and try hard at something, which is a big ask. Feeding them is an essential part of that bargain.”

Shannon Rau is playing her euphonium for the first time in roughly five years. They describe Regenerate! as a vibrant, refreshing reintroduction to music, “It’s simultaneously meditative and energizing. It’s fun to have something to practice, a good reason to just sit down and play.” They especially appreciate the experimental nature of Regenerate!, jangling chains and breaking sticks in addition to playing the euphonium.

Hoda Bandeh-Ahmadi, who began performing with Regenerate! in 2022, had always wanted to play music with other people, but didn’t have many opportunities for lessons or formal training growing up. “I had picked up ukulele because it’s easier to get a cheap one and play around with YouTube tutorials. But I didn’t really think I was good enough to play anything with other people.” When Hoda heard about Regenerate!, she took a chance. “At first when I saw the way the music is written which is unconventional, I’m like, ‘Is that even gonna sound good?’ And I just loved how it all came together, the way that Clay planned it out. That felt really magical and fun. I also just loved the people. And it worked. I don’t stress so much if I’m good enough.” 

The score of Stick Season

The score of “Stick Season”

The pieces are written using a specialized notation. Parts are guided by timers and written in brackets. Performers follow their bracketed instructions, which might be traditional music notation, guitar tabs, or descriptive text. This allows people at any level to participate , no matter their music practice. These scores serve as a guide, rather than a rulebook, with each iteration of the orchestra developing its own internal voice and sound.

Though anxious about performing on the flute for the first time since high school, Hazal Soyucengil enjoys the open endedness and casual nature of the orchestra, saying it’s nothing like music class or band. “I think it’s good to be in an environment where you’re not necessarily expected to know the answers.”

Over the course of rehearsals, Clay works with the orchestra to shape the pieces and guide the group into certain sounds or textures, but the end result is always a surprise — even to him. “This project is an exercise in letting go of expectations. It’s almost impossible to predict how it will sound.” 

On April 27 and 28, 2024, the orchestra will present four pieces, two by long-time members Maddy Wildman and Grey Rose Grant, one by Clay, and one from composer Akari Komura, who specializes in nature-centric text scores.

Bassoon player and UMS staff member Maddy Wildman wrote “Sugar Bush,” a piece about tapping trees for maple syrup and “embracing the sparkle of later winter.” It evokes the soundscape of a sugar bush, the forest stand of maple trees used for syrup, in spring. The performance will feature 22 performers dropping pebbles in water, mimicking the gentle sound of drops of sap falling into a bucket. Though initially written for a smaller group, Maddy says the piece will really shine with the Regenerate! Orchestra. “It was originally written for cello solo, but there are five cellists. So we’re going to spread them out around the room and have them all play the solo, slightly displaced. Yeah, this is where this piece belongs.”

Grey Rose Grant and Clay Gonzalez demonstrate the choreography to "Magical Thinking"

Grey Rose Grant and Clay Gonzalez demonstrate the choreography of “Magical Thinking” in rehearsal.

Regenerate! is the best kind of orchestra according to Grey Rose Grant, who describes the project as deeply tied to their values. “This is such a community-forward organization. Everyone who comes gets a free meal for every rehearsal. There is no barrier to entry. There are so many ways in which people are able to engage at any level of experience or any instrument.” Grey’s composition “Magical Thinking” explores aging, life change, and death, featuring an erasure poem created from Annie Dillard’s essay on the 1979 total solar eclipse. They particularly look forward to audiences engaging with the piece. “It’s really special to see audiences sometimes be a little confused, but then realize what’s happening — to see them go from kind of reserved when it starts, maybe sitting in their seats, to then moving — walking around the space and really moving through the orchestra and listening to these tiny details.”

Peter adds that Regenerate! is an in-person, site-specific performance and explains the best seats in the house are the ones inside of the orchestra. “We’re trying to give that experience to everyone by allowing them to walk around and hear how the piece sounds different in each corner. You might be close to someone who’s making a very soft sound that that you’ll never hear across the room, but right next to them it comes into focus and unlocks a piece of the soundscape to you.”

We hope you can join us Saturday, April 27 and Sunday, April 28 to hear Regenerate! Orchestra at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse.

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