By Nathan Frontiero
GILL – Perched on the hilltop site of a 100-acre former dairy farm, Antenna Cloud Farm will unfurl its sixth season of music, artist residencies, and community building this summer.
Mainstage performances run throughout July, bringing folk, classical, and new music to the farm’s sweeping green space, with room to accommodate a couple hundred people. An indoor venue on the grounds with room for around 60 people will play host to more intimate performances.
The season kicks off July 1 with the Antenna Cloud Farm Music Walk in Turners Falls, a one-day special event with jazz, world music, and more at Unity Park, Great Falls Discovery Center, Spinner Park, and Peskeomskut Park. In August, ACF will hold partner events with the 10th Annual Pocumtuck Homelands Festival at Unity Park and Stone Soup Café in downtown Greenfield.
For artistic director Michi Wiancko, an accomplished composer and violinist, ACF isn’t close to home – it is home. The outdoor festival grounds belong to her and her husband, fellow composer Judd Greenstein, and the indoor concert and residency spaces are parts of their house and property’s cottage.
The summer event, which also includes a tuition-free experimental music institute, began from “a vision of creating a musical hub in Franklin County,” Wiancko says. “This is like my side project gone berserk…. Every year, I feel like I’m honing in on my vision and I’m able to steer the beast a bit more in that direction.”
Wiancko is originally from California and spent most of her adult life in Brooklyn. The transition to western Massachusetts allowed her to stay “within striking distance” of the city, and offered an aura of potential.
“We didn’t move to this area for any specific job,” she says, “or any specific teaching position or institutional reason. There was a certain feeling about Franklin County that felt special and warm, and felt full of possibility – a place where growth and building something from scratch seems viable.”
Antenna Cloud Farm is rooted in an intention to use music “as a catalyst for societal change and community resilience,” as described on the festival’s website. Wiancko explains how the lineup reflects that intention.
“It’s my biggest passion to support other artists who are using their practice and their talents to actually make the world a bit of a better place,” she says.
For royal hartigan, drummer and bandleader of jazz quartet blood drum spirit, which will perform in the July 1 Music Walk, ACF is “a physical space, a psychological space, and an artistic space where people can get together and explore untraditional ideas.” In their music, blood drum spirit fuses jazz with Asian, South Asian, and West African influences. The band’s goal, hartigan says, is “to create a space where people can see and realize their humanity and get to a higher consciousness.”
He links that intention of building connection to the festival’s ethos, characterizing ACF as the “antithesis and an immunization against profit-driven mainstream pop, or whatever you want to call the artistic festival stages with helicopters and fog machines. [Wiancko is] focusing on the essence of creativity, the humanity of it, and doing it with an egalitarian approach. Close to the people. This is exactly what we’re about.”
In her teaching experience, Wiancko says she frequently encountered questions from students she felt “institutions are not set up to answer.” These included how to establish a music career in the 21st century, how to have a holistic life in music, and how to consider one’s wellness or mental health alongside creation and performance.
“What is a way of being in the industry that is more community-minded, and less based on competitive structures?” Wiancko reflects. “How do we make art in a way that supports each other and supports the community, and that is mindful about the kind of healing society needs and the kind of healing live performance and music can bring to our communities? I believe we’re in service of the communities we live in and play for.”
While their specific approaches may differ, the artists on the bill for Antenna Cloud Farm this season are unified in their aim to deliver transporting experiences.
Maeve Gilchrist, a Brooklyn-based harper and composer participating in this year’s ACF artist residency, will be working on new material to share with audiences. Gilchrist was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and her background includes traditional Irish and Scottish music. She traveled to the United States to study jazz and improvisation at Berklee, steeping in the breadth and diversity of Boston and New York’s music scenes. She and Wiancko are both members of the Silkroad Ensemble.
Gilchrist uses her instrument – the Celtic lever harp – to explore a variety of genres, from orchestral or folk settings to electronics.
“The beautiful thing about composing is you can curate the influences however you like,” she says.
Gilchrist will join ACF with guitarist and frequent collaborator Kyle Sanna, who is adept at both contemporary improvisation and traditional Irish backing style. “He can speak to both sides of my musicality,” Gilchrist says.
Gilchrist also addresses the physicality of the instrument and the connections therein.
“I enjoy the proximity that I have with my body when I’m playing the harp,” she says. “There is no doubt a connection between the vibrations that are made and that I’m feeling. I’m pregnant right now, and I think a lot about it because I’ve been touring so much this spring and I think, ‘Gosh, this baby has heard a lot of music’ – and not just heard a lot of music, but felt a lot of music, because it’s right there by the soundboard.”
Steph Davis, who recently graduated from Boston Conservatory with a master’s in music and marimba performance, says that they are “centering Black dignity” in their musical practice.
“When you come to my performance you’re going to hear Black music,” they explain. “Black people in the audience are going to be able to come to a performance and see themselves sonically represented in the music that I offer. The practice centers Africanity, and acknowledges and celebrates that the marimba is an African instrument – it’s always surprising when people don’t know that.”
Davis, who will perform twice at ACF’s indoor space on July 29, says they eagerly anticipate playing a venue in which “a hierarchy between performer and audience is dispelled.”
“I hope that there’s something about the stripped-back feeling of the absolute space,” they say. “You’re just listening to, essentially, wood and resonators in a space, and what emotion that can bring to an intimate space is what I’m hoping to explore.”
This closeness between the musicians and listeners also has cultural resonances. “I’m thinking about a lot of West African musical traditions, where music is a communal activity, where the distinction between performer and audience is not clear,” they say. “In many western classical cases, and many popular music cases, that’s not the case.”
Davis’s creative work is supported by in-depth cultural research. They refer to the ACF Experimental Institute, which they attended in 2022, as “a laboratory model of ‘What does musical excellence look like?’ and really exploring that question within the context of decolonization of curriculum and practice and liberation.”
One thing they have experimented with is whether to explicitly name the political context of their performances or leave space for interpretation. “That sometimes results in moments where the audience teaches me,” they say. “Sometimes the narrative gets expanded.”
“Antenna Cloud Farm does a beautiful job of this idea of small parts being integral to the whole,” Davis says, reflecting on the festival’s overall approach. “Everything they do, from the programming to the food to the larger festival. It all starts with liberation and it seeps out. It creates a pattern that continues.”
Antenna Cloud Farm runs from July 1 to August 26 with events in Turners Falls, Gill, and Greenfield. Tickets are available at antennacloudfarm.com.
A version of this article first appeared in the Montague Reporter.
Nathan Frontiero writes and lives in western Massachusetts. He covers arts and culture, politics, and local news.
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