Rotunda In The News

This Friday: “All Sound is Queer” at the Rotunda

June 18th, 2014 | 11:45AM | By Shaun Brady
Curated by filmmaker and sound artist Catherine Pancake, the All Sound is Queer event takes its name from a 2011 article penned by Matmos’ Drew Daniel in The Wire. In that piece, Daniel rebuffed the idea that LGBTQ identity should be tethered to explicitly “queer” music, whether that means Lady Gaga, house music, or pride-sneering punk. Instead, the creation of any sound art, he argues, represents a “queer” sense of creative exploration away from the norm. Make music, he suggests, and you’re automatically disrupting the status quo.

Daniel will be one of the artists on the bill at this free Bowerbird-presented show at the Rotunda in West Philadelphia on Friday June 20th, which was designed as “both a response and continuation” of that essay. The evening will also feature music, readings, and sound works by a host of artists who place experimental music in service of identity politics, including musician and artist Keir Neuringer, Alex Smith, Ex. By. V. (featuring Leah B.), writer and poetMegan McShea, John Eaton, and artist and composer Jules Gimbrone (pictured above).

Go here for more information about the event.

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Nick Millevoi: The Rotunda Album

by Geo

Through non-traditional tunings, feedback, extreme volume and noise, Philadelphia-based guitaristNick Millevoi has made it his mission to experiment with and expand upon the sounds of the electric guitar. Millevoi will be releasing his fourth instrumental solo effort—the fuzzed-out avant-gardeNumbers on the Sidethis Saturday at the Pageant: Soloveev Gallery in Queen Village. The record release show is the penultimate date on Millevoi’s current US tour with fellow Philadelphia guitarist and Numbers on the Side engineer Eric Carbonara, who helped Millevoi record the album in West Philadelphia’s 103-year-old Rotunda last July. Along with a vast number of other collaborations, Millevoi also co-leads noise-rock-free jazz trio Many Arms and makes one half of the duo Archer Spade. Our Derrick Krom spoke with Millevoi about experimental music, the creative process and his many influences.

What got you interested in playing guitar? How did you eventually find your way into exploring the experimental side of the instrument?

Well, I’ve played the guitar since I was 8-years old at this point, so it’s something I’ve always done. Probably when I was 18 or so I got really into jazz because I felt like that was the musical direction for me to get into. I heard A Love Supreme by John Coltrane and thought that free jazz was the coolest shit. But, I still wasn’t really sure what I was going to do with that information. Then I remember, my freshman year in college, I had gotten really into jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. Somebody told me that Bill Frisell was in a band that played a song called “Pigfucker.” That was Naked City, and I got the Naked City album and was like, “This is the coolest.” It made sense to me because I was a rock guitar player and not a jazz guitar player and Bill Frisell was playing like a rock guitar player. So I thought, “This is the cool shit that I gotta check out.” I continued to be really psyched about jazz and got really into playing free jazz guitar, but that’s where it started. That’s what got me into playing weirdo experimental guitar playing.

How is creating a piece of music that is experimental different than, say, if you were to create or craft a traditional pop or rock song?

It isn’t. It’s no different. You know, it’s just about being honest about what you’re hearing and being honest about the music you’re trying to create. I don’t set out to make music that’s totally weird or anything like that, it’s just that’s what I feel like I have to add to guitar music. The things I have to add and the things you hear, you would classify it as experimental or avant-garde, but I don’t think about it. I don’t set out to be weird about it. So, I think in that way it’s just like when you’re writing a song, if you’re writing a song and you’re writing it from your heart, it can come out in any style.

Your latest album Numbers on the Side was recorded in The Rotunda in West Philly. How did that building play a role in your creative process?

The building played a huge role in the sound of this album. Really, the album was created because of the building. My good friend Eric Carbonara—who I’m on tour with right now—had the idea that it would be cool for me to do a recording there. We actually both recorded in there at the same time – he also recorded some stuff for his next album. We did it in the sanctuary, this giant room. It used to be a church, I believe, a long time ago and it’s huge. So Eric invited me in to do it and we just spent an afternoon in there where I had some ideas about what I was trying to accomplish, but a lot of it is improvised through the room. I didn’t really come in with set material or anything super specific because I really wanted the room to play a role in it. I didn’t want it to just be that I came in and said, “I want this song to sound this way.” I wanted the room itself to just really influence the music. So, Eric put mics throughout the room. There’s some close mics on my guitar but then there are mics right in the middle of the room and mics completely on the opposite end up on the balcony. People are already sending me messages asking me about the effects that I use and stuff like that, but I didn’t really use that many effects on my guitar. A lot of the effects are created because of the way the room is miced-up and the way I could react to sounds like that. The reverb in there is so long that I had time to react to it and play against the sound that was happening. The room absolutely impacted the album and made it what it is. If I went and recorded that album in a different place, it wouldn’t have come out like that at all.

By being involved in a number of different bands and working with an array of artists, how have your various musical projects and collaborations influenced your playing up to this point?

You know, I try and be involved in projects where each project is a unique approach. In that way, everything is really able to influence my playing and influence what I’m working on. Take for example what I do with Many Arms. It’s super busy and a lot of it is really extreme and it really contrasts with what I’m doing on this new album, which is longer and more spacious. In both cases, I’m trying to make a really full, big sound. In Many Arms, I’m just one part of a much bigger picture, so I’m playing fast and it’s busy and that creates this big mass. But when I’m doing it just by myself, I’m playing feedback and I’m trying to fill up the space in a much different way. It’s not necessarily about just notes as much as it is sound mass—which isn’t to say I’m always trying to make a huge mass of sound. On this tour right now it’s very different because I’m not just playing stuff that’s right from this album. I’m playing a set that kind of encompasses a lot of things I do. I’m playing some acoustic guitar and that comes from a recent project I did with Archer Spade, which is my duo with Dan Blacksberg. We were doing this project as a trio with this visual artist Erik Ruin and I had this idea to play acoustic guitar and it was great, it was amazing. It was the first time I ever performed on acoustic guitar in any considerable form. Now that influenced me to bring my acoustic guitar on this tour because I just had so much fun doing it. Last year, right before Numbers on the Side was recorded, I had just finished up doing a project with Many Arms where we worked with our good friend Toshimaru Nakamura who plays feedback through a mixing board. I learned a number of things from him in a short period of time and I think that working with him absolutely affected the way I approached recording this album because he has a really open approach and just lets the sound develop and I thought, “this is a great thing to just kind of let into my music and I’m gonna see how that effects what I’m doing.”

Being based in Philadelphia, how has the city of Philly influenced you, your music and your playing?

I think that places really affect the music you make. I’ve lived in Philadelphia all my life. I’ve never left, and I feel like the music that I make is Philadelphian. My approach to it is different than friends of mine who make similar kinds of music from, say, the west coast or friends of mine who make similar kinds of music from Europe. It’s hard to pin down what exactly the sound differences are, but I think it’s in there, I think the place is really important. Sometimes it has to do with the place itself, the city, what everything looks like, how everything feels. In a lot of ways, I feel like that’s part of my music. I think most people would agree that I make pretty dark music and you know, we live in an urban area on the east coast. There’s a lot of different stuff going on and it’s a gritty city. I love Philadelphia and I only mean this in the best way, but it’s a dirty city. It’s old, there are cars everywhere, there’s always stuff crumbling and being rebuilt. So I’m sure that’s in there. I’m sure I’d make very different music if I lived near the beach or something. The biggest influence is probably the people that are around. I think the people that are part of the community are really great and I think we all influence each other. I wouldn’t have those collaborations that I do if I lived somewhere else. It’s also that music is what I do for a living. I teach guitar lessons and I just play and tour and if I lived somewhere more expensive, I probably wouldn’t be able to do that. I’d probably have a day job. I think Philadelphia is a great combination of being near everything and having a lot going on while also being affordable. I don’t really have to worry too much about my guitar lesson business because the people who want to study with me can find me and it’s really special that I can approach it that way. If I had to be advertising for lessons all the time, I wouldn’t have enough time to concentrate on my music or even on the quality of lessons I’m giving. I love teaching, and I’d rather be concentrating on the actual teaching than trying to find new students. I can be more open and comfortable with what I’m doing, and that’s something special about Philadelphia for sure. I think people outside of Philadelphia know this and the ones who don’t might be starting to figure this out. Whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know. We’ll find out.

What does your future look like when it comes to music? Where do you want to go with your playing and what do you hope to accomplish?

Well, I hope to just keep doing more of what I’m doing. I have collaborations with people who I really admire and I really respect and I hope to do more of that. I feel very honored that I get to put out as many releases as I do and that there’s an audience for it. I have six albums coming out this year, which is really crazy to me. I just want to keep up the momentum. I want to keep collaborating with people and keep moving forward. Just keep going, keep pushing it, keep collaborating with the people who I admire and inspire me and finding even more of them to work with.

Numbers on the Side will be released physically as a split-CD with doom/noise band Onibaba on April 26th and can be purchased digitally via Millevoi’s Bandcamp.

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From Rehearsal to Rotunda

"We refer to the Rotunda as a gathering place for the promotion of arts and culture," said Gina Renzi, executive director of the Rotunda.
Originally a Christian Science church, the Rotunda was purchased in 1996 by the University of Pennsylvania as part of a larger initiative focused on transforming the 40th Street corridor into a cultural destination for the city. But, while permanent plans were debated, it was largely used as a rehearsal space for university groups displaced by the long-running renovation of the Perelman Quad and Houston Hall, their usual home.
That all changed in 1998 when then-student Andrew Zitcer, now Penn's cultural asset manager, enrolled in a course on university/community partnerships. He was assigned a paper investigating the idea of a jazz club in the area.
"At the time," Zitcer said, "this was no-man's land, and I explained to anyone who would listen that you can't just take a space and make it a jazz club, because jazz is really about history. However, I thought, why not for the 21st century think about an all-purpose space that can accommodate all the arts, all the genres and really achieve this goal of integrating communities."
Zitcer's paper on the idea found its way to Penn's Real Estate Department, which jumped on the idea and enlisted Zitcer to run the space, sidelining his plans to move to New York and work in the music industry. Seeking to inaugurate the space with an event that would exemplify the venue's expansive mission, he booked a hip-hop event and a jazz concert over two nights in April 1999.
"The jazz concert was nicely attended, 75 people clapping and behaving and appreciating jazz," he said, "and the hip-hop event was 250 people raising the roof and representing hip-hop. I thought both were greatly successful."
At the beginning, the Rotunda ran only on weekends, but gradually expanded to a seven-day schedule. Renzi came on in 2002, assuming many of Zitcer's former duties as he moved into his current position. With Penn's ownership, the rent-free space is in a unique position to offer all-ages, largely free events and still pay artists for their efforts.
The Rotunda's efforts have also generated enormous goodwill in the community and encouraged the growth of local culture. "We don't believe that someone who's in the audience can't also put on an event or perform on stage," Renzi said. "We've found that as the Rotunda grows, things have gotten better in this organic way, where people are self-selective and decide to make it better. People mold the space, as opposed to the other way around."

- Shaun Brady

In its 10th year, Philly Zine Fest uses "HallowZine" theme


WHAT'S BLACK and white and read all over by Philadelphia's independent media? Philly Zine Fest, now in its 10th year, is an annual gathering of do-it-yourself publishers, artists and writers that showcases small self-published magazines.

Themed "HallowZine," this year's festival, Saturday at West Philly's Rotunda, offers the chance to flip through hundreds of these publications. There will also be costume, trivia and ghost-story contests, plus food, a DJ and live broadcasts on Drexel's WKDU (91.7-FM) radio station.

"Zines can be about anything and can inspire a lot of different feelings," said Sarah Rose, one of the festival's organizers. The most powerful zines make readers laugh and think about big issues at the same time, she said.

Rose is the creator of a zine called Tazewell's Favorite Eccentric, which addresses addiction, abuse and poverty. Her other zines include Worries, about anxiety, and Dangerous Damsels, about feminist fairy tales.

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Rotunda a hub of Penn's civic engagement with Philadelphia

 By Avi Grunfeld

A century-old former church called the Rotunda stands as a symbol of Penn’s civic engagement with West Philadelphia.

The Rotunda — located at 4014 Walnut St. — now houses a community-based arts initiative that started in 1998 with the goal of serving as a bridge to bring together Penn and West Philadelphia.

Program director Gina Renzi hosts between three to six events per week ranging from live music, film, art or after-school programs for local students. It is one of many elements of Penn’s focus on improving its surrounding neighborhood.

But Penn was not always the neighbor it is today.

“If Benjamin Franklin came back to Penn 30 years ago, he would be very upset with Penn’s relationship with the community,” Urban Studies Professor and Associate Vice President and Director of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships Ira Harkavy said.

Since the 1980s, though, Penn has begun a new chapter of working with the community — a chapter Harkavy believes is on display today at the Rotunda.

A history of civic engagement

In 1985, Harkavy and former Netter Center Senior Fellow Lee Benson, who died last February, started to teach a seminar on urban universities and community relationships. The course was co-taught with former Penn President Sheldon Hackney for the first few years.

From Hackney’s involvement in this seminar to former Penn President Judith Rodin’s campus expansion initiatives to current Penn President Amy Gutmann’s Penn Compact, civic engagement with West Philadelphia started to get more and more attention.

“Civic engagement is central to what a Penn education and what Penn as a university is all about,” Gutmann said.

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