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Avant-Garde For All

BYU professor and composer Christian Asplund curates experimental performances for the people with Avant Vespers series.

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ENRIQUE LIMÓN
  • Enrique Limón

Christian Asplund's résumé contains countless accolades: Professor in BYU's School of Music. Co-founder of the Seattle Experimental Opera. Acclaimed composer of sacred music. Associate editor of esteemed academic journal Perspectives of New Music. Co-author of a forthcoming book on Christian Wolff, a member of the legendary 20th-century New York School of experimental composers.

What you might not expect to find on the résumé of someone of Asplund's stature is basement concert curator and DIY promoter of avant-garde, even outré, modern music. Yet that's the spirit that embodies Asplund's monthly Avant Vespers series, which began in June 2018 at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Provo. From outsider jazz and experimental classical music to spoken-word poetry, Avant Vespers is all about pushing boundaries and shaking up the sometimes-staid atmosphere of classical music in a more inclusive, populist space.

Asplund developed his innovative attitude over several years spent hosting Avant GaRawge and Avant GaRasement shows in his North Provo home. When he moved downtown and composed a piece called "The Passion and Resurrection of St. Mark," St. Mary's music pastor Serena Kanig Benish recruited him to perform it at the church, which boasts more than just a piano and a pipe organ. According to Asplund, who's performed all over the world, the church features some of the finest acoustics he's ever encountered. "It's resonant without too much echo," Asplund says. "We've had loud amplified music that sounded great, along with quiet classical music and unamplified spoken word. I really like the space, its vibe, its acoustics, its location and, most importantly, its people."

Originally held on Sundays, Avant Vespers recently moved to Fridays, coinciding with downtown Provo's First Friday Gallery Stroll. But the unifying theme of the monthly series remains innovation and outside-the-box exploration. "To a certain extent, it's about organizing performances by people that I'm interested in," Asplund says. "I come from academia, but I'm somewhat of an outsider, and I like to encourage and promote people making experimental music that isn't connected to an institutional setting."

As an example, he points to trombonist Adam Bean, who comes from an experimental punk scene, along with Utah Valley University Senior Artist-in-Residence Alex Caldiero, well known for his genre-defying, transcontinental work as The Sonosopher. "The outliers and the mavericks are the ones I'm interested in," Asplund says. "I want to foster anybody doing creative work in the fringe areas of these art forms."

Past editions of Avant Vespers have featured sacred music, and its performance inside a church obviously introduces religious undertones. Referencing the term "vespers" and its common definition as late afternoon or evening prayer, Asplund says the series remains firmly non-denominational but committed to exploring the spiritual connections of music and art. "St. Mary's defines its mission or stewardship as being over the community, not just its members," Asplund says. "They want to serve people who don't necessarily belong to the church or don't have the same beliefs. For them, sponsoring artistic events is serving as a force for good. They have a program called Community Music Outreach, so Serena was very open to this kind of performance."

On a personal level, Asplund says music forms a crucial part of his own religious practice. So he remains open to curating artists who work out of many different spiritual traditions. "I think that any kind of creativity or art is a celebration of existence, of creation, of the universe and of human connection," he says. "For me, music is also a celebration of the divine."

As a longstanding member of academia, Asplund said he's received some pushback from higher-ups when it comes to framing his work with Avant Vespers as part of his required research or creative work. Referencing the holiness bestowed upon peer review by the ivory tower, he says traditional academic questions like "Did someone invite you to perform at a prestigious venue?" don't apply to Avant Vespers. Instead, he cites his own personal passion as motivation for the series.

"What I'm doing is the opposite of that," he says. "It's a DIY series; I produce it myself and I program my own music. Sometimes it's tricky to make a case for that to my bosses. But what I've always said is that musical events are compositions in and of themselves. Creating an environment where creativity can flourish is a type of artwork. Some people perceive music making to be bureaucratic or difficult, especially for those who are not already established. I wanted to create a place and space to be heard for people who aren't extroverted or savvy but have interesting voices. With Avant Vespers, hopefully they can break through."

So far, each edition of Avant Vespers has attracted a crowd of about 25 people—some longtime devotees of Asplund's homespun approach to concerts and some new attendees attracted to a particular performer on the bill. No matter what, he says it's always a diverse audience: fringe types from the neighborhood, colleagues from BYU, curious fans driving down from Salt Lake City. The Jan. 4 edition should be equally eclectic, with work by Asplund, his daughter Lula, clarinetist Katie Porter, folk singer Stuart Wheeler and poet Fish Burton.

Such a wide-ranging bill might seem radical in the classical music world, which adheres more strictly to hidebound tradition than nearly any other art form. But Asplund says it's par for the course with Avant Vespers. "I like music that's outside the capitalist sphere," he laughs. "But jazz and classical performances can often be uptight. People are seated really close to each other, and you're not supposed to get up to go to the bathroom. Even if you like what you hear, you're discouraged from clapping—until you're supposed to clap. I don't like those situations. I want different kinds of people to come to Avant Vespers and feel comfortable."

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