To see a music festival which draws world-renowned performers from places such as Ethiopia, Argentina and Switzerland and the United States, you might expect you'd have to travel to New York City, or at the very least, Boston. But I have good news for you.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Mailhot
This undated photo shows a close-up of one of Christopher Cathode's percussion installations.
Caitlin King/Courtesy of Skott Spear
Skott Spear, aka i'd m thfft able, performs at the The Oak + The Ax in Biddeford in November 2012.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Mailhot
In this undated photo, Christopher Cathode poses with one of his many percussion installations.
Photo courtesy of Skott Spear
The musician's table at Frantasia will feature many unique items for sale, such as this i'd m thfft able collage.
All you'll have to do is put a gallon or two of gas in your tank and drive to Otis Mill in Jay.
Over the years, the Frantasia Festival of Out Music and Arts has made a name for itself as a performance mecca for well-known musicians of experimental music all over the world. It has attracted names such as Adriana De Los Santos, one of Argentina's prominent pianists, and Killick from Athens, Ga., who performs his unique "Appalachian trance metal" all over the world.
Then there's Charlotte Hug, who is well-known for playing her several-hundred-year-old viola in unorthodox places like women's prisons and tunnels of the Rhone glacier. It's different every year - -and every year, it's filled with plenty of musical surprises.
What exactly is "out music?" It's music that falls well outside the realm of the mainstream -- and often outside the comfort zone and expectations of the average listener. Improvisation is embraced as art instead of mere noodling, and unusual tunings are the norm and not the exception.
And the musical ensemble can involve anything from traditional instruments to homemade electronics to everyday items which would not normally be considered capable of producing music. Portland's i'd m thfft able of Strange Maine transforms everyday objects such as car parts, candy dishes, electric fans and Barbie doll torsos into musical instruments. Christopher Cathode has been known to have such unusual items as embalming machines or children's electronic toys woven into his percussion setup.
Many of the participants are devotees of the late John Cage, a 20th century composer who forever redefined the meaning of the word "music" with controversial pieces such as 4'33" where the pianist walks out on stage and quietly sits at the keyboard for exactly 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The music that resulted was not what the audience had expected -- a pianist playing the piano. The music was the sounds of themselves in reaction to unexpected stimuli.
The festival began 16 years ago, when Fran Szostek, founder of the festival, ran into an old friend, Eddie Snyder, with whom he'd once shared an apartment in Cambridge, Mass. Snyder was into avant garde jazz, so Szostek tried to get him interested in out music, a recent discovery he'd made.
"He didn't like it right away," Szostek said. "He didn't think it was that valuable."
He just thought the musicians were just making noise or didn't know how to tune their guitar right, Szostek joked.
Always up for a challenge, Szostek invited Snyder to his remote camp in North Woodstock for a crash course in out music appreciation.
After listening for a while, Snyder grew to respect the music, Szostek said.
Szostek had enjoyed the experience he'd shared with Snyder, and felt the relaxing, natural environment had been conducive to opening his friend's mind.
After a couple of years, Szostek decided to turn it up a notch and handed out fliers to a select group of people, inviting them to his camp for an intimate concert -- in the middle of the woods. The North Woodstock Festival of Out Music and Arts, the predecessor to Frantasia, was born.
Seventeen people responded to the invitations. Szostek was amazed, as he'd only expected a handful of people to show up.
One of the attendees, Gail Rein, arrived to the festival, ironically, on horseback.
The tent platform was wired for sound, so even musicians with electronic instruments could perform, surrounded by nothing but trees, mountains and sky.
"It was pitch dark," Szostek said, "just illuminated with propane lanterns. I couldn't see anybody."
The concert was a success, and many of the attendees, enjoying the beautiful site, decided to stay over.
"Why shouldn't I do this as a regular thing?" Szostek said he asked himself.
Szostek attended several experimental music festivals, such as High Zero in Baltimore, Md., and Vision Festival in New York, trying to recruit musicians and artists to attend the festival.
"Now I have to do very little recruiting," he said.
In 2011, the festival roster was full by December. And he already has his first musician reserved for 2014.
When asked about an amusing memory of the festival, Szostek recalled a performance by Lewis Gesner from Massachusetts. He had performed an outdoor piece which involved long steel tubes tied to ropes. The tubes were swung in a circular motion above his head to produce noise.
"It started doing this whum, whum, whum sound," Szostek remarked.
Between the noise and strange outdoor activity, the police were soon called.
"That was cool," he said. "It was good publicity for us."
One of the visiting artists' favorite parts about the festival is Water in the Woods, a two-day retreat in Fran's very remote camp in North Woodstock -- the same camp where it all started.
The original idea behind the retreat was a two-day water fast, in order to clear the mind.
While the water fast is meant as a spiritual cleansing, promoting awareness, Szostek said there was another, more selfish, reason for suggesting the fast.
"We cook for people for days," he said. "Don't want to go up there and do anything. We'll provide the water, but if anyone has anything else, they cook, they clean. I'm not doing anything."
Considering that anywhere from 15 to 40 people may converge upon his Livermore Falls home during the three-day Frantasia Festival -- all expecting to be fed, watered and cared for -- he has a good point. He shares his home with his wife, Kathleen Szostek, who does the lion's share of the cooking for the large group.
"Frantasia was the first time I've ever had a peanut butter and tomato sandwich," Cathode mused. "It looked like any other peanut butter sandwich. I took a bite, and a big, juicy tomato exploded in my mouth. It was fantastic."
"I thought, 'This sandwich is the food equivalent of the music.'"
It would appear that Fran Szostek isn't the only Szostek who's a fan of the unexpected.
Fran Szostek's musical dreams don't end with Frantasia. He is looking for performers for a new musical series to take place at Kimball Street Studio on Lisbon Street, across from Forage Market. The series will be held on the last Saturday of every month, from September to May.
Notable performers in this year's Frantasia lineup include Killick, Andrea Pensado, Loren Groendendaal, Broadcloth, Christopher Cathode, Naythen Wilson, i'd m thfft able, Kaethe Hostetter, Dan Barrett and Al Margolis.
The music at Frantasia isn't for everyone. But for those who long for a truly unique experience, one that will stimulate their eyes and ears as well as their minds, this may well be what they've been looking for.
Frantasia Festival of Out Music and Arts takes place Aug. 22-24 at Otis Ventures at the Otis Mill on 1 Mill St., Jay. Doors will open at 7 p.m. Ticket prices are $7 adults, $5 students and senior citizens.
At Frantasia, a senior citizen is anyone over 25.
Please bring some extra cash for donations to the musicians, or to purchase the artists' CDs, DVDs or swag. Some refreshments may be available for a minimal price.
For more information on Frantasia Festival of Out Music and Arts, including the performance schedule, visit the festival website at www.frantasiafestival.com. You may also contact festival organizer Fran Szostek at 216-6288 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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