Local collaboration and vibes were the biggest winner at Charlotte New Music‘s Stargazer Music Festival. Only a second-time venture for CNM, the Stargazer Festival was a promising success. Unsurprisingly, my work with the Classical Voice of North Carolina has mostly led me to the concert hall. And as much as I love spending time with classical music, the Stargazer Festival was an exciting change of aesthetics! Not to mention, the MC for the evening, Reecee Raps, kept the night lively, interesting, comical, and definitely keen on the vibes. Even with all the extra attractions, music was the centerpiece of the festival. Staged at GreenLife Family Farms, the crowd was drawn to sources of light all over the grounds. Between the vigorous bonfires and fiery faerie lights dotting the pasture, the central barn house was the hub of sound, light, and warmth. I found a comfortable spot inside to set up my camp chair and blanket, snuck out quickly to grab some zucchini fries from the food truck I spotted on my way in, a coffee from Third Eye Coffee, and rushed back in time for the soundcheck.

“Let’s get weird” was the only introduction necessary for the first performer of the night. Electronic artist Starlitmire opened the show with a musical portal to a dimensional kaleidoscope. Complimented by the fractals of scarlet light projected onto the stage, the music was constantly coming into and out of focus, changing in character each time. Starlitmire looked like he could’ve gone on all night had Reecee Raps not kept things on schedule.

Taking over for the MC, the organizer of the event, Elizabeth Kowalski, introduced herself and the aims of the festival to the audience. Clad in a witchy, black vestment, Kowalski spoke about the ways in which music can be used to deconstruct boundaries. Acknowledging that the city of Charlotte can still be considered a segregated space in some regards, she hinted at music’s ability to bring segregated peoples and cultures closer. She told us that this festival is one way that she’s working to make music, especially music with a classical flavor, “accessible, interesting, and without boundaries.” A graduate alum of UNC Greensboro, Kowalski is also the sole executive artistic director of Charlotte New Music. For 10 years, CNM has been dedicated to creating opportunities for contemporary and original music in North Carolina. In addition to the Stargazer Music Festival, CNM also organizes a yearly series of workshops for composers, open mics, and composition competitions.

Following the opener, the majority of the night featured acoustic players from the group Your Neighborhood Orchestra, who contributed instrumental music to tracks from local electronic artists. During their sets, FLLS, Half Caste, RoyalCity LiF, and Master Kie all seemed elated to be performing on this project. In addition to electronics, the instrumentation included a combination of harp, violin, cello, clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone sax, and drum set. The set from FLLS showcased saxophonist Smaqdiggle, who pulled out an outrageous, simultaneous solo on tenor and soprano saxophone. Although, the biggest applause of the night was earned by Your Neighborhood Orchestra’s harpist after an extended cadenza. Mostly lyric-less, the culminating number of the night from Master Kie incorporated spoken word recordings depicting the mystery of the Space Race between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., a subject perfectly fitting for the night’s crystal-clear sky. 

CNM is taking on the mission of elevating the value of popular music and removing the elitism of classical music. It’s a mission that is critically relevant in spheres of music now. After an impressive showing, I believe the Stargazer Festival achieved mostly successful results. Local collaboration, young artistry, and – yes – vibes were definitely winners here. After reflecting on my experience and talking with several colleagues who are also contemporary music composers and performers, I think the biggest challenge for this music is in creating a performance idiom that is understood by audiences. The unifying element of the entire program was the beat-forward tracks that were almost begging for the audience to move, but there was no dedicated space for movement at the venue. Since it didn’t seem like the music was for movement, then maybe it was music for thinking. But closing my eyes and thinking about the music made serious intonation conflicts and imbalanced levels unignorable. These issues are easily solvable, but even if the performance had been perfect, I don’t know if I would have been content just listening as if I was in a chamber music setting. Since the music doesn’t exist strictly within the performance etiquette of classical or electronic music, maybe CNM would benefit from creating a new medium entirely. The Stargazer Festival surely proved they have the inventiveness and resourcefulness to pull it off.