The first Detroit Free Arts Music Festival roars this weekend

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Saxophonist Marcus Elliot
Saxophonist Marcus Elliot Photo by Costa

Multi-instrumentalist, composer, and lifelong Detroiter James Cornish has a low profile for somebody so prolific. The 45-year-old has written a handful of experimental operas, is a co-founder of the Great Lakes Ensemble, and is probably the only person to ever have performed with both Faruq Z. Bey and Jandek. Much of his activity is offstage, whether composing music for dance performances in Detroit parks or putting together the Radical Music Detroit series to foster experimental music in the city.

When we last caught up with Cornish, he'd started a residency at Spread Art with an original vocal work, "Twilight and Steel," featuring an ensemble that includes vibes, winds, viola, live dance, mezzo-soprano vocals, and Cornish on the horn. Cornish is a resolutely experimental musician who believes in both Detroit's history and its future, and is working to help expand its horizons by collaborating with artists from across the country.

This week, Cornish, together with Michael Malis, unleashes what might be his most impressive work to date, the Detroit Free Arts Music Festival, with two very packed days of of experimental and improvised music. Metro Times hung out with Cornish on a recent weekday at Trinosophes. Cornish, who works third shift as a mental health caseworker, was up early and not yet caffeinated properly. So we continued the conversation over email.

Metro Times: Tell me about the Detroit Free Arts Music Festival – how did this get off the ground?

James Cornish: The Detroit Free Arts Fest got off the ground when composer and improviser Michael Malis and I were having informal discussions about music, music philosophy and life in general. We came to a conclusion that there needed to be an experimental music festival that had a Detroit focus, was mostly acoustic in bearing, and was an extension of the proud lineage of Detroit free jazz.

MT: Why does Detroit absolutely need this fest?

Cornish: Because there has been a recent explosion in the breadth and depth of experimental and radically minded musicians in the area. We now have a diverse pool of daring musicians that are arriving from vastly different areas, backgrounds, and aesthetics that were not here a number of years ago. I recall, in the late 1980s, there were not that many opportunities for experimental musicians to develop their art. Somewhere along the line, I made a vow with myself to help create a pathway to develop a community of creative musicians. Also, as much as Detroit has been celebrated for its cutting edge arts in other disciplines, it is important that we champion our cutting edge musical arts, as well.

MT: Are you worried that people will be confused that there is a small admission charge, and yet it's named "free"?

Cornish: I am not worried that people will be confused over the small admission fee. It is our desire to program an accessible festival that people can experience without jeopardizing their capacity to make ends meet. In a city that is economically challenged, it would be arrogant to provide art experiences that only the affluent can afford. 

MT: How is this fest funded?

Cornish: The fest is funded solely by Michael Malis and myself.

MT: Who is this Malis person, anyway?

Cornish: It would be easier to describe what Malis is not. He's the co-founder of the festival, a pianist, composer and arts presenter. He is one of the most in-demand jazz pianists in the city, and programs a composer's workshop. He is a humble person with no artistic barrier. I have seen him do avant garde dance pieces and classic jazz on the same night.

MT: Please pick three or more performers and tell me why they each are playing/what excites you about their upcoming performance/anything you want to say at all:

Cornish: Flandrew Fleisenberg is joining us while he is out on tour. An east coaster, he is very much a next level percussionist in the mold of Tatsuya Nakatani. As his bio states, he uses an "ever changing assortment of ephemera and modified drum parts coaxing texture and tone both familiar and bizarre." At a recent performance in Hamtramck, he played everything from nuts and bolts, to a chair, the floor, and walls. He is a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, with a focus in conceptual art; he is very much his own thing.

Witchpucker is the duo of experimental vocalist Sara Grosky and guitarist Dan Clark. Sara formally studied vocal performance, but has long left the confines of academic boundaries. She is a veteran of several radical operas, including her experimental interpretation of New York Times' headlines about Jimmy Hoffa. Dan Clark is a midi guitarist who has an entrancing, zen-like intensity. Detroiters might know him from his work with Eleanora, but he is a greatly underappreciated experimentalist. A very deep cat.

Marcus Elliot is one of the stars of Detroit's young lions. A woodwind specialist, he has already been on several international tours. He is leading a large ensemble interpretation of a graphic score. He is steeped in the music philosophies of the great Detroit saxophonist Faruq Z. Bey, and is a prolific composer. If you are wondering who will be one of the standard bearers of Detroit musical experimentalism, check Marcus out.

We take great pride in presenting one of the most diverse experimental music festival lineups, ever!

The first annual Detroit Free Arts Music Festival takes place this Friday, April 15- Saturday, April 16, at Spread Art; Doors on Friday at 5 p.m. and Saturday at 1 p.m.; for a full schedule find the Detroit Free Arts Music Festival on Facebook; 5141 Rosa Parks Blvd, Detroit; 347-460-2172; Sliding scale admission $5-10.

About The Author

Mike McGonigal

Metro Times music editor Mike McGonigal has written about music since 1984, when he started the fanzine Chemical Imbalance at age sixteen with money saved from mowing lawns in Florida. He's since written for Spin, Pitchfork, the Village VOICE and Artforum. He's been a museum guard, a financial reporter, a bicycle...
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