Pt.fwd: Creating a Downstate Home for the Sonic Avant-Garde

Pt.fwd: Creating a Downstate Home for the Sonic Avant-Garde

There is a particular calm – a natural stillness – in Illinois’s small cities. As a teenager in Bloomington-Normal, the repetitious predictability made me restless; like taking a long roadtrip against a backdrop that never changes. As an adult who has returned to a micropolis after living in Chicago, what was once intolerable has become an unexpectedly rich source of artistic inspiration, one that continually surprises me with new energies and possibilities.

Anchored by McLean County’s rich traditions of agriculture, academics, insurance, and politics, Bloomington-Normal has often felt like it has one foot rooted in the past while the other steps into the present, and the future is made somewhere else. Periodically, a new generation of musicians come together and a scene coalesces; many leave, but some stay and till the earth until the next generation is ready. As a result, my friends and I came of age in a vibrant community of college radio, DIY shows, indie bands, record stores, and jazz junkies. Amidst the jumble was a unifying hunger for new sounds – mixtapes traded hands, touring acts passed through town, and we caught the major acts in Chicago.

In 2005, after high school, I moved to Chicago to study music and art. Here, I saw how Chicago artists are continually reinventing the cultural future. As the major festivals loomed, artists were creating new outlets for risk-taking. Eager to bring their work to audiences, they founded venues and formed ensembles or composer collectives. Art spaces (both traditional and alternative) increasingly welcomed musicians and sound artists to present works. While never lacking for world-class music, Chicago was proving itself to be a global hub for innovative sonic artmaking. It possessed all the key elements to support the avant-garde: composers, performers, institutions, educators, spaces, funding, critics, and an audience. It takes a village to sustain a movement, and many young artists like me found a welcoming home, generous resources, and receptive listeners.

After seven years immersed in this forward-looking scene, I moved back to Bloomington-Normal. I’ve struggled to adapt to creative life “outside” the metropolitan cultural mainstream. For a few years, I tried to establish myself locally as a sound artist and experimental music composer/ performer. While some opportunities existed (an increasingly radical gallery scene, a couple solid DIY venues, contemporary music events at local universities), I was dismayed by a general lack of infrastructure and receptivity to cutting-edge art that challenged the boundaries of music. After conversations with others with similar experiences, I opted for a new approach. Rather than trying to land gigs, I shifted focus toward building infrastructure that would create the cultural environment to support artists.

Drawing on my experience in Chicago, I envisioned creating a home for musicians and artists to take risks. Why couldn’t we take advantage of our proximity to Chicago and other large cities to showcase the diversity of approaches and practices that are happening in our backyard? Could we build on Chicago’s success and make Bloomington-Normal a hub of high quality contemporary culture? Further, can we do so by bringing challenging contemporary art out of the academy and share it with audiences in an accessible, intimate format? Could we bring world-class, cutting-edge sonic arts to our community and foster a new generation of forward-looking thinkers and creators in Bloomington-Normal? In our own small way, could we critique the role of artists by creating an institution that empowers artists to “opt-in” and promote positive change in our community?

By 2018, these questions had simmered for a few years. I learned about organizations like The Tank Center for Sonic Arts (Rangely, CO) that opened my eyes to the unique, inspiring opportunities that rural communities can provide to our country’s musical landscape – to the fact that we are participants, not merely provincial bystanders. With a bit of funding, a few committed partners, and some elbow grease, we launched pt.fwd, an independent non-profit program that presents arts and cultural programming in Bloomington-Normal. In affiliation with the McLean County Museum of History, pt.fwd organizes contemporary music and sonic arts performances featuring new work by local and regional artists in a historic, acoustically curious setting. pt.fwd’s principles are: to cultivate compelling, independent programming; to put artists first by paying them well and providing a stimulating environment for creative experimentation; and to build community by offering free events in accessible venues and highlighting work that benefits underserved members of our community. Broadly speaking, we aim to champion music without racial, gender, academic, economic, or geographic boundaries – we only ask that it be new, and that it be great.

To date, we’ve hosted concerts, conducted a series of online composer interviews in partnership with Sixty Inches from Center and Sight Specific, commissioned new works by three local and regional composers, and are in the (very!) early stages of creating a residency program to create additional resources for cutting-edge sonic artists in the Midwest. To my knowledge, we are the only such program between Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and the Quad Cities that is not directly affiliated with a university.

Just as we were about to begin our Spring 2020 season, COVID-19 forced us to cancel our performances. This was a difficult decision, but we were fortunate to connect with a network of Chicago-based organizations who had coordinated The Quarantine Concerts, an online platform for experimental musicians and artists to share work and receive donations during the COVID-19 crisis. pt.fwd curated an evening of performances highlighting artists with a connection to Bloomington-Normal who have been impacted by the pandemic. Hundreds of listeners tuned in, and we were thrilled to raise more than $800 for our artists. Ironically, our organization is better, and our arts community is stronger, as a result of COVID. Despite the stress and concerns, the experimental music and sound arts community has been an inspiration during these challenging conditions. We quickly mobilized an organized, coordinated response to provide financial and creative stability to working artists during a time when they cannot directly present their work to the public. The Quarantine Concerts have attracted world-renowned talent, and have actually created a wider audience for our concerts than our normal, local programming would permit. We’ve made connections with likeminded organizations, and been able to support more artists than our normal format allows. It’s reaffirmed the necessity of the arts, grassroots organizing, and community bonds during times of crisis. It has been well worth the hard work.

pt.fwd is just getting started, but I’m encouraged by the enthusiastic support we’ve received from the community so far. In April, we received a $1,500 Mirza Arts & Culture Grant to launch an artist residency program, which will usher in a new dimension of our mission. I look forward to a future of cultivating more exciting, challenging, and groundbreaking art that’s being made in our backyard and beyond. If it can happen in Rangely, why not in Bloomington-Normal?

“Contrary to general belief, an artist is never ahead of his time but most
people are far behind theirs.” – Edgard Varèse. •

IG: @pt.fwd ~ FB: @pt.fwd