“Music has the ability to totally alter your mood based on what song you’re listening to,” says Meredith C. Baker ’13, a singer-songwriter performing in this year’s Arts First festival. Organized by the Office for the Arts at Harvard and currently in its 20th year, Arts First gives musicians like Baker the opportunity to perform both original and better-known songs in an open setting. The genres of music that will be performed range from classical to pop, many tinged with the flavor of folk, bringing a taste of students’ unique musical sensibilities to the greater Harvard community.
Along with playing solo performances, musicans at Arts First are using the opportunity to promote groups that they have established with their peers. Sophia W. Wennstedt ’15 is part of a student band, Chuck, Taylor, & The All-Star Band, that mainly plays covers from a variety of genres; the group has played at the House of Blues, and often performs at house formals, the Queen’s Head pub, and other on-campus venues. In addition to playing with her band, Wennstedt will have a solo performance during Arts First. “I’ll probably just do most of my own songs,” she says about the possible lineup for her solo performance. “I think I may be playing a couple of songs for the first time, so I’m deciding whether they’re ready for the general public.”
Daniel A. Masterson ’12, Wennstedt’s fellow bandmate, will be performing folk-pop inspired songs with Wennstedt during Arts First. He also makes his own rock-pop music and is an active member of The Veritones. Many of the musicians in Arts First are very involved in various aspects of the music scene at Harvard, and Masterson is no exception. He is planning to become a professional musician after graduation and he has experience performing in front of various audiences. “I spent the summer in England and Scotland for about 10 weeks playing shows in pubs by myself with a keyboard,” he said. “I was actually a part of the [Edinburgh] Fringe Festival as a busker, which was a really cool experience.” Masterson’s extensive musical background contributes to his willingness to partake in various pursuits in the pop-rock genre.
H. Luke M. Anderson ’14 is another member of The All-Star Band who is more involved with the bluegrass genre. He started off playing the trombone before moving to bass and guitar. He is also a member of another band, Miles Beast. “We started off playing primarily bluegrass music, and we kind of veered away from that a little bit into folk-acoustic kind of stuff,” he says about his band’s repertoire. For musicians like Anderson, performing at Arts First is an opportunity to introduce a lesser-known kind of music to the student community and hopefully raise a greater awareness and appreciation of it. “I think they like it a lot,” he says about audience reactions to his folk music. “I think that partially our own musical taste, as well as what other people like to listen to, causes us to veer a little away from bluegrass, so we kind of got a little more adventurous and mix up some chords and get into other realms.”
This kind of experimentation also appeals to classically trained musicians. Bran S. Shim ’14, also a Crimson editor, Theodore A. Peng ’13, and Jeremy Ying ’13 are the members of the Americana Trio, a group composed of violin, cello, and bass. They play music by lesser-known American composers as well as original contemporary classical pieces. “The pieces written for cello and bass come from a more modern time period, so many of the cool things about American composers is that they try to make new kinds of music and produce those new kinds of sound,” says Peng, the cellist. “I think that gave us a perfect opportunity to play together at something like Arts First.” The trio met in Bonn, Germany on a Harvard study abroad trip last summer, and has been actively involved in working with student composers and creating the River Charles Ensemble, a larger group of musicians.
With the River Charles Ensemble, the trio tries to draw from the large pool of classically trained musicians at Harvard to create a fresh take on music. For the Americana Trio, Arts First is a venue that promotes types of music that may be unheard of among the student community. “We’re playing specific music that is atypical, and the entire group is playing something that is an impressive piece of work that a musicologist can appreciate,” says Shim, the bassist. “Your typical person will probably know the most famous tune in the piece, but really nothing past that.” Although they have been playing informally for small groups of friends so far, the official debut performance for the Americana Trio will be during Arts First.
For all of these performers, Arts First will be a way to hone their individual skills while getting attention from the Harvard community. As they progress in their musical pursuits during their college careers and beyond, it is events like these where the students can showcase their own work, play with fellow musicians, and have fun experimenting with their various musical interests.
A common thread among many of the musicians at Arts First is their view of music as a passion and extracurricular interest, rather than a strictly academic experience. Although some, like Shim and Masterson, are studying for their secondary field in music, for most music is simply a form of release from normal life. “I’ll be playing my guitar and singing mostly songs that I wrote through my experience in college and abroad,” says Baker. She is currently taking a semester off in New York City, and uses music as a way to gain perspective. “It became a way for me to get closure or get a better understanding on things that happened,” she says about music. “My songs are collections of life experiences.”
—Staff writer Jihyun Ro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.