5 Questions With MusiCircus Curator Colleen Phelps

Image: Colleen Phelps from ozartsnashville.org

Image: Colleen Phelps from ozartsnashville.org

Jonathan Lisenby: MusiCircus is a John Cage piece.  Arguably, the most well-known John Cage composition is 4’33”, the performance piece where a pianist is instructed to, essentially, not play music for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.  Is MusiCircus similar?

Colleen Phelps: It’s really the opposite. The other end of the spectrum from no noise at all, being everything all at once. There is much less structure. Four minutes and 33 seconds has movements and sheet music, 'music circus' is more of a concept. There is no sheet music, though it is listed in the John Cage works archive.


 JL: How did you choose the musicians and artists, etc. to collaborate with you on MusiCircus?  Is this different from how you normally approach collaboration?

CP: We had an open submission process for several months. I would say it’s different from how I generally choose collaborators, but I’m certainly no stranger to open submission. My chamber music group Sound Riot held an open call for scores two summers ago.

Once we compiled all the submissions and felt like we had enough to fill the event I started plotting out a timeline. I had planned to use the entire 5 acres of the OZ Arts venue. But predictions of thunderstorms made us a rework it and only use three areas.

It’s definitely something where you have to attain control by letting go. You cannot micromanage it. Every time you do you step away from the concept.
— Colleen Phelps

 JL: How much control do you exert as the ‘conductor’ of the MusiCircus ‘orchestra’? is it actually a free-for-all, like the advertising implies?

CP: It kind-of is a free-for-all. Control would be exerted when an artist goes over time and someone needs to come in to that space. But the control itself is coming from the other artists, not from me. While I haven’t asked for specifics from artists, I have asked that the content stay appropriate for families, and that they be mindful of noise level. It can overlap, but we don’t want it to become grating. I hadn’t thought of it as an orchestra before now but I certainly see the metaphor. It’s definitely something where you have to attain control by letting go. You cannot micromanage it. Every time you do you step away from the concept. Plus part of the fun is trusting each individual artist or group to do their thing the way they know how to do it best.


JL: Do you think your background as a percussionist influenced you in any way in developing your personal vision for this performance of MusiCircus?

CP: Absolutely. It left me with a strong background performing the music of John Cage, as did my dance background. Two things that definitely go hand in hand. Plus, as a percussionist, you certainly learn to stretch your definition of what a musical instrument is and how to experiment with sound. Some of the things we combined in terms of placement may not have been intuitive, but I think they’ll work. And if they don’t, we all enjoy the conflict for a few minutes and then move on.


JL: Who is the intended audience for this piece? Who do you think would get the most out of it?

CP: The person who is interested in contemporary arts, and wants to see a favorite group plus others from Nashville, is a great audience for something like this. Or even the person who doesn’t know if they’re interested in following contemporary arts, because this gives a good sampler of the kind of art people are making in town. The person who has only followed classical music and only knows it from the symphony will see at least one symphony musician they’re familiar with, but she’ll be hanging upside down while she plays the violin. That’s a good metaphor for the whole thing, traditional arts turned upside down.


MusiCircus Performers:
Ben Andrews | Laura Bouffard | Box O’Theater | Chinese Arts Alliance of Nashville | Alexis Colbert | Joshua Dent | Ted Drozdowski | Deidre Emerson | Alicia Engstrom | Epiphany Dance Partners | Frame Drum Wisdom | Xandra LeeLord Goldie aka Karizma | Kyle Numann | Graci Phillips | Poetry On Demand | Lorne Quarles | Taylor Raboin | Beth Reitmeyer | Bayard Saunders | Jane Saunders | Secret Friends | Strings of Saturn | Suspended Gravity Circus | Tank615 | The Gray Area | The Porch Writers’ Collective | The Weird Sisters | This Holding (Jana Harper) | Emily Tyndall | David Weinel | Whites Creek High School Percussion Ensemble


Visit www.ozartsnashville.org/musicircus/ to purchase tickets. Oz is located at 6172 Cockrill Bend Circle, Nashville, TN 37209. Performance runs May 17th, 6pm to 8pm