Avant Raw: Christian Asplund creates a home for experimental music in Provo

“When I was a student, the feeling was composers were super nerdy, academic, and kind of out of it,” says Christian Asplund. “Composers were the pocket protector guys.”  Asplund didn’t see himself in that vein, but he knew he wanted to write and perform music since grade school. Growing up in Kingston, Ontario, Asplund learned to play piano from his mother who had him reading notes before he could read words, and tunes have been floating around his head since before he was a teen.

He recalls a particular moment at 10 years old when he knew writing music would be his calling in life: “I was walking home from school and I noticed I had all these tunes in my mind. They were all over the place, and I realized I always had melodies in my head — and they weren’t pieces I had heard before like when you usually get a song in your head.” He went home and asked his parents if they had the same experience, but they couldn’t relate. It was then that Asplund knew he was different. He wrote down the pieces on manuscript paper. “I wasn’t very good at it, but I knew what music looked like. The score for my first piece was ludicrously detailed with every dynamic.” Asplund also improvised with the music he learned, changing things around and experimenting. When his mother wasn’t looking he’d pluck the piano strings to create different sounds. Even early on, avant garde and experimental music piqued his interest.

Asplund currently teaches composition, orchestration, theory, and the group for electronic music (GEM) at Brigham Young University. He attended BYU as an undergrad himself, but it wasn’t until he was working on his doctorate at the University of Washington in Seattle that he discovered what a new music scene could be for composers like him. It was the end of the grunge era, which was big in Seattle. The area had an interesting population of hybrid musicians — composers and performers with classical training but connections to jazz and rock. He made a surprising discovery: audiences accustomed to attending classical music concerts had a difficult time with new music, but those who listened to grunge and rock music were OK with it. They didn’t have the same hangups with dissonant sounds. So when he took his music to a different venue — like a record store — he got a larger audience. Seattle was a great place for him to experiment and perform music, but every city has its scene — even Provo, Utah.

Asplund craved the environment he had in Seattle so much he created one for himself and his friends in his hometown. It started out as house concerts in his living room with a grand piano, couches, a big open space and refreshments. He called it the “Locust Salon” (named after Locust Circle, where he lived). He held them every few months. It didn’t take long for his house concerts to catch the attention of several BYU students. “Some students in the jazz program had already approached me because they were interested in what I did — avant garde jazz,” says Asplund. “Jesse Quebbeman-Turley, Aaron McMurray, and Logan Hone were some of these students. They were in Synthesis at BYU but were a little bored with the music they were playing.” Asplund actually started playing with the combo and the group evolved into a band called QNMA, which evolved into Fun Coffin.

In 2013, Fun Coffin took the Locust Salon outside the house and into what became the Avant GaRAWge. Starting out with a lot of momentum, the concerts took place weekly, but eventually slowed down to biweekly. The concept changed to a more “chill” atmosphere where you could come in late or leave early, bring a snack, etc. The garage also had good acoustics and a nice vibe. Many of the performers, such as Fun Coffin, Michael Hicks, and Lance Larsen, were from BYU. But some, like Jason Rabb from It Foot It Ears, and performance poet Alex Caldiero, would come down from Salt Lake City. Some even came from out of state, having heard about these concerts through former BYU students and word of mouth.

The Avant GaRAWge became a way of life for Asplund and a lot of the regulars. He held them Sunday nights — “because I was working with these guys who played a lot of gigs, and it was the one night they were free” — which posed a problem for those from the BYU community. Anticipating a possible conflict, Asplund billed the first concert as a fireside — a traditional Mormon gathering where people come together and enjoy music and each other in a family-friendly environment. But by the end of the school year in 2014 the college administration asked him not to hold the concerts on Sundays. He stopped hosting the concerts on a regular basis and instead just found a night that worked for everyone.

The Avant GaRAWge has evolved since then. Asplund moved into a new house and now holds the concerts in his basement. The Avant GaRasement still attracts the same audience and performers, and although Asplund was worn out from all the production involved, he still laments the fact that the consistency and tradition is no longer there. However, he’s still accomplishing what he set out to do. “To me, as a Latter-day Saint, I wanted to provide an example that you can be a Mormon and be cool,” he explains. “You could do cool, interesting and avant garde things. That’s always been important to me because I think there’s this sort of enforced pharisaical thing where if you’re Mormon, you have to look and behave a certain way. We struggle with this in the music faculty.” The idea behind the “RAW” in the spelling is that the performances were raw: the musicians would show up at 6 p.m. and then perform at 8 p.m. so there wasn’t much time for polishing. “It’s not that I don’t think things should have a nice surface, but here was something where we weren’t focusing on the surface, and things might not be perfect, but there’s a strong spirit and energy. And when you get really good musicians they can use that edginess as a virtue, and certainly these guys that perform at Avant GaRAWge are like that.” Asplund built a community and for some it was their lifeline — and he liked that. It provided a creative outlet that some of the music students really needed.

Former student and Fun Coffin band-mate Jesse Quebbeman-Turley thrived at the Avant GaRAWge. “I learned how to compose, organize and run a band, rehearse abstract music in a breakneck and careful manner,” he says. “I developed ways of interpreting music that directly led to my current practice. I developed my improvisatory voice at Avant GaRAWge. I made a lot of mistakes there — mistakes that have helped me with every subsequent project. I learned how profoundly and quickly you can create if you and your community are courageous and stubborn.”

The influence of the Avant GaRAWge went beyond the performers and its Provo audience. The concept recently caught the eye of Jason Hardink, NOVA Chamber Music Series’ artistic director, who has been talking to Asplund about performing with his series for the past few years. Finally, this March, the two will make it happen.

“Christian Asplund is an obvious choice for a NOVA program — so obvious that I’m embarrassed it took eight years of my tenure as Artistic Director to devote substantial space on the series to his music,” says Hardink. “He is probably the most active composer/performer in Utah, he has a voluminous output and is a major presence in the underground scene performing his own works and improvisations.”

NOVA plans to re-create somewhat of the look of the Avant GaRAWge so Fun Coffin feels at home on the classical concert stage. The interesting thing is the pieces that Hardink liked aren’t necessarily Fun Coffin’s — they were pieces Asplund wrote in the ‘80s when he was a student at BYU. There was a jazz club close to campus at the time. It only lasted a couple years, but Asplund had a weekly gig there and that’s where he developed the avant garde jazz tunes Hardink is interested in.  “Those aren’t necessarily the tunes Fun Coffin specializes in, but occasionally we would fill in our music with some of my older tunes, so that’s what we’ll be playing in March,” says Asplund.

The series always pairs old music with new music, so Hardink programmed Schumann with Asplund and Fun Coffin. “The first half of our March 5th program will move back and forth between movements of Schumann and short pieces by Asplund,” Hardink explains. “The idea is that the sudden shifts of character inherent in Schumann’s music will be amplified and exaggerated to a level we think Schumann would have utilized and celebrated were he alive and composing today.” Hardink believes both Schumann and Asplund are daring and experimental in their approach to composition. “They are both also extremely literary in the sense that they are well-read and have also written a great deal about music,” says Hardink. “They each have strong opinions and embrace a certain ‘school’ of musical thought while always embracing artistic freedom and open-mindedness.”

It will be interesting to see how NOVA’s classical musical audience will respond to Fun Coffin and the Avant GaRAWge. Asplund believes new and experimental music can be threatening to people, just like visual art can, but he also believes visual art has always been ahead of music. “Impressionism started in the 1870s for visual artists but didn’t come to music until 20 years later. The crazy thing is, if you go to the LDS Church History Museum and look at the art in their competitions you can see really interesting work, but then you look at the church music and you get hymns and sappy ballad songs — no comparison whatsoever. People just don’t feel as threatened by visuals. You can turn away from a painting, but what do you do if you’re in a concert and music is happening? You can’t escape from sound as easily.”

Though music has been central to much of Christian worship, traditional religious communities have had an uneasy relationship with popular music. “There’s this idea that rock music was threatening people’s spirituality,” Asplund says. “That doesn’t originate with Mormonism, it’s been around for a long time. Jazz and rock music related to African American culture which white culture felt was barbaric at one time.” Asplund actually wrote a lot of sacred music. Because it’s not the in the tradition of most LDS church music, hardly any of it has been performed. But he considers his hymns more of a religious practice; a way to express himself creatively so he doesn’t necessarily need to share them with a wide audience. But much of his other music has been performed. One of his proudest compositions is “When I Take Petals and Strew Them.” It’s a song cycle that consists of pieces he’s written over the past 20 years. In 2015, the BYU Chamber Orchestra performed it with soprano Jennifer Babidge.

Reflecting on what he has found most fulfilling, though, Asplund goes back to the Avant GaRAWge and Locust Salon. “Those are kind of my compositions,” he says. “It’s the same type of creativity that I use to compose music. I’m creating a situation where people are uplifted and to me that’s what the arts are about. It’s more than entertainment. People feel their minds and possibilities have been expanded.”

Categories: Music

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