Creativity Explored artist Joseph “JD” Green
Creativity Explored artist Joseph “JD” Green with an instrument used for the Prepared Guitar Ensemble | Credit: Matt Robidoux

Musician and composer Matt Robidoux loves the music hour that teaching artist Victor Cartegena leads at Creativity Explored (CE), a San Francisco gallery and studio collective partnering with artists with developmental disabilities.

“It’s really free from expectations,” Robidoux said about the music hour. “Victor kicks it into overdrive right away. It’s really loud and very punk rock, and I enjoy it.”

Inspired by that music hour and in celebration of the CE exhibit SONG, a lyrical group show that’s an homage to artist Walter Kresnik and his drawings of sheet music and instruments, Robidoux will host SONGscape, an interactive music-making workshop with adaptive technologies and instruments. The event, which is free (although a donation is suggested) and open to anyone who registers, will be on Aug. 27 at Mission Synths.

Matt Robidoux
Matt Robidoux | Credit: Dana Hemenway

This isn’t the composer’s first time collaborating with CE. Back in 2019, Robidoux did a workshop, the Prepared Guitar Ensemble, at the studio on 16th Street in San Francisco, which was also for anyone who wanted to participate. Guitars and other materials were provided, and participants were encouraged to bring instruments or create their own. At the end of the day, they held an impromptu performance.

The prepared guitar, pioneered by people like Keith Rowe and coming after John Cage’s prepared piano, changes the instrument’s timbre by placing objects under or on the strings. For Robidoux, it fits with the mission of making music accessible to everyone, not just those who have formally studied it.

“How can we change to not privilege musical virtuosity?” Robidoux asked. “One thing we did was change the position of the guitar. We kind of flipped it like the way abstract expressionists flipped their canvases on the floor.”

The inclusive musical event was a big hit. “People got really into it,” Robidoux said. “There were all sorts of different items on the table, like alligator clips and battery-powered fans and bows and rubber balls on sticks.”

It went so well that Robidoux wanted to do more with the CE artists during the pandemic and got a grant from the San Francisco Art Commission to do just that. Robidoux held a series of Zoom workshops where the CE artists designed guitars that instrument builder Sudhu Tewari helped make. Robidoux drove around and dropped off the guitars (along with a battery-powered amplifier) with the artists, who painted them.

Robidoux left Massachusetts to go to Mills College to get a master’s in music composition because many of the composers the young musician admired taught or had gone to study there and because Robidoux also wanted a “social-practice element” in studying composition. The spirit of Mills will be at the event on Aug. 27, as participants can map their gestures and movements to sounds and musical phrases with the Deep Listening Institute’s Adaptive Use Musical Instrument (AUMI), originally created by Pauline Oliveros, the first director of the San Francisco Tape Music Center (later renamed the Center for Contemporary Music).

After moving into the neighborhood, Robidoux started going into Mission Synths, an electronic music hardware and record shop, and became interested in the store’s modular synthesizers and other audio hardware. Robidoux got to know the co-owners, Betsy de la Garza and Brian B. James, who are both excited to host SONGscape. De la Garza worked for years with people with developmental disabilities, and she was familiar with CE’s work and wanted to collaborate with the artists there. James recently did an event with Robidoux at the Temescal Art Center, “Sonifying Gesture: AUMI and Hardware Synthesizers,” where participants interpreted graphic scores by CE artists.

Outside Mission Synths
Co-owners Brian B. James and Betsy de la Garza outside Mission Synths

James says he’s looking forward to the event at the store. “I like using the space for something different using instruments,” he said. “And it opens up the possibility of using all the tech that’s just sitting here.”

In Massachusetts, Robidoux had a good friend with developmental disabilities who was a musician. This friend (who passed away in 2017) had a band called Flaming Dragons of Middle Earth that was open to whoever wanted to come play. That inspired Robidoux, and that welcoming spirit is the ultimate goal of this event. Robidoux calls the therapeutic qualities of music “astounding.”

“What it’s really about is meeting inclusively in the moment,” Robidoux said. “That’s what excites me most about groups. When it really works, there’s this transcendent unity that the music provides.”

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