Performances at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are always explorations of sound. Sometimes they use acoustic or electronic instruments or computers, other times they involve film, dance, image or even the movements of the stars.
The guy behind most of these concerts is Argeo Ascani. His job title is curator of music, but for him that means he’s a producer, director, researcher, talent scout. He’ll tell you he didn’t go to school for this, but his two degrees from the Manhattan School of Music in contemporary music performance on saxophone helped.
This fall Ascani is curating 17 shows, which includes four world premieres, working with another curator on a film series that explores image and sound, and overseeing two production residencies, which includes recording a solo disc.
We caught up with him to chat just before he headed to Austria for an electronic music festival.
Q: How did you get your job?
A: I’d been teaching for five years at MSM after I’d graduated, and was doing some programming at Merkin Concert Hall (Kaufman Music Center) and freelance gigs. A friend emailed me that the curator position at EMPAC was open but I wasn’t interested in moving to Troy. Then, in 2010, I did a performance with the Argento Ensemble at EMPAC and I was blown away by the space. It was immediately apparent to me what they were trying to do here. I wrote and asked if the position was still open and applied. I was hired in 2011.
Q: Did you know what you were supposed to do?
A: Usually, a curator is just to book a group, the artists provide say three programs they’re doing on tour and he picks. But here, it’s not reactive but proactive, there’s more attention to detail. I work closer with the groups. Initially, I thought I’d be sitting in a room for seven hours to think and listen. But I knew from living and working in New York City that I had to be proactive to make things happen, to understand how to do that. It’s like surviving. When I was hired, that first half year I worked on the previous curator’s programming, which gave me a soft opening.
2012 was my first year programming. I had all these really crazy ideas. But I found I had to make choices: do something that was really expensive and then offer several smaller works, or I could commission new works. So I began to commission works and have recording residencies and work with artists to develop a project that is something new and uses the space. EMPAC has four venues that are completely different to each other. Where else can you have that in one building?
Q: Over time, did you begin to have criteria that needed to be met?
A: Yes. I must hear artists in person before I work with them. It helps me to understand them rather than through a recording. They must have a clarity, vision, a buzz of energy that stands out. It’s not a stylistic thing — any genre works. Whatever it is must be focused and have a deep core, to be meaningful, to show the artist is putting thought into their work.
Q: Do you consider the audience?
A: It’s not about giving ice cream to everyone. That’s not what this place is about. It’s to give an opportunity to people that is challenging, for them to have a reaction or experience that is tangible.
Q: Where do you find your musicians?
A: I travel a lot to see live performers, to festivals, to see what’s happening. I recently did a trip to China, Singapore, Indonesia, where I also talked a little about EMPAC. I’ve been to Europe, Canada, across the states. I always have my ears to the ground and listen obsessively to new music. Sometimes I spend hundreds of hours listening to understand all that one group has done, to assess their potential. I’ll meet them before I decide to invite them.
Q: That’s a lot of power, isn’t it?
A: Yes, and it’s why I take the job so seriously, why I’m so exhaustive about it. I have the ability to affect great cultural change. It’s my duty to try as hard as I can. There are not many doing what I do . . . maybe a few dozen. It’s definitely more work than I expected it to be. I get a staggering number of emails, and there are extensive meetings with tech teams, and the director to talk about content and vision. But it’s the best job in the world. I get to travel and support things that are great art. You can’t go wrong with that, right?
To check the EMPAC schedule, go to www.empac.rpi.edu