Elizabeth Kowalski is perhaps best known as the founder and executive artistic director of New Music Charlotte, which promotes the creation and performance of, access to and education around contemporary original music in the Queen City and beyond. Yet that’s not her only passion. Kowalski loves stargazing, trekking to an open field far from city lights and watching the moon and stars shimmer in the night sky.
Characterizing amateur astronomy as relaxing and often magical, Kowalski’s gone stargazing with friends in the past, but she’s always wanted to introduce the experience of connecting with the cosmos to a larger audience. Kowalski will realize that ambition on July 17 when Stargazer Music Fest lands like an alien mothership in an open pasture at Hodges Family Farm in northeast Charlotte.
The event, presented by Charlotte New Music, is described as “a night of stargazing accompanied by interstellar grooves to amplify the cosmic exploration experience.” In layman’s terms, that means the festival features live music from four ensembles, three of which include the word “space” in their act names, along with several telescopes made available by the Charlotte Amateur Astronomy Club.
It all takes place on a terrestrial farm, where the soil is seldom plowed and the animals are never in buildings and always in open pastures — and where the Hodges family hopes to cultivate not only animal life but new opportunities for social life by welcoming local music acts to perform in an area where the music scene doesn’t exactly thrive today.
Hodges Family Farm is one of the oldest operating farms in Charlotte. It has been owned by the same family for over 100 years, who currently practice a form of agriculture designed to reverse the effects of climate change.
In that same vein, Stargazer Music Fest spotlights science and wonder, whether it’s imbued in the verdant farmland below or out among the stars above — on earth as it is in heaven; as above, so below.
While an outdoor evening music festival is not unusual, the event’s bill of eclectic and experimental performers, playing a mix of electronic and acoustic instruments, strays from the Charlotte concert template.
The coupling of space music with actual stargazing also gives the festival an unusual twist. In effect, the live concert will serve as the soundtrack for the nightscape. Throw in a night market — an after-hours version of a farmers market where concertgoers can also purchase Hodges Farm’s fresh products — and the festival takes on a unique vibe. It may not be out of this world, but it’s certainly off the beaten path.
The pairing with Hodges Family Farm was seemingly written in the stars. At the same time that Kowalski was searching for a place where her musical and astronomical space extravaganza could land, farmer Robert Blakley was looking for a way to host live music at the historic site where he’s worked for years.
That’s when he received an unsolicited and serendipitous call from Kowalski.
Hodges Family Farm keeps things grounded
Situated on 150 acres on Rocky River Road near Reedy Creek Park, Historic Hodges Farm is listed on the National and State Historic registries. The landscape is centered around the Hodges House, built around 1908. Cotton was once grown on the farm, and it operated as a dairy farm as recent as the 1990s.
Today, Hodges Family Farm sells its meat and produce online, offering home delivery, though customers can pick up products on the farm during the week. The farm also regularly sets up a stand at the weekly Davidson Farmers Market.
Blakley is a friend of Olivia Hodges, who currently owns the farm, and her grandson Connor Newman, who manages the property. Blakley started helping out on the farm five years ago, and in October 2020, he left his career in IT with companies including Motorola and Nokia to work the Hodges’ fields full time.
Blakley, 34, says he did so because he’s ecologically minded and heavily invested in the farm’s regenerative agriculture practices, a system of farming and grazing that aims to reverse climate change by rebuilding organic matter in the soil and restoring degraded soil biodiversity.
“Right now, we do regenerative agriculture, which is a nature-centric version of agriculture,” he says. “Regenerative agriculture tugged at my heartstrings.”
When the Hodges family started getting into the regenerative mindset, Blakley was encouraged to step away from telecom and pick up a pitchfork.
With regenerative agriculture, farm workers rarely ever till the soil. Anytime you plow or till the ground, you disrupt the soil ecology, Blakley says. The top layer of soil has a different microbiome than the soil an inch down, so when you churn up the soil, you’re inevitably moving bacteria to an ecosystem where they can’t survive. Simply put, tilling destroys the ecosystem of the soil.
In contrast to standard farming practices, regenerative agriculture focuses on soil health.
“Keeping the soil ecosystem healthy and protecting it from damage is what makes your soil fertile, without needing chemical inputs or other amendments,” Blakley says. “That’s our bread and butter.”
People sometimes confuse regenerative agriculture with organic farming, but the two are different, Blakley continues. Hodges Family Farm adheres to many organic standards, but those standards still allow farms to use organic pesticides and herbicides. Farm manager Connor Newman and Blakley avoid all pesticides.
“Anytime you apply a pesticide to a field, whether it’s organic or not, you’re destroying beneficial insects along with the insects that are bad for your crops,” Blakley explains.
All the farm animals are raised on pasture and kept completely outside. Chickens, which are housed in poultry houses in industrial factory farming, are allowed to roam the pasture.
“We move them around in different fields to keep them away from their manure so they have fresh stuff to eat,” Blakley says.
Cows, pigs and turkeys are also rotated to different pastures every day. It may sound like free range, but it isn’t. On a lot of free range farms, chickens are contained in a poultry house and given access to a pasture only during the day.
“We never do that,” Blakley emphasizes. “Our chickens are never shut into a building at all.”
Blakley is certain that regenerative agriculture practices like those implemented at the farm can reverse the effects of climate change and ameliorate some of its fallout.
“We have a lot of potential to educate people in what agriculture needs to look like going forward,” Blakley says. “The kind of commercial agriculture we do today isn’t sustainable.”
He’s convinced that humanity has to transition all its agriculture to regenerative practices to avoid more of the ecological disasters devastating the planet.
According to Regeneration International, “The current industrial food system is responsible for 44 to 57% of all global greenhouse gas emissions … A new food system could be a key driver of solutions to climate change.”
As this story is being written, western Canada is reporting record-high temperatures of 121 degrees. Wildfires rage in western U.S. states while temperatures soar. Oil and gas companies are facing a wave of lawsuits alleging that the industry severely aggravated the environmental crisis with a decades-long campaign of lies and deceit to suppress climate change warnings from their own scientists.
“It would really make me happy if people fell in love with the farm,” Blakley says. “If we can attract people out here with a concert and they have a great time, they can [also] learn about regenerative agriculture. That would mean so much.”
That’s where Kowalski comes in.
From the ecosystem to the cosmos
Stargazer Music Fest has gone through a long gestation process, Kowalski says.
“It started over a mutual love of science and the cosmos, shared between me and some of my colleagues — a few of which are performing.”
The concert features psychedelic trip-hop twosome Space Ballet, comprised of vocalist Kim Milan and drummer/keyboardist Jedd Lygre. Called “the coolest band at the end of the universe,” by Queen City Nerve, Space Ballet crafts eclectic compositions that coalesce around Milan’s voice, which sounds hopeful, mystical, and forlorn in the same breath.
Intergalactic dada duo Spacepants consists of viola player Diana Wade and vocalist Jennifer Beattie, who deliver witty spoken word-minimalist music mash-ups, played on plucked, strummed and rattled viola and a 25-foot long plastic tube that emits sounds ranging from a percussive clatter to a dinosaur’s groan.
Another two-piece, Spatial Forces, features Jessica Lindsey and Christy Banks trading off on bass and clarinet. Lindsey and Banks mix music from their acoustic instruments with digitally recorded sounds from the world around us, which are then manipulated to create an electronic soundscape. The resulting music is called “electroacoustic” by classical musicians.
Alternative woodwind ensemble Phoenix Down RPG does not include “space” or “spatial” in its name, but that doesn’t stop the trio of oboist Teil Buck and clarinetists Dylan Lloyd and Jessica Harrie from making otherworldly sounds. The trio’s 2018 album Dragon Ballad Volume 1 is the first in a series of role-playing-game soundtracks — in this case, music to accompany a round of Dungeons & Dragons. Tracks range from quirky hip-hop to foot-dragging zombie-paced dirges and medieval pastiches that recall the work of early 1970s English folk outfit Amazing Blondel. Just Buck and Lloyd will be performing at Saturday’s festival.
Kowalski’s criteria for picking the Stargazer bands was simple.
“I [wanted] true original badass and brave musical artists, that … could co-create the most amazing vibe for our audience and take us through a variety of well-paired, yet unique, musical experiences.”
As the festival’s bill firmed-up, Kowalski searched for an appropriate venue.
“I was looking for a suitable site for this specific experience design, and [Hodges Family Farm] fit all my criteria,” she says.
Hodges Family Farm had been kicking around the idea of holding concerts on their property for a while, Blakley says. After the family had converted an old barn built in the 1930s into a wedding venue, they started looking at ways to leverage that distinctive building to draw more people to the farm.
Blakley says they discussed using the barn as a backdrop for a series of concerts.
“We thought it would be fun, and our backdrop would be fairly unique so we figured we would give it a shot,” he offers.
He admits, however, that he is clueless when it comes to the music business.
“I naively thought, ‘Well I can just call some local bands, and they would probably love to come play out here,’” Blakley says with a chuckle. Luckily, he soon heard from someone well-versed in music and the business of making music.
“Elizabeth cold-called us just out of nowhere and said, ‘Hey, I want to run this Stargazing Festival at your farm,’” Blakley remembers. “It was an accidental meeting that has turned into a really good partnership.”
Blakley drew on Kowalski’s extensive booking experience for the Summer Concert Series. Scheduled for Thursday evenings, the series kicks off July 15 with blues and bluegrass combo Chad Andrew Harris and The Blue Herons. Other artists in the series, which runs through Aug. 26, include George Banda, Josh Daniel and XOXOK.
For the series as well as Stargazer Fest, there will be no traditional stage for the performers, Blakley says. Instead, the bands will set up against the distinctive barn during the Summer Concert Series, and in the middle of a field at Saturday’s festival. Audiences are advised to bring blankets and chairs to set down in the adjoining meadow.
In addition to booking bands for the Summer Concert Series and Stargazer, Kowalski turned to Jason Jet and his crew from Grindhaus Studios to provide sound for the shows.
She also recruited the Charlotte Amateur Astronomers Club to provide the skygazing element of Stargazer. The astronomy club will set up several large telescopes through which festival attendees can view the moon and other celestial objects in the night sky.
The farm will also hold a night market during Stargazer featuring produce and meat from the farm. Pastries and cookies from local business Festin Bakery will also be on hand. All the baked goods use eggs from the farm.
Other vendors include Pharr Mill Brewery’s beer truck from Harrisburg, Queen Hemp Company. Festivalgoers are encouraged to get some snacks, fresh produce, and baked goods, take a gander through one of the on-site telescopes, and settle into the meadow with their blankets and chairs to enjoy the celestial sounds.
“I look forward to inviting people into this nightscape to experience science and art in a new and personal way,” Kowalski says.
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