It’s a mashup of artists who don’t usually mix. Cyanca’s soulful R&B singing, vocals by Jaycee Clark of pop metal band A Light Divided, composer Elizabeth Kowalski’s orchestral score, Satya Jvala and Danielle Houston’s choreography and images by videographer Brian “BT” Twitty entwine in powerful performances of two songs about drive, ambition, overcoming doubts and creating your reality. The songs could well be about Your Neighborhood Orchestra, a project launched in 2019 by Kowalski, founder of Charlotte New Music.
“YNO serves as a bridge,” Kowalski says, “innovating, building, providing access, and breaking barriers across the diverse landscape of original artistry.”
The longform music video featuring Cyanca and Clark streams on April 18. It’s the first of 10 visually stunning collaborations between Charlotte-area artists presented by Your Neighborhood Orchestra.
Other performances featuring Mercury Carter, Quisol, Amrita Biswas, Yung Citizen and many more will be presented as a streaming series that kicks off in April and runs every other Sunday through June 13. Each concert will be available free of charge on Facebook, YouTube, & Twitch, and will include audience interaction and live Q&A with the artists.
Breaking down the barriers of genre is part of YNO’s mission, says Kowalski, adding that the project also prioritizes showcasing the talent Charlotte has to offer.
“I keep seeing opportunities for us to do more and be more present and relevant,” she continues.
To reach that goal, and to produce the 10 performances, Kowalski pulled together a diverse and talented crew, including director of dance Arlynn Zachary, lead videographer Twitty, secondary videographer Katelyn Miller and audio engineers Terence Ervan and Jorge Espinosa.
Pre-production included securing shooting locations, including a facility where the orchestra could be filmed and recorded. Principal photography for the project began on March 20 and 21, when the orchestra and performers were filmed. On March 28, dancers were photographed and filmed, including a performance atop a parking deck that featured Charlotte Ballet choreographer Sarah Hayes Harkins.
For the concerts, Kowalski and her crew preferred to pull their performers out of their comfort zones, pairing such disparate artists as Cyanca, Jaycee Clark and members of the aerialist and fire-artist troupe Satarah and professional mermaid Danielle Houston on the April 18 debut performance; rocker Todd Johnson, Latin pop artist Quisol and choreographers Megan Payne and Dejarius Bright on May 2; Indian vocalist Amrita Biswas and progressive funk master Von Hunter on May 16; pop singer Pete Lentz and rapper YUNG Citizen on May 30; and indie-pop singer-songwriter Lisa de Novo followed by Mercury Carter and Afro- Brazilian choreographer Tamara Mosebolatan on June 13.
The only constant in each episode is the orchestra. It’s in the mix to bring contemporary classical and experimental music out of the art galleries and concert halls, Kowalski maintains.
“When I mention art music or contemporary classical, the response I get is, ‘Composers are still alive? You’re still writing classical music? How do you still do it?” The answer to those questions lies in Kowalski’s orchestral compositions, interwoven with pop, funk and R&B in YNO’s five remarkable music videos.
Kowalski feels her collaborators succeeded in building bridges over genres with each performance video, while spotlighting the Queen City’s vibrant talent pool.
“It’s starting little sparks,” she says.
Assembling the team: Dance
Before Your Neighborhood Orchestra, there was Charlotte New Music and its annual festival.
“Charlotte New Music promotes and creates a space for contemporary music creators and original music here in Charlotte,” Kowalski says. “I started it 10 years ago, because there was a complete lack of a scene and opportunities for people like me. A lot of people would end up moving away or pursuing other careers.”
Kowalski, who graduated from UNC Charlotte with a degree in piano performance — and would go on to earn a master’s in music composition at UNC Greensboro — resolved to change the situation, creating awareness and opportunities for experimental, avant-garde and contemporary classical music makers.
To that end, Kowalski launched the Charlotte New Music Festival. Over the last decade, the festival has presented workshops, courses and over 110 concerts boasting several world premieres at Charlotte music venues, spread over two weeks every summer. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the festival went virtual. The 2021 Charlotte New Musical Festival will also go online. Starting in July, festivalgoers will be treated to composer and computer workshops and performances by ensembles including the Beo String Quartet, which holds an annual residency with the CNMF.
It was in 2014, prior to the third CNMF, that Kowalski’s and Arlynn Zachary’s paths first crossed. After seeing a production by Zachary’s ensemble, THE MARK dance company, Kowalski came backstage to compliment the performance. Soon after, Kowalski asked Zachary to choreograph a dance to accompany a piece of music she composed for CNMF. Zachary went on to become the festival’s director of dance for three years.
Flash forward to the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 cases were increasing in the Queen City. After earning a masters in choreography at UNC-G, Zachary moved back to Charlotte from Greensboro – “just as everything shut down,” she says. An unexpected call from Kowalski led to Zachary’s next gig – director of dance for Your Neighborhood Orchestra.
For the eclectic videos, Zachary reached beyond her comfort zone, In addition to dancers she knew and had worked with, she reached out to exotic performance troupe Satarah, led by Sarah Hahn and Satya Jvala – better known in the day-to-day world as Katie Rothweiler. Dancer and professional mermaid Danielle Houston also came on board.
“We have hip-hop, breakdancing and ballroom dancing,” Zachary says. “We [got] a good scope, not only in music but also in dance.”
Zachary paired choreographers with simpatico artists and came up with startling results. Matching Quisol with choreographer Dejarius Bright led to a seamless collaboration between the two artists.
“A lot of artists we paired outside their genre,” Zachary says. “We paired [Latin ballroom dancers] Rodrigo and Wendy Jimenez with hip hop artist Yung Citizen. “It paired so beautifully – how their dance works with the beat of his music.”
A big challenge for the dance sequences was finding locations where the dances took place, Zachary says.
“We wanted very different aesthetics for each piece,” she offers. “We had to find five very different locations that were basically side by side.” In fact, the number increased to 10, because the production needed extra locations in case of inclement weather.
To help the production run smoothly, Zachary also stepped in a stage manager.
“I love doing it,” she says. “I love seeing working parts and organizing. It excites me to solve problems.
Assembling the team: Vision
Kowalski has been an admirer of videographer and photographer Brian Twitty’s striking visuals for some time. The pair attempted to collaborate on music videos for bands she produced, but the plans never came to fruition. Finally, Your Neighborhood Orchestra became the very first project the friends have worked on together.
“The pace has been rapid-fire,” says Twitty. “Elizabeth grabs something and goes with it.”
Despite the exacting organization, moving parts and departments, Twitty says shooting music videos for YNO included a lot of improvisation.
“You have to have a plan, but improvising, being able to navigate through obstacles is … important,” he offers.
Interestingly, he points out that musicians like Kowalski have an innate understanding of improvising and rolling with the flow when faced with road blocks.
Twitty also has high praise for Zachary and her ability to jump in and take on additional jobs.
“We all fill in where there is something lacking,” he offers. “We just do it. I’ve never been on a team like this before. If you’re willing to get dirty, beautiful things can come from it.”
Kowalski says she gave Twitty complete creative freedom to shoot the musical performances and dances as he saw fit.
“He’s here because I love what he does and I could never imagine it better. He’s the eyes of the audience.”
Soon Twitty’s creative eye alighted on a coveted location. For his business, Brian Twitty Photography, he shoots real estate and development videos. Twitty reached out to one of his clients and asked if he could shoot dancers and musicians on the roof of a skyscraper downtown. The client said yes.
The only problem was, when Twitty surveyed the towering location, it had reached a construction phase well past what he wanted. The roof was enclosed and not wide open. Twitty still loved the look of the Deloitte building on South Tryon Street, and the production wound up using it more than any other location on the shoot. A particularly valuable asset was the building’s breathtaking view
“There’s a part of the building that slants up with the design, so the top … executives for Deloitte can see all the way down Tryon.”
Before she became secondary videographer, Winthrop University student Katelyn Miller was looking for an internship on a project like YNO, in which she could immerse herself in a professional setting.
Serendipity stepped in when Miller learned that one of her instructors, professor of music Leonard Mark Lewis, had arranged and orchestrated a song used in one of YNO’s 10 music videos.
“[Lewis] sent me an email with a link to apply,” Miller remembers. “I looked at the job description [and] it was perfect…it’s exactly what I wanted to do.
Miller worked under Twitty’s supervision.
“Brian was great. He gave me guidelines on what to do, but he also gave me freedom to do what I wanted as well.”
Assembling the team: Sound
Audio engineer Terence Ervan invited Kowalski to a dinner party at his home and wound up recording an orchestra.
“We were watching musicians on TV, and I said, ‘That’s on my bucket list. I want to record an orchestra!’” Ervan recalls.
Kowalski replied that she just happened to have an orchestra that needed recording. Ervan, a transplant from California’s exceedingly punctual and professional music scene, had acclimatized to his new home in Charlotte, where he’s met many people pitching projects that never materialized. He thought he’d never hear from Kowalski again.
“A week later, Elizabeth was saying. ‘We got the ball rolling. Let’s get this show on up,” says Ervan. He called his friend Jorge Espinosa. “When I moved out here Jorge was my business partner, and he had all the gear to do live location recordings.”
The two men started collaborating, trying to figure out how to record 10 orchestra performances in a future music venue that’s not yet open for business.
Kowalski had set up the orchestra in accordance with COVID-19 safety precautions, but the configuration also had to make sense from the conductor’s standpoint and from the soundmen’s perspective.
“I leaned on Jorge’s and Terence’s expertise,’ Kowalski says.
Ervan and Espinosa reckon they went through “nine or 10” iterations before getting the microphone set up right, making sure that no instrument would overpower a nearby one or get buried in the mix.
“It was like dong a wedding reception’s seating arrangement,” Ervan says. “You can’t put this person next to that one.” The soundmen ended up buying a few new pieces of equipment — but not many. “Between both of us, we probably have two to three hundred microphones,” Ervan offers.
Espinosa was concerned about going into an unknown place, where they had no idea what it would sound like.
“That was a little scary for me,” Espinosa says. “It was a concrete block.” As it turned out, Espinosa’s fears were allayed. The building’s owner had put in some sound baffling ahead of schedule.
“He got it up sooner than he intended to, just for us,” Kowalski says.
“It wasn’t as bad a nightmare we thought it was going to be,” adds Ervan.
With production wrapped, and the final edits and sound mixes in the can, Kowalski contemplates the premiere of Your Neighborhood Orchestra’s first of five live streams, and the potential impact it could have on viewers.
“We definitely have something worth sharing,” she muses. “It’s about to reach people that orchestras typically wouldn’t be able to reach.”
“I want people to see all the possibilities,’ Says Miller. “We put together such a diverse group and we made it work.”
Ervan hopes the results of the team’s efforts will convince people that they don’t have to leave Charlotte to make their dreams come true. If the videos prove to be popular and successful, Espinosa believes they can bring exposure to the featured artists and encourage other people to do similar projects.
Zachary says the videos will show that Charlotte has great potential to be a city known for its arts — as long as artists aren’t forced to leave due to neglect.
“How do we capture the attention of people coming out of school to want to stay and invest in the community?” she asks. “Most artists leave because our arts community isn’t as supportive or progressive as it can be. The audience and investors need to be able to see what there is to offer and actually invest in the community.”
Arts and Science Council’s Culture Blocks provides support for Your Neighborhood Orchestra, though at the same time, ASC’s role in arts funding is diminishing. That being said, the notion that investors need to step up to support projects like YNO is on Twitty’s mind.
“We’re talking about corporate people seeing this and investing,” he says. “When we [present] this, they can’t justify not being a part of this.”
Kowalski is all too familiar with the struggle to raise arts funding, but for the moment, her thoughts turn to the gift of collaboration.
“I want people to see what happens when artists come together and stretch themselves and work together to create across barriers,” Kowalski offers. “Collaborations are so powerful. I hope all of this comes together to show … what is possible through the beauty of music, dance and art — and how potent all of it can be.”
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