For 13 years, as an audience member and composer, I've watched Seattle's new-music community struggle in affordable-but-makeshift spaces, or well-equipped-but-expensive ones, and seen efforts to provide a showcase for noncommercial sounds flounder financially. But with Wallingford's Good Shepherd Center, we may finally have found a stable, comfortable home, one that's wonderfully refurbished, acoustically excellent, and affordable. It could stimulate new work from musicians and maybe even new interest from listeners.
Built in 1907 as a home for orphaned Catholic girls and unwed mothers, the Good Shepherd building has been owned since 1975 by Historic Seattle, a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to architectural preservation. They renovated the home's chapel, intending to attract performing arts groups. But the space was left largely unused until Jonathan Scheuer and Steve Peters, working as a nonprofit organization called Nonsequitur, stepped in this spring.
Nonsequitur rents the chapel from Historic Seattle for 10 nights a month. Then—with a hope that removing financial risk will encourage artistic innovation—they make it available to musicians for next to nothing. If an event takes in less than $200 at the door, the performers aren't charged for the space; if ticket sales are over $200, Nonsequitur asks for 20 percent.
"I didn't want people to be punished for stuff that takes chances," says Peters. Nonsequitur's current agreement with Historic Seattle runs five years, with two options to renew for another five years each. The plan relies on the generosity of Scheuer, an Evergreen College alumnus now living in New York City.
Most arts spaces and presenters, of course, fund themselves through a chancy combination of box-office receipts, rental fees, grants, and private and corporate giving, and the elimination of these variables makes the Good Shepherd project unique. On the other hand, the pullout of a major donor, consequent with a large rent increase, was the final straw that led to the euthanasia of the Polestar Music Gallery in October 2004.
Gallery 1412, Polestar's successor at that 18th Avenue East location, is set up as a musicians' collective, with a changing roster of 10 to 15 people sharing the cost. But though thriving, 1412 is perhaps too small and spartan to attract a broad range of performers and listeners. Meantime, On the Boards, Town Hall, and Benaroya Recital Hall are priced out of many musicians' reach. A room at Jack Straw Studios works well for small informal presentations, less well for performance.
But the Shepherd Center has an airy, wood-paneled chapel, with stained-glass windows, pillars, and a lofty arched ceiling. Historic Seattle's renovation added dressing rooms, stage lights, a light booth, and a dais about 8 inches high. There's also a six-channel surround-sound system and a 1920 9-foot Knabe grand piano (roughly the vintage of the building itself, it has the "right vibe for the room," says Peters). Because Good Shepherd is in a residential neighborhood, there's an 11 p.m. curfew on Friday and Saturday and no shows on Sunday.
The Seattle Composers Salon moved its bimonthly open-mike night to Good Shepherd from Benaroya Hall's Soundbridge in May. "It gives us room for larger groups," says salon curator Tom Baker, who says he wants performers "who will understand and work with the acoustics." Composer Amy Denio is one. For a performance by her accordion quartet last weekend, she set up in the middle of the room. "[It] does wonders to de-emphasize the performer/spectator/consumer dichotomy!" she says.
So far, the chapel has hosted dance and spoken-word (the Subtext reading series recently relocated from Hugo House), but live music will be the main focus. The Seattle Chamber Players, Earshot Jazz, Gamelan Pacifica, the Seattle Improvised Music Festival, and many individual artists have already booked performances there, and the schedule's full through December, Peters reports.
Later this month, Nonsequitur will celebrate the chapel's rebirth, and the building's centennial, with a "Festival of Wayward Music." Wayne Horvitz, Gust Burns, Amy Rubin, and several others will help to christen the piano, and a marathon Saturday concert will showcase most of the composers and new-music-friendly players in Seattle, including Denio, Stuart Dempster, Suzie Kozawa, Wally Shoup, Paul Taub, and the Garrett Fisher Ensemble. (And, full disclosure, myself.)
The ironies are many. A style of music most often encountered in classrooms, utilitarian recital halls, or white-walled gallery spaces ends up in an august old pile with a curved drive, sweeping lawns and gardens, and screening hedges, financed in 18th-century mode by private patronage. A building established as a home for people who have nowhere else to go returns, in a way, to its original function. And an art form long accustomed to struggling with small audiences and a low profile suddenly hardly has to think about the box office at all.
Like me, Denio is hopeful. "There's a fighting chance," she says, "given the fascinating diversity of concert programming and pure acoustic beauty of the space, that the audience appreciating esoteric music will grow."
Festival of Wayward Music Good Shepherd Chapel, 4649 Sunnyside Ave. N., gschapel.blogspot.com. Free. 8 p.m. Fri., July 20; noon–10 p.m. Sat., July 21.