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  • Writer's pictureMaggie Bauer

Anarchestra: A Legacy of Experimentation

A DIY music studio returns to Providence.

Instruments and string lights in Anarchestra's music studio, illustration by Maggie Bauer

Anarchestra is a community organization and a Providence-based collection of experimental instruments, built around the idea of making music production accessible. I talked with Asher White, a Providence-based writer, musician, and artist who started working with the Anarchestra this year. She is guiding the transition while the orchestra reconnects with its roots in Providence and builds its local presence as a nonprofit community arts organization. As a social movement, anarchy rejects government and all other forms of hierarchy. By extension, anarchist music is exemplified by anarchist punk, which emphasizes political messages, expressiveness, and countercultural aesthetics over technical musical skill.

The Anarchestra is a collection of handmade electric musical instruments, built in DIY spaces throughout Providence by the late musician Andy Thurlow during the years between 2000 and 2020. The instruments fit into woodwind, brass, percussion, and string instrument families, but reject 12 note scale tuning and conventional instrument shapes. The collection was built throughout all of the places Thurlow lived: Providence, Chilmark and Martha’s Vineyard, Santa Fe, then Tucson. They are made from sheet metal and machine parts, ranging from standard tuning pegs to spare parts that look like a typewriter carriage or a 20 pound propane tank. Online, split between a dot org website, a YouTube channel, and a Bandcamp page, are two decades of archived photos, sound recordings, and descriptions of the anarchist orchestra in Andy Thurlow’s words. Now, two years after Thurlow’s passing in 2020, the collection is back in Providence, housed in a South Elmwood industrial building alongside artist studios, storage rooms, churches, and office spaces.

Soundboard and speakers at Anarchestra's music studio

Anarchestra has had roots in Providence for over two decades. Thurlow (who has also used the pseudonym “Alex Ferris”) initially envisioned this project with Mike Rinaldi in 2000, during a New Year’s Party at the studio space for Fort Thunder. The Fort Thunder collective lived and worked out of studio spaces in an abandoned mill building at the base of Providence’s Federal Hill neighborhood. The warehouse was controversially demolished for commercial development in 2002, cementing the venue as an important space for the development of Providence’s underground art scene. Fort Thunder was memorialized as a music venue in a 2006 exhibit at the RISD Museum, titled Wunderground: Providence 1995 to Present. The Providence tourism board, and especially former mayor Jorge E. Elorza, brand Providence as a Creative Capital. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, quoted on the city website, describes Providence as, “a world-class arts community, which contributes to Rhode Island’s economy.” To maintain that image, the city wants to subsume Fort Thunder’s image and legacy as a creative community. So does Anarchestra. So how will their project fit into the city?

Anarchestra, as a community organization which is, as Asher says, “at a very nascent point,” has an opportunity to cultivate new audiences. As soon as the Anarchestra moved into Elmwood this September, Asher got started on Anarchestra’s mission to make open-access music by organizing a grand opening for the studio space and a public workshop in Burnside Park in Downtown Providence. These events were promoted via both physical fliers and a Fort Thunder email list that has continued to be used even after the building’s demolition.

Rainbow mallets rest on a vibraphone

Asher says that the workshops’ best participants were a group of kids who were delighted to make as much noise as possible and to teach each other how to navigate the instruments. “In the most transcendent moments,” she says, “ it felt both orchestrated and anarchic. There's like a really, really fulfilling kind of spur of the moment, improvised anarchy that happens when, like, a bunch of kids just start bashing on them.”

Working with children, or other community members who don’t identify with the aesthetics of early aughts counterculture, the orchestra can expand its musical community beyond self-identifying anarchists. Open studio doesn’t attract the same crowd, not that the orchestra is firmly established enough to support hundreds of people every other Wednesday night. While I talked with Asher four people stopped in, three of whom are artists who have studio spaces in the building.

The studio was designed to look punk, anti-authoritarian, and DIY. The instruments are constructed out of recycled sheet metal and machine parts. They sit in the center of the floor, framed by a seating area with a split and sagging pink velvet loveseat and a string of LED lights looped around a capital A to write the anarchist symbol. However, the orchestra is arranged in the room by instrument families, more reminiscent of a classical orchestra than a sweaty punk show. On these instruments it is easier to play a sound that is haunting and dissonant than to play a major scale.

Metal instruments crowd the room in front of a pink couch and string lights

There are two kinds of Anarchestra music. There is music that has been composed, or collectively improvised, then edited into tight recordings which are published online. Claiming the influence of free jazz artists like Don Cherry, some tracks layer one melody over polyrhythmic accompaniment. Other tracks experiment with layered rhythms of different pitches and sound quality from start to finish, making the music more identifiable with so-called outsider music–from Daniel Johnston’s lo-fi melodies, to Harry Partch’s homemade instruments, to the heavy sounds of Providence’s own DIY scene. Every recording refuses to conform to one time signature.

There is also the improvised music that comes together during open studio sessions and workshops, played by musicians and non-musicians. The instruments themselves are experimental and atonal. The pitch of each instrument is endlessly adjustable; one stringed instrument includes frets that can be adjusted along the length of the strings, or added and removed. In both cases, the sound is unsettling, and assertively experimental. It imitates accidentally musical moments in life, like when horns accidentally line up in traffic, or when someone's keys clank in rhythm with their footsteps.

During open studio sessions, cables connect every instrument to a soundboard, and the room is filled by a smooth humming. Somewhere in the link from instrument, to cable, to soundboard, to speaker, the connection is unstable. Asher White–the studio manager for Anarchestra – perches on top of the box speaker to adjust the volume. While she adjusts the sound, she is holding a conversation with the building’s landlord across the room. Hair spilling out of a bun on top of her head, she is wearing an oversized plaid overall dress with a t-shirt and steel toe shoes.

A non-convential drum set in Anarchestra's collection

Asher is in constant motion. During the process of moving in and renovating, she is working on the instruments, building shelves, talking to Anarchestra’s board of directors, and making music in the time in between. Soon after the move-in, there was a flash flood warning across Providence. Rushing to check on the studio, Asher lost her own things in the floodwater. “I had this feeling in the pit of my stomach that it was flooding,” she remembers. “I was just sprinting, and the bus let me off into a three or four foot pothole that subsumed me. I was in this vortex up to my shoulders. So all of the contents of my purse were gone. I was able to save my keys. I gathered the stuff, dove for the wallet. The phone was gone. It's in a Cranston sewer.”

Asher sacrifices a lot for Anarchestra. Besides the instruments, she is working on grant applications and public programming. No longer a project run by one artist/founder/savant, Anarchestra is now a non-profit organization, even though Asher is its sole employee. With equal access for everyone in the area, the orchestra can be anarchic in the sense of non-hierarchical community building, a gathering space that prioritizes creative and reciprocal relationships.


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