New Ypsilanti festival will celebrate 20th- and 21st-century music by diverse composers

Contemporary compositions by diverse artists will take the spotlight at the inaugural ÆPEX Fest, which will take place at various Ypsi venues June 1-4.
Contemporary compositions by diverse artists will take the spotlight at the inaugural ÆPEX Fest, a celebration of 20th- and 21st-century music that will take place at various Ypsilanti venues June 1-4. 

ÆPEX Fest kicks off June 1 with an opening night party at Ziggy's, 206 W. Michigan Ave. in Ypsilanti, featuring artists Cameron Leach and Michael Malis. The festival continues June 2 at First Presbyterian Church, 300 N. Washington St. in Ypsilanti, featuring Ypsilanti resident and mezzo-soprano Olivia Johnson in a solo recital of art songs by African-American women. 

The festival's main-stage performance is scheduled for June 3 at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse, 100 Market Place in Ypsilanti. And finally, on June 4, ÆPEX Fest will offer free public events for an "Electronic Music Field Day" in various locations around Ypsilanti. Detroit-based composer and electronics soloist Joo Won Park will headline the festival's closing party the night of June 4 at 734 Brewing Company, 15 E. Cross St. in Ypsilanti.

ÆPEX Contemporary Performance, the musical nonprofit that will host the festival, was started by two Ypsilanti men who bonded over their struggle to find performances of the kind of music they wanted to hear.
ÆPEX Contemporary Performance co-founders Kevin Fitzgerald and Garrett Schumann.
"We both really cared about music, but in the music scene in southeast Michigan, we didn't really see anyone performing the European avant-garde composers we liked," says Kevin Fitzgerald, who co-founded ÆPEX Contemporary Performance with Garrett Schumann in 2015. 

Fitzgerald says ÆPEX's scope was "probably too general in some ways" at first, with a focus on the entire state of Michigan. Since 2015, the nonprofit has held musical events in Kalamazoo, Detroit, and Ann Arbor; and at Central Michigan University.

"We're still open to doing shows anywhere if there's funding, but we've refined our focus on Ypsilanti," Fitzgerald says. "This festival is all held in downtown Ypsilanti, and we're committed to keeping most of our programming and efforts in Ypsi."

"Hear different"

The nonprofit and the festival both focus on featuring creators from under-represented identities, including composers of color, women, and LGBT individuals.

"We wanted to highlight music we already knew about and liked, but also wanted to bring to light things unknown to us and others," Fitzgerald says.

Fitzgerald says symphony orchestras and other performance groups try to highlight lesser-known composers but sometimes end up just offering "one-offs," rather than featuring those creators regularly throughout their entire seasons.

"Sometimes they'll program an African-American composer festival, and that's great, but it's not really integrated into the fabric of regular concert life," Fitzgerald says. "Our offerings are integrated, instead of sectioning it off and tokenizing it."

Schuman notes that ÆPEX Contemporary Performance's motto is "Hear different," referring to the nonprofit's goal of featuring composers with diverse identities. That mission is a good fit for soloist Johnson, who first connected with Schumann and Fitzgerald last June through an ÆPEX performance in which she sang a piece by an African-American woman composer. Johnson says Schumann and Fitzgerald gave her full freedom to create her upcoming set for ÆPEX Fest.
Mezzo-soprano Olivia Johnson at the ÆPEX 2021 recording session at Riverside Arts Center.
"I'm super thankful to Kevin and Garrett for providing the platform," she says. "Everything else they left up to me." 

Johnson had already planned a project of setting her original poetry to music, but it was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She's refined that idea for the June festival, singing a slate of songs exclusively by Black women and reading her original poems between those songs.

"I wanted this recital to be Black female-oriented and -centered," she says. In addition to featuring songs by Black women, some of the songs incorporate the words of Maya Angelou, Zora Neale Hurston, and other Black women. "Being able to recite my poems and also sing works by Black women is a very personal and amazing endeavor for me."

Johnson says she's glad that organizations like the Michigan Opera Theatre and Detroit Opera are presenting Black male composers' work, but there's still a lack of exposure to works composed by Black women.

"ÆPEX is about presenting works by people from diverse identities, and they want to feature people who are not well known. That's very important to me as well," she says. "I find that, in the classical music world, they pick out a few composers and get stuck on them. I wanted to open the conversation that there's so much more, so many more of us."

Beyond ÆPEX Fest

Schumann says that, before the pandemic, ÆPEX Contemporary Performance was "really project-focused," finding partners in different places to host performances or educational events, like a talk at the Ann Arbor District Library about under-represented composers. 

However, he says the goal is to transition to more of a regular schedule and season of events. In addition to ÆPEX Fest, ÆPEX Contemporary Performance will offer smaller monthly musical events at Ziggy's, featuring soloists or small groups, for the rest of 2022.

Schumann says he's also excited about a new partnership with the arts nonprofit Embracing Our Differences - SE Michigan. The organization recently placed billboard-sized works of art at four Washtenaw County parks, including Riverside Park and Parkridge Park in Ypsilanti.

"We saw what they were doing and thought it would be really cool to create recordings that have commentary by people involved with the works, and score it with ambient music," Schumann says. ÆPEX will provide that commentary to go with the visual pieces, similar to the way art museum visitors can listen to audio commentaries on the works they're seeing. The audio supplements will be available beginning June 4 on ÆPEX's website.

Tickets and more information about ÆPEX Fest is available here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.