Sites and Sound: The Regenerate! Orchestra aims to fill the Ypsilanti Freighthouse with community-made music


A black and white photo of J. Clay Gonzalez standing on top of a mountain with a river down below.

J. Clay Gonzalez's The Regenerate! Orchestra encourages music-making, no matter your skill level. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The Ypsilanti Freighthouse was built in 1878 to host train-bound goods.

On April 26, it will host 85 musicians in The Regenerate! Orchestra for a performance that's part of UMS’s new concert and event series at the venue.

The ensemble will perform four or five works created by J. Clay Gonzalez, a composer who leads the orchestra. All of the music is improvisational to a degree and arranged specifically for the unique ensemble of 85 musicians, nonmusicians, and children that Regenerate! assembled for this event.

To accommodate the personnel's varied skill sets, and to achieve the freely structured sound that typifies Regenerate! Orchestra's aesthetic goals, Gonzalez prepares intricate sets of guidelines and instructions for each performer. These range from traditional music notation to text and images demonstrating how someone may make noise with a piece of paper, egg shaker, or found object. Flutists Michael Avitabile and Justine Sedkey, both University of Michigan alumni, will also appear as soloists for a new concerto-like composition.

All of the pieces in this concert were created specifically with the Freighthouse in mind.

“We will present a large number of musicians spread out in the 360-degree field and they will create these wild soundscapes that a lot of people will find immersive," Gonzalez says. “During the big piece, the audience will be invited to move throughout the space."

After falling into disrepair, the Freighthouse was closed in 2010. A nonprofit, The Friends of the Ypsilanti Freighthouse, raised money to rehabilitate the site, and it reopened in 2016 for community and private events.

"It’s just a really beautiful space," Gonzalez says. "It’s a building with a lot of history. It’s a dream to be able to put on a show like this. There are so few opportunities to hear music like this, it’s really rare. Most people will have never been to a concert like this. The number one thing is that you have to be there to experience it.” 

The Regenerate! Orchestra formed in 2018, and immediately distinguished itself with a bold, revolutionary ethos.

"The idea is to radically reimagine this staple institution of classical music, to reformat the orchestra in a way that is radically inclusive," says Gonzalez, who studied music composition at the University of Michigan. Inspired by John Cage and the Fluxus movement, he first experimented with radical performance styles with outdoor performances themed around the winter and summer solstice: "Those were my proto-Regenerate! projects."

Another notable way the group has pursued its artistic vision is by eschewing traditional concert views for more accessible and unusual locations.

“We want to find spaces that have a different ritual associated with them,” Gonzalez says. “We really like ‘third spaces,' community spaces, spaces that don’t have a division between performer and audience, spaces that have no center.”

UMS leadership approached Gonzalez and Regenerate! to participate in the organization’s new Ypsilanti series following the group’s fall 2022 performance that took over Ann Arbor’s Planet Rock climbing gym. 

“What we do both fits in with the Freighthouse and UMS’s goals of using their resources to activate community”, Gonzalez says. “I think it is very admirable of UMS to sponsor local musicians like this.”

Garrett Schumann is a composer and music scholar who teaches in the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Sciences & the Arts. His other writings have been published in The New York TimesGrove Music, and VAN Magazine.

The Regenerate! Orchestra performs for free on Wednesday, April 26, at 7:30 pm as part of the UMS at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse at 100 Market Place, next to Frog Island Park on the north side of Depot Town. The UMS series runs April 22-29 and features performances by the Kaleigh Wilder TrioDJ Todd OsbornJohn E. Lawrence & The Power Band, and others. All the shows are free or pay what you wish.

The Regenerate! Orchestra also plays at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market on May 19 as part of the Third Place Music Fest.

➥ "Ann Arbor orchestra seeks to 'de-homogenize' classical music by disrupting conventions" [Concentrate, June 8, 2022]