Michele Gillman stands over an analog mixer and two turntables, mixing and scratching Bach's "Clavier Concerto in D Minor" and Beethoven's "Egmont Overture" into a cacophonous mess. Watching the bespectacled, mad scientist-like Gillman, a musicologist with a doctorate in music composition, destroy the classical world's cherished works is like watching a hippie assault his beloved baby-blue VW van at a monster truck rally.
Sixteen-year-old Nikkita Williams and his 13-year-old pal Delovea Williams nod in unanimous approval as the swelling strings are confronted by teeth-gritting needle screeches. "Yeah...that's tight," Delovea says.
The boys are at the new nonprofit Blue Sky Green Light Studio in the Powderhorn Park building, and Gillman enthusiastically encourages them to get their hands on every piece of equipment. "All of this is for you to learn, for free," she tells them. Created by Gillman as a place where 6- to 18-year-olds can compose, record, and produce original material, the studio, only in its humble beginnings, boasts a bundle of donated items: brand-new Shure microphones, an antiquated Apple computer, a DAT machine, an 8-track recorder, a synthesizer, and an '80s drum machine--the kind used by pasty-flashing Miss Janet Jackson back in the day. A steel desk overflows with '70s reel-to-reels, clunky carrying cases, and glittery gold speakers. A sign above these garage-sale treasures reads "Expect Respect," which Gillman earns in spades: Nikkita and Delovea take to calling her "ma'am" during their hour and 20-minute studio session, and thank her repeatedly as they leave.
Outside of the studio, Gillman is a music professor and private instructor whose musical obsession has given her the ability to play almost every instrument. But in her mind, she plays the jaw harp in an imaginary marching band, an octet of uniformed misfits that pops up in unsuspecting places, surprising onlookers as they wait for elevators or stand in supermarket lines. It's a private joke between Gillman and her friends that has blossomed into Icelandic fairy-spotting proportions, yet it's rooted in Gillman's real wish that a spontaneous burst of "When the Saints Go Marching In" could become an acceptable, commonplace occurrence in the organic food aisle.
"My dream about music is that we become so open-minded about it, that it can just happen. And it can happen absolutely anywhere," she says.
Today it's happening over the clamor of a basketball game down the hall, over whistles and cheers and half-time chatter, and bass beats that threaten to seep into the room from a nearby pottery class. But 17-year-old Erik Falkingham is unfazed, and the guitar plucks for his self-penned song "Sadness" are the only things the mic picks up. He listens to the playback, and the bridge he's recorded at least five times still comes in a second too late. "That's fine," he says in his congested, teenage-boy baritone. "I'm not a perfectionist."
Falkingham has a mod-skater haircut that swirls in a half-circle from his crown to his forehead and a thin tuft of hair that divides his chin in half. He's a violinist in the Eden Prairie High School Orchestra, and has a load of talent he's still unsure how to maneuver. He mostly listens to art-metal and punk bands like System of a Down, Green Day, and Nirvana, but in his spare time, he writes marches, waltzes, and rags.
Today, he plays "Waltz of War," which he recorded using calliope and accordion sounds on the synthesizer. "I wanted both hands to be separate instruments, but I had a hard time matching them up," he says. Then he plays his thrilling, ragtimelike tune, "Forgotten Autumn," which could be the soundtrack to discovering a million dollars, true love, and the meaning of life.
"That's so happy compared to your other stuff," I say.
His face crumples. "But it's in a minor key," he protests, as if happiness were an obscene fashion faux pas, like a bad home perm and acid-washed jeans. And then I realize that, at 17, revealing your insides to a stranger who totally doesn't get it is absolutely tragic.
As if she holds the elusive antidote to teen awkwardness, 13-year-old Latwanda Gibson sashays into the room before Falkingham can even pack up, cracking her gum and singing "Proud Mary," her all-time favorite song. "Move out my way, y'all. It's my turn," she announces. She's ready to record "So Fly," a song she wrote about some dude she really wants to get to know.
"You can't sing, Latwanda," says her 16-year-old sister, Clarice.
"Yes I can. I sound like Beyoncé," Latwanda contests.
She jumps behind the microphone and musters up her best vibrato-filled intro: oooooooeeeeeeaaa. Latwanda may not sound like Beyoncé yet, but she wields an unabashed divaness that would make Diana Ross proud. She listens to the slightly off-key playback and is instantly pleased. "That sounds good. Doesn't that sound good, y'all?" We nod our heads in unanimous approval. Yeah...that's tight.