New music is coming out of the woods tonight. Students of the Contemporary Music Center, a college-level music industry program that thrives in West Tisbury under the radar of most Islanders, are ready to rock the Friday night house at Outerland.
Though few Islanders may have heard of these performers, they promise a rollicking showcase — the first of several Island music shows scheduled for the coming months — for a school that has over 400 alumni across the country, at least 130 of them working professionally in the industry they came here to learn about. Nearly 60 have gone from the Vineyard to take up residence in Nashville’s musical scene.
The musicians come from as far away as California and as near as Quincy for a school that is a one of a kind. There are writer’s workshops scattered across the country, set in remote rural communities and in cities. But there is but one accredited music school for the singing rock star and it is here on the Vineyard.
The Contemporary Music Center is the seven-year effort of two administrators: Warren Pettit, 44, director, and Tom Willett, 57, creative director. This semester they have 35 students studying music. Some are working learning to be professional musicians. Others are studying to become managers, publicists and administrators — or all of the above. It is an intensive four-month semester of study on a campus with a hint of Christian religion.
The campus overlooks Seth’s Pond. For a good part of the summer, the site is the home of FOCUS, a Christian summer school, which uses the facility from June through August.
“It is a hand and glove relationship,” said Mr. Willett, describing the partnership between the two outfits.
An art colony is the easiest way to describe the Contemporary Music Center, which operates fall and spring semesters. Add to that a curriculum, a framework of instruction and reputation for producing.
“The Island is such an artistic place,” said Mr. Willett. “There is natural beauty, and the isolation is a good place to work on art. We provide the students with all the tools and none of the distractions” of the wider music industry.
There are many creative schools where an artist can reside and contemplate purpose, Mr. Willett said. But in the case of this school, most students attending comes from Christian accredited college. They come to study and they come to produce (not necessarily Christian) music. There are two tracks — artist and executive. The mission is to give the emerging professional an opportunity to work on new material, to work in a recording studio and get guidance from professionals. “It is all about producing,” Mr. Willett said. Your final exam, the Center touts to prospective students, fits in a compact disc case.
While in years past the creative center has had a lower profile on the Island, it is gradually getting more involved in the Vineyard community. Mr. Pettit’s wife Julie is the executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Martha’s Vineyard; in December the center puts on a fundraising concert for the nonprofit organization.
Weeks ago performers from the center gave an open concert at the Che’s Lounge in Vineyard Haven.
And the school has earned the fellowship of the Island’s own skilled musicians, who offer quiet behind the scenes support and encouragement.
It is not about a deliberate effort to have a higher profile in the community, Mr. Willett, said but more about having cultivated relationships over time.
Tonight’s performance arose out of the school’s relationship with nightclub owner Barry and Mona Rosenthal of Outerland.
For a working musician, each concert is a step in his or her reach for stardom. At the Contemporary School of Music, it is how students collaborate on creative material and bring out a positive result. A concert is the equivalent of a classroom exam.
Once a week, the students test themselves with a concert — and Islanders have open invitation to come. The CMC’s weekly Thursday night show on campus are free. These shows are not only a part of the weekly school ritual, they are the conclusion of a lot of class time, study and homework. It’s practice for the students, and a wonderful performance for those who get to watch.
The Thursday night concerts start at 8 o’clock. The artists are bathed in colorful lights and stage fog. The music is loud. Before a recent show, one of the students passed out foam ear plugs to a visiting reporter. There was cheering between songs; for the audience each song was the equivalent of hearing a poem read aloud for the first time, or a reading of the latest work of fiction.
The voices of the singers are as professional as can be heard on the Island or a lot of other music centers in the country. The singers enunciate the words to their lyrics. The guitar riffs are clean.
Who sings tonight? Perhaps the future main line musicians of tomorrow.