Library ‘De-Composition’ series lends ears to alternative musicians

Milo Silva plays his Mongolian horsehead fiddle in the Oak Bluffs cemetery. —Stacey Rupolo

While Martha’s Vineyard has plenty of opportunities for bar bands and wedding singers to perform, there are not always venues for less pop-minded musicians to share their work. Nathan Luce, program director at the Oak Bluffs library, is filling that void with the “De-Composition” series, where musicians can perform and break down their musical process in a format that honors the complexities of their work and challenges the listener to explore new sounds and new ideas about music. On Tuesday, Feb. 7, Milo Silva will present in the third event of the series. Mr. Silva is a composer, and one of only a few Americans who are classically trained on the Mongolian horsehead fiddle, Mongolia’s national instrument. He received the fiddle at age 18 as a gift from his father, the late blues musician Maynard Silva, and studied it intently as a student at the Mongolian University of Art and Culture.

Mr. Silva traveled to Mongolia on three separate occasions between 2008 and 2013. He attended the university for a year and a half before he was expelled for composing outside the traditional canon. “I began to write a string quartet that mimicked the sound of horses having sex,” Mr. Silva told The Times. “They didn’t have much of an interest in rocking the boat.”

After the expulsion, Mr. Silva returned to his hometown of Oak Bluffs and focused on the development of several complex musical theories. His talk on Tuesday will touch on some of those theories.

“Most of my presentation will be about general sensation of tone and its relationship to sounds around us, the relativity of tonal structures, and the importance of finding one’s tonality, especially when separated from the confines of Western music,” Mr. Silva summarized. “It’s interesting to look at sound more holistically.”

Mr. Silva added, “I will probably mention a few things here and there about Mongolian music in general, because that is the majority of my training.” He will also play recorded music, and perform with the help of Leah Crosby on violin and Nina Violet on viola.

Ms. Violet has become an important thread in the “De-Composition” series. She hosted the last talk, on Jan. 3, and performed at the inaugural event of the series, which was hosted by Dean Rosenthal in December.

“They’ve all been sort of different,” Mr. Luce said of the talks. “The only guidance they get from me is: Present your music and talk about it.” Mr. Rosenthal, who composes experimental and performance pieces, mostly presented recorded music. Ms. Violet, who occasionally performs in the Island singer-songwriter circuit, took the opportunity to share collaged recorded music she can’t perform live.

Mr. Luce is in his second year as the library’s program director, and he says he is trying to schedule a breadth of events that “fill a niche that libraries don’t always fill.” He felt the public was hungry for music programming that diverts from the mainstream.

“We wanted to do some kind of live music series,” Mr. Luce said. “When you put events together in a series, the cohesion is really beneficial. It allows you to focus in on one idea, and talk about it all together. The underlying impetus was providing a venue for people who don’t have a great variety of opportunities to play. I thought it would be great to encourage those types of people.”

The series is not only intended to bolster unconventional performers. Mr. Luce felt the public could also benefit from arts events that challenge the intellect.

“This Island is a very fruitful place for the arts, and very supportive of the arts, but often there is not always a great breadth of style in performers and genres,” Mr. Luce said. “There is a real yearning for intellectually engaging creative outlets.”

He attributes the narrowness to the Vineyard’s status as a tourist destination, where artists may feel pressure to gear their work toward accessibility and comfort.

As an unorthodox performer, Mr. Silva says he finds that pressure quite palpable. He thinks about it sometimes on his contemplative walks through the Oak Bluffs cemetery. “It feels almost as grave as oppression in a way,” he said. “It can be an atmosphere of trying to keep it easygoing, have another cocktail, listen to some reggae music.”

For musicians like Mr. Silva, who are interested in unique, albeit challenging, ways of thinking about music, Mr. Luce is opening the library floor. “I appreciate Milo’s angle on music,” Mr. Luce said. “He has a deeply theoretical viewpoint. There are all these people who might know Milo casually, who might have known him for a long time, who haven’t had the opportunity to see him play the horsehead fiddle. There’s a gripping element to it, hearing someone who has trained as intensely as Milo has for as long as he has, playing a totally foreign-sounding instrument so masterfully; it’s really thrilling. I’m excited to bring in potentially challenging work and present that to the public.”

The result may be weird, but Mr. Luce and Mr. Silva are OK with that. And based on the burgeoning attendance at the “De-Composition” talks, the public is OK with it too. “That’s been the exciting part for me, seeing that there are a lot of young weirdos who are interested in seeing music and performing music, and will come to places like the library to hear it,” Mr. Luce said.

Mr. Silva concurred. “It’s going to be weird, because that’s who I am. And that’s very much a product of my environment,” he said.

Fellow boat rockers take note: Mr. Silva recently completed his composition, “Horse Sex,” and is in the process of digitizing it with the help of Mr. Rosenthal. He is seeking a string quartet to perform it.