If Mark Stewart has five projects going on, you should expect that all five of them are going to be both interesting and innovative. As a renowned multi-instrumentalist, Mark has been touring and recording with Paul Simon as his Musical Director since 1998. As a builder of musical instruments, he is the inventor of the WhirlyCopter, a “bicycle-powered Pythagorean choir of singing tubes,” and the Big Boing, “a 24-foot sonic banquet table Mbira that seats 30 children playing 490 found objects,” to name a few. This is beyond being on the faculty of the Manhattan School Of Music and acting as a visiting lecturer at MIT. And being a founding member of the Bang On A Can All-Stars. And various projects over the years with Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney.
While those credits and accomplishments alone would warrant a Downtown article on Mark Stewart, I wanted to talk to him with regards to his involvement with Guitar Mash. Founded in 2012, Guitar Mash is a guitar-themed movement creating opportunities for people of all ages to be involved in music and also make music with others. Mark is its Musical Director, while its Artist Co-Chairs include Top Chef star Tom Colicchio and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith. Prior participants in Guitar Mash include Wilco’s Nels Cline, Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, Kaki King and The Roots’ “Captain” Kirk Douglas.
The 4th Annual Guitar Mash benefit event will be taking place at City Winery on Sunday, Nov. 8, running from noon to 3:30 p.m. Beyond Mark and the hundreds of guitarists expected to attend, participants will include Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings’ Binky Griptite, dobro master Jerry Douglas, singer/songwriter Sonya Kitchell, and Mark’s fellow Paul Simon bandmate Bakithi Kumalo. Beyond the music, there will be “The Great Big Brunch” including selections from Acme Fish, Zucker’s Bagels and Fresh Direct. A silent auction – including items from Brooklyn Bowl, Broadway’s School Of Rock and the Red Hot Chili Peppers – is promised, in addition to a “petting zoo” of instruments from D’Angelico Guitars.
I had the opportunity to conduct Q&A with Mark – a longtime New Yorker by way of Wisconsin – as set up by Guitar Mash founder Rebecca Weller. For more information on the event, go to www.guitarmash.org, while Mark himself can be visited online at http://arts.mit.edu/artists/mark-stewart.
Where did the idea for Guitar Mash come from?
Mark Stewart: Rebecca Weller. She is a inexhaustible fountain of ideas and industry for building community within the arts.
Your website for Guitar Mash notes that Pete Seeger is to thank. Can you expand on that?
M: Pete always included the audience in the song. The song was for everyone in the room. We agree and want to continue on that path.
The inaugural Guitar Mash event was at City Winery. How did that come about?
M: It’s a warm inviting venue with good folks on staff.
What should be expected from this year’s event, the fourth annual Guitar Mash?
M: Wonderful guests sharing their music and the stage with all those assembled. And, among many highlights, a slide lesson from a great slide master Jerry Douglas!
Do you have a long-term plan for Guitar Mash? Or something that you’re looking to accomplish in terms of how often you hold events?
M: Guitar Mash is an idea that will continue to grow, methinks. It’s inclusiveness is a balance to the more common exclusive nature of concert events. Blurring the lines and breaking the fourth wall is a joy for both the “performer” and “audience member.” Though the minimum daily adult requirement has not yet been established, I would venture to say that we are – as a nation — malnourished in the area of singing and playing together.
Aside from Guitar Mash, do you have any on-going projects that you can talk about?
M: Writing and recording music for Together In Dance, a non-profit organization that teaches public school teachers how to incorporate dance into the school curriculum. If a classroom of kids make up a dance about osmosis, not a single child will ever forget what osmosis is. Compare that to telling them to sit still and listen to a lecture. These teaching artists save the world one dance at a time. Polygraph Lounge, my project with keyboard and theremin wizard Rob Schwimmer. We are very serious about being ridiculous. Making giant Velophones, bicycle-powered singing tube harmoniums, I am designing and building for the opera, The Aging Magician. Like most of the instruments I design, these beasts can be played by anyone. And another year ahead at M.I.T., designing and blowing glass musical instruments with Peter Houk and co.
What was your first gig as a Music Director?
M: I can’t remember. I have always wanted everyone to be happily singing and playing together and always had a sense of how to make that happen. Ralph and Mary, my parents, were song/music leaders of power and I inherited their love of “making a joyful noise together.”
Was it always your plan to earn most or all of your living as a sideman for other artists?
M: My plan was to play music I dug with people I dug for people I dug. I also don’t have a problem following direction. Be it the score of a Schubert string quartet or a famous pop star.
What do you think the biggest misconception is about life as a sideman?
M: I don’t really know what’s on the list, so it’s hard to answer that. Perhaps it’s the concept of that identity, “the sideman.” Everyone brings what they have to bear upon the task at hand. Be it their own song or someone else’s. The only difference is who gets the final say in what gets across the footlights.
How did you get started with building instruments?
M: I discovered that every tube is a didgeridoo waiting to be liberated. After that it spread to every piece of flotsam and jetsam in every dumpster on every street in every town. I like the way my brain works when I am looking at garbage.
If someone is looking to have a custom-built instrument, what sort of information would they need to give you?
M: What they want it to do and what sound do they want to make upon it?
When you’re not busy with work, how do you like to spend your free time?
M: Grooving with my glorious wife Karen Curlee.
Finally, Mark, any last words for the kids?
M: If you like a song, sing it with your friends. If you like singing it together, sing it for others. Then teach it to them. It’s really fun.
-by Darren Paltrowitz