Epiphanies, by their very nature, are apt to occur when least expected, and in the most unlikely places. Michi Wiancko’s happened at a gas station.
It was about five years ago, and Wiancko, a violinist and composer, and her husband, composer Judd Greenstein, were dividing their time between Brooklyn — where they’d lived for a while — and South Hadley. They’d quickly fallen in love with the Pioneer Valley after a few trips to visit friends there. But their peripatetic lifestyles — back and forth between New York and Massachusetts, then getting on planes and trains for performances — felt increasingly untenable, especially for Wiancko. Their lives and their art alike were missing a groundedness, a connection to place.
Then it all came together.
“Judd was inside the gas station, and I was pumping gas,” she said recently by phone. “And I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m gonna start a music festival and artists’ retreat, where we can bring our friends, from New York and all over the world, to come to us, and at the same time we can serve the community we live in.’ All the pieces suddenly made sense.”
It sounds a little pie-in-the-sky, a nice dream or a fantasy. But Wiancko and Greenstein are artists whose idealism is leavened by years of hard-headed strategizing about how to survive in the music world. (Greenstein is a cofounder of the crusading independent label New Amsterdam Records, which just reached its 10th anniversary.) After a year of looking for the right site, they found and purchased a 100-acre former dairy farm on a hilltop in the small town of Gill, in Franklin County, that they christened Antenna Cloud Farm. It has sweeping views of the Pioneer Valley and, Wiancko says, unbelievable sunsets.
Then they began building their vision of a haven where creative musicians could work, try out new things, or just recharge. A guest house on the farm property stocked with food serves as a retreat, and Wiancko cooks a communal dinner every night. There are public concerts, most of which take place in the 80-seat-capacity living room in the house where Wiancko and Greenstein live with their 3-year-old daughter. The musicians also spend part of their residency participating in outreach programs, organized by Wiancko on themes of social justice.
They put on their first festival last summer. There were five performances, loosely grouped in what Wiancko likes to call “multi-genre or post-genre music, music that you might not necessarily have heard before. Music that feels new, feels unexpected, or feels like it’s being created right in front of you. Just that feeling of absolute present-ness is so far the common thread that all of our artists have shared.”
This year’s lineup is larger, and the artistic scope feels broader, from the highly touted Aizuri Quartet to the bluegrass duo of Chris Brashear and Jim Watson. The band that perhaps best exemplifies what Antenna Cloud is about is The Hands Free, four masterly improvisers — accordionist Nathan Koci, bassist Elenore Oppenheim, guitarist James Moore, and violinist Caroline Shaw, a Pulitzer-Prize winning composer — whose stylistic roots run from folk to avant-garde jazz. (They perform on June 24.)
“It’s like watching a fireworks display,” was how Wiancko described their rapport. “It sounds rehearsed, polished, it doesn’t sound random. It feels like they’re making this up right now, yet it’s totally coordinated. It created a feeling of real anticipation from the audience, and that feeling of not knowing, and embracing that feeling of not knowing, is something I really treasure.”
A tangible sign of the festival’s growth could be seen earlier this month, when Antenna Cloud Farm’s second season opened with Ladama, a quartet of women who create energetic, Latin-flavored alternative pop music. It was the festival’s first outdoor concert, with around 125 people expected to attend. Almost twice that number showed up. The large field that Wiancko mows for parking quickly filled up, so right before the concert was scheduled to start, she found herself, in her concert-going attire, dashing to her garage to paint a sign directing cars to park in another field.
“I ran to the concert with paint on my arms,” she laughed. “You just don’t know exactly what to expect until you do it.”
There’s a more serious question that goes along with the story, which is how much Wiancko and Greenstein want the festival to grow. That may seem an odd issue for an idiosyncratic music gathering that may break even financially at the end of this season, if all goes right.
Still, Wiancko found herself asking how big they wanted the festival to be. “I didn’t realize that would be an issue,” she said, and admitted that it was also a good problem to have. “What kind of boundaries do we draw around this thing? Because this also our home. Is the goal to be as big as possible? I don’t think so.”
What she wants to preserve is the grounded, homespun nature of the festival, the idea that Antenna Cloud Farm can be not just a site of retreat but one of engagement as well. While Ladama was in residence there, they visited Brick House, a community resource center in nearby Turners Falls, and offered a program targeted to the area’s Spanish-speaking community.
‘I thought, “Oh my God, I’m gonna start a music festival and artists’ retreat.” ’
Wiancko handed out free tickets for families who wanted to attend the concert. She recognized some of the kids at the performance the next evening — they were laughing, running around, and dancing as the band performed.
“And I had that moment,” she said, “where I thought: This, this is why I’m doing it.”
The Hands Free
Presented by Antenna Cloud Farm, 25 Green St., Gill. June 24, 5 p.m. Tickets $5-$15. www.antennacloudfarm.comDavid Weininger can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.