5 Questions for Modfest Co-Founder Adene Wilson ’69
Adene “Dee” Wilson ’69 founded Modfest with her husband, Vassar Professor of Music Richard Wilson, in 2002 and has become its primary organizer. Vassar’s largest festival devoted to 20th- and 21st-century arts, Modfest brings music, dance, and other performances, as well as exhibitions, dramatic readings, and film screenings, to the college each January and February.
Dee has long been interested in the arts—she started playing the violin at the age of seven and even majored in music at Vassar. But she says her involvement in the world of contemporary arts—which includes collecting works by painter-printmaker Philip Guston—grew even more robust after marrying Richard, a composer and pianist. Over the years, Dee has produced performances, translated lyrics, and transcribed countless compositions for her husband.
We spoke to Dee about her role in Modfest at the start of what would be the festival’s 12th year.
1. What inspired you and Professor Wilson to found Modfest?
There are a few things. One inspiration is the many talented artists at Vassar. The Dance Department is fabulous, and there are a lot of wonderful music students and really quite an exceptional music faculty. The idea was to showcase what we have here. Another inspiration is Vassar’s role as an educational institution. Modfest is an educational project—it plays a role in exposing students to something new. I thought about what you want students to be exposed to by the time they graduate. You want them to be exposed to glimpses of everything.
You have to be gentle with the students, though. We didn't want to overemphasize the avant-garde, but rather to show a range of artistic styles.
2. As the principal organizer, do you have a formula for getting the right mix of performers in various genres or are you just a natural?
What it’s come to at this point is a real mixture. There are certain events that are easy; they’re not necessarily easy to produce, but they’re easy to lay out on paper because the commitment is there every year. That commitment is always there for the teens’ programming [the Teen Visions ’14 exhibit, for example]. Mill Street Loft comes each year. It took me a while to build that up, but now, I know that it’s there. Once you’ve done certain events a number of times, the people become committed; Modfest becomes part of their routine.
I have this chart where I plug in what I know for sure will happen. That’s a kind of basic structure. Then, there are the kinds of events, like the specialty events on the weekends, which take a lot of planning.
Then, there are the programs that I go to other departments for—I’ll ask if they have anything they want to add. For instance, for a film in the last week of the festival, the Film Department called me up and said they had somebody coming and it seemed like it was an event that would go well with Modfest. The Art Center seems to always have something appropriate for Modfest each year. And we always end with the Vassar Repertory Dance Theatre (VRDT) performance. They’ve been part of it since almost the beginning.
What has helped over the years is meeting the people in the departments. The more people I know, the more inroads I have to set up events. That’s crucial.
3. How has Modfest changed over time?
It began with basically just music. It was concerts that we put on with music of the 20th century, using the faculty we had and then bringing in other players when needed.
It kept branching out. From the core of teaching 20th- and 21st-century music, there were many other ways to reinforce that learning through connections to dance, artwork, poetry, literary readings, and more. I try to get the students to see what others are doing from one discipline to the other.
It didn’t take long to find other departments that had events that would go well with Modfest. I was very good friends with a woman who was working at the Francis Lehman Loeb Art Center, where something always seemed to be going on. I approached VRDT because I knew it had an annual performance in March—it now does a short version of that performance for Modfest.
Part of the idea of this is that there wouldn’t be a lot of any one thing, whether it was music, exhibitions, dance, or film. One event we did included chamber music, with poetry readings during the breaks. At the same time, there was an art exhibit set up in the room. When the chamber music and poetry ended, a jazz group played during a reception for the photography exhibit.
4. Can you think of a particularly memorable Modfest moment?
Three years ago, we did Richard’s opera Æthelred the Unready. We did it twice and everybody was involved in it. The entire singing faculty participated. The orchestra was made up of a lot of faculty. The costumes were done by my neighbor—a retired Vassar costume designer. My friends were all ushers. Students did all of the backstage work. And people in the community volunteered to have people stay at their houses. It was sort of an all-campus thing and that made it exciting.
5. On what other projects have you and Professor Wilson collaborated?
Pretty much every one! For my 25th Vassar reunion, I tried to think of three quotes that haunt me. You have to recognize that I started college in ’65 and the world was one way, and when I graduated in ’69, it was totally different. When I declared music as my major, I had to put down why I chose it. It’s something I have cringed about my whole life. I wrote that music would make me a better wife and mother. The odd thing is, since I ended up in this life, it did.
I’ve been very lucky, and since I was trained as a musician, I’ve been able to be a part of most everything Richard does. A lot of it is the handholding, but it’s also dealing with a lot of logistics. My big feat was the opera; I put the entire opera on the computer. I also produced it when it opened at Modfest.
--Photos courtesy of Karl Rabe