University at Buffalo Department of music professor Jon Nelson and his wife, musician Lazara Nelson, have lived all over the place – Mexico City, New York, Boston. While calling these cities home, they clung to what at first was a dream, and eventually evolved into a firm plan – to open an authentic art house, where performance and visual art could merge.
In those cities, however, the realization of that dream was highly unlikely, real estate being cost-prohibitive and competition being fierce. But in Buffalo, the Nelsons realized that, not only could they afford the real estate, but their dream would not be redundant. What they were proposing would actually fill a niche and offer artists and the public something they weren't necessarily getting anywhere else.
“In our experience, there's one thing that creative people do that just doesn't seem to have a home,” says Jon Nelson. “And that's focusing on experimentation and genuine creativity, without the pressure to move cans of Bud Light or become a human jukebox, so to speak.”
The Nelsons purchased the building at 19 Wadsworth St. in Allentown – the former home of Sugar City, an alternative arts collective that had to move out when the Nelsons took over the property. (This caused some controversy in the arts community, but as Nelson makes clear, “We didn't buy the building because we wanted to be landlords – we bought the building because we wanted to open our art house.”)
Today, that building – now dubbed Pausa Art House – will open its doors to the public with the first shows in what Nelson says will be “an ongoing series of chamber concerts and art installations.” But rather than simply throw conventional club concert-parties, the Nelsons threw a few interesting twists into the tale.
“When we were renovating, the architects were like, 'Don't you want a stage over here?' And we were like, very adamantly, 'No.' When you build a stage, no matter if it's even six inches off the ground, it implies a separation between performer and listener. That whole elevated idea of who and what the musicians are, that they are somehow godlike figures, or whatever – we really wanted to remove that barrier.”
Nelson cites a recent piece in the New Yorker, penned by Alex Ross, as in keeping with his own aesthetic for Pausa. In that piece, Ross laments the fact that chamber groups – string quartets in particular – are routinely performing in large halls that are “simply too big” for the music. Ross rightly points out that revered chamber pieces were initially composed to be performed in the living rooms of patrons – an environment he sees as far better suited to the organic tones and implied intimacy of the compositions and performances. Nelson concurs.
“It would take much more for me to be motivated to attend a Haydn string quartet at a 1,000-seat hall than it would to hear that music in the kind of space it was designed for,” he says. “We had this in mind when fine-tuning the idea for Pausa. We are following a chamber music aesthetic, in a loose sense, in that the music will be unamplified. We want to capture the authenticity of what the musicians are doing, like it would've been done in the old country. We want it to be intimate, so that the listener is drawn into the music and the performance itself.”
Pausa will open this weekend with a pair of shows that fit this model. Tonight, pianist Kevin Doyle and percussionist/vocalist Guiche Perilla will offer pieces based on Caribbean and Argentinian folk music. On Saturday, a program of tango and klezmer music will feature Moshe Shulman on accordion, Ivan Docenko on piano and Ben Levitt on bass. Upcoming shows include the first installment of the Buffalo Percussion Festival; John Bacon Jr. performing a John Cage-inspired piece based upon improvisation; a piano and guitar improvisation program featuring Mike Wagner and Jeff McLeod; and a piano lab concert featuring the music of Stockhausen and Stravinsky.
If this all sounds a bit highbrow to the reader, it shouldn't – part of what makes the presence of Pausa a positive for the neighborhood, and the region as a whole, is the potential for listeners to broaden their experience. The goal is the realization that an evening where one might take in John Cage-inspired work, a smoking jam band, an adept DJ and perhaps a group of bluegrass virtuosos all within the same few blocks is more than a good thing.
The lack of stage is not the only aspect that will set Pausa apart. All shows will start at 8 p.m. At 9 p.m., the performers will take a break, and mingle freely with the crowd. The program will be over well in advance of 11 p.m., which, as Nelson suggests, will leave patrons “plenty of time to go have a drink and catch the late show at Nietzsche's, or Hardware or DBGBs.” The front of the art house will feature a bar and a visual art space, where local artists will present solo exhibitions of their work. (First up is Priscilla DeVantier Bowen's “A Few Pieces of the Universe,” which will run through April 30.)
The arrival of Pausa is a positive occurrence for the Allentown neighborhood, which is solidifying itself as a hub of the local original music scene.
Wisely, the Nelsons are moving into the neighborhood to provide something that is not in direct competition with what is already happening there, but rather, is designed to complement the experience. So we all win. (For more info, visit www.pausaarthouse.com.)