Within a few blocks of my house in Columbus, Georgia, there are at least a hundred pianos, hundreds more drums, two orchestras, three wind ensembles, truckloads of guitars, four recording studios, multiple concert venues, dozens of musicians and an abounding music scene.
But—don’t tell anyone. It’s a secret.
It was certainly unknown to me when I applied for my job at Columbus State University. I was in my fourth year of doctoral study at the University of Florida, and I needed a job. To be completely honest, I didn’t know Columbus, Georgia even existed. Even some of my friends still think I live and work in Ohio. But I applied for the visiting audio technology professor position, and perhaps through sheer force of will, or divine intervention, I was invited to campus to interview. Somehow, I won the job. I remember parking the car and walking to my room at the Marriott, housed in what used to be a cotton mill, rehearsing my lectures for the following day in my head. The whole time, I felt a tinge—a little bit of energy passing through the bottom of my feet. Maybe it was just the hot pavement. I think that next day was the last time I a wore a tie in this city.
Six years later, that heat and energy coming up from the ground has worked its way into every moment of life here. Columbus, especially the downtown area, is charming, musically diverse and intoxicatingly vibrant. There is a lot to write about Columbus, but obviously the sprawling musical landscape draws most of my attention. I’m a musical omnivore, or as I’ve been known to label myself—“schizophonic”.
The RiverCenter for the Performing Arts regularly hosts a variety of concerts and Broadway shows, in addition to serving as the home of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. Jessye Norman, Joshua Bell, Loretta Lynn and Yo-Yo Ma have all appeared on the RiverCenter’s stages. I saw BB King there when my friends Neal Lucas, Steven Thompson and Evan Collins, all fantastic musicians from this area, opened for him.
I heard St. Paul and the Broken Bones perform down the street at the Loft, and three weeks later they were on Letterman. Willie Nelson rolled up to the Loft Recording Studio to record vocals a few years ago and sang into one of my microphones. The British band The Heavy recorded some of their last album in that same studio, along with the indomitable Lloyd Buchanan, one of Columbus’ most gifted singers and keyboard players, and Marshall Ruffin, a fellow Virginia native, who is one of the most unique musicians I’ve ever met. I’ve worked as an engineer at the Loft and assisted on projects for Col. Bruce Hampton, Count M’Butu, Keni Thomas and a host of up-and-coming bands. I even got to sit in with Ike Stubblefield.
I’ve seen hundreds of people turn up for the Friday night outdoor concert series that Uptown Columbus presents during the warmer months. They bring their collapsible chairs, grab some beverages and sit to enjoy the music as the kids and dogs run around the blocked-off street. On other nights, I’ve watched my friend Rusty Taylor, a quadriplegic jazz singer, roll onstage to sing “Georgia On My Mind” for the small but dedicated supporters of the Columbus Jazz Society who meet regularly at The Loft.
Live music can be found nearly every night of the week in Columbus—even on Sundays, when Gary Parmer can be found in front of Picasso Pizza, strumming and crooning away late into the night. But I spend most of my time in the southern part of the RiverCenter, working and teaching at the Schwob School of Music. In that building alone, we put on more than 250 concerts every school year. I’ve heard my friend and colleague Lisa Oberlander tear up a Led Zeppelin-inspired clarinet concerto with conductor Jamie Nix’ titanic CSU Wind Ensemble. I’ve watched Paul Hostetter lead the CSU Philharmonic Orchestra in vital performances of some of the greatest music ever written. I’ve listened to the guitar duo of Andrew Zohn and Robert Sharpe quietly and sublimely pluck Mozart into my microphones, and stood mesmerized as my pianist friends Alina Bennett, Ksenia Kurenysheva, and Tatiana Muzanova played with unbridled urgency the works of Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and Debussy. I’ve even witnessed Kevin Whalen flailing his arms wildly to end a Count Basie tune at the close of the CSU Jazz Ensemble’s concert.
The people in our community generously donate to our school, attend our concerts and genuinely work to get to know us. A few weeks ago, one of my neighbors in the historic district posted on Facebook about how much she liked hearing a violinist practicing in a 1970’s brick box eyesore of an apartment. My reply? “That’s Boris Abramov, he’s a great violinist.” That one conversation motivated us to start planning an outdoor concert in Heritage Park, a monument to Columbus’ industrial roots, this coming spring.
I always read that classical music is dead. The most defeatist commentators say that rock ’n roll is dead too. Some even say that musicianship is dead and all that remains are guys with laptops on stage making not music, but noise. Clearly those people are listening in the wrong direction.
It’s not that anything I’ve mentioned here is particularly unique—music happens all over the world exactly as it does here. What is special is that all of these things are happening within walking distance of each other. There is something special about Columbus and its soundscape, all compressed into one place, with such a diversity of musicians occupying the same space.
I hope I’ve let the secret out a little bit.
Matthew McCabe is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Audio Technology at Columbus State University’s Schwob School of Music. He is active as a composer, audio engineer, technologist, and teacher, and can be found online at at http://www.euph0r1a.net/.
Upcoming shows in Columbus:
March 14 7:30 p.m.
The Schwob School of Music Presents Kaleidoscope
Bill Heard Theatre
Experience the passion of 230 music students in a 70-minute, full spectrum musical performance featuring large instrumental and vocal ensembles, chamber music and individual performances in multiple genres.
April 10 9:00 p.m.
Kopecky || American Roomates
Formerly the Kopecky Family Band, Kopecky just signed with ATO Records so fans of their fun, indie-rock should catch them locally while you can.