Big Red Icon aims to unite, celebrate student musicians

Sasha Milton ’22 met bandmate Jay Buckner ’22 at freshman orientation – Milton in a Pink Floyd T-shirt, Buckner wearing The Who.

Spencer Nachman ’24 found his drummer, Kyle Wolf ’25, after a jazz ensemble rehearsal, when he overheard Wolf playing in another room.

The six members of The Fuse met largely through a post on Cornell’s subreddit.

Others participating in Big Red Icon, a new contest and concert aimed at bringing the music community together, found each other through open mics, fraternity gigs, music classes and ensembles, shared rehearsal spaces and studios – through a music network at Cornell that is vast and diverse, formal and informal.

Big Red Icon will shine a light on student musicians and provide opportunities –sorely lacking during the pandemic – to perform on a big stage. Six finalists have been chosen from a pool of video submissions and will perform for a live audience on March 12 at 3 p.m at Bailey Hall. All enrolled students will then have the chance to vote on the recorded performances, and the final winner will perform at this year’s Slope Fest.

“What university has a Taiko drumming group led by students, a for-credit hip hop class that produces EPs, and a program house specifically designed to connect musicians outside the classroom? We do,” said Paul Merrill, associate professor of the practice and the Gussman Director of Jazz in the College of Arts and Sciences. “And there is so much more out there to discover.”

The finalists run the gamut of rock – from folk-inspired (Elevation 404), to a blues-rock trio (The Spencer Nachman Band), to grunge, “prog metal”-inspired rock (The Fuse) – as well as folk (The Silas Brainard Band), pop-soul (After Six), and indie and gamelan (Me and Some Friends), a traditional Indonesian music.

“I’m so excited because we don’t know that many other bands,” said Milton, a member of Elevation 404. “So it’s like, who are these people? What kind of music do they play?”

“Our hope is that this event can help the music community – a rather large population of students who make music from diverse perspectives, traditions, and aesthetics – feel closer,” Merrill said.

For the individual bands, it’s a chance to showcase their hard work, work that is outside of academics but is still essential to their experience at Cornell.

“I need music,” said Nachman, of the Spencer Nachman Band. “It’s a very important outlet for me and a huge priority because I love it that much.”

For all the bands, it’s also a space where they can freely pursue their interests. “What makes it cool is that there is no adviser there. No one supervising this,” said Mohammad Moghaddasi ’22, of The Fuse. “This is all independent work we do because we love it.”

The passion has persisted – and for some, even intensified – during a pandemic that kept groups apart and made performing for audiences difficult. Lockdowns and social distancing meant late starts, rehearsing in separate rooms, and canceled events.

“It was weird to play and only hear people through headphones,” said Simon Peck ’22, of After Six. “But after not being able to play with other people for so long, it was also awesome to see our ability to circumnavigate the restrictions.”

The idea and planning for Big Red Icon was driven largely by student leadership in Jazz+, a student organization dedicated to the appreciation of jazz music; the Cornell Concert Commission, and the Slope Day Programming Board, with help from the Department of Music in A&S and Just About Music (JAM), the music-themed program house.

In addition to bringing the community together and showcasing musicians, Luke Ellis ’24, president of Jazz+, said the event seeks to create opportunities. Jazz+ receives requests for performers but passes those opportunities on to a relatively small pool of groups that its members already know, Ellis said. He wants to invite more groups into that pool and generate more requests for live music, too.

“We want to demonstrate that Cornell students can play at a high level, and create more interest in having live music at events around campus or in Ithaca,” Ellis said. “We have so many talented musicians, but we don’t always get a spotlight.”

Jack Neiberg ‘24, from Me and Some Friends and the performance space manager for JAM, said he hoped the event would raise the student body’s interest in and awareness of musical groups on campus. “I envision it as an event that a lot of people know about, and they care about. Like a sports season where they are invested in who’s playing.”

For the bands, playing in Bailey Hall is a dream come true.

“We were just so ecstatic to get the opportunity to perform in Bailey,” said Polina Ermoshkina ’23, from The Fuse. “Now we’ve amped up our practice times. We don’t care about winning, but we want to put on a really good show and have fun.”

Students and advisers hope Big Red Icon can become an annual event. It’s part of a larger outreach effort, spearheaded by Jazz+, to strengthen and connect the large, and at times segmented, music community.

“I love that our school is able to do something like this,” Neiberg said. “Especially during COVID years, it’s been harder because we couldn’t congregate. So it’s really exciting that there's an opportunity, there’s a place where all musicians can come together.”

Check the Big Red Icon website for tickets and for information on voting. The winner(s) will be announced after spring break.

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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Red-tinted image of a stage from the performers point of view, looking out at a large crowd outside