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MUSE/IQUE: Building Community Through Music

Angela Bao

Jan. 30, 2017
Rachael Worby, artistic director of MUSE/IQUE, standing in front of an ensemble of musicians and performers at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium
Rachael Worby, artistic director of MUSE/IQUE, standing in front of an ensemble of musicians and performers at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium

MUSE/IQUE mixes music and unconventional spaces to make the familiar, unfamiliar.

When people think of a traditional orchestra concert, what comes to mind usually involves a cavernous 19th century concert hall, a (most likely male) conductor, and affluent guests dressed to the nines. The experience is also similarly predictable: guests arrive, perhaps chat for a bit before the show, and then settle down passively in their seats as the orchestra begins playing this season’s program. It’s an image rooted in preconceptions that live orchestra performances are staid, predictable and reserved for those in higher echelons.

MUSE/IQUE wants to blow up all of those notions.

Overturning expectations

Founded in 2011, MUSE/IQUE is a Pasadena, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that wants to bring live music to all people in communities. Instead of hosting concerts in the typical concert hall, MUSE/IQUE brings the music closer to the community by turning unconventional spaces into musical venues.

A MUSE/IQUE performance at East West Bank, Pasadena, Calif
A MUSE/IQUE performance at East West Bank, Pasadena, Calif.
"It’s wonderful to bring people to a place and have them feel slightly out of their comfort zone, because it, right away, causes them to sit up and look around in a new way."

- Rachael Worby

“We’re always performing in new and unexplored places, whether it’s locker rooms, libraries, factory floors, or ice-skating rinks,” says Rachael Worby, artistic director, world-renowned conductor and founder of MUSE/IQUE. “Places that the community knows about because it’s a space that’s a part of where they live, but not necessarily a space to which they gravitate naturally… It’s wonderful to bring people to a place and have them feel slightly out of their comfort zone, because it, right away, causes them to sit up and look around in a new way.”

One example of uniting art with unusual community spaces is “GIRL/BAND,” a 2013 program centered on female jazz musicians. The program included a screening of “The Girls in the Band,” a documentary film about the trials women faced in the jazz industry from the 1930s to present day, and performances by contemporary female jazz players; all of this was held beside the lipstick-laden conveyer belts of the Avon Distribution Center in East Pasadena, Calif. The Avon factory workers, who attended and also volunteered at the event, were also honored during the program. “Sometimes we look for a community that is resonant, literally, with the idea,” says Worby. “[Avon] is a cosmetics company, but its slogan is ‘The Company for Women.’” By bringing together two seemingly disparate things, MUSE/IQUE makes people think more deeply about the music they are hearing and overturn preconceptions, whether about the music itself or the environment around them.

“The world is a brand-new place,” continues Worby. “It’s so important for all of us to encounter one another, in situations where we all feel safe and relaxed and happy. We wanted to create artistic events which spoke more to what we know the world to be today, than what the world has been. We were inspired by the idea that art can help people redefine community,” she says.

“Our live fine arts field—the field that we are a part of—is reaching only about 6 to 8 percent of the population as a whole,” adds Brian Colburn, MUSE/IQUE’s executive director. “I think Rachael had this vision that everybody belongs, and so, in a MUSE/IQUE event, it’s not in a traditional concert hall—it’s out in the community. It belongs to the community.”

Deepening community ties

MUSE/IQUE’s purpose boils down to deepening people’s connections within a community, to prevent people from becoming complacent in their routines, whether that involves attending a musical event or person-to-person interactions. What MUSE/IQUE does is encourage people to engage more with each other and develop more meaningful understandings of one another. Although MUSE/IQUE events are ticketed, the organization offers deeply discounted or free tickets for students, community groups and event volunteers. They also produce a series titled “FREE/FOR ALL,” where they put on two, free live music events in conjunction with ArtNight Pasadena, all with the goal of bringing together all members of the community.

"Live music is a basic human right."

- Rachael Worby

 The audience looks on as MUSE/IQUE musicians play on stage
The enraptured audience looks on as MUSE/IQUE musicians play on stage

“We don’t produce in places, per se, we produce in communities,” says Colburn. “So when we go to Caltech for “Summer of Sound”—that’s a community. So the whole community—the scientists, the students, the staff—they all participate in putting the show together.” And MUSE/IQUE also serves as a connection between the Caltech and general Pasadena communities. Colburn adds, “People say to me over and over again, ‘I never thought I was allowed to walk onto the campus of Caltech, and now I love it and know it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world!’”

MUSE/IQUE makes a point to collaborate with and integrate the community into each program. Dr. Charles Elachi, former director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and professor emeritus of electrical engineering and planetary science at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), admires Worby and MUSE/IQUE’s collaborative efforts. “Rachael has a unique talent of bringing together art, music and science,” says Elachi. “At a number of events, she brings scientists, and they actually participate in the program. She has also come a number of times to JPL and tried to learn more about our science and what we do, so she can incorporate some of it into her program.”

Elachi states that Worby even integrates those scientists into her program, where the audience learns about the scientists’ research in a way that is integrated perfectly with the musical program. “[The audience] hears the music, but also hears from the scientists—in a very artistic way—about the research they have been doing,” he says.

Despite the culturally and scientifically dense programs, part of MUSE/IQUE’s appeal is that its shows can be understood and appreciated by everyone. “Rachael doesn’t dumb down the curation,” says Colburn. “It’s still the same show that it would be if it was in Carnegie Hall, but it feels completely opened up to everybody—so that’s the thing, the bridge-building aspect of how we produce events.”

The MUSE/IQUE effect

Talk to anyone who has attended a MUSE/IQUE event and they are likely to say the same thing: what makes MUSE/IQUE events so special is the energy and sense of fellowship—and Worby’s spirited conducting style. “I’m not sure if you’ve seen her conducting—she’s like a ball of fire,” says Elachi. “People come out so inspired from one of her events.”

Rachael Worby conducting a MUSE/IQUE event
Rachael Worby exuberantly conducting a MUSE/IQUE event
" When I go to MUSE/IQUE concerts, I come out very inspired and very upbeat."

- Dr. Charles Elachi

The events also leave a positive impact on the people participating in it and influences how people see or engage with the world. “One thing I always say—scientists are artists,” says Elachi. “When you listen to music, if you are a scientist, you immediately think of the frequencies and the spectrum, because there is a lot of relationship between music and science. Seeing music played on campus at a leading institution, it really brings the two together. When I go to MUSE/IQUE concerts, I come out very inspired and very upbeat.”

Impacting people’s lives

At its heart, MUSE/IQUE aims to bring live music to every nook-and-cranny of the community. “We imagined, to the best of our ability, what community meant person-by-person,” says Worby. “For our definition, it was going to mean everybody. Live music is a basic human right. Whether or not you’re a homeless person or a battered person, or you’re a person of great wealth or a person of struggling means, you deserve to have great live music in your life.”

"We don’t produce in places—we produce in communities."

- Brian Colburn

 A MUSE/IQUE event taking place at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium
A MUSE/IQUE event taking place at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium

“MUSE/IQUE does great work helping underserved communities,” says Emily Wang, senior vice president and director of marketing at East West Bank who will be serving on MUSE/IQUE’s board of directors. “And they do it in a unique an innovative way—they are unlike any other organization we’ve ever worked with. Through our partnership with MUSE/IQUE, we hope that we can help them create a sustainable business model so they can continue doing great work, and help broaden and deepen MUSE/IQUE’s community reach.”

One of MUSE/IQUE’s main programs is “KIDS/IQUE,” a musical immersion program for foster and at-risk children. It began with Worby, who started going to residential foster-care facilities to fulfill her mission of providing live music for everyone, often bringing with her MUSE/IQUE musicians to provide the kids a full musical education and experience. Eventually, as Worby’s visits grew in popularity, it was officially integrated into the MUSE/IQUE curriculum.

“We have about a dozen partners,” says Colburn. “We have four who we call our core-curriculum partners—we’re there every month. So 48 visits a year, we’re there with Rachael and the artists. After the visits, usually the kids will come to the show, they’ll get the backstage experience, and they’ll already know the artists. They’re equalized in the experience.”

Along with making these children feel like a part of the community, the KIDS/IQUE programs also helps them deal with any traumas they might experience in their lives. “The population that we work with is a group that is pretty needy,” says Joe Costa, CEO of Hillsides, an organization that provides care and treatment services for at-risk children and families and with which MUSE/IQUE has a long-standing partnership. “They’re with us because they’ve experienced some significant trauma in their lives, so they tend to be very vulnerable. Music has such a visceral impact on the lives of kids—it doesn’t have to be translated, it just is. For these kids, who have experienced such trauma, opening that door wider and helping them to appreciate various forms of music—but more importantly to express what they might be feeling—it has tremendous value.”

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