Texas Tech University

The Elegant Savages

Lucy Greenberg

August 29, 2022

Texas Tech’s most peculiar student ensemble is open to music majors and non-music majors alike – but an active imagination is a must.

If you walk into the School of Music at Texas Tech University on a given day, you'll hear a variety of instruments moving through scales, singers practicing arias or percussionists perfecting a beat.

Elegant Savages
Photo Courtesy: Tif Holmes

But if you walk into the same building on a Sunday night, you'll be met with a different sound. 

Tucked away on the basement floor will be a group of creatives – singers, musicians, dancers, re-enactors, cosplayers and artists. And upon first look, there is no box to put this ensemble into. There are music majors and engineers, and at times, knife throwers. 

In fact, one would assume you'd walked into the circus, not a musical conservatory. But this group is neither. 

They are the Elegant Savages Orchestra

The ensemble, part of the Vernacular Music Center (VMC), is led by Christopher J. Smith, a professor of music at Texas Tech, and chair of musicology.

Smith
Christopher J. Smith
Photo Courtesy: Tif Holmes

Smith is a collector of the unusual; a fact made clear the moment you step into his office. But he also collects unusual people. Or maybe, they find him.

What started in 2000 as a group of musicians learning vernacular music traditions has grown into a family of artists and storytellers.

They not only believe in a better world, but they're willing to create it. 

A place of belonging 

The VMC was started as a way for students at Texas Tech to experience the music and history that's often left out of classical conservatory education. 

“Vernacular just means music that's learned and taught primarily by ear and memory,” Smith said. “Vernacular is also a linguistic term that refers to many of the languages spoken in medieval Europe. Latin was the language of the Church, but vernacular languages were of the people. They were used to buy and sell; celebrate and mourn; sing and dance. It was the language of being human.” 

Early on, the VMC had a Celtic Ensemble of roughly ten students who played traditional Celtic instruments such as fiddle, flute and accordion. Songs were learned by ear, and it was easy to select music due to the small number of instruments represented. 

Then, in 2014 something curious happened. 

“For some reason, and I'm still not sure what it was, more and more students became interested in joining the ensemble,” Smith said. “The thing was many of them didn't play traditional Celtic instruments. They were brass players or percussionists. We had cellists instead of fiddle players – even electric guitarists.” 

Smith didn't want to turn them away just because they didn't fit the mold. 

“Early in my career, I committed to inclusion, no matter what,” Smith said. “We talk a lot about diversity, equity and inclusion in musical spaces. But a lot of that is focused on repertoire and curriculum. And those are good, important things. But we don't always talk about inclusivity within the way we shape musical ensembles.” 

Smith wanted to create an ensemble that would eliminate exclusion.

“I encountered vernacular music for the first time when I was 11 years old,” Smith said. “I grew up in New England in the early 1970s and there were always people playing in coffeehouses, many who were part of the folk revival of the 1960s. I saw these people playing and the way they behaved around one another was different. It was special.”

Smith's father struggled with alcohol and depression and, while able to hold down a day job, was a deeply unhappy man. 

“My parents split up when I was 12, which was around the same time that I was discovering these musical communities,” Smith said. “I wouldn't say I was looking for music to provide me family, but I found it there, nonetheless. 

Smith realized the family you choose can be more supportive than the one you're born into. It's a truth he's carried with him into his work with students.

Making new arrangements 

Faced with the artistic conundrum of what to do with so many musicians, Smith created what is now known as the Elegant Savages Orchestra. 

“If I had required students to learn a Celtic instrument or audition for the group, it would have ceased to be inclusive,” Smith said. 

To truly be a vernacular music group, it had to be of the people.

“So, I started scoring music for a group that could be a middle ground of sorts – folklore meets classical.” 

Smith took themes from folkloric music and arranged for a full orchestra of brass, winds, strings, percussion and vocalists. Whether someone plays the bongo or bassoon, Smith will create a part and the ensemble will create space. 

As the ensemble grew and took on its new name, Smith took another imaginative leap. 

“We had this group that was so atypical. It really shouldn't have worked, but it did. So, I thought, what if we took this one step further and created a mythical world for this ensemble to exist in? We already didn't fit in, so what if instead of fighting it, we leaned into it?” 

And thus, the world of Bassanda was created. 

“Bassanda is a fictional multiverse (think Marvel or Dungeon & Dragons) that was originally created by my colleagues Roger Landes and Chipper Thompson for an album they released, but I liked the idea so much, I asked if I could build onto it,” Smith said. 

Everything snowballed from there. 

“There are a handful of other vernacular music groups in universities throughout the world, but as far as I know, Texas Tech is the only place where students can play in an ensemble within a mythical world. 

As part of the multiverse, ensemble members are given the option to have a Bassanda character.

“Not all students want one, but many do, and it's become a big part of what we do as a group,” Smith said. 

If a student is interested, they provide Smith with whatever information they want to share. This has included ancestry, ethnicity, interests, zodiac signs and unusual skills. Some students even include their pets in the world of Bassanda. Smith then creates a biography for their character. But he goes a step further. 

“These may be fictional characters, but everything that happens to them in Bassanda ties back into history in some way,” Smith said. “Bassanda is another dimension of our universe. The Cold War still happened, the Titanic still sank, men first walked the moon in 1969.” 

The students' stories weave in and out of the fictional world and the real world.

“We're a bit like cosplayers or Civil War reenactors, but we make music,” Smith said. 

While the bios and costumes create an extra dimension of thrill for the students, Bassanda's purpose is more than just having fun. 

A better world

“While Bassanda doesn't actually exist, this is what we imagine the world could be like,” Smith said. “And you have to imagine a better world before you can create a better world.” 

Much like we forget our troubles by stepping into the world of Hogwarts or Middle Earth, Texas Tech students have found a safe haven in Bassanda. 

Kaity Swecker
Kaity Swecker

Kaity Swecker is a graduate student at Texas Tech earning their master's in marriage and family therapy in the College of Human Sciences, but they joined the Elegant Savages as an undergraduate. 

“I took Smith's cultural history course as an elective,” Swecker said. “He talked a bit about the ensemble in class and I thought it sounded intriguing. I was originally going to join as a flautist since I had played growing up, but when I learned that the ensemble had singers and dancers, I decided to do that instead.” 

Swecker is from a small town called Bronte, located in central Texas and was excited to come to Texas Tech, but the transition was not an easy one. 

“When I started college, I realized I was part of the LGBTQA+ community,” Swecker said. “It was a lot to process both mentally and emotionally. 

“When I joined the Elegant Savages, I finally found a place I could be myself. Through the Bassanda character created for me, I've had a safe way to represent how I see myself. Things that might feel scary for me were less scary for Rihanna, which is my Bassanda persona.” 

Swecker read an excerpt from the bio that Smith wrote for them: 

Hers was a quiet bookish presence, but one who became almost transported when they danced,” Swecker read. 

“That's my favorite part,” Swecker admitted. When I first read it, I thought, ‘That's how someone sees me?'

“My character is representative of how I see my soul,” Swecker said. “I, myself, am a very small person, but I've always felt strong mentally. Rihanna is the person I see inside myself.”

And somehow, Smith saw it too. 

Swecker hopes to be able to incorporate dance therapy into their practice as a therapist one day. 

“I've always known I wanted to help people,” Swecker said. “Our choreographer, Ann Wharton, and I were talking once, and she mentioned dance therapy. The idea sparked my interest and that's why I'm studying to be a therapist now.

“Therapists need to be as open minded and safe as possible,” Swecker said. “The safety I feel to be myself in Bassanda is something I will carry with me. Bassanda isn't just this place we talk about for a few hours on Sunday nights. It's a way of being that we take with us wherever we go. 

Marusia Pola Mayorga
Marusia Pola Mayorga

Marusia Pola Mayorga was another student who found a home in Bassanda.

“I came to Texas Tech in 2014 to earn my master's in musicology,” Mayorga said. “As a queer, brown woman from Mexico, it was a tense time to be in the U.S. and I often felt like an outsider.” 

From having problems with immigration when she flew in, to being scared to hold her girlfriend's hand in public, Mayorga often felt like an outcast.

“Joining the Elegant Savages was a watershed moment for me,” Mayorga said. “As a musicologist, I don't always feel like I fit into the musicology scene. My research has been focused on queer music and musicians in Latin America, which is not common at all. I study how the queer community impacts traditional Latin music and the problems of sexism we see in our musical culture.” 

Mayorga is from Chiapas, a state in the south of Mexico.

“We have a problem of representation in Mexico,” Mayorga said. “In the Anglo world, there have been significant strides in wider representation. Universities in America have archives, conferences and studies about representation in music. Mexico doesn't have anything like that.

To help change this, Mayorga is now currently earning her doctorate in musicology from the National University of Mexico.

“I loved Texas Tech and was glad to earn my master's degree there. It was hard to leave because of the relationships I built there, but ultimately, the problems I want to solve are back here in Mexico, so I needed to finish my academic training locally,” Mayorga said. 

As she set her sights on Mexico, Smith made an offer that shocked her. 

“Smith and some of my colleagues from Texas Tech traveled all the way to Chiapas to host a workshop,” Mayorga said. “It was awesome. Smith talked a lot about Bassanda and worked with graduate students here. They were mesmerized. That level of artistic expression and research is very novel in Chiapas.”

Playing cello with the Elegant Savages was more than just an artistic outlet for Mayorga. 

“This idea of Bassanda actually helped me form the framework of my thesis, and now, my dissertation,” Mayorga said. “My research focuses on misunderstood people in these middle spaces – almost liminal spaces if you will. They're not the radical few but they're not the normal majority either. 

“In the way students find a sense of belonging in Bassanda, that's what I want queer musicians to be able to feel in Latin America,” Mayorga said. “Many of our most talented and brightest citizens move to pursue careers in the U.S. or Canada because they simply don't feel there is space for them here. I want to stay and change that.” 

Jakob Reynolds
Jakob Reynolds
Photo Courtesy: Tif Holmes

Jakob Reynolds is a prosecutor in El Paso, but his roots are in Bassanda. 

“I met Dr. Smith in 2000 when I was a kid growing up in Lubbock,” Reynolds said. “My parents took me to watch a concert Dr. Smith was conducting. I was already a violinist, but I'd never been exposed to music like that.” 

Reynolds was hooked. 

“I would jump in and play trad tunes with Dr. Smith and his ensemble when I wasn't at school,” Reynolds said. “It was a great time to grow up in Lubbock because prior to that, if you wanted any kind of international artistic experience, especially a musical experience, it would have been harder to find.” 

According to Reynolds, Smith has brought the world to Lubbock's doorstep. 

“I had the opportunity to play with the Lubbock Youth Symphony Orchestra and marched for my high school band but playing with the VMC opened this whole world to me as a musician.”

For many students, the world of classical music is easy to burn out on. 

“At a certain point, everything feels like a competition,” Reynolds said. “Even into my time as an undergraduate in the School of Music, you could get wrapped up in auditions and it could become very stressful. For me, playing with the VMC made music fun again.”

After obtaining both his bachelor's and master's degrees from Texas Tech's School of Music, Reynolds came to a crossroads. 

“I got my master's in musicology, and the road most traveled from that point is working in academics,” Reynolds said. 

But he was not so sure. 

“At that point, I was really interested in community arts and engagement, which soon evolved into a passion for community advocacy.”

Reynolds had dabbled in nonprofit management courses during his master's degree, but in the back of his mind, there was another dream. 

“I realized the impact I wanted to make would only be possible by going to law school,” Reynolds said. 

Texas Tech's School of Music and School of Law are as far away from one another on campus as they are in field of study. 

Essentially starting fresh, Reynolds applied and was accepted into the School of Law in 2018. Up until that point, Reynolds had still been playing with the Elegant Savages. While he stepped away to start law school, he attributes much of where he is today to Dr. Smith and his fellow musicians. 

“Dr. Smith was a mentor to me very early in life,” Reynolds recounted. “So, it's hard to even know where his influence started and ended.

“Being part of the VMC and later, the Elegant Savages, was a safe space. I grew up in this group, so even though the people came and went, the purpose remained the same – to determine who you are as a human and a musician, and to build values such as community and self-expression.”

Now a state prosecutor, Reynolds may not be playing the fiddle, but Dr. Smith's fierce advocacy is still a tune reverberating through Reynold's mind. 

“As a prosecutor, you need to value people and have compassion for them,” Reynolds said. “You must be able to listen to other people and examine things from other perspectives. I'm not organizing music for the First Friday Art Trail anymore; I'm making decisions about whether people are going to lose money or liberty.

Being a part of the Elegant Savages helped Reynolds think about the world he wants to live in.

“That's the whole point of Bassanda, right? Not just dreaming of a better world but going out and creating it. It must translate beyond the musical ensemble, and I think it does. For me, I want to live in a world where addicts go to rehab, not to prison. A world where veterans get help if they're reassimilating poorly, not punished. I'm more empowered to make those things happen because I was part of the Elegant Savages.” 

A world for all  

Elegant Savages
Photo Courtesy: Tif Holmes

Perhaps the popularity of the Elegant Savages lies in its distinct difference from the world around it. Despite the friendly can-do spirit found at Texas Tech, the world is still a hard and daunting place, a truth felt by students trying to find their way and make their mark on the world. 

“As undergraduates, most students come to college from secondary school environments that reward conformity and acceptance,” said Genevieve Durham DeCesaro, former interim dean of the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College for Visual & Performing Arts

“These systems do not reward risk,” Durham DeCesaro said. “Dr. Smith, with the creation of the Bassanda universe, has planted, cultivated and curated spaces in which students can learn, with expert guidance, what they are capable of. Students who engage with Bassanda step into a culture that is transformative, and none of that is the result of chance or luck.”

Transformation does happen creatively, but even more so, personally.

“Being in the Elegant Savages has been a powerful part of my life” Swecker said. “It's given me a foundation to rebuild myself. If you'd met me five years ago you wouldn't recognize me. This ensemble changed my life, and only for the better.”

Perhaps the ensemble says it best themselves. 

When asked about who they are, they wrote the following. 

“We are historians and storytellers, authors and actors and artists. Most importantly, we are friends. Anyone can become a friend of Bassanda: like all human experience of any value, it is a product of effort, imagination, and love. And the greatest is love.

Welcome to our world.”