The Albany Museum of Art exhibition Steve Hinton & Friends … From the Beginning presents an overview of the popular Albany artist’s long career along with works by his friends. One of those contributors, Atlanta violinist and composer Chip Epsten, who will be in concert in Albany next month, had a friendship with Hinton that went back further than most.
“We got to be friends in kindergarten,” Epsten said. “He lived two blocks from me (in Atlanta), so we’d walk to each other’s house.”
Epsten is a member of the Artifactual String Unit, a trio that also features the talents of cellist Benjamin Shirley and bassist Gabriel Monticello. They will perform a free concert at 4 pm on Saturday, June 10 at the future home of the Albany Museum of Art, the former Belk building at 140 W. Broad Ave. The concert is connected with the AMA exhibition that continues through Aug 12.
Hinton and Epsten were good friends until age 12 when Hinton’s family moved from Atlanta to Tampa, Fla. They stayed in touch for a while, but gradually lost track of each other until the mid-1990s when Epsten began performing with the Albany Symphony Orchestra. “We picked up where we left off,” he said. “It really did seem like we were still old buddies who had just missed a few years.”
That renewed friendship continued until Hinton’s passing in 2021. “I’m thankful for the 20 years or so that we got to be friends again before he died at a way-too-early age,” Epsten said.
While Epsten does not play with symphonies these days, he said his colleagues Shirley and Monticello do. “I’m looking forward to coming back down. It’s been about a year since I’ve been to Albany,” he said. “I’ll get to see what’s going on with the new museum space. Steve was so involved with the museum.”
He said he also is looking forward to performing in the Belk building, the interior of which has been opened to the wall studs in preparation for future construction work. “Those open, raw spaces are great to perform in,” he said.
Artifactual String Unit infuses the sonic residues of a classical trio with the elemental feeling of a garage band to create a unique musical experience. The musicians bring their expertise from years of performing in concert halls, theaters, clubs, and galleries to bear with their love for improvisation, expanding the possibilities for string music.
Epsten said the trio plans to have a visual presentation to accompany its hour-long performance. Describing their music, he said, “We kind of dig into cultural artifacts. It’s not just music. We like to dig into the odd corners of various cultures.”
The trio formed around 2014 when Epsten, Shirley, and Monticello met at an improv session at the Eyedrum, an experimental space for performance and visual arts in Atlanta. “I thought, ‘These guys are cool. We should do something with strings,’” Epsten said.
The trio’s name, meanwhile, has its genesis in a Mendelssohn concert of the Albany Symphony. “There was one, little melodic riff in the second violin part that I liked,” Epsten said. He wrote mini-songs from it that he called artifacts. “That’s kind of where it came from,” he said.
Noting that there is a great deal of music written for trios of viola, violin, and cello, Epsten said he originally wanted to add a bass to that group to form an unconventional string quartet instead of the usual chamber quartet that features two violins, a viola, and a cello.
“I thought that would be interesting, but a violist didn’t just appear out of the woodwork and we just stayed with the trio, which is really an agile musical form,” Epsten said. “You can improvise all together and it doesn’t get cluttered. Everybody can find a role in improvisation.”
Improv plays a big part in the Artifactual String Unit’s performances, he said. “We write things and read from notated charts, but we also improvise,” he said. “I’d say it’s a mash-up of classical and improvisational technique derived from popular culture.”
The three musicians are trained in classical music, but they also have played rock, jazz, and other genres. Epsten has performed klezmer music for three decades, and has written music for dance and theater companies.
“We bring everything that we’ve experienced musically in our lives,” he said. “And it’s all original music. We write it all.”
Anyone who would like to hear some of Epsten’s work can listen to his composition Pencil Boxes in the Hodges Gallery re-creation of Hinton’s home studio. It is included in a video loop of music, spoken word, stop-action animation, and dramatic works by creative friends of Hinton that plays continuously during museum hours, 10 am-5 pm Tuesdays-Saturdays. Museum admission is free for everyone.
Epsten’s Pencil Boxes was recorded for the Deluxe Vaudeville Orchestra for its CD Something Up Our Sleeve but was never performed by the group. The Deluxe Vaudeville Orchestra performed twice in Albany during its 11-year existence—once at a public festival and once at a private party decorated by Hinton.
There is no cost to attend the Artifactual String Unit’s June 10 concert in Albany, but those who plan to attend are asked to register online so that adequate seating will be available. A registration link may be found at www.albanymuseum.com/ama_programs/artifactual-string-unit-in-concert/. There also is a registration link on the AMA Facebook page.