On a Tuesday night in July, in a Harvard Street NW rowhouse that looked like any other, Charlie Nilles hoisted his 35-pound bass over a sea of people chatting and drinking wine on the staircase, filling the living room and spilling into the kitchen and foyer.
Nilles gingerly set the instrument down next to Mark Evans’ cello. All heads turned toward the string musicians, both members of the National Symphony Orchestra and a smaller ensemble, the LeDroit Chamber Players. They picked up their bows and glided into “Duo,” a piece they’d transcribed for cello and bass. The room fell silent. The wine-drinking paused. There was no icy glow from a cell phone. The entire crowd was mesmerized by the musicians, close enough to touch, serenading them in the middle of a Columbia Heights row house.
This is the magic of Little Salon.
Conceived by fiction writer Chris Maier (below), Little Salon brings high-quality art to informal settings, with no ticket prices or exclusive invitations. Next month, the event will celebrate its first anniversary of monthly gatherings in D.C. residences.
At the July show, the “stage” between the fireplace and makeshift wine bar featured poetry, another piece by the LeDroit Chamber Players (this time, a Béla Fleck song originally composed for banjo), and short fiction.
“A lot of us arrive at genres of art with preconceptions of what that art is supposed to be, and how accessible it’s supposed to be, and who it’s supposed to be made for,” Maier said. “If we can challenge those things, and do it in a fun, conversational, unpretentious space…it’s good for everyone.”
The art on display at Little Salon is the ostensible focus, but as members of D.C.’s disparate creative communities come together, the interactions between salongoers are equally compelling. The baseline of conversation is “what’s your creative outlet?” rather than “what’s your 9 to 5?”
Little Salon was born when Maier and NSO head oboist Jamie Roberts agreed to bring their respective art forms into unconventional settings. Maier’s idea for a literary salon and Roberts’ idea for a classical-music house party fused, and the first Little Salon was held in Roberts’ place. They didn’t expect a large crowd—somewhere between no one and a few of their friends.
“The next thing we knew, about 60 people came and crammed into her apartment, which isn’t the largest place in the world,” Maier said. “And we realized we were onto something. You have people showing up who would normally think classical music is boring, and instead they realize how incredible it is, how technical it is, how amazing these performers are. And at the same time, you have people show up who are mesmerized by classical music but would never in a zillion years go to a poetry reading in there watching this guy, Tony Mankus.”
In the past year, Little Salon has grown from a more insular gathering of Maier’s friends (sometimes coerced into coming) to an event that requires an Eventbrite page and regularly runs out of free tickets.
Maier sees a critical lack of exhibition and performance spaces for artists that have limited resources or name recognition. “You start to see this DIY scene that’s rising up because there’s an absence of other options for us to call our own,” he says. “A lot of the people who are spurring the movement are twenty-somethings who live in group houses. They may not have the money or resources to rent a gallery space, so what do you do? Let’s just empty out the living room.”
Some of the best music venues in the District are residential by day; there are an estimated 35 regular house show venues around town. (Washington City Paper mapped D.C.’s growing, changing house show scene in last year’s evaluation of modern DIY spaces.)
The District’s history of salon-style home entertainment stretches back for centuries. The Hay-Adams house across from the White House hosted Mark Twain and Henry James in the 1880s. In the 1920s, writer Georgia Douglas Johnson hosted a weekly salon on S Street NW during the Harlem Renaissance. As a female African-American poet, Johnson didn’t have access to elite publishers, so she used the salons to bring the world of high culture to her doorstep. Her list of “Saturday Nighters” included Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. Dubois, and Langston Hughes.
“These salons were a way of opening up the literary and artistic world for people often excluded from it,” says Melissa Girard, an assistant professor of English at Loyola University in Maryland. She gave a presentation about Johnson’s salon at the August Little Salon, which was hosted on nearby Swann Street. After her talk, she led a group over to the house.
“It was great, because the people who walked over were people who lived in that part of D.C., and they had no idea,” Girard says. “They had walked passed this house maybe hundreds of times, and had no idea what kind of landmark it was. It was moving.”
The salons also poke holes in the barriers between audience and performer. Some of that breakdown is purely physical: There just isn’t much space between the artists and the people watching. The performers don’t use microphones or podiums. Once they finish, they become listeners. “It’s like I’m there primarily as a guest,” says William Bert, who read one of his short stories at the July event. “And it just happens that I’m reading something.”
The first few Little Salons followed a standard format of poetry or short stories alongside classical music, plus some visual art on the walls. When I talked to Maier last summer, he was eager to expand into other art forms. “We want to introduce every kind of art we can into this space,” he said. “But…there needs to be a level of quality that sustains it and differentiates it.”
True to Maier’s intention, last month’s Little Salon featured Brian Feldman (below, a performance artist who uses Twitter as his medium), modern dance, and a bluegrass duo.
Mariana Barros (above) performed a modified version of “Sunrise,” the opening dance from her upcoming show; the boundaries of the living room didn’t leave space for jumps or leaps. “When I perform on stage, the lights shut everything out and you’re in your own space,” Barros says. “Here, the crowd and their energy came into my space. It was like they were a part of the performance. It became a more site-specific piece because I had to dance, tell the story of the room.”
During the performance, a blonde woman stood where Barros usually mentally places the sunrise as she dances. The sunrise is Barros’ visual fixation point, so she kept looking at the woman and watching her facial expression. Her reaction shaped how Barros told the story that night. Now, when Barros practices the dance, she imagines the girl and her reaction.
“She stayed with me and stayed with the story,” Barros says.
Eleven salons in, Maier is still dealing with the logistical equation of running a successful event. Little Salon has gone from being a hobby to an increasingly popular event with its own shape.
That popularity feeds off of Maier’s enthusiasm for the event. He is the eager M.C. for the evening, introducing artists with a random fact (of Barros: she enjoys eating ice cream with a fork). Before and after the performances, he floats around the room, greeting, introducing, and chatting. And outside of Little Salon, he talks about it all the time.
During an Uber ride in Chicago, he started talking about the salons with his driver. The driver, turns out, runs a theater company during the day, and loved the idea of bringing Little Salon to the Windy City. Maier has heard similar requests from people in Baltimore and Raleigh, N.C., as well.
“We’ll see if this thing is perfect for this moment in D.C. or if it could be tailor-made for other cities,” he says. He fears that exporting the idea prematurely could lower the quality associated with it. And the salons are just the first facet of a broader Little brand that Maier hopes to build. Down the line, there could be other cities, and maybe a Little Festival.
“The reason why you do this kind of thing is because there shouldn’t be any boundaries around art.” Maier says. “And creativity shouldn’t be on a leash.”
Photos by Eric Krupke