Nocturne arts festival re-animates campus with live music, vibrant exhibitions
For one night a year, Middlebury’s lights don’t shut off at 8 p.m.; its doors don’t close, leaving students without late-night meals or public hangout spots. Instead, each May, when night descends on campus, Middlebury becomes home to a new set of sounds and sights: projectors whirring, arms and legs flowing gracefully in improvisational dance, electric guitars roaring from their amps, neon spotlights casting shadows on the sides of dorms. For one night a year, Nocturne lays claim to campus.
Now, in its fourth-ish iteration — ‘ish’ because last year’s festival was canceled — Nocturne’s arts festival hosted nearly a hundred projects spread across campus. Exhibitions ranged from screen printing T-shirts and interpretive dances to films projected against the walls of Painter Hall and Mead Chapel and poems hung from tree limbs. Yet Nocturne’s most inventive projects are often its most difficult to describe. Walking around campus, students were greeted by an oceanscape of crocheted marine life, a bulletin board filled with glow-in-the-dark tacks marking “Places We’ve Cried on Campus” and a collection of cowboys playing country music beside a fire.
This year, it was the live performances that drew the largest crowds. What felt like well over a hundred students gathered around the Gifford Hall Gampitheatre to hear Will Koch ’21 and Jordan Ramos ’22.5 blast covers of Jimmy Hendrix and The Beatles, as well as an array of original songs. “I was genuinely so surprised,” Ramos said. “We were still setting up and people I’ve never seen before were sitting down.”
Equally large crowds formed around performances by student band BevCo and the a cappella group The Bobolinks, as well as the nearby paint-infused dance performance “Making Purple.” The night’s climactic final performance on the Mead Chapel hill also drew an audience; spectators gathered at the base of the hill to watch red-clad dancers improvise behind the band Croc Tears.
The air crackled with an unmistakable intensity, both from the music blaring from the speakers but also from the energy of the audience. “The mood that Nocturne brought to Middlebury was the ultimate light at the end of the tunnel,” Ramos said. “There’s an appreciation that wasn’t there before.”
“It’s people living, experiencing normalcy and reveling in it,” Justin Celebi ’22 wrote in his Nocturne project “My Writing, Your Catharsis.” “These people, the ones making the music and the ones taking it in, are coming back to something they’ve been missing for a long time.”
Nocturne felt for many like the first glimpse of normalcy in a year that was anything but. “I love that people were saying that,” said Nocturne President Maia Sauer ’22. “In any other year, Nocturne is the strangest, most abnormal night of people’s semester.”
The festival had an unprecedented capacity to draw students out of their dorms and into the open air. Because of Covid-19 regulations, Nocturne took place solely outside, making use of lawns, patios, sidewalks and tents due to the necessity to spread out gatherings.
While traditionally much of the festival’s layout is dependent on the availability and usage of multiple locations, this year’s Nocturne had the added burden of Covid safety precautions. “Thinking about future years, I’m curious about the mostly outdoor format because you encounter the festival whether you plan on going or not. There’s something beautiful about that,” Sauer said.
Nocturne organizers were especially wary of the crowds that gathered around live performances, being certain to ask performers about their setlist ahead of time. “[We had to ask] questions like ‘What kind of music are you going to play? Is it going to make people dance?’” founding Nocturne organizer Sam Kann ’21 said. “We can’t have people dance.”
And while so much of this year’s Nocturne felt unusual, some moments struck a familiar chord. “Two things felt like a return to normal: a feeling of having so much to do — so much to see — and also seeing so many people I don’t know,” Kann said.
Saturday night was a reaffirmation of the club’s origin. Founded in the fall of 2017 by Miguel Castillo ’18, Nocturne is a place for unification. “Nocturne was founded in a time where we were very much feeling the impact of Charles Murray’s spring 2017 visit on campus and Donald Trump’s election, a time of campus and national feelings of separation and division, a sense of lack of mutual care,” Kann said in her recent Spring Student Symposium presentation “Nocturne: Community Through Loose Organization, Reimagined Space, and Joyful Experimentation.”
Nocturne continues to be one of the most memorable and magical traditions Middlebury holds. Perhaps it is its intentional spontaneity, how the festival is designed to promote waywardness and exploration; perhaps it is their acceptance of all projects, which allows for students who wouldn’t normally consider themselves artists to be uniquely creative; or perhaps it is their identity as a markedly non-administrative organization that is made by and for students.
No matter the reason, Nocturne has solidified its position as Middlebury’s premiere arts event and has brought back energy to a campus that desperately misses it.