Marika Hughes ’85 is a professional cellist, singer and a sometime storyteller on The Moth. Music and performance has always been integral part of Marika’s life. Aside from attending regular violin and cello lessons from the time she could hold a bow, her maternal grandfather was the great cellist Emanuel Feuermann, and her parents owned a jazz club, Burgundy, on the Upper West Side when she was growing up. As children, she and her younger brother Nico ’88 were regulars on Sesame Street and practiced/studied music every day while attending Manhattan Country School, even during farm trips. After MCS, Marika attended Horace Mann and went on to complete a double degree program at Barnard College and the Juilliard School, graduating with BAs in political science and cello performance, respectively.
Although trained to play classical music, Marika has worked with a wide range of artists and musical genres including Whitney Houston, Lou Reed, Anthony Braxton, David Byrne, Adele, Henry Threadgill, D’Angelo, Idina Menzel, Nels Cline and Taylor Mac, among others. She was a founding member of the Bay Area-based bands 2 Foot Yard and Red Pocket. She is a master teacher and director for Young Arts, a teacher at The Heifetz Institute and a teaching- artist at Carnegie Hall’s Lullaby Project. Marika has self-released three albums: The Simplest Thing (2011), Afterlife Music Radio (2011) and New York Nostalgia (2016). She happily leads her bands Bottom Heavy and The New String Quartet and is the cellist in the Tony award-winning show Hadestown on Broadway.
Recently, Marika founded Looking Glass Arts, a nascent arts center offering creative residencies to artists and activists and youth education programs on a sliding-scale in Schoharie County, NY. Marika lives in Kings County, Brooklyn. Q: How and to what extent did your MCS experience and education impact your life after MCS?
MH: I can see how it’s impacted me in different ways in different eras of my life…Most importantly, I think if I had to distill MCS down to one thing, it’s the idea of consideration - the idea that we all have a responsibility to each other which means we have to consider one another. That idea has had an impact on every stage of my life. From simple, simple things like learning not to talk over people…truly this understanding that we can take care of one other, that we should look out for each other, and the humanity in that idea has shaped my life. I haven’t always been successful, goodness knows. But I do find now that I’m passing into the second half of my life and that foundation (that MCS provided) is clearer and clearer to me.
Recently, I’ve been working with this theater artist named Taylor Mac. We’ve toured all over the world. He’s a MacArthur Genius fellow who created a 24-hour show. It’s 24 decades of American History through song. We normally do it in 6- hour chunks. It’s incredible and takes a million people to do. Taylor’s a white queer man from Stockton California, a theater artist and a writer. This show is his take on American history. He begins each performance – wherever we are in the world – the same way…with an apology. He invites an elder from the community indigenous to the land we are standing on to take the stage, he acknowledges that the people in his ancestry probably have a lot to do with the people in that elder’s ancestry. He then offers this person an opportunity to speak. I think it’s a beautiful way to begin telling American history to the world. He also acknowledges the audience and tells them “You may not like this; you don’t have to like it. What’s important is that you consider it.”
So I feel like MCS gave us an understanding that we should consider the person we are sitting next to - consider their background, their feelings, their process. Consider their humanity so we can try at the very least to do something together and find common ground.
Q: Were there particular experiences, events or pieces of curriculum that you remember as a student that resonated with you afterwards?
MH: I think the Farm program had a bigger impact on me than I realized which is funny since cement is my natural habitat. I was always uncomfortable at the Farm. I didn’t like the chicken coop. I didn’t like touching lots of stuff. I was always complaining.
But there must’ve been something there for me. Because I find myself now with this land upstate and a barn where I’m creating a social justice arts program with a slant toward sustainable agriculture. I can only imagine that the MCS Farm program had something to do with planting those seeds in me. I never had a relationship to nature before I went to the MCS Farm. Something about the farm, that landscape and the possibility I felt impacted me. I think my own discomfort in that environment forced me to get to know something that I otherwise wouldn’t have known. I think good change can come from discomfort. Revolution doesn’t come because people are comfortable.
I also think that Clint and all the singing impacted me. I sing a lot in my life. I loved singing at MCS. I teach some of the songs that Clint taught us now. When I walk into a room full of classical students. I make them stomp and clamp and sing freedom songs. I make these kids sing these songs and I probably make them feel terribly uncomfortable. I hope that they find possibility in that discomfort. Q: From your perspective today, what do you think is most valuable about MCS’ mission/ program?
MH: I think it’s really important to teach kids at a very young age about social justice and human dignity and rights, about humanity. I find a lot of friends of mine who have kids don’t know how to talk to their kids about police brutality. It’s very frustrating to watch – how do their kids not know about race or justice or history? There’s a fear that some people have, that you’re doing something bad to teach kids about these things. I think MCS’ ability to teach social justice and to incorporate justice and true American history into curriculum from 4-5s on is so important.
Touring as a musician all over the world and, more recently, across the United States which is new to me, I realize that I didn’t know much about this country...In a lot of places in this country, there is no integration. For people to live in such segregated ways is very dangerous to humanity and to our evolution as human beings I think. At MCS, we’re given an opportunity – it’s more like a privilege really. No matter what your financial background it is a privilege to go to a school like MCS where we’re given an opportunity to learn about each other – to make us stronger, not to separate ourselves.
For example, now I spend half my life upstate where it’s rural, it’s white, it’s Republican and it’s farmland. I’m going up there as an artist and a musician and I’m like “Take a violin lesson. Change your life!” But they don’t care about violin lessons. They tell me “This used to be a dairy farm.” And I suddenly realize that I’m the person up there (upstate) that I hate down here (in the city) moving in next door with no context. So I’ve had to completely re-organize my ideas about what I want to do because I have to join a community. I can’t just impose myself on it. I think MCS gave me this perspective.
Q: In terms of the work you do for a living now, are there particular way(s) that MCS prepared you for that?
I have been a working musician for twenty something years. I’ve crossed so many different worlds musically. I’ve played to nobody. I’ve played to 20,000 people. I think MCS must have something to do with my professional need to have a diversity of music and a diversity of experiences.
I was trained classically so that’s my first language. And for sure I speak with that accent in everything I do. But I think my need to have a diversified and varied musical life probably can be traced to MCS being the kind of environment that valued variations of all of us...Like I just came back from directing a group of presidential scholars in the arts at the Kennedy Center and then I went and rehearsed with an Indian band (Brooklyn Raga Massive) I play in for five days in an artist residency. I love that I get to do that.
In the last 3 years, the kinds of work that I’ve done that is most consistent and the people I’m working with most regularly all have a similar mission and intention as MCS. Taylor Mac is one of those people. Every production he works on, everyone is represented. Everyone feels valued and beautiful. Everybody matters. Everybody gets paid the same. I think the show I’m working on now - Hadestown -- and the director, Rachel Chavkin who wrote it, have a similar intention. It’s a purposefully integrated cast. It matters to her. I find that as I get older, I value where the people I’m working with are coming from.
I also find myself working more and more in theater which is a beautiful example of all the things that MCS teaches us. It’s democracy at its best. Everybody’s job matters. It doesn’t matter if the star can sing her ass off if her prop is not where it’s supposed to be. This is true for every role in a theater production. The patience of everyone involved is beautiful.
Everybody I know or have met over that past 40 years knows about MCS. People are always amazed that I’m so engaged with my elementary school. I know how special and unusual that is, how lucky we are. I go on tour and I often see people from MCS and I realize what we share is so special. We all have a value system that’s at the core of us. No matter who we live with or how we live or what we do, that never seems to go away. It bonds us in this way. I wish more people had a relationship so beautiful and meaningful and formative as children. We’re all better for it for sure.