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Lincoln musician honored with statewide prize in arts

LINCOLN RESIDENT MICHAEL Chorney has left his mark on the Vermont music scene over the years as a musician, producer, composer and arranger. Chorney was recognized for his various contributions to the state’s arts community this past Saturday, when he was awarded the 2024 Herb Lockwood Prize in the Arts at a ceremony in Burlington. 
Photo by Chuck Terranova

LINCOLN — Lincoln resident Michael Chorney has spent much of his life making music. 

It was music that first brought Chorney, 63, to the Green Mountain State as a teenager hoping to start a band. He’s remained tethered to Vermont’s music scene since then, taking on projects as a musician, producer and composer; dabbling in genres from acid jazz to folk, while captivating audiences from Burlington to Broadway. 

Chorney was recognized for his manifold contributions to the state’s arts community this past Saturday, when he was awarded the 2024 Herb Lockwood Prize in the Arts during a ceremony held at the BCA Center in Burlington. 

 The prestigious award is administered by Burlington City Arts and recognizes Vermont artists who’ve produced significant work in the areas of visual arts, music, writing, drama, dance, film and fine woodworking, while encouraging fellow artists to do the same. 

“I was floored,” Chorney said of his reaction to receiving the award. “The Vermont nature of it is really evident, that paying attention to how the work extends out into the community, and I think that’s a really beautiful thing to focus on. I’m just really incredibly honored.” 

Chorney is a self-taught guitarist and saxophonist. He started playing music during his late teens and said his work as a professional artist truly began when he moved to Vermont with a group of fellow musicians in 1979. 

“We all quit college and moved to Vermont to start a band, which is such a cliché, but that’s what we did,” Chorney recalled with a laugh. 

Once in Vermont, Chorney played alongside fellow Addison County musicians Richard Ruane, Michael Corn and Ron Rost in the acoustic band “Feast or Famine.” The group released albums together and toured around the Northeast and Upper Midwest during the 1980s. 

Chorney has taken part in several other ensembles since then, leading the 11-piece, acid-jazz band “ViperHouse” during the ’90s; playing arrangements of composer Kurt Weill with the septet “Seven Deadly Sins” during the 2000s; and more recently, performing with the group “Freeway Clyde,” which specializes in “instrumental psych rock film scores for nonexistent movies,” to name a few. 

He’s written and composed original works for the various groups he’s been a part of and for solo performances, as well as collaborated with other artists as an arranger and producer. Chorney also worked as a dance program collaborator at Middlebury College. 

Perhaps his most well-known collaboration was with singer-songwriter and former New Haven resident Anais Mitchell on “Hadestown,” a folk opera based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice that premiered in Barre a decade and a half ago and has now run for five years on Broadway. For a while, Chorney played guitar for the musical’s on-stage band on Broadway. 

The musical won eight of the 14 Tony Awards for which it was nominated in 2019, with Chorney and co-orchestrator and co-arranger Todd Sickafoose earning the honor for Best Orchestration. 

His favorite part of the various projects of which he’s been part? 

“Absolutely the playing of the music,” Chorney said. “Whatever work has gone into it ahead of time, when it comes to the moment of actually being able to play, that’s what I sort of live for artistically, because if something like a ‘low state’ is available, it’s a pretty great place to be.”  

Chorney said an unceasing curiosity is what’s guided him across different genres and musical projects through the years. 

“I’ve always remained so curious. That’s why I’ve done work that could be classified as acoustic music or folk, but I’ve also played extremely experimental, improvised music,” he said. “My curiosity has led me to all of these different places.” 

WORKING WITH OTHERS

Collaboration with other artists has been another guiding force throughout Chorney’s career and one central to his work. 

“Always, always, always at the heart of it is collaboration, in the sense of making music with other musicians,” he said. 

In the past, that collaboration was more geared toward writing music to “try and realize a sound I might have in my head,” Chorney said. Since returning to Vermont from New York City at the start of the pandemic and forming Freeway Clyde, Chorney feels that a collaborative method he’s been developing over the years is now coming to fruition. 

“I write these little themes for us to work with, but the way we’ve developed playing together, we’re in our third year now, is so incredibly collaborative,” he explained. “There’s nothing really set down other than some of these simple melodies I write, which might last 30 seconds but could blossom into a 30-minute-long piece.” 

The group recently performed a set at the Plex Arts Festival in Burlington that was completely improvised, as was Freeway Clyde’s latest album. 

“A friend was listening to it with me and said, ‘This sounds composed,’ and really improvisation is just composition at a different speed,” Chorney said. 

From Freeway Clyde to the other ensembles he’s formed over the years, Chorney said he’s fallen into collaborations with other artists in different ways, sometimes just by conversing with each other about music. 

“It’s pretty easy to determine if you’re sort of on the same wavelength creatively, and when that pops up, I always try to take advantage of it because it’s a beautiful and rare thing,” he explained. 

Chorney’s work with other Vermont artists is part of why he was selected as this year’s recipient of the Herb Lockwood Prize in the Arts, which aims to recognize artists for their encouragement of, and influence on, their peers. 

“That aspect of the award is what I find really moving,” Chorney said.  

He’s found collaboration to be fundamental to his partnerships with other artists throughout his career.  

“Not only in my collaborative work with the people I’ve worked with, but through the years I’ve helped produce records for younger artists or play for them, and I never see that as mentorship, I always enter it as a collaborator, as an equal,” he said. 

The Lockwood Prize is named for Herb Lockwood, a multidisciplinary Burlington artist who died in a workplace accident in 1987 at age 27. 

In addition to honoring Lockwood and his legacy, the award is intended “to validate the work of the recipient, to energize that artist’s future,” and encourage other artists to work ambitiously, according to the prize’s website. Past recipients have included award-winning movie director Jay Craven and puppeteer and theater director Peter Schumann. 

There’s no application for the prize and artists don’t know they’re being considered for it. Recipients also receive a $10,000 cash award, which Chorney was given at the ceremony this past Saturday. 

Looking ahead, there are plenty more artistic collaborations on the horizon for Chorney. Freeway Clyde is getting ready to release two more albums, and Chorney is keeping busy with “The Albany Sound,” a group he formed with fellow musicians Lowell Thompson, Pat Melvin and Jeremy Fredrick during the pandemic. 

The ensemble used to play together at the former Hatch 31 restaurant in Bristol and has begun performing twice a month at the Tillerman Inn & Restaurant, also in Bristol. 

Chorney recently repopulated his former studio in Bristol and plans to begin working on projects there. He summarizes his current work:

“Just trying to have fun and stay curious.”

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