Alumni News

Bennington Rocks: Paradox Welcome

By Mollie Hawkins MFA '23

Counterintuitive advice. Unexpected introductions. Hidden talents. The music careers of Bennington people often come about in unlikely ways. The musicians seem to find their way to music on their way to becoming their most authentic selves. Some have gone on to make music their life’s work—or simply their life’s joy—while carrying the interdisciplinary approach they honed at Bennington with them.

The Business of Collaboration

When alumni Amelia Meath ’10, Molly Erin Sarlé ’12, and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig ’09 were students, they formed the folk trio Mountain Man. The band released two albums, toured with Feist and The Decemberists, and branched out to work on their own projects. Amelia Meath (also a part of the electronic pop duo Sylvan Esso) has spent her time since Bennington collaborating, performing, and being nominated for Grammys with her musical partner Nick Sanborn. But she didn’t study music at Bennington; instead, she learned how to embrace the flexibility needed to be a musician.

“I think the thing about having a job in a creative field is like seventeen different jobs,” said Meath. “My flexibility and ability to move seamlessly from talking about the textures of fabrics for costumes and into what I want a video graphic for our festival sets to look like is easy—I learned that vocabulary at Bennington.”

Image of Mountain Man
Mountain Man

Meath collaborates with Sauser-Monnig and Sarlé frequently. “Molly and Alexandra now live close by in North Carolina, and we essentially function like family members; they’re my best friends,” she said. “I see them every week. It’s really fun. And now, because I have a record label and a studio, we make music a lot together.” Meath also creates all her costumes with fellow alum, Emily Woods Hogue ’10.

I feel like everything that has happened in my adult life has been a result of going to Bennington; I had that modeled for me there, as the way to be a human.

Alexandra Sauser-Monnig ’09

Space to Experiment

Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, also known as Daughter of Swords, has similar memories of music at Bennington. Though her Plan focused on literature and visual art, she enjoyed playing music in her house and eventually with her Mountain Man bandmates. The campus gave her the chance to experiment. “Bennington gives you the tools you need to explore things that are of interest to you,” she said. “And it encourages you to take weird chances and try things.”

Sauser-Monnig and Meath also discovered their love of yodeling together, which led them to create The A’s. They released their first album, Fruit, in 2022 and toured with Wilco in 2023. Now back in the studio collaborating with Nick Sanborn of Sylvan Esso, Sauser-Monnig is excited about her
forthcoming Daughter of Swords album. Molly Sarlé, fellow Mountain Man, released a solo album, Karaoke Angel, in 2019—the same year that Mountain Man performed at the 2019 commencement.

The trio has been prolific beyond Mountain Man’s 2018 sophomore album, Magic Ship. But it was Bennington where they met and formed lifelong bonds. “I think that the way everyone has to design their own Plan at Bennington, and figure out what their path is—you have to take the initiative,” said Sauser-Monnig, “I think that’s like an invaluable skill set that has kind of shaped how I function as an adult and move through the world. I feel like everything that has happened in my adult life has been a result of going to Bennington; I had that modeled for me there, as the way to be a human.”

Music as a Spiritual Joy

While some musicians find their voice at Bennington, some discover it later—in the midst of unrelated careers. Trustee and alum Tracy Katsky Boomer ’91 is a veteran Hollywood development executive and producer, but her other side is a punk-rocker for the Drama Dolls.

Image of Drama Dolls
Drama Dolls

Though she learned to play the piano as a child, her heart belonged to the bass guitar. “I spent my 20s and 30s really going as hard as I possibly could in a non-musical direction,” said Katsky Boomer. “And creating a different career in a different industry was enormously satisfying. And then, when I was about 40, my neighbor was a guitar player; he wanted someone to jam with. So he handed me a bass.”

Katsky Boomer joined a few bands in Los Angeles before finding her place in Drama Dolls, a high-energy punk band that is like “if Metallica had a crazy weekend with Hole.” Within three hours of working on music together, “we had written four songs and had all fallen deeply in love as a trio with each other,” said Katsky Boomer.

At Bennington, Katsky Boomer took a class from longtime faculty member Gunnar Schonbeck. Schonbeck was known for creating elaborate instruments from various objects—and encouraged everyone, at any level or ability, to play. “He had figured out how to make sound and music out of air, strings, shells, and even fibers in the rug,” said Katsy Boomer. “It was amazing.”

She was encouraged to perform music for the simple joy of it. “Music is a gift to me. And there’s never a point in your life that you can’t start,” she said. “It’s not something that you can truly put away. If it’s in you, it will always be in you. And it always welcomes you back home.”

Lessons from the Mantis Shrimp

Music faculty member and internationally celebrated vocalist Virginia Warnken Kelsey is no stranger to the call and response of Bennington College. After wrapping up her first teaching term, she won her second Grammy Award as part of Roomful of Teeth, a vocal ensemble whose mission is “to explore all of the far reaches of humanity and what it is to be human via the voice,” said Kelsey. The approach she takes with her work, and her teaching style, is scientific and anthropological—and has a lot in common with the mantis shrimp, powerful creatures whose eyes contain more color receptors than humans and can see colors we can’t even begin to comprehend.

“Roomful of Teeth uses a much wider spectrum of color than a typical vocal ensemble. We use our voices in really experimental and less traditional ways than you might see in a choir or a cappella ensemble.” Mantis shrimp can also break through aquarium glass and boil the water around their bodies—which isn’t that much different, if you think about it, than the bold Bennington approach to learning.

“At Bennington College, in any discipline, you’re never coming at it from the typical way,” said Kelsey. “You’re always breaking it open and turning it inside out and putting a whole bunch of other stuff in it and then creating something new out of your discipline.”

Kelsey is actively shaping the field her students are interested in. Roomful of Teeth is currently recording their next projects, an opera celebrating the life of the last Queen of Hawai’i, Lili‘u, and a Ken Burns documentary about Leonardo da Vinci.

Kelsey spent many years as a touring musician but feels she found her home—and community—at Bennington. “It’s all about community,” she said. “People are there to create community through music with you. That’s always how we should lead ourselves into any situation; get out in the community, no matter what it is that you want to do—do it! And reach out to local arts organizations, school organizations, volunteer, and always be generous and kind.”

Keep Performing. And Sometimes...Do It Bad

When asked to give advice to aspiring musicians, the themes of kindness, practice, and humility emerge. “Accept that fear and discomfort are a part of the process,” said Sauser-Monnig. “And if you’re feeling those feelings, it’s not so easy, but just try to lean into doing things that scare you.”

Meath said to play, and keep playing. “Keep going where the traction is,” she said. “Keep talking about it. Go to parties and to various events and talk about what you do—keep performing.”

Kelsey encourages her students to nurture their talents by facing those fears head on. “I do a thing sometimes where, if I’m working with singers on the acting or dramatic side, I tell them to do it ‘bad,’” said Kelsey. “And by doing it ‘bad,’ it’s just like overdoing it, making it garish and hideous. And actually, through that, a lot of discovery is made.”