What started as a class project between two Western Michigan University music students has grown into a large-scale orchestral pop ensemble recording at a world-renowned residential studio in Texas.

A crowdfunding campaign is now in progress to pay for the group, MNOE, to travel to the famous Sonic Ranch located on a 2,400-acre pecan orchard near El Paso, Texas. Members of MNOE, which stands for the Mark Niskanen Orchestral Experiment, will live on-site while they record the project with master recording engineers.

The band, composed almost entirely of current or recently graduated WMU jazz and classical musicians, plans to record its debut album June 13-23, says Joel Pixley-Fink, who acts as producer for the band. Pixley-Fink graduated from WMU in April as one of the first graduates in WMU's new Multimedia Arts Technology program.

"It's a very well-known studio," Pixley-Fink says, adding that such cutting-edge bands as Snarky Puppy, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Gogol Bordello and Animal Collective have recorded there. "It offers residential housing and food. So you live at the studio and work on your record. No one will be leaving for work or to go to class."

MNOE's roots go back to when Pixley-Fink and Mark Niskanen, an international graduate student from Finland, collaborated on a project as part of class assignment for Dr. Lisa Coon's class Entrepreneurship for Composers. The assignment was to stage an off-campus event.

Pixley-Fink and Niskanen began recruiting fellow musicians to bring their vision of an orchestral pop orchestra melding pop, jazz and classical elements to life. MNOE was born.

The band features a rhythm section of jazz musicians playing bass, drums and piano, a wind section with three woodwinds and two trumpets, a four-piece string section of classical musicians and two female vocalists.

That was in September 2015. So far the band has only performed twice, but something has really jelled amongst the 16-member ensemble, which features 14 musicians and two backup singers as well as lead singer Lauren Deming of Detroit. Deming is the only member of MNOE not tied to WMU.

(Credit: MNOE via YouTube)

The crowdfunding has gone well, Pixley-Fink says, with more than 50 percent of the money needed to record in Texas already raised. People can pre-order the album as well as buy promotional materials by going to pledgemusic.com/MNOE.

"Instead of a few people giving a lot of money, it's a lot of people giving a little money," Pixley-Fink says.

All members of the ensemble have bought into the project and have been swept up in the excitement, Pixley-Fink adds.

"We're all super excited," he says. "It's a dream come true for all of us. It's a really high-level studio and heavily connected to the industry. This is a pretty surreal experience for all of us, but it's real."

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