Monday, November 20, 2006

Classical music + Jeans = Badass

A lot of badass stuff has taken place since the last time I posted on this, but here's the thing. Those linky-linky blogs always disappoint me a little. It feels like you're a teacher in a college seminar where, instead of reading responses, the students brought in "cool rocks" they "found in the yard."

So even though this particularly badass thing happened a while ago, I haven't had time to settle down and think about it. I don't have time to do that now, either, but irregardless it's totally badass and not only that, but when you read about it you might even describe it as urgently badass. Probably that will not happen.

Eric Edberg is a member of the music faculty at DePauw University. Along with being a cellist, he also describes himself as a "Drum Circle Facilitator." I have no response to that, because it speaks for itself. I will say that, although many things about this story are badass, facilitating a drum circle is not.

But in August, he did something pretty badass. He put on a concert of "classical music in jeans," which he describes as an "'informal/interactive musical event' -- a recital with the usual rules of concert etiquette suspended." Okay, that description isn't likely grabbing you by the throat, but think about it:

1) Live music is something you have to go out of your way to see. Unlike TV, radio, internet, wireless media, digital storage, and most of the other things it competes with in the entertainment field (not to mention alcohol and parlor games), experiencing live music requires a relatively substantial investment of time and money in advance. What did they do to punish you in first grade? They made you sit quietly and do nothing -- sometimes in the dark. (Or at least, the time-out room was always less well-lit than the others. I spent some time there.) So why would you voluntarily submit to that, especially for an experience you're likely unfamiliar with, only to find yourself too embarassed to divulge it on Monday at the water cooler. With the rigorous etiquette suspended, classical music becomes a lot more like a visit to the museum, the theater, the movies, etc. Add a big red cup of beer and some fried appetizers and you'd see frat guys there in no time.

2) Classical music hasn't been "classical" for about 150 years. Even when it was, it had plenty of waltzing, stomping, balladry, and even some groove. All the elements that characterized popular music have become more and more a part of so-called "classical" music, to the point that the "classical" moniker, which meant nothing at first, means even less now. Unlike jazz, hiphop, punk, etc., the vast cosmos of music that falls into the "classical" category at this point has very little uniting it into a cohesive genre, and very little separating from its counterparts across the record store aisle. Longer format (although not really), different instruments (although not really), lower volume & lack of amplification (although not really), distinct separation from folk/popular music (although not really) -- well, you see where I'm going here. At this point, and actually for about the last 75 years, the only things really separating classical music from everything else were its conventions and its audience. No reason not to change the former in order to increase the latter.

3) Many of the pieces currently experienced in worshipful, darkness were originally greeted with cheers, boos, rioting, etc. They didn't give you cough drops outside the theater. They didn't patronize you by announcing the rules at the beginning. If you coughed during the slow movement, you didn't worry about having your car keyed after the performance. I'm not saying I don't find these things disruptive, and it actually is distracting for people to pay $50 to see a concert and then talk straight through it. But that is, and always has been, the price you pay for being alive and not a hermit farmer. The idea of doing everything you possibly can to replicate the original sound, including period instruments and deep score research, only to perform the piece in a context completely alien to its original life makes no sense whatsoever. We need to give it up.

4) Up above you might have been doubting my assertion that beer would be enough to lure frat guys to a classical music concert. First off, just re-check your math there. But also recognize that people's musical tastes are forever broadening, and audience divisions are disintegrating accordingly. We have the internet and progress in musical innovation to thank for that. Unfortunately, classical music audiences are behind the curve in this respect (no evidence for this, though I've read various things in the past). Even though the DePauw concert was certainly a novelty, and this attracted more attention than it otherwise would have received, the audience response demonstrates that the concept worked. People are not allergic to classical music, and if presented in a format which they can relate to, they'll listen. Amplifying the performance and looking at less traditional venues could probably do more to build the audience and shape the experience.

5) People who care deeply about classical music (me, yup) stand to lose little to nothing with these kinds of changes. None of my favorite performances (either as a participant or a listener) took place in a darkened concert hall -- and most involved no tuxedo at all. Anyone who has seen Radiohead or Public Enemy live knows that you don't need etiquette to be serious musicians and convey your music well. If it's a less of a sacred experience because the pianist's wearing sneakers, then you need to reexamine why you go to concerts in the first place. You don't need a classical concert to see solemn people in formalwear make pained expressions: just go to the junior prom.

Here's the video footage of the concert. See how, without all the pomp, it becomes obvious that Haydn (I think it's Haydn) wrote a piece for people to get up and dance to? Yeah, the dancers are awkward and maybe trying to get attention, but just the small etiquette changes (jeans, cheering, etc.) make it seem a lot less bizarre than it would.

Conclusion: Badass.


Eric Edberg said...

Thanks for the mention and your thoughts. And you definitely made my day. Badass indeed!

alek said...

No problem. Incidentally, though my comment on drum circles was obviously glib, I actually played and studied West African percussion as part of my ethnomusicology thesis. So I've been in my share of drum circles, facilitated and otherwise.