Saturday, May 7, 2011

I'm Just a Groupie

One of the most surprising things a parent can reveal to a child is what they were like when they were teenagers. “When I was your age” is probably one of the most common prepositional phrases a teenager will hear from their parents, and it’s often met with expressions of annoyance when it has to do with the criticism of technology or attitudes. One of the few times when it is met with excitement, however, is when the old band tee shirts are pulled out. Cult followings of the Grateful Dead do not surprise teenagers of the new millennium. Mp3 players seemingly stocked with jazz or soft rock actually containing mass amounts of The Who, The Doors, or CCR don’t tend to alarm us. The 60s and 70s were dominated by incredible fame of bands, but singular artists seem own the music industry today. Almost every song on Billboard’s Hot 100 is by a recording artist, not a band. Fame in the classical realm, looking from the outside at least, is lead by soloists as well. Hillary Hahn, Lang Lang, Joshua Bell—these are all names that seem to be the face of classical music to the rest of the world. However, there is a shift going on. Let’s prepare for digging out a new type of band tee shirt from the closet in a few decades.
                I know I’ve said this before, but classical music scene today isn’t stuffy and boring. If one were to compile the amount of new music performances going on across the country on a calendar, they wouldn’t even be able to fit a quarter of them on each little square of a day. Popularity and youth of modern music is steadily increasing, and, to some extent, so is celebrity. And no, I’m not talking about those flashy superstar virtuosos. I’m talking about bands. Yep. Classical music bands.
                Lots of these “bands” don’t call themselves “bands,” and they don’t have battered tour buses or crowds of screaming groupies. But every day I hear about a new, cleverly named ensemble that is playing in a modest venue and all I can think of is the word “band.” Many of these groups emerge from music colleges bringing together talented musician friends. They can rise from the depths of grungy dorm-room playing and be found at Le Poisson Rouge down the line. As modern music organizations, composers, and venues strive to appeal to a younger audience, swarms of young musicians band together to receive their efforts. Not only does this give modern composers a stable outlet for their works, but it gives listeners groups to latch onto. Instead of swiping our hands out in the dark looking for the newest compositions, we can follow these groups and form those emotional connections that fans and bands do so well.

                NOW Ensemble is one of the groups I’ve been reading a lot about recently. Formed in 2002, the group consists of graduates of the Yale School of Music. Not only does it include a concrete set of musicians (clarinet, piano, electric guitar, flute, double bass), but also two resident composers and a mix of students from both Yale and Julliard.  Their recently released album, “Awake,” has been mentioned a few times on the blog Sequenza 21. Jerry Bowles, a writer for S21, has classified music coming from composers that ensembles such as NOW play as “New Synthetists,” referring to the newly-heard, subtle hybrids of classical and rock, pop, or other genres. His blog post has certainly acquired quite a few comments and remarks on the topic of music happening now, including subjects such as the “New York School,” what to call this movement of music that seems to be emerging, and how it should be received, but that’s certainly another post altogether (and, would you look at that? The editor of S21, Steve Layton, even mentioned the topic of classical “bands” a few dozen comments down!). NOW even has a wonderful music video for Judd Greenstein's piece "Change." The video is called Plan of the City and is directed by Joshua Frankel. 

                Sō Percussion is another band-like group that has been on the scene for a while. It is composed of percussion students from, no way, Yale as well. Sō has been together for 12 years now, and they certainly show it. The ensemble plays drum sets, steel drums, cymbals, jugs of water, cacti—pretty much anything they can get their hands on—and makes it sound like an instrument you would expect to see on the percussion table at the back of an orchestra. Sō is signed to Cantaloupe Records and has played in venues such as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. What really makes Sō seem like a band is their sense of informality. Their center picture on their website is the four members (Adam Sliwinski, Eric Beach, Jason Treuting, and Josh Quillen) with the cactus. One of their featured videos includes all the members sitting down with conch shells miming the trumpet calls of a recorded piece. They play the likes of Lang, Xenakis, Cage, Mackey, and Reich as well as other commissioned composers, but do it with the attitude opposite of the stereotypical classical performer.

photo by Luke Ratray

                eighth blackbird, whom I have mentioned before, is a group of former students from Oberlin College. The group (the intentionally non-capitalized one) is almost impossible to avoid when reading about modern festivals or concerts. Pieces from composers across the spectrum have been written for them, even a concerto for their ensemble by Jennifer Higdon called “On a Wire.” eighth blackbird is often at the center of initiating/organizing/playing in festivals and marathons such as the Tune-In festival and Tully Scope festival. And, guess what? They even have 8BB tee shirts, totes, thongs, and boxers. Imagine your teenage kid pulling that out of your closet.

                And then, of course, there’s the mouth of the rolling river, Bang on a Can. BoaC is a band, more of an organization, which plays, promotes, composes, and showcases new music. BoaC began in 1987 with three composers: David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon (guess where they went to school!). Since then, the almost-society has morphed from “three young composers in a lower Manhattan coffee shop” to one of the most legendary modern ensembles playing today. The large group consists of BoaC “All Stars,” Ashley Bathgate, Robert Black, Vicky Chow, David Cossin, Mark Stewart, and Evan Ziporyn but collaborates with an endless amount of other composers and performers. BoaC’s website reads, “There were a lot of separate little scenes. The academics, the minimalists, the rockers, the improvisers, the eggheads, the folklorists, the meditaters, the symphonists—musicians in each category had some place to go. The problem was, if you didn’t fit squarely into one of the categories you were out of luck. Michael, David and Julie decided to create a scene of their own.” BoaC is most famous for their Marathons, long, informal performances of different works by varying composers. The first Marathon was on Mother’s Day in 1987; it was 12 hours and was played in a SoHo art gallery. 28 composers were presented, most of them being “young, genre-defying, unknown and emerging composers.” Now, BoaC can be seen at Le Poisson Rouge regularly. Their calendar is packed with performances across the world, and the three composers are also the parents of Cantaloupe Records. The group plays music varying in style and overall emotion, but BoaC seems to create a continuum, like a band or artist doing covers of different groups.
                So, what’s the point of creating these new “bands?” Why, seemingly all of a sudden, is there a plethora of music students coming together to create the new, better-than-ever version of string quartets? If we follow some of the opinions set out in the Sequenza 21 article, it’s because pure entertainment and the arts are merging—these bands give more of a sense of entertainment and celebrity than a random handful of musicians do. The NOW Ensemble, Sō Percussion, eighth blackbird, Bang on a Can, and many others are taking the reins of the modern classical music scene and guiding the way composers work. Venues like Le Poisson Rouge are creating a more intimate and personal experience for classical listeners. The 70s don’t seem to be coming back, and I’m not necessarily seeing a revolution of band-tee-shirt-resurrections, but customs always seem to come around again in one way or another. The classical music world needs experiences like the ones these bands can give. Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry—these might be the artists whose tee shirts are accumulating in the majority of modern concert goers’ closets today, but I wouldn't be surprised if years from now, a shirt with the symbols “8BB” or “Sō” is dug out of a parent’s closet, only to be presented to the child with the phrase, “When I was your age…”

P.S. Other "bands" to check out include: Ethel, JACK Quartet, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, PRISM Saxophone Quartet, Momenta Quartet... 

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