It Sounded Like the Future

It sounded like the future,” begins a review of a recent installment in the Wordless Music concert series: a future in which classical music and indie rock occupy not opposite sides of a cultural divide, but rather the very same musical space.  Ronen Givony founded the Wordless Music series in 2007, and as he explains in the mission statement on the Wordless Music website:

Wordless Music is devoted to the idea that the sound worlds of classical and contemporary instrumental music — in genres such as indie rock and electronica — share more in common than conventional thinking might suggest. To illustrate the continuity between these worlds, the series pairs rock and electronic musicians in an intimate concert setting with more traditionally understood classical music performers. The goal: to bring audiences together, and to introduce listeners from both worlds to composers that they might otherwise not encounter, for a completely new concert experience. In so doing, Wordless Music seeks to demonstrate that the various boundaries and genre distinctions segregating music today — popular and classical; uptown and downtown; high art and low — are artificial constructions in need of dismantling.

The artificiality of the boundary between popular and classical music was brought home to Givony when he asked a co-worker at Lincoln Center what differentiated an intimate instrumental performance at the Mercury Lounge from the chamber music concerts their institution promoted.  In Episode One of a 2008 radio series on Wordless Music, Givony recounted his co-worker’s answer:

As a definition of classical chamber music, silent audiences certainly seems inadequate.  Few would say that playing Brahms for noisy audiences at a bar or cafe, as musicians of Classical Revolution have been doing since 2006, transforms the music from classical into popular fair.  On the contrary, the idea that under any performance circumstances a certain canon of music remains classical – with all the social, aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual values attached to that category – underlies the project of bringing it into less formal, more popular venues.  Those hoping to increase appreciation of classical music by this means often invoke history to justify listening to classical music not with the attention and reverence associated with the recital hall, but with the informality, sociability and pleasure associated with popular music.  In the same radio episode mentioned above, for example, composer David Lang told host Jad Adumrad:

Wordless Music, however, seems to be aimed in the opposite direction.  Instead of bringing classical music into bars and cafes, Wordless Music brings indie rock and electronica into recital halls and churches, programming it alongside works from the classical canon.  Givony describes this as an effort to “take indie rock a little bit out of its own ghetto and put it in a flower vase and see how it grows.”  The result has been some confusion: while seats or church pews seemed to say “sit still and be quiet,” the music – and sometimes the musicians – said “stand up, dance and shout.”  Here’s Do Make Say Think from WNYC Wordless Music Series Episode One:

And Beirut, from Episode Three:

These musicians smashed the vase Givony put them in – a good thing since flowers don’t grow in vases: they slowly wilt and die.  But the Wordless Music series has been quite effective at taking classical music out of its vase and planting it in ground where it can grow.  The most recent Wordless Music concert was weighted towards the classical, with orchestral and chamber works by Philip Glass, Ligeti and (rock representative) Jonny Greenwood.  There was no dancing or shouting to these works.  But there was enthusiastic clapping between movements.  And that, in a small way, sounds like the future.

Recommend listening: the Wordless Music Series on WNYC in its entirety.

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