Why don’t you play something “cool”?

appocalytpicaAs classical musicians, we’ve heard it before. “Oh, you play the cello? I once saw this group of cellos playing Metallica and it was amazing!” (Nothing against Apocalyptica.) “Do you ever play in bands or do anything cool?” Cool. Forgive me for being outlandish, but I actually think baroque bass lines are pretty darn cool.

I have nothing against things that are popular or trendy. I’m a huge fan of popular music, but I don’t particularly desire to play Rihanna songs on my cello. I would be a singer, producer, or a songwriter if I wanted to work with that repertoire professionally. I play the baroque cello, and I want to play baroque music.

What makes classical music so uncool?
I feel strongly that it’s not the music itself that’s uncool. For one, listening to classical recordings over seeing a live performance can sometimes do a disservice to a new listener. The concert-going environment is often unfriendly for audience members as it requires them to sit still and hold their applause for most of the performance. The attire worn by performers is typically conservative and uniform. Think about the wardrobe of a pop star or rock band at a live performance. Though I would never suggest a Britney-inspired ensemble  to a violinist, why do most concert clothes (even on young people) look like something a 50-year-old might have worn in 1992? I understand the argument that flashy or revealing outfits may be “distracting” to the audience, but we’re dealing with an audience that is already distracted and somewhat bored. The people who love the music and would be distracted by a flashy outfit are not the people we’re worried about—they will probably come to the concerts anyway.

I know these are all surface details and not ultimately what’s important. However, when we put on a concert, it’s a package deal for the audience. Every aspect of the experience matters. And personally, I don’t think most performers want to be conservative—I think they feel like they have to be in order to be respected by colleagues. I’ve talked a lot about branding for classical musicians and why I think it’s important.

How context can help
We don’t need to help listeners understand pop culture or pop music because they’re living it. When we play music that’s hundreds of years old, it can’t be expected that audiences immediately know how to relate. This is where a little bit of contextual information can really be helpful for an audience.  Whether it’s in program notes or simply spoken, letting the audience know some details about the composer and why he wrote a certain piece can be illuminating. I think historical details, while interesting and informative, may not always be the best tidbits to grab audiences. I think it’s helpful to give them something to listen for or something to keep in mind while listening.

Baroque music is pop music
As a specialist in baroque music, I am often struck by how much the music sounds like pop music. The baroque period was the dawn of harmony-driven music, which is still prevalent in today’s Top 40.  A ground bass pattern, or repeating bass line and chord progression, was wildly popular in the baroque, and most pop songs are written the same way. The French rondeau form has a musical phrase that keeps coming back, much like a chorus of a pop song. Almost all baroque music is meant to be dance music, and the same can be said about what’s on the radio today. There are dozens of common threads, and the more we can help audiences recognize these, the more fans we create.

Some inspiration: I think the members of Il Giardino Armino, an Italian baroque ensemble, have got the right idea. The cinemotography of this video gets a bit crazy at times, but the performance and light-hearted atmosphere are a perfect way to make this repertoire accessible. Though traditionalists will always have their reservations, there is so much we can open ourselves up to as performers.

Let me know your thoughts. Are you a classical performer who has faced these issues? As an audience member, how do you feel about the vibe at classical concerts?

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4 responses to “Why don’t you play something “cool”?

  1. It seems that to a lot of people “cool”, can only be something that is new, modern, trendy, or appeals to the young. While “cool” may be difficult to define, I don’t think anything can be cooler than music that has passed the test of time, music that inspires us in spite of having been composed centuries ago.

    It isn’t that classical music from the 19th and 18th century and before is necessarily superior to today’s music(let’s exclude computerized, auto-tuned “music” for comparison purposes). So little of the music from that era has survived, but what has survived is generally very inspired, high quality music. On the other hand, something like 99% of today’s pop music will likely be forgotten within 100 years. It’s like natural selection or “survival of the fittest” applied to music. To me, Bach’s Cello Suites are the ultimate cool!

    As much as I love classical music, I rarely go to concerts(time and money are issues). And I don’t just mean classical concerts, I mean rock or pop concerts as well. Although it has been years for me, I don’t think there was anything wrong with the vibe at classical concerts, except that they are usually too formal.

    One thing most classical concerts I’ve been to had in common was that most audience members were over the age of 50(and almost exclusively white, or white and east Asian). This may be why many orchestras are disbanding, since their main fan base is dying off, and they aren’t attracting enough young people to replace them.

    I don’t think the musicians should have to wear flashy outfits, or twerk while performing a string quartet to try to attract the young. I wouldn’t mind it though if classical concerts were a little less formal. Like a lot of people, I don’t like dressing up.

    Interestingly enough, music concerts during the golden age of classical music were often less formal than today. People talked while the musicians played, and fistfights were not an uncommon occurrence(especially at operas); they were more like rock concerts than the classical concerts of today. I wouldn’t want brawls breaking out at classical concerts, but I think making concerts a little less formal is a good idea.

    You are so right about how Baroque music and modern pop have a lot more in common than most people understand. Yet many if not most people find Bach or Handel “boring”, but I think this is largely because they aren’t used to it, or lack the attention span to listen to a piece of music that is longer than 5 minutes.

    I’m not a musician, but I’ve always wanted to play the cello. It seems to speak to me like no other instrument. I’m sorry for making this so long, but this brilliant post of yours gave me the opportunity to express some of my opinions of these matters. I wish you well with your music and teaching career. Take care!

  2. Hello Emily,
    I agree to your statement, but in my opinion the so called early or baroque music has one main problem, that could be one reason for naming it “uncool” or “oldfashioned”:
    This music is no longer composed, and this is an inconsistency, which the members of classical music culture seem to be not willing to solve. On one hand people are told, that this kind of music can be still interesting also for a contemporary listener, on the other hand it is a dogma, that “classical” music cannot be written nowadays. In other words: If baroque music is interesting and “modern” enough to be played, rehearsed, performed, loved, why isn’t it modern enough to be composed?

  3. I play classical piano (as a hobby) and I’m always getting requests to play something “cool” and often can I play jazz. In my case, the answer to both is no.
    I think it’s a case of them not understanding classical music, because hey, if you’re not used it I can understand that it may be a bt tough to digest!

  4. In all reality, everyone has there own opinion of what is and what makes something cool.

    I think being cool is having your own unique opinions, instead of going with the herd that’s being driven by pop media and marketers. I think too many people are stuck in high school mentalities of social groups, or “clicks”. If you are cool, you dress like… and listen to… and drive… and live… and don’t have to make any decisions that could make you vulnerable to being caught doing something un-cool. The same goes for band geeks, motor-heads, jocks, hicks, et cetera. Too many people accept social stereotypes as their own opinion.

    Emily, I think what you play IS cool! Be happy being yourself and let the rest of the world worry about being judged. I mean why doesn’t Rhiana play “something cool” like a Guns-n-Roses cover, or why doesn’t Jimmy Buffet play “something cool” like Britney Spears!!! If you can even picture that. Or how about, why doesn’t Maroon 5 play something really cool like Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto in C, RV 399; because, I think THAT would be cool! I might be biased because that is my favorite cello concerto, I love to play it on my cello, but that is what I think is cool.

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