As 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.