Seeing the future

Sunday night at Le Poisson Rouge, the new NY club where lots of good music happens. Among much else, it’s the new home of the Wordless Music series, no surprise, since Ronen Givony, who founded Wordless, books classical music at Le Poisson Rouge.

I’m there Sunday to hear my friend Bruce Brubaker, along with Elissa Cassini, Susan Babini, and Ben Fingland, play Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Opening the show is Goldmund, who plays ambient music on piano, with electronics, and closing is Sylvain Cheveau, with more ambient music, mostly electronic. Messiaen comes in the middle.

I was fried. Drove in from the country, got caught in two traffic jams, and got stuck in a third when I took a cab to the club from my NY apartment. Somehow I got there on time, and Goldmund — such lovely sounds, such a delicate touch on the piano — calmed me down.

Then Messiaen. Good performance. Many in the audience crowd — 175 people in all, Ronen told me — had probably never heard the piece before, or even heard of Messiaen. That’s the kind of crowd Wordless Music draws. Ronen programs classical music and smart pop (indie bands, ambient, whatever; Sylvain Cheveau, for instance, has opened for Sigur Ros), but the pop acts are usually the draw.

For five minutes or so, while the Messiaen started, I heard some rustling, and some whispered conversation. Then silence. Silence for 35 more minutes, while the piece hung in its special kind of space. And then cheering — applause, whoops. The people loved it. The piece just conquered them.

So how wonderful is that? This proves, if you ask me, that nobody needs special preparation to like classical music. You just have to encounter it in the right place, at the right time, and in the right way. So shouldn’t performances like this — and I’ve seen things like it before — be a big and hopeful part of the future? And shouldn’t it be deeply rewarding to play a piece like this for a crowd who wouldn’t sit silently, and wouldn’t whoop, unless they loved it? More rewarding, in many ways, than playing the piece in a concert hall, where everyone sits in silence because they’re supposed to?

No, I’m not saying that the normal classical audience has anything wrong with it. But only that there’s something really wonderful about playing classic pieces for people whose silence and applause are completely spontaneous.

Footnotes:

(One reason the Messiaen came off so well was smart programming. Messiaen, plus others who create something of the same mood. Draws an audience that might like Messiaen, and gets put in a spacae where they’re ready to hear him.)

(Ulrelated, but…when I went to the Poisson Rouge website just now, a VIctoria motet was playing. Such an oasis in the middle of a working day…)

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Comments

  1. Nicolas says

    Hi Greg,

    It was a remarkable evening last Sunday at LPR — I agree. There were some of us there though that know Messiaen’s music pretty well. And I think it was really the amazing performance of the quartet that involved the audience so powerfully. Brubaker and the others played with tremndous precision, subtlety, and expressive EMOTION! The performers brought this music to life vividly and people responded.

    Hi, Nicolas. I’d love to know how many people knew Messiaen, and how many didn’t. I know some didn’t, from comments people made to Bruce as they were leaving. I conferred with Ronen Givony on this (he produced the concert, and many more at LPR), and he thought all three acts on the program drew people independently. I’d love to see some audience surveys. I do know that at many past Wordless Music concerts, the headlining band was what brought people in, so when they cheered a Bach Partita (which I saw happen), they probably weren’t people who knew Bach very well.

  2. says

    Hi Greg,

    Quote – One reason the Messiaen came off so well was smart programming. Messiaen, plus others who create something of the same mood.

    Is Messiaen just “mood music” then? Although it was clearly a great occasion, and it’s terrific that a new crowd can be introduced to this sort of music, there is a lot more going on in the Messiaen than will be going on even in so-called “smart pop”.

    This proves, if you ask me, that nobody needs special preparation to like classical music.

    I suppose they don’t need special preparation just to like it in a certain “mood music” occasion. But “special preparation” – i.e. an understanding of the origins of the music, the techniques, history, instruments, etc etc – i.e. the discourse of classical music – will make one’s enjoyment so much greater. It’s the introduction to this discourse which is under threat and so lacking in the kind of approach which relegates Messiaen to be the filler in a “smart pop” club night!

    Tim, I can’t really go down this road with you, and draw any firm distinction between mood music and something else. Music serves many purposes, and people respond to it in many different ways. Certainly it creates moods, whatever else it also may do. And one way to get into a kind of music you’ve never heard before is to fall into its mood. In that way, Goldmund’s opening performance set the stage of Messiaen, by helping to put people in a frame of mind that got them ready for what Messiaen does. Or part of what he does.

    I’m wary of making these distinctions, I should add, partly because who gave us the authority to say what’s going on with an audience? When Messiaen is played in a concert hall, can we really assume that the audience is hearing it on a level deeper than what might happen in a club? some of the audience, sure, but that’s also surely true of some of the audience at the club. Those aren’t stupid people, and the musical parameters involved aren’t all that complicated. I think we exaggerate the complexity of classical music.

    And then how do you know what complexities might lie under Goldmund’s surface? Too many assumptions! If you like classical music better than the smartest pop, fine, that’s your taste, but I’d be wary of making assumptions about what that smart pop is like, or what the people who really know it can hear in it. I’m reading Michael Azerrad’s book on hardcore, “This Band Could Be Your Life,” and I’m learning to hear much more in bands like Black Flag than I’d ever known how to hear before. Your comment about learning more applies to just about every kind of music.

    Just my 2p’s worth.

    Tim

  3. Jonathan says

    Ahhhh, am so jealous of you Greg – wish I’d been able to go to that gig.

    Couldn’t agree with you more about such appropriate programming for venue and context being the future of this sort of music. It does make me wonder what other (bigger) venues might suit a Mahler Symphony, say…

  4. says

    This is really wonderful.

    I agree with your comment about listeners not needing special preparation. Now, if we could only get the museums to remove the essays next to paintings.

    Glad you liked the post!

    Those museum essays are relatively inconspicuous, and nobody tells you that you won’t properly appreciate the art if you don’t read them. Many people in classical music do think the music can’t be appreciated without special knowledge, and work overtime to offer that knowledge to prospective audience members who, I think, don’t need it. and may not even want it. They might want it after they get to love the music, but probably not before. Thrusting it at them before might actually make the music seem less accessible, by underlining the supposed ignorance of those we’d like to attract to it.

  5. Eric Lin says

    Tim writes: “But “special preparation” – i.e. an understanding of the origins of the music, the techniques, history, instruments, etc etc – i.e. the discourse of classical music – will make one’s enjoyment so much greater.”

    Not going to disagree with this. It’s probably true.

    “Although it was clearly a great occasion, and it’s terrific that a new crowd can be introduced to this sort of music, there is a lot more going on in the Messiaen than will be going on even in so-called “smart pop”.”

    This on the other hand, I find a bit dismissive in tone. Why use the ironic quotes around smart pop? There are some truly fascinating things in a lot of this smart pop you’re so snarky about that is actually more technically interesting than a lot of music in the Western Art Music canon–harmonic, rhythmic etc. I love Messiaen, and for all I know, the other works/artists on the concert were musically inferior. (I don’t know. I wasn’t there) But really, no need for the blanket statement about how Messiaen is better than all smart pop.

    Right on, Eric. (Oops — does anyone say “right on” anymore? It popped into my mind because I just spoke on a panel at Carnegie Hall about Leonard Bernstein and the Black Panthers.)

    It was great to meet you this past summer, by the way. At that Wordless Music concert at the Whitney Museum in New York. I love meeting the people who read this blog, whether they comment or not. If you see me anywhere, don’t hesitate to say hello!

  6. Craig Smith says

    Interesting and good to hear about this. The concept is not especially new – Matt Haimovitz and others have been taking classical music, in quotation marks, an awful lot of places, and he had his predecessors – but this accidental listener kind of programming approach is attractive. I’d love to hear Sigurd Ros, “Misty,” and some lieder on a single program somewhere, for example. One caveat: it’s all got to be scaldingly well done. Quality is the key to holding and teaching the listener, quality in both the work and in the performance, which seems to’ve happened here.

    Yes, you’re right — this has been done before. And Matt Haimovitz in fact appeared a few nights later at Le Poisson Rouge. Wordless Music, and LPR generally, might take it to a new level, though, simply by doing these classical music in clubs events on a regular basis, drawing repeated large audience, and even branding themselves with the concept. But of course it’s not a completely new thing.

  7. says

    The violinist was Elissa Cassini, not Cantini. Before she started becoming a fixture in New York, she lit up Bloomington, Indiana, and was a classmate o’ mine.

    Thanks for catching that, Marc. I’d gotten to know Elissa just before that performance, and I’m chagrined to see that I wrote her name wrong. I’ll fix it.

  8. Medrawt says

    But “special preparation” – i.e. an understanding of the origins of the music, the techniques, history, instruments, etc etc – i.e. the discourse of classical music – will make one’s enjoyment so much greater.

    Of course, this is also true of pop music, or folk music(s), or any other form of art in general, yet no one expresses skepticism at the enterprise of introducing somebody to, e.g., flamenco without first making sure the neophyte listener has been primed in the discourse of that music.

    I don’t want to be uncharitable, but there’s more than a whiff of the idea that if people like something without understanding the “right reasons” for them to like it then it’s not good enough. The same indications in your swipe at the idea of Messiaen as “mood music” – I presume you know that’s not what Sandow was really saying, at least as I read him.

  9. Bill says

    Tim wrote:

    …it’s terrific that a new crowd can be introduced to this sort of music, there is a lot more going on in the Messiaen than will be going on even in so-called “smart pop”.

    Based on what criteria? The academic complexity of the music? If there is more “going on” there and the audience doesn’t hear it or doesn’t care, why should it even be an issue?

  10. Robert Berger says

    I’m all for experimenting with new ways to bring people to classical performances, and trying alternative locations etc, as long as the music is not dumbed down.

    But I still don’t think there’s anything wrong with traditional performance venues such as Lincoln Center and Carnegie hall etc. And what is wrong with audiences being quiet and listening carefully ? They can respond as loudly and enthusiastically as they want after the performances.

    After all, when people go to the movies, they certainly don’t like people around them making a lot of noise and distracting them. Just because audiences at

    mainstream classical performances are quiet (apart from coughing etc), doesn’t mean that concerts or opera are “stuffy”.

    Hi, Robert. Well, you and I grew up in those concert halls, so we’re certainly used to them. And even comfortable in them, though I have to say I’m losing that comfort. What’s most interesting, though, is that many younger musicians (in my experience) aren’t wholly comfortable, and will sometimes say that they wish they knew who the audience is, and what they’re thinking. They don’t feel any sense of communication or communion with the audience in concert halls, and would like that to change.