From Sarah Robinson: How the classical world went clubbing (1)

From Greg:

Some months ago, a flutist named Sarah Robinson asked if she could interview me for a doctoral dissertation about playing classical music in clubs. I was sure she’d know her subject, since she’s the codirector of Classical Revolution: L.A., Classical Revolution being (as many of us know) an umbrella organization for musicians who play classical music in clubs, and this, of course, being its very active Los Angeles branch.

I told Sarah I’d be happy to talk to her, adding that I’d probably learn more from her than she’d learn from me. Which (at least from my point of view) turned out to be true. I remember telling her that, as I saw it, you couldn’t make money playing in clubs. Wrong! She quickly corrected me. Maybe, she said, you couldn’t make a full income from club gigs, but you could make a good part of an income that — as is true for many classical musicians — comes from many sources. 

When the dissertation was done, and Sarah kindly sent me a copy, I saw that I’d been even more wrong about the money than I’d thought. But that’s only one of the many reasons why the dissertation — titled Chamber Music in Alternative Venues in the 21st Century U.S. — is essential reading for anyone interested in classical music’s future. We talk a lot about playing in clubs, but how much do most of us know about it? If I’m at all typical, we don’t know much. 

And so Sarah educates us, writing in great, thorough detail about the history of classical club performance (going back to past centuries), the current scene and how it developed, the venues, the finances, the aesthetics (that chapter is a bombshell), and much, much more. 

So it seemed natural that she should write a guest blog post here. Which now she’s done, and I’m grateful to her. The first part, which follows, is about her own experience, and for the most part talks about things that aren’t in her dissertation. The second part, describes the classical club scene more generally, and functions, if you like, as a quick, lively summary of what the dissertation says.

But even if you read these two posts, the dissertation still is essential. I’m happy that Sarah kindly is letting us download it, free, simply by going here

One last word. Sarah got her doctorate at the University of South Carolina, whose music school, under the leadership of its dean, Tayloe Harding, has a strong program in entrepreneurship. Which is why, as Sarah herself says, she — getting a doctorate in flute performance — could write a thesis that wasn’t about the flute. Bravo to the school, and brava to Sarah. 

Enough from me. Here’s Sarah’s post:

I stumbled into the classical club scene while visiting my hometown of Cincinnati in 2009. A friend who worked as a bartender there told me I had to check out Classical Revolution Cincinnati. It changed the course of my career.

I went down to the Blue Wisp Jazz Club with Phil Popham, a founding member of our chamber ensemble, Helix Collective. There we saw chorus members of the Cincinnati Opera giving a fun, bawdy, rowdy show with performers planted at the bar and around the club. Their performance, because it was so engaging, easily caught the audience’s attention, even over food, drinks, the occasional side conversation and people moving around. Phil and I knew we wanted to perform there with Helix Collective, and we also knew that to succeed in the club we had to change everything about our concert performances.

“You’ve got to have schtick”

While developing our program, Phil and I had the pleasure of performing with the great Vegas vocalist and entertainer, Steve Lippia. We performed as members of the West Michigan Symphony with Lippia as the soloist on a pops performance called “Simply Swingin’ with Sinatra and Friends.” Lippia, who developed his show in nightclubs, was one of the best storytellers I’ve ever had the pleasure to see on stage. For each number he sang, he gave the audience insight through touching and hilarious stories.

When we asked his advice on our first club performance he told us, “you’ve got to have schtick. Everybody loves schtick.” The benefits of making a concert entertaining with extramusical elements were plain to see in Lippia’s performance. The crowd was laughing, enthusiastic, fully engaged, smiling, and everyone had a great time. Why not use these techniques that work so well for songs with classical pieces? We can highlight what is funny, charming, quirky, interesting and even tragic about music with acting or stories that are both informative and entertaining.

So we took our standard classical program and tore it apart. We played every movement as a separate entity and provided each one with an unforgettable introduction. To share a little about our life as a traveling, low-budget chamber ensemble, we told our audience about the time a swarm of roaches overtook the bed of our pianist, Meghan Schaut, in a Texas motel. We played a piece by William Grant Still called Miniatures, a trio where each movement is based on a different folk song from the Americas. We taught the audience two of the songs, “I Ride an Old Paint” and “Adolorido” and had them sing together before we played. There is nothing like slightly drunk people singing with wild abandon to liven up a classical show!

For the movement “Yaraví,” which is a Peruvian song about the heartbreak of a missing loved one, Phil and I played the song as a duet from opposite sides of the club. We also performed a work of Phil’s called The Pharmacy, in which each movement features a different prescription or over-the-counter drug. The final movement, “Dextroamphetamines,” shows how these drugs can be used to cure social anxiety. To simulate this effect, each member of the ensemble downed a shot before striking out into the movement! The audience was laughing, yelling, singing and, well, you just know it when you have it right. The distractions of a club environment were no match for a fantastic show. Now we knew how to hook an audience in a club using classical music. 

The World’s First Classical Dance Club

Photo Credit: S.J. Pettersson

Photo Credit: S.J. Pettersson

Our next project was to develop a program of new music specifically written for the club setting. We called the show World Dance Club. We wanted music that had a rock and hiphop aesthetic, but still had the challenge and drama of classical. The first thing we did was to add a drumset. That’s perfect not only for adding the rhythmic drive of pop but also for imitating a wide range of world percussion instruments. Next we chose dances from across the globe, and collaborated with a group of talented composers to form a style that crossbreeds virtuosic classical music, high-energy pop, and a range of world styles. We call the genre Club Classical.

Mark Weiser, a film, television and concert music composer based in Los Angeles, wrote us a set of Bollywood dances. These dances cross music in a Bollywood style with hiphop and would be the perfect soundtrack to a modern Bollywood film, one that’s complete with love story and dance parties. Phil wrote a set of pieces based on renaissance dances from Italy, France and Germany. One of the pieces is a rock ballad based on a passacaglia by Bieber (that would be Heinrich, the 18th century composer, not Justin) about a virgin resisting temptation. For the last movement, Phil took three tambourins (a tambourin is a dance in a quick two-meter), by Rameau. He wove them together into an all-out, hard-pounding movement that became an epic rock song titled “Ram-Tam, Thank You, Ma’am.”

We also have a Latin fusion tune, “Me Quema,” which we borrowed from a local Los Angeles-based band, the Berger / Sanchez Project. We met these fabulous musicians when they provided live sound engineering for a Classical Revolution: L.A.  event at the popular Hollywood band venue, Genghis Cohen. They were kind enough to allow us to adapt their song for our group and add our own classical flair.

Serban Nichifor, a Romanian composer who wrote a pretty badass Bluegrass tune for his opera, Tom and Huck, happily allowed us to reimagine the work. Finally, the accomplished composer Stephen Dankner let us to arrange three of his dances. The dance we titled “Klezmer” is based on Klezmer Fantasy, a piece for solo cello and orchestra. Dankner originally wrote that work for Matt Haimovitz, one of the first performers to play classical music in clubs. The result of all this is a flexible, high-energy program that is perfect for the rowdy club setting.

Photo Credit: Rachelle Turnier

Photo Credit: Rachelle Turnier

Through our performances and experimentation in clubs, the program evolved into a fully interactive show. Before we play each song, we teach the audience the steps for dancing along with the music. We have them put their arms around each other in a circle to dance the bulgar during our klezmer tune. We have had, I kid you not, an entire club, full of hipsters squaredancing to bluegrass!

For the Bollywood dances, we recreate the scene that appears in every Bollywood movie, where all the guests at a party inexplicably break out into a choreographed dance. We give the audience an easy-to-follow but saucy Bollywood routine.

I also believe that everyone secretly wants to know how to salsa dance. So we teach a simplified version, where you step right and then left (end of dance lesson), so absolutely everyone can dance to “Me Quema.” Everyone is out of their seats, dancing, laughing, bumping into each other and having a great time. It’s the world’s first classical dance party. (You can hear the music here).

You might be wondering if this music really could be classical. Why isn’t Helix Collective some kind of klezmer/bollywood/salsa/bluegrass band? Here’s the answer. We are a classical group because our music has the harmonic and contrapuntal complexity of classical music. We use classical forms in the World Dance Club program including a fugue, a rondo, and a theme with variations. Even though we dance to this music, it can also stand on its own for active listening.

We play classical instruments, flute, oboe and piano, and base much of our music on classical dances, from the renaissance up to 19th century waltzes. Besides, classical music has always been a melting pot, mixing tunes from the street with techniques from the academy. When classical music functions as a living art form, it sucks up influences like an aesthetic tornado.

Tomorrow: part two of this post, in which Sarah gives a detailed overview of classical musicians playing in clubs, drawing on what she wrote in her dissertation. Essential reading!

Headshot Sarah by Mathew Allan PhotographySarah Robinson is flutist and co-founder for the world/classical/rock group Helix Collective and director of Classical Revolution: L.A. Now entering its third year, Classical Revolution: L.A. hosts a dizzying array of classical and crossover artists at clubs around the city for regularly packed houses. As Greg said, she’s happy to make her dissertation, Chamber Music in Alternative Venues in the 21st Century U.S.,  available as a free download.


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  1. says

    It’s always refreshing to find other classical musicians who are abashed at mixing in the world music elements, Sarah, but I’m curious–you seem to be a little apologetic about calling your group Classical. In the end, does it really matter?

    One of my groups will be playing the Cincinnati Classical Rev next month, Laura’s been wanting us there ever since we first met a couple years ago and she discovered I was in a band that does Klingon Opera and you’re absolutely right–schtick is everything. If you don’t immerse yourself in it as much you do your musical performance the audience just isn’t going to buy it!

    I’m in the middle of your dissertation right now–fascinating reading!

    • says

      To label or not to label… that IS the question.

      Whether to think it better to blur the lines, tear down the walls and do away with labels altogether… or to consider those times when we prefer music that DEFINES a style. When I want a blues or rock or gospel, I’m not necessarily satisfied with blues-rock or R&B. (Remember Fusion?) Hybrids are certainly novel, but only in contrast to authentic style (“hardcore”?). And authenticity seems to be one of the holy grails young music lovers say they want, even if it’s not always what they mean. The “authentic” they sometimes mean is the sense of “genuine”. They want to feel us MEAN what we play, by virtue of being (or seeming) demonstrative, spontaneous or even RAW. (raw energy being the opposite of perfectionism perhaps)

      While some classical music borrowed from folk traditions (my own included), it still tends to come off as distinctly classical when we stick to the original score. Once we add a rhythm section, blues-3rds or even tap our feet, the line are blurred and we call it a hybrid of some kind. The work of CutTime in clubs has been to VALIDATE classical music, by adapting symphonic music, giving an overbroad historical overview and explaining the SPORT to the curious. To reset the context for classical, we EMBRACE the label.

      If classical is characterized by restraint, formality and refinement, we have already re-characterized it by our actions, taking it OFF the pedestal of the concert hall. In fact our mission (inc. you, Sarah, CR, etc.) is to dissociate classical with the pedestal it’s been stuck on. With the new smoking laws, this is out time for it. Without that original label however, it just doesn’t work… hence Klingon Opera (Kling On Opera?). In fact, beyond realizing that we’re in the inspiration business thru music… I’m starting to see that inspiration is guided by personal association. Thus we’re ultimately trying to RE-associate classical with high value (HELL YEAH) good times! Dancing Klingons do that for me every time!

      • Lawrence de Martin says

        This is where labeling enters in: between 56th and 66th Streets on the West Side of Manhattan roughly $2 BILLION a year is spent on live “Classical” music, and 2/3 of it are from DONATIONS. If you abandon the label of Classical you are turning your back on the competition for the biggest tax deductions.

        I know some billionaires and cento-millionaires in the top tiers of donors – and they are not musical fanatics. The size of the checks is to buy the social status of music that is unreachable for the hoi polloi, and to mingle with the stars who are the corresponding 1% of trained musicians.

        Granted there is more total money selling tickets to the middle class, but nobody is matching ticket sales 2:1 for alternative venues and genres.

        • says

          Excellent point, Lawrence! I think most of us forget why the rich donate–it has much to do with recognition as any philanthropic ideals! The trick is to get those folks to donate to something that doesn’t yet have the same veneer of legitimacy as “traditional” classical music does!

      • says

        Hey Rick, all good points and I was hoping Sarah would discuss it more for us here for all our benefits as I think its a discussion that would help us all to have (she did respond to me in a private message on facebook).

        The Klingon band actually regularly experiences some criticism for not being authentic–but from the belly dance community (both dancers and the musicians) since most of our instrumentation (and some stylistic things) isn’t particularly traditional. It’s never been enough to matter–we have pretty consistently performed at belly dance events throughout our ten year history (roughly half our shows are belly dance shows)–and we have enough of a following regionally to make it worth our justify doing shorter tours.

        The interesting thing is that we have actually played another Classical Revolution where there was concern about whether we’d be bringing a belly dancer and how that might not be appropriate for this CR’s audience. We didn’t have that intention as I was bringing the group in to do a “World Music” (there’s another of those marketing terms) set which we affectionately call “80 minutes around the world.”

        That experience was irksome, to say the least, and in contrast Laura (who I think you know) of CR Cincinnati recently featured one of her new projects at that Classical Revolution in September (I believe) which is…a belly dance band, and with dancers to boot! I had actually met Laura a couple years ago when I played a belly dance event in Cincinnati with one of my other projects. I was introduced to her by my friends in the other fusion belly dance band performing that evening. She had just started playing with them, and when she discovered I had the Klingon band she totally wanted that at her Classical Rev!

        Given all this I would be curious to know how open (or closed) to things outside the box various Classical Revolutions are.

        That authenticity debate cuts across any performing community, I think. I’ve had similar negative experiences at an Italian Festival the Klingon group played (not as Klingons, obviously, but in that other role of a world music group) and as I regularly play with ethnic musicians from various cultures I was taken to task in a blog post (see the comment in the link) about diversity which I illustrated with images of me performing with different cultural groups with descriptive captions:

        I’m sorry but this is not real music. It is folkloriko for ignorant people. The ‘Greek’ dance group looks pathetic. Nothing to do with real folk Greek music. How can I tell? The lack of interest in similating anything close to the real thing.

        In the end, did it matter that the Greek band and folk dancers were composed of Greek Americans performing at a Greek Orthodox Church’s Greek Festival in America rather than an “authentic” Greek band and dance troupe from the homeland? No, not to the 3000+ crowd who were enjoying the performance. Nor to the crowd later in the evening when it was open dancing and there was literally line dancing composed of hundreds of both Greek-American and non Greek-Americans. I guess we were all too ignorant to realize we shouldn’t have been having fun, eh?

        • says

          Hello there! I’m just happy that you guys have picked-up the conversation! I think, at least for Helix Collective, it’s the mix of influences that makes us interesting, so that’s what we generally emphasize.

  2. says

    This is fascinating because it’s based on what is actually happening. I attend an open mic at a local bar a fair amount. Mostly I improvise, but last week I did a movement of a Handel Sonata with electric bass. We didn’t play very well, but the audience was still quite appreciative. They tend to go nuts for really “out” improvisation. What I don’t like about bars is the necessity to amplify and play really loud.

  3. Caroline Makos says

    I love your ending question of” how is this classical music?”, and your answer is spot on. Yes, classical music has always been a melting pot of influences and it should continue to evolve to be such in today’s age. The ingredients with which we melt into the pot are just different than they were in the time when “classical” composers were writing pieces based on the folk songs of their day, but the intent is the same.

  4. says

    Downloaded your dissertation! Looking forward to Helix Collective’s concert on October 12 @ The Block – The West Michigan Symphony’s new intimate concert space in downtown Muskegon.

    • says

      We are so excited to play at the new venue! I’m so impressed with the idea – small space, flexible/moveable seating, bar in the room! We should feel right at home. I also hear there is a microbrew opening downstairs owned by the Symphony? Brilliant.

      • Carla Hill says

        Wish we did own the microbrew that will be opening in the next few months. But we are happy to have a bar in the room! Looking forward to your performance @ The Block.

  5. Lawrence de Martin says

    I am the Electro-Acoustic Luthier. I build amplification systems to bridge the gap between the musical aesthetics of the 18th, 19th and 21st Centuries. They are so musical that 98% of conservatory players can’t tell when I am amplifying. Even the performers hear the amplifier as another player sharing the stage, albeit one with a louder instrument.

    My sound system allows transparent combinations of traditional orchestral instruments in unbalanced acoustic orchestrations and with found sounds, computer processing and synthesis. It is particularly adapted to micro-sounds, loops, multi-track choirs and consorts because the output is nearly indistinguishable from the matching soundboards or air columns and blends perfectly. It is also useful in raising acoustic levels above the background noise of urban environments and the noisier audiences of non-traditional venues.

    I know this sounds unbelievable because engineers have been claiming perfect reproduction since the Edison phonograph. That is because audio engineers do not know what acoustic music sounds likes so PA and Stereo Systems are not musical. Music and reproduction are divergent dialects of sound. Speaker people can’t discriminate the phonemes of music; which is why I had to do all my research using classical musicians. Even classical musicians who listen to iPods and internet tracks more than they listen to REAL music have corrupted hearing.

    I de-constructed audio back to the beginning of radio to identify the mathematical differences between electro-mechanical reproduction and acoustic music. I then developed a model of Natural hearing based on the ear training of conservatory performance graduates, which provided the criteria for the novel audio systems.

    Setups are constructed with a strict rule of OVOMOS: one voice, one mic, one speaker. In this manner a quartet is represented by a cello speaker, a viola speaker and two violin speakers. This is necessary because to acoustically trained ears MIXING IS DISTORTION.

    The speakers are optimized by instrument type. I have models for double sided sound boards like violins and pianos and a pair for closed back soundboards like guitar, lute and harpsichord. The violin speakers are adaptable for voice and other wind instruments that use valves and slides. I have done some preliminary experiments with tone hole instruments like flute and bassoon using three or four channels because every note has a different shape.

    I invite people in the New York area to come play or hear concerts at SpectrumNYC, 121 Ludlow St, when I am doing sound; or I can arrange to hear my musicophile concert recordings which utilized my speakers.

    • says

      This is fascinating, Lawrence! Do you have a website with more information about your work and performances? I’ve always hating amplifying and having to make the choice between a pickup or live mic–each has some advantages and disadvantages, but what you’re claiming would seem to eliminate the disadvantages of both!

      • Lawrence de Martin says

        I have limited web presence. The SpectrumNYC website has schedule information about performances. I have pictures of my system in action on Facebook and join the fb event pages when I am working.

        I always use specialized studio grade microphones because the sound radiates from the instrument as a whole and there is no place where a pickup can capture the sound. I have learned to avoid cardioid and large diaphragm mics, especially the colorations of center-electrode models like the Neumann U87.

        With one speaker per voice representing the place of the player on stage, it takes at least twice the floor space and considerable time to move the speakers to eliminate feedback and so everyone can hear. The speakers have to be at the same height as the instruments to sound right so sight lines are a factor too. Some people are glad to show up an hour earlier to play while I construct the system, but most show up late for sound check and rehearsal.

        The concept that I need complete orchestration for the program in advance is also novel. I have to use different speakers depending on the acoustics of the instruments (currently seven models), which may mean hauling different speakers from my warehouse two hours away. I need timbre and register specifications even if the source is electronic because the speakers are sounding boards. You would not use a piano sound board for a guitar, or vice versa.

        Acoustic musicians feel instantly at home once I find a good geometry, but if players are acclimated to using PA systems they have to re-tune their ears, ensemble seating and expectations. Things which are easy and fast in a club are complicated, slow and often impossible under my rules. Because of this I avoid touring bar acts.

        The usual routine is “I need some reverb”, “Can I get more of me in the monitor”, “I have to use a pickup for the looping and processing” and “I have twelve tracks on my computer”. There are no monitors, because splitting and mixing are spatial distortion. I refuse to use digital reverb, so I have two channels of analog reverb and the rest is the room, which can be fitted with reverb speakers at some reduction in seating plan.

        Looping and processing benefit greatly from good microphones, but that involves phantom power and re-tuning patches. The correct way to handle generated and pre-recorded sounds is a multi-track breakout with optimized speakers for each voice, but loopers, processors and mixers all funnel the sound into two outputs.

        The worst: my vocal amplification requires you keep at least 12″ from the microphone and actually sing. Anyone who has used a bar PA feels compelled to touch the mic with their fingers and lips. I am tempted to give them a dummy mic to chew on, but then they don’t project properly.

        There are also pieces where the electronic sound is intended by the composers. Spectrum has a conventional bar PA installed that performs this function well.

        • says

          Oh–excellent! Wonderful tips and techniques. you should so write a book/technical manual!

          I’ve wondered about studio grade mic for live shows–it always seem like live mics were designed more for volume than, say, warmth of sound. Though I must admit one of the best live mic’ing experiences I had was at the Grand Ole’ Opry with a small clip on–of course at venues like that you have nearly a one-to-one correlation of sound techs/engineers to performers which just isn’t cost effective for smaller shows.

          Different speakers for different instruments–that’s genius and makes so much sense.

          Acoustic musicians feel instantly at home once I find a good geometry, but if players are acclimated to using PA systems they have to re-tune their ears, ensemble seating and expectations. Things which are easy and fast in a club are complicated, slow and often impossible under my rules. Because of this I avoid touring bar acts.

          As time intensive what you’re describing is–I can imagine it’s just not the most time/cost effective approach, but damn, I would love to hear what you do if I’m ever in the area near one of the shows you’re running sound for!

          “I refuse to use digital reverb, so I have two channels of analog reverb and the rest is the room, which can be fitted with reverb speakers at some reduction in seating plan”

          Nice–while digital reverb can be nice for some effects, it is such a very different sound than acoustic reverb–and with acoustic instruments this would be perfect. I hate having to reconstruct an “acoustic like sound” when amped through a pick-up and have hated to just settle for what the venue has.

          Looping and processing benefit greatly from good microphones, but that involves phantom power and re-tuning patches. The correct way to handle generated and pre-recorded sounds is a multi-track breakout with optimized speakers for each voice, but loopers, processors and mixers all funnel the sound into two outputs.

          I have been toying with the idea and have experimented with two channels when I’m using a number of effects, especially loopers–it always seemed like there would be so much degradation of the signal in either the looped signal or the non-looped signal when using just one input. This is especially problematic when improvising over loops or other effects with latency. But having two outputs–given what you said about one-speaker-for-voice, this makes as much sense–maybe even more. I’ll have to try this–thanks!

          The worst: my vocal amplification requires you keep at least 12″ from the microphone and actually sing. Anyone who has used a bar PA feels compelled to touch the mic with their fingers and lips. I am tempted to give them a dummy mic to chew on, but then they don’t project properly.

          How do you set that–when I’m singing I usually really set the vocal hot so I can use my own vocal dynamics to modulate dynamic range–since I’m usually playing cello while doing this I don’t have nearly as much room to maneuver (hence why I set it so hot). I do sometimes use distance from the mic to affect the dynamic range but it creates so many uncomfortable playing positions with the cello. I don’t generally like to use headset mics because of the inability to use distance to affect the sound.

          Thanks so much for this post and I’ll definitely be checking those facebook updates!

  6. says

    I finished reading the dissertation. Very interesting. A few directions that I will be exploring:
    1. finding alternative spaces where I can play unamplified.
    2. environmental music: where players are spread out across an environment like a forest.
    3. playing the Beethoven Sonatas at the Ally Kat (that’s a bar that holds a weekly open mic).
    4. alternative spaces that are quiet and reverberant. Like this one:

    • says

      Hi Christopher – Thanks for reading the dissertation! As you know, even though I focused on clubs in this blog, there is a lot of information about other alternative venues in there. Loved the video!

  7. says

    This is a very helpful blog. Fortunately for us, our Go-Go Symphony is loud and danceable by design in order to adapt to today’s audiences. This blog is very helpful to us, since we fit it acoustically. Although we’re a rather large group. That’s another hurdle.