“…Makes we wonder, sometimes, if arts institutions, trying to stretch beyond themselves, take time to ask who they’re stretching to. Which people, which subcultures, what these people and cultures are like, what really goes on the city the arts orgs are reaching to.”
The Go-Go Symphony rises from the streets and clubs of Washington, DC, combining pop and classical music. And because of that poses — or ought to pose — a sharp challenge to the Kennedy Center, precisely because the Kennedy Center wants to reach past its walls to involve more of Washington, DC, and to create a kind of cultural blend. But it pretty much does this from the top down.
What I mean by that
I mean that the Kennedy Center seems to sit (so to speak) on its figurative hill, imagining ways to stretch beyond itself. Not to say that it doesn’t actually stretch, or that the ways it stretches are bad. Look at Mason Bates, its composer in residence, who’s also a dance DJ. Or Jason Moran, a jazz pianist, also in residence, who just teamed both with Mason, and with musicians from DC’s U Street clubs.
And then there’s the Kennedy Center’s hiphop initiative, just announced for next season, featuring Q-Tip and DJ Spooky. With Q-Tip (from A Tribe Called Quest) even named as Artistic Director for Hiphop Culture.
But that’s just my point!
Q-Tip and DJ Spooky are art-hiphop, not so close, these days, to the streets and clubs where hiphop began. And in so many ways still lives.
Hiphop also has been, in its history, very much local. When I moved rrom New York to LA in 1988, I moved to a different hiphop world, a gangsta world, not the political hiphop scene in New York. (With, all over, a party hiphop scene that in those days white people like me weren’t likely to know about.)
I don’t see the Kennedy Center talking about DC hiphop, with its close, vibrant connection to go-go, the iconic local funk beat that defines our town’s African-American music scene.
Is the Kennedy Center, perhaps not consciously, thinking of bringing hiphop mostly to its existing arts audience? Rather than joining the rset of the city with it. My wife (Anne Midgette, classical music critic for the Wsahington Post) raised that question quite deflty in her piece on the Kennedy Center’s new season:
I’m delighted about Q-Tip and the new hip-hop arm of the center’s programming — though Rutter’s claim at the press conference that the focus would “bring this art form to DC audiences” seems slightly myopic, given that the art form has a much larger footprint in DC in general than anything the Kennedy Center has to offer.
I should stress that I don’t underplay the longer-term significance of this move, which among much else got the Kennedy Center press in all kinds of pop-culture outlets (Google “Kennedy Center hiphop) to see what I mean). Thus giving the place an opening into the wider media world, at least. Shifting, perhaps, the perception of what’s going on.
And who knows where this will go in the future? We should give Deborah Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center, credit for making the move.
Enter the Go-Go Symphony
Which, as I mentioned in my previous post, I heard last Friday night. At the Atlas Performing Arts Center, which (whatever marketing problems they might have) sits on what might be the hippest street in DC, surrounded by jumping restaurants and bars. As opposed to the Kennedy Center, which sits pretty much alone, on the Potomac.
So what’s the Go-Go Symphony? Started as an ensemble of classical instruments, which played new compositions that blended classical music and go-go. And — so important! — used go-go drummers. Not classical percussionists playing go-go rhythms, but real go-go drummers, who play go-go in clubs.
The group grew. Opened for Trouble Funk, DC’s top go-go band. Instant, total street cred. Got as its lead drummer Ju Ju House, a world-class drummer (toured with top stars) and go-go legend (one of the most powerful, propulsive drummers I’ve ever heard). Double street cred.
And of course the group has been playing at the Atlas with a full orchestra, the Capital City Symphony, plus Ju Ju and three other go-go percussionists, plus dancers from Da Originals (again from clubs), and a lively MC, Ashley Jenkins, who raps, sings, and talks with the audience.
What this means
The orchestra isn’t professional. But they play with spirit — grinning a lot, moving in their seats — and the conductor who does the Go-Go Symphony shows, John Devlin, is hot. One of the few classical conductors I’ve heard who can make funk go. Also has credentials: cover conductor for Christoph Eschenbach at the National Symphony, assistant conductor of the Princeton (NJ) Symphony, and founder and conductor of the refreshing Gourmet Symphony.
The shows turn into dance parties, the audience on its feet. The classical/go-go blend is seamless, authentic on both sides, and — can’t say this enough — roaring up from the clubs with the go-go beat. Go-go shows have drums going throughout, no breaks between songs, and that’s pretty much what happens when the Go-Go Symphony plays with orchestra.
And then the urban vibe. As I said in my last post, Ashley Jenkins asked for a shout from Southeast, a largely African-American section of DC. And got one. Not happening at the Kennedy Center!
Plus one of the pieces the Symphony plays, the Green Line Symphony, celebrating stops on the Metro’s Green Line, ends with the Anacostia station. Anacostia? African-American neighborhood, with a long, rich history.
So we get a shout for Anacostia from the stage, with echoing cheers. Not happening at the Kennedy Center! Even though we’re in a black majority town.
We could make too much of this. Could develop more. Could do some new pieces, not repeat the same show. Not that Liza Figueroa Kravinsky, who founded and runs the group, doesn’t know this!
You could say that “real” classical music goes deeper, though you’d be forgetting that lots of classical works, in the past, were written for pure entertainment.
You could say that the start of the show, the 2001 start of Thus Spake Zarathustra is hoky, and for sure has been done before. But it’s knowingly hoky (as I read the delight with which it’s played). And when Ju Ju explodes into it with his drums, the Atlas just about levitates.
So this is a classical/pop blend that starts from the clubs and the street. Liza has played pop music professionally (for a group founded by Prince, among other gigs). The show feels real and comfortable. Genuiune!
As opposed to pop moves from on high, as so often we get from certified arts institutions. They can feel tentative, distant, not quite fully formed. Makes we wonder, sometimes, if arts institutions, trying to stretch beyond themselves, take time to ask who they’re stretching to. Which people, which subcultures, what these people and cultures are like, what really goes on the city the arts orgs are reaching to.
Questions the Go-Go Symphony doesn’t have to ask, because it’s already there.
Full disclosure: Liza and John Devlin are friends of mine. I brought them together, when the Go-Go Symphony was just starting. Liza hired me as a consultant to help her get the group going, and (besides helping her with orchestration) my one contribution was to suggest she not try to start inside the classical biz, but instead do it outside, on her own.
But, wow, I didn’t — couldn’t! — do anything to get her opening for Trouble Funk, or to make the show as hot as it is. Am I biased toward the group? Sure. But that doesn’t sell out the house, or get people cheering and dancing. Or get the group chosen to officially represent DC at South by Southwest, as an example of why people might want to move here.
The Go-Go Symphony didn’t make the trip, because funds couldn’t be raised. But, believe me — whatever influence I and my blog might have, it isn’t nearly enough to make the Go-Go Symphony the DC instituition that, in a small way, at least, they’ve become.