Electric Chamber

“Reinventing the wheel” may not be as useless an undertaking as it first sounds. The wheel has been around an awfully long time, so perhaps a new take on it is exactly what it needs to stay fresh and exciting. Let’s jazz it up a bit! Find new uses, new interpretations that make it relevant to contemporary life in the post-industrial era.

Okay, maybe the wheel is a bad example. It is still, after all, one of the most widely used inventions ever. Its future is not, let us say, under imminent threat. Most likely, the wheel will continue to enjoy its ubiquitous popularity without the need for any special “reinterpretation.”

Can we say the same for chamber music?

From the private chambers of the aristocracy to the concert halls of the bourgeoisie, for a long time this particular style of music has been associated with the rich and cultured, with those occupying the “higher” strata of society. We don’t often think of the young and hip, of subversiveness, of revolution when we think of chamber music.

But perhaps that is exactly the kind of reinvention chamber music needs.

San Francisco’s own Classical Revolution certainly thinks so. More of a socio-cultural phenomenon than a musical group with static membership, Classical Revolution has been transforming how chamber music is being enjoyed all over the globe.

It all started at my favorite Mission haunt, the Revolution Cafe, where violist Charith Premawardha and some friends from the SF Conservatory of Music decided to revolutionize how and where chamber music was being heard. Their aim was to bring classical music out of the stuffy concert halls and into bars and cafes where younger (and less well off) people would be exposed to it. Their slogan? “Chamber music for the people!”

A few years later, Classical Revolution has grown from a weekly event in a tiny bar to a movement of epic proportions with chapters all over the country and in several large cities throughout the world, such as Amsterdam and Berlin. In addition to the goal of crushing the bourgeois state by bringing chamber music to the people, Classical Revolution also fosters music that is experimental and innovative, classical music that pushes traditional boundaries.

In that spirit, this past Monday at the Rev, Classical Revolution introduced composer Sebastian Plano and his cello quartet playing the entirity of Plano’s debut CD, The Arrhythmical Part of Hearts. Live. Or so I thought.

One thing that had intrigued me about the description of the music I read beforehand was that it combined live strings with electronic music.

Classical Revolution’s own Ensemble in Residence, Musical Art Quintet, which plays original compositions by bassist Sascha Jacobsen as well as some sweet interpretations of Astor Piazzolla, have a couple of “electo-tangos” in their repertoire. An electronically produced pre-recorded track is played in the background and the quintet play over it, creating a fresh and exciting sound that makes Gotan Project seem thoroughly dated. The live strings always take center stage and the electronic tracks, on the few occasions they are used, are never heavy-handed.

Unfortunately, this was not the case for Sebastian Plano’s quartet.

For a start, the prerecorded tracks were too much the main focus, often carrying the melody, which does not work well in a live performance. The four cellos seemed like an afterthought in the arrangements, the background accompaniment to the electronic music, which often went on and on for what seemed like ages before the four cellists even picked up their bows.

Secondly, the tracks themselves were often cheesy ambient or progressive trance with cloying vocals over Yanni-like piano and thumping beats. Fans of Enya might like it.

Thirdly, both the pre-recorded music and the cello accompaniment quickly started to sound repetitive. It seemed like there was some formula used for the construction of the music, so by the third or fourth iteration I had lost interest.

Having said that, the musicians, when they played, played well and there were some very pretty moments. If I had only heard one or two tracks, I might have really liked it. But sitting through the entire album was a bit painful, especially when Mr. Plano felt the need to stand up and speak before each and every track. I understand that a young composer wants to promote his music, but there are times when it’s just good to shut up and play.

For a live musical performance, the audience’s attention should be focused on the live music. Otherwise, why bother? A few times I thought it could have worked better if it had have been a dance performance with the cellos accompanying in the background. Plano did mention that one track was indeed written for a dance collaboration, but in the absence of actual dancers, we were left to imagine the central focus.

Lessons to be learned from this? Over-reliance on pre-recorded tracks for a “live” performance is bad idea. I am always impressed by multi-instrumentalist composers who can create a rich sound all by themselves in a studio, but when playing out for an audience, they need to get other musicians to play those parts, or figure out how adapt the music in some way.

Plano and his cello quartet certainly have potential, but they have a long way to go before they are at the standard of an ensemble like Musical Art Quintet, whose seamless integration of electric and chamber consistently delights and charms.

Another revolution of the wheel? Sure, why not.

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