We are the revolution

Every time I go to Portland, Oregon I learn something about music.

One of my oldest friends, who I stay with when I’m there, is a recording engineer and producer. Since I walked away from rock n’ roll in 1991 when my last band broke up, I’ve largely stopped listening to it. Visiting Sean gives me a chance to hear new bands as they work in his studio, or to go catch live shows around Portland.

What absolutely amazes me every time I am there is the mind-blowing, heart-stopping, thrilling array of great music that is being made in Portland. You can’t even begin to imagine the range of styles, sounds and attitudes. There is a fine songwriter working in every coffee shop in Portland, and there are a LOT of coffee shops in Portland. There are contemporary rockabilly groups, goth acts, space metal bands, punks, funksters.

There is a psychedelic marching band in Portland that has to be one of the great live acts on the planet.

All of these groups are out there: making CDs, doing shows, working hard. They’ve got websites, they’re on MySpace and probably on YouTube by now. However, you, dear reader, will almost certainly never hear them (unless you hear about them from me). They will not be coming to Des Moines or Swindon on tour. They will not be on MTV or Top of the Pops (RIP). There will not be documentaries on them on VH1. They won’t be recommended on Itunes or Yahoo. I will never hear the great bands in Milwaukee or Cleveland or Glasgow unless I make some hip friends in those towns.

The reason for this is simple, (and forgive me sounding like an old grouch):

The very qualities that make them great to listen to and watch are the same qualities that absolutely guarantee that no corporate radio station will ever play them, no record company will ever sign them, and no mass media market will ever recognize them.

They are too creative, too quirky, too bold, too interesting to make them appeal to the huge corporate oligarchies that decide every day what Joe Public will get to see and hear.

I say all this because I just finished reading the latest chapter of Greg Sandow’s book, which is a must read for everyone who cares about music. The synopsis of Part II of the book is-

Classical music and popular culture: why we have to embrace popular culture, and not pretend that classical music can be a refuge from it.”

What is popular culture? Is it 3 Leg Torso, Morgan Grace and Gabiel Kahane (Jeremy Denk, you changed my life today), or is it Britney Spears, X Factor and American Idol?

Mr. Sandow makes a number of references to Bob Dylan, but, let’s face it, if Dylan * was the same genius now but 24 years old an unknown, he’d be looking for a gig at Stumptown Coffee.

Most of the iconic musical genius’s of rock n’ roll that we know about come from at least 30 years ago. “Pop music” is now a music-free zone. There’s no more music in a modern pop song than their is cheese on a McDonalds “cheese”burger. Jimi Hendrix wouldn’t make it now- we like our black guys “smacking bitches” over samples of 40 year-old drumbeats in popular music, not composing, singing and playing like no one else who’s ever lived. Remember, even Prince (wo’s been around about 28 years now) had to walk away from his record company to make the music he wanted. All well and good when you’ve millions in the bank to start your own studio and record company, otherwise, I hear they’re hiring at the Minneapolis Starbucks, Mr. Prince- how’s your foaming??? Could Sgt. Pepper’s be made today? Would Velvet Underground get signed? The Stones were always too ugly to make it today- they definitely wouldn’t get no satisfaction out of Polymer Records. Even the Sex Pistols were 30 years ago, and their’s was primarily a cultural, not a musical, revolution.

The good news, is that we can learn a lot from our brothers and sisters who are out there making good music in the rock and roll world. At least until the big phone companies start to cut off access to the internet to all but the big spenders, the web is a powerful tool, and independent artists have made great use of it. Blogs, MySpace and YouTube all offer the private artist a variety of tools to get their work seen and heard who don’t have the cash to bribe their way onto mainstream radio playlists (trust me, payola is alive and well like never before). People are using those tools to spread the word about bands they like every day, and we should be doing the same. You may not get onto big-time FM Radio, but you can get famous- Pink Martini did (disclosure- their trombonist is a regular conducting student at the Rose City International Conductor’s Workshop, everyone has the bug now!).*

Greg is right- we cannot continue to think that classical music can be a refuge from pop culture, but it can, and should, be an alternative to the wrong kind of pop culture. Right now, classical organizations are so terribly ham-fisted and completely un-hip that they’re embracing all the very worst characteristics of McDonaldized, mass-marketed, pre-fab, focus-group-tested, corporate garbage culture. Classical promoters and record companies are out there looking for singers and violinists who look like Paris Hilton. We’re ditching anyone with gray hair. The fat lady has sung when it comes to fat ladies singing. Classical music is in danger of becoming easy listening music with sexy album covers.

I’m all for sex, but does anyone really think Paris Hilton is sexy? Does anyone really think that boy bands are cool? Why are we looking to the unsexy and the uncool for ideas about how to be sexy and cool? Let’s face it, most of our classical sex symbols wouldn’t cut it as such in any other field (surely there is more to sexy in the real world than: f”emale, dresses like a drunk, slutty debutante and is under 45″), but that’s changing as classical record companies start paying for artist’s breast enhancements as a condition of their record deals (yes, it has been done).

The thing is, people who listen to Top 40 radio WILL NEVER, EVER LISTEN to classical music, or anything else without a beat, a video, tits and lyrics about summer vacation.

There is a generation of hip, intelligent, curious listeners out there who we’re not getting, but if we start looking as fake and empty as most pop culture, they’ll go elsewhere. They want things that are thorny, weird, challenging. They like wrinkly old dudes and funny looking chicks. What they want is a connection, what they want is immediacy, what they want is something that the performer really believes in. There are audiences out there looking for honesty- we abandon them and it at our peril.

I happen to believe that a well played Beethoven sonata can be just as edgy, exciting, fresh and relevant as a Bad Brains concert or a Xenakis piece. We shouldn’t be giving in to the worst of corportate pop culture, but charging it head on. The mass media reports the financial problems of major record companies as if that were a sign that music was no longer popular. When record companies stopped selling music, and started selling image, lifestyle and dance, people went elsewhere for music. Let the majors die (I’m not talking about classical labels, but the conglomerates that buy them up)- surely no sane person wants three companies deciding the musical taste of the whole world. When classical radio became “music to fall asleep at the wheel by”, people who like classical music stopped listening.

People like music. Give them music.

We ought to be hurling verbal hand grenades into boyband stadium concerts, just as Boulez once told us to blow up the opera houses. ***

c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

* I think one is actually hard pressed to make the case that Bob Dylan is a musical genius. He’s a singing poet, and the word is the thing with him- his musical vocabulary and his literary one can’t really be compared

** Bad news, though, is that, if you are an independent rock n roll artists, you can spread the word and get your music known, and have an impact, but you can’t make a living, you can’t get health care, you can’t put your kids through school and you can’t buy a house. Unless you are with a major label, you’d better have a day job. Coming tomorrow– “Classical music- the art form, will survive, but will classical music- the profession, survive? Ask a jazz musician.”

*** Just a note. This is my 123rd entry, and marks the first ever usage of the asterisk on A View from the Podium. Forgive me if I got carried away with it. Chill the champagne, Martha.

Not sure why I like this so much, but I do. Big file, allow time to download

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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