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On August 26th, I was waiting out the last few days of summer when a friend’s parents offered to take the pair of us to a concert at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCA) in rural North Adams, MA. Since the audience was mostly middle-aged parents, I expected something that I would consider “traditional”—and, to some extent, that’s what I got.
The headlining group was Roomful of Teeth, a handful of classically trained young singers who had come to the MassMoCA to take part in an unconventional new project. They sang mostly folk music from various traditions, including a few of their own original compositions. They caught my attention by performing old folk music in the style of a modern a capella group, but what made me slide to the very front of my seat for a better look was the moment halfway through the concert when Roomful of Teeth invited Merrill Garbus from the experimental band tUnE-yArDs to perform her own music with them. Applying classical training to singing styles from around the world is one thing, but bringing an indie artist with no classical training to perform with them was another level of hybrid between old and new.
Only a few weeks later, I found myself at another concert, this time in Sanders Theatre. When extra tickets were passed along to me only days before the show, I was excited to see Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum perform solo, but I didn’t expect anything more. Once at the show, however, I was surprised to find that a classical string quartet would be opening for Mangum.
As it turns out, the concert was put together by a New York based musical organization called “Wordless Music.” According to their mission statement, the group is “devoted to the idea that the sound worlds of classical and contemporary instrumental music—in genres such as indie rock and electronica—share more in common than conventional thinking might suggest.” But Wordless Music does not stop there. It goes further, asserting that “the various boundaries and genre distinctions segregating music today—popular and classical; uptown and downtown; high art and low—are artificial constructions in need of dismantling.” In need of dismantling? Despite entirely different instruments, target audiences, methods of training, and sounds, all music should be lumped together in a single category?
Striving to break down boundaries and broaden musical horizons seems a noble cause—but also a little romantic, to say the least. At this particular concert, the audience repeatedly clapped between the movements of the first piece while the musicians shifted uneasily in their seats. The woman beside me had a not-so-silent temper tantrum as the second of the two pieces stretched far beyond the five minute template of a pop song. Her fits of laughter and loud whispers to her boyfriend not only cut through the power of the music but also served as a harsh reminder of why we separate the classics from pop concerts. Some complex works of art demand a more serious attitude than others.
Despite these few awkward moments, putting the two types of performers on the same stage was more than just provocative; it encouraged a kind of thoughtful comparison. Although modern music often demands a choice between two sharply defined camps—the ultra modern and synthesized or the completely traditional—the four artists I saw prove that the old and the new have more to say to one another than the diehard separatists ever imagined. This is not to say that the blend was seamless. But in art, a too-smooth blend often comes across as dull and uninspired, and I can confidently say that neither term comes anywhere close to describing Roomful of Teeth or the Wordless Music series.
—Columnist Sofie C. Brooks can be reached at email@example.com.
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