After a decades long detour into pop and commercial music, I have recently returned to the classical music world where I began as a composer. I was surprised to learn what had become of the classical music world during my absence. Orchestras going bankrupt? Shrinking audiences? Wow! On top of that, I hear talk of incorporating more popular forms of music to revive the scene. Maybe my detour wasn’t such a detour after all. From my point of view, I think there is more hope than you may realize.
I saw that for myself at a recent pops concert in Washington DC. The fans were ready to dance and clap even before the orchestra started playing. Then the music began — first with a melody; and then with the beat the crowd had been aching for. They cheered.
“I can’t believe the orchestra is playing go-go! I can’t believe the orchestra is playing go-go!” a woman beside me kept repeating in awe. She was verbalizing the thoughts and feelings I sensed in the audience.
She and I were part of thousands who gathered on September 4, 2011 to hear the National Symphony Orchestra play with Chuck Brown, who invented go-go music. Go-go music is a sub genre of funk that has been extremely popular in the Washington, DC area since the 1970′s, especially with African Americans. Its main feature is live funky polyrhythm — endless amounts of it — with drums, congas, cowbells, timbales, rototoms, and tambourines. It also uses improvisation and audience call and response. The beat never stops during a show; one song just morphs into the next.
So far, go-go itself has not become famous outside of DC; but its fans have been loyal for decades. When Brown passed away last spring, thousands came to his funeral service to say goodbye. His beat lives on through other go-go bands and in music around the world. You are probably familiar with this hypnotic swinging beat; it’s all over today’s hiphop, R&B, and alternative rock music. It is the foundation for human beatboxing.
Go-go fans were always proud when Chuck received honors like a Grammy nomination, and now a symphony orchestra pops concert. In their minds, this event is huge like that.
Even Chuck Brown couldn’t believe “the orchestra” was playing go-go. Local ABC News reported, “Asked if he thought he’d ever be playing with the National Symphony, Brown says, ‘No, no, no. I didn’t think I’d be playing on the Capitol grounds let alone with a symphony orchestra… That’s going to be the experience of a lifetime for me,’ Brown says. ‘That’s something I never dreamed I would be doing.’”
These are thoughts and feelings I do not hear much about when classical music experts lament the state of today’s classical music. Only the insiders seem to be aware that classical music is in “crisis.” To the average music fan, symphony orchestras are still relevant and glamorous. So glamorous, that having an orchestra play your music means you’ve arrived. After all, in their minds, symphony orchestras still represent the music of the rich and classy. Symphony orchestras are big and awesome and have tons of violins. They make the Star Wars movies feel more epic and raise our adrenaline when we play video games.
So the good news about classical music is that most music fans love and respect symphony orchestras from a distance, even if they can’t always relate to them. All we composers have to do is find a way to speak their musical language. So cheer up, folks. The glass is half full.
However, in our search for creative solutions, we need to read the cues. This successful go-go pops concert was a hint. The crowd was saying, “You’re getting warmer.” Yes, it was “just a pops concert,” but how can we get even warmer than that?
This is why a few years ago I decided to compose a go-go symphony, which combines the go-go beat with original classical symphonic music. Ideally, it would be a full symphony orchestra you can dance to, complete with endless funky polyrhythm. More often, it will be a partial barebones orchestra – brass, woodwinds and percussion — to get the ball rolling in clubs, parks, and festivals; and to build an audience. This group will then be able to attach to complete symphony orchestras for the full effect.
There is another reason I’m organizing this ensemble. To tell you the truth, I appreciated the National Symphony Orchestra’s gesture, but they didn’t quite get the feel of the beat. So I am learning to work with the only musicians who know the feel – go-go musicians from the DC neighborhoods – even if they are not classically trained. Good thing we can communicate with audio files these days.
You should see the diversity in this group! All ages, ethnicities, economic backgrounds. One kid, who has to be about sixteen years old, wants to join; but his mother is afraid to let him venture out into Virginia from Washington DC. The go-go musicians are really excited and want to learn to read music better. They love the idea of playing in a classical symphony orchestra and they think it’s a big honor.
The classical musicians are equally excited. They think this is something different; something the average person would like. This is because we are changing the music itself; by artfully using the music of the local popular culture, rather than just putting on a token pops concert or an “arts education” event. This is just music. No lectures, program notes, multimedia, or publicity stunts needed. Nobody cares whether or not we wear tuxes. We understand each other’s music, and we just communicate with the music.
Strangers out of the blue are telling me they are excited about the go-go symphony! A woman who had read my City Paper ad for more musicians called to ask me when we will perform. I told her we’re not ready yet. She’s not a musician – just a go-go fan who happened to have read my ad. She’s asking if she could just watch a rehearsal, because she likes the concept of “go-go symphony.” She is excited that we have her music in our symphony orchestra.
I love seeing these reactions, as it affirms that I might be getting warmer. “That sounds dope,” one young woman once said to me when I told her about the go-go symphony. Imagine that — “dope” classical music. I only hope I can match their expectations.