Recently, I attended a concert I normally wouldn’t have. I received free tickets as a small part of my compensation for designing a brochure promoting the classical music series of which this event was a part, and the people who hired me were very kind and quite passionate. Plus, I am a life-long music lover, and if I’m totally honest, I also wanted them to sign me on to do the upcoming season’s brochure. So it seemed like an important networking kind of thing.
Those who know me know that I’m primarily a rock n’ roll person, having fallen hard for the Beatles at age 9 when I first heard “Twist and Shout,” a song that seems simplistic and a bit dusty to me now — a true Golden Oldie — but at the time was a tune more energizing than anything I had ever heard, more amazing than I ever even imagined listening to, a song that had me dancing and jumping around the house, my whole body moved by sheer sonic revelation. As part of my early musical education, my dad — who had until then largely raised me on a lovely, yet quieter, combination of Leonard Cohen, Simon & Garfunkel, church hymns and Christian camp songs — also threw in the Kinks and the Rolling Stones, just to blow my mind. The rest is history.
Still, my dad has always also been a huge classical music aficionado — and I mean that in the most serious sense. He admires chamber music in a way so soulful it reminds me of the blues. Choral singing is part of his religious practice. Early music is a revelation to him, ancient though it is. I sat next to him in the dark listening to many symphony orchestras growing up. For years, he took me along to Wednesday night choir practices at our church. A couple of years ago, when his local classical music station was offering a guest DJ spot for the highest donor, he made sure he was the one. He was so excited when I landed this client who hosts a classical music series.
I knew the group I was about to see perform — a string quartet — wasn’t going to be playing traditionally classical music. Sweetly deemed “our outside-the-box group” by the hosting organization, this act is known for doing covers of songs by what they call “contemporary composers,” like, say, Sonic Youth. Perfect, I thought. It will combine my musical passion with my dad’s in some cool chemistry. A mash-up, a fusion thing. Fun, I thought.
I had no idea that I was about to witness one of those rare things that, in some ways you really dig, but in other ways, you genuinely dislike. And yet I totally appreciated it all because this outfit is so astoundingly good at the weird thing they do. Besides, I think I’ve heard enough schlocky and unoriginal music in my time to at least know that this was something new, something different. It sounds rude to say I appreciated them, because it was so much more than that. I admired them — their passion, their fortitude, their sheer willingness to rock out in this traditional format, breaking the mold.
The band leader for Ethyl was a sparkly middle-aged woman with long platinum blonde hair, wearing a short dress and sky-high heels, playing a glossy black cello. She whipped her bright mane often and stomped her stilettos in time. Next to her was a guy sporting a faux hawk playing his violin as expertly as the squarest looking guy in a professional symphony orchestra, but so much edgier; a baby-faced guy in jeans also on violin who had a sweet singing voice; and a dude with chin-length hair and a 10 o’clock shadow who looked like he would be right at home in a Grateful Dead cover band, except here he was smiling angelically while pulling his bow across a viola.
The four played some of the most modernly atonal original pieces with the craziest structures I have ever heard. I recognized a couple of bars of an Aretha Franklin song, but otherwise was largely mystified as to the origination of even the covers they performed. But boy, did they own them all. They didn’t simply make chords with their fingers and bow strings together; they stomped, slapped, clapped, sang, whistled and plucked in perfect synchronicity. They did it all absolutely expertly, so in tune with each other, clearly in love with what they were doing, smiling and nodding at each other so much, seeming to be in their own magical musical world. I wondered whether they forgot the audience was there.
I was truly delighted to witness such an event. I left the concert hall and said aloud, “That was art.” And I meant it. I had witnessed creativity and authenticity, heart and soul. They rocked. I believe in those guys; I want them to succeed. I would go see them again in a heartbeat despite having begged the universe to make one of the songs stop.
I wonder what my dear old dad would think.