Friday, August 07, 2009

Classical gas

Earlier this week I got an email from Doug Jenkins, leader of Portland's own (logically enough, given their name) Portland Cello Project.

I love it when gig emails from groups I really dig make me laugh out loud! Let's see if you have the same reaction. Here's an excerpt:

Sometimes I write emails for the Cello Project list, and right after I send them I think “oops – that one might earn a few ‘unsubscribe’ responses.” Generally this is the case if I do something like talk about Britney Spears too much, or something. I forget that some people don’t think pop music is as simultaneously silly, ridiculous, joyful and compelling as I do... It’s just a good break from all the serious music you have to play when you’re a cellist, especially in the summer with wedding gigs and all of this other stuff...

I always want to write back to the people who unsubscribe and say "but... I’ve been practicing the Chopin sonata all day – this pop music thing is just my escape – I promise I just got carried away for a second with the ironic pop music references!"

Anyway, this email INESCAPABLY revolves around getting carried away with the ironic pop music references, so, if that’s not your thing, you may as well stop reading right now!

Who among us in the jazz world, with its overblown anxieties about audience, art, and entertainment, could fail to appreciate these sentiments?

Of course, our overblown anxieties may be quite different from what a classical cellist experiences in a group like the PCP. Perhaps classical music, with its centuries-long backstory as "serious art," at least provides its practitioners with a clear choice: different contexts require the wearing of different hats, and it's particularly obvious when those hats are being mixed up. You get asked to play classical music at a wedding, for instance, and you can be reasonably sure that you are being asked to be "serious" (even if you are being asked to do it in the background). And because audience expectations about classical music are so deeply ingrained, using a group of cellos to play music ostensibly designed for "entertainment" (especially when it's not the Beatles, or other stuff that routinely gets covered by pops orchestras) is probably still a pretty surprising gesture, relatively speaking.

Playing pop (or pop-inflected) music in a jazz ensemble is a different animal altogether. We've forgotten which hat is which. People like me complain a lot about how jazz has almost completely lost touch with its roots in the brothels and rathskellers; and to a certain extent, those complaints are justified -- clearly the era of Jazz, the Institution is now upon us. But the real "problem" (which may not be a problem at all, except for those who seek clarity in their art) is just that jazz is taxonomically confusing. We jazzers know what we like, but we don't really know for sure whether what we create is "art" or "entertainment." (Quick: you get asked to play jazz at a wedding! What exactly are you being hired to do?)

As I say, such confusion may not be a problem at all, in the grand scheme of things. In fact, as a committed Dada-ist, I love it. On the other hand, clarity about genre helps to sell records.

* * * * *

Anyway, for those of you here in Portland, the PCP is performing this Saturday at the Doug Fir Lounge. I have seen them before, and can heartily attest to the wonderfulness that is their show. It usually features a rotating cast of collaborators, drifting in and out of the group from all directions, making for a very lovely two-hour-or-so smorgasbord.

If you don't believe me, I urge you to check out the audience hooting and hollering in the above video.

[Photo credit: Alicia Rose]

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