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Monday, October 6, 2008

D.S. al Coda

Jesus these New Amsterdam people are the END. The living end. First I hear Corey Dargel's NewAm debut is going to be out at the end of this month (more on this soon), then I hear they've signed composer/bandleader/blogger extraordinaire Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, and then, I hope you all caught this Times article on the scintillating composer/performer/doctor/lawyer/Indian chief Caleb Burhans, whose itsnotyouitsme project is also down with the NewAm fam. The best part of the profile:

Mr. Burhans took a job as a substitute in the Rochester Philharmonic, which was sometimes rocky. Once, when Mr. Burhans turned up at a rehearsal with his hair dyed purple, the orchestra’s managing director asked him to do something about it before the concert. Mr. Burhans turned up in a witch’s wig, cut short. The next week he tried to dye his hair a conventional red, but because of the purple die, it came out crimson, so he shaved his head. “I found out that one of the trumpet players was going around saying that I was making a mockery of classical music because my hair was purple,” Mr. Burhans said. “And I had a really intense conversation with the managing director, where I said: ‘You know, I’m just trying to help classical music, because if we don’t get more people like me coming to these concerts, this orchestra is going to die. The only people who are coming are old people, and you’re shooting yourself in the foot.’ And he said: ‘Yeah, you’re right. Sorry.’ “But I made a sign that said, ‘I Make a Mockery of Classical Music’ and started wearing it around.”

I loved this quote because, among other reasons, the visual self-presentation of classical music is such a peculiar one. Lately people are rethinking this notion that a classical ensemble has to be a mob of old folks in black tie, for better and for worse. It makes sense, to a certain extent, that you want your orchestra to be wearing a uniform. After all, the goal of a classical ensemble is uniformity of sound, that no individual obtrudes from the texture. There's also the notion that, just as the players onstage are supposed to disappear into the ensemble, the ensemble should diappear into the sound of the ensemble, that you should forget about the people you see in front of you, and think only about what's going in your ears. The ideal of most classical performance is to communicate the composer's ideas; the performer is not a creator, but an interpreter.

But there are problems with all of these assumptions. Every act of interpretation is also an act of self-expression, though this may be more obvious in some contexts than in others—if you stand under a girl's window with a guitar and sing "And I Love Her," your hope is not that she will run off and marry Sir Paul McCartney. (That would end badly for all involved.) And classical music's attempts at a null visual component have themselves become strong visual signifiers, the black tie and tails increasingly out of place in concerts for jean-and-t-shirt audiences.

So while I'm tempted to say, oh, come on, don't be in an orchestra with purple hair (wasn't that an episode of Daria or something), it's about twenty times as silly to pretend that the audience is going to somehow enjoy the concert less because of one purple head in the band. Let's loosen up a little.

I'm just going to warn the classical music kids—who, and I am including myself in this, do not tend to have the greatest fashion sense in the world—that there are also style choices that are worse than the no-style-choice of classical convention. I think I saw one of these sweaters onstage at a new music concert once, and the huxtability of the performer seriously distracted from the music he was playing.

But the real reason I like this quote is, hello, T-SHIRT IDEA!!! From now on the Daniel Stephen Johnson CafePress store is going to be selling these puppies in a variety of styles and colors. Or better yet, one of these! This is the front and this is the back. All items are modestly priced, unless you are Caleb Burhans in which case they are free if you ask politely, and all proceeds go to support my CD buying habit. Thank you that is all.

9 comments:

Patty said...

Back when brightly colored hair was just coming into popularity (I thought it was passé now?) we had a woman who had a purple streak in her hair, and one of our more "interesting" violinists once dyed his hair clown red (and it was full like a clowns as well). They weren't reprimanded.

I do wonder, though, about the drawing of attention to one's self. Is it a good idea? Bad idea? Not worth even dealing with?

The way we look on stage has always been an issue. Some think we should all wear the same thing ... that women should be in uniform as well, rather than just all black.

Me? I wish we'd nix the tails (Sigh. That's an old costume and no one dresses that way any more.) and I think all black for both men and women would be fine. But when I mentioned that to someone (who is probably the youngest person in our orchestra!) he argued in favor of tails.

I'm not sure we'll ever figure this stuff out.

Caleb said...

thanks for the shout out. a friend of mine suggested that i make shirts but it looks like you beat me to the punch, so may i please have a large t-shirt? pretty please?

blu_stocking said...

But Caleb, I think you'd look just smashing in the thong. Wear it to rehearsals, please?

blu_stocking said...

ps... can you make the shirt in black, too? that way i can wear it at my waitressing job.

Dan Johnson said...

patty: It's true, concert dress is such a thorny thing. A part of me sympathizes with your young colleague—when I played in orchestras, there was always something very exciting about putting on the old costume for a performance of Beethoven's Fifth. It may be, at this point in history, no more than a game of dress-up, but that doesn't mean it isn't aesthetically satisfying for a lot of people in the audience, too.

caleb: Hooray, thanks for stopping in! Your shirt is, so to speak, in the mail.

blu_stocking: Re: thong, [insert
pun on "G-string"]. Re: black shirt, done and done—I had to tweak the design a little to make it work on black but I hope it's not too ugly.

Judd said...

I love the idea of starting a "Caleb Burhans line", like Kathie Lee or Martha Stewart.

Dan Johnson said...

See Judd, I'm thinking more high-end, like Sean John, or RocaWear. Maybe you can get on that—some tracksuits and hoodies and apple-bottom jeans, with a flashy New Amsterdam logo? It can be called NewAmStyles, and YOU'RE WELCOME, I just made you a billionaire.

Although you may have some competition, since I believe Nico will be designing a line inspired by fashions from the new music world, such as my trademark relish-stained khakis.

Judd said...

I like it. Perhaps some grey sweatpants with the words "New ASSterdam" on, well, you know where.

Maury D'annato said...

Best post evar, especially thingy about Paul McCartney. It aces the checklist of blog entry perfection I have borrowed from a Liz Phair song: obnoxious, funny, true and mean. I now declare the internet complete and over.

I think there's something ritualistic, also, for better and worse, about suiting up. It means, for one thing: rehearsals are over, go get 'em, tiger. But it's dowdy and puts people in mind of sitting still, afraid to cough, and probably it should go.