Orchestra Meets DJ; I Fall in Love

May 20, 2007

Last night was a lovely, rainy night, and my friend John and I walked over to Harvard’s Sanders Theater for a rare dose of orchestral culture. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project was performing in the small, resonant theater space.

While I do enjoy classical music these days, I’ll never fully shake the sense of duty that comes from my younger days. NPR stations were less talk, more classical, back then, and to my parents, the radio offered no other stations. They reinforced that exposure with the occasional Springfield Symphony Orchestra concert, excruciating for a child, and regular visits to Tanglewood, where my brother and I had to keep quiet (though at least we could draw, play with toys, and nap on a picnic blanket).

Even as a grown up, while I admire classical music, and I occasionally experience an emotional response to it, I never forget its contextual distance — that of music listened to by grown ups when I was a child, and also music made by people long gone about a world I do not inhabit.

Last night’s concert was different. The works were made by and for people of my time and my society, and I felt an immediate connection. Evan Ziporyn‘s “Hard Drive” was the first piece. I could identify the whirring and clicking of a hard drive. I could feel the moments of oneness with digital technology, and the anxiety and disorientation as well. When the piece was done, I felt pure delight.

Then came Anthony de Ritis‘ “Devolution: A concerto for DJ and Orchestra”. That’s when delight was joined by wonder and deep pleasure. DJ Spooky, aka Paul D Miller, accompanied the orchestra through a world that was sometimes lush and resolved, but more often with layers and tropes that clashed or played over each other in a way that evoked the feelings I have in my everyday engagements with media, technology, and life. I felt the past brought right out on stage with the present: Though the references were historical, they felt horizontal. The piece crossed geography, taking us from the West to the Middle East. When a flourish by Spooky during his solo made me laugh out loud, I knew I was hearing music as a language, not as an opaque art form.

There are DJs who play music, and there are DJs who play instruments. Spooky is the latter. He chose the sounds and samples to put in his mixer, and when he played that mixer it looked like he was playing a harp.

“Hard Drive” and “Devolution” appealed to me more, for their accessibility, for adding something new and creative onto a familiar art form. As Robert Kirzinger writes in the program notes,

Although the three works on this program are strikingly innovative, I would argue that it’s the spirit of inclusiveness, not the spirit of innovation for its own sake, that informs these composers.

I have always marveled at how, in rock bands and orchestras alike, musicians blend in and out of the collective, surfacing as individual soloist and then falling back to rejoin the group. To me, the crafts of fine instrumentation and of musical interpretation are nothing short of magical (even though I played violin and piano for years as a child).

Classical performance inspires awe that comes from hearing something beautiful in a distant, strange language. What I heard last night was a different kind of awe, an admiration of something that I also felt.

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