A common ground for classical and rock

Wordless Music Series
New York City's Wordless Music Series is devoted to the idea that classical and rock music share more in common than is usually thought.
Photo courtesy of the Wordless Music Series

Wordless Music Series founder Ronen Givony had little background in classical music when he started working for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. One day he asked a colleague in the office what was meant by the term "chamber music." He was told that it was music made by small groups of performers for a small, attentive audience.

"This got me to wondering why chamber music was the name for the sort of music being played in Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center," Givony says. "And why it was known by different names than the music played in downtown clubs such as the Mercury Lounge and the Bowery Ballroom."

Valgier Sigurdsson
Icelandic composer/record producer Valgeir Sigurdsson has been Bjork's main studio collaborator since 1998.
Photo courtesy of The Southern Theater

Givony also wondered why people at those downtown clubs knew all about adventurous pop/rock bands and performers such as Radiohead and Bjork, but nothing about Bach and Stravinsky. It seemed to him that these musicians and composers had much in common. And so he started the Wordless Music Series to bring them together.

Saturday's Southern Theater concert is the first time the series has done a show outside of New York City. It will feature Icelandic electronic composer/record producer Valgier Sigurdsson and young American composer Nico Muhly, whose music is rooted in the classical tradition and especially inspired by minimalist movement of the 1960s and 70s.

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"My guess is that fans of Bjork and Radiohead are a lot more likely to be turned on to John Adams, Steve Reich or the Kronos Quartet than they are the next single on MTV."

One of the philosophies behind the Wordless Music Series is that the various boundaries segregating music are artificial constructs. As a composer who has worked with both Philip Glass and Bjork and is inspired by early English choral music, Nico Muhly exemplifies that idea, but he also says that some of those distinctions are real and it's not helpful to pretend they don't exist.

"I think about this issue a lot," he says. "A lot of people say, 'Oh my God, you have electronic music in your classical music. It's crossover music.' I always, always, always have to resist that. Because crossover is one of the dirtiest words. It's like fusion food. Your skin crawls when someone says it. But in a sense, the condition of being 26 and living in New York City is one in which all of this different music co-exists. I think to deny that is also incorrect."

Because of the way so many different musical worlds come together in this age of the internet and iPod, Muhly says it's a great time to be making music.

New Yorker magazine classical music critic Alex Ross says the Wordless Music Series is taking advantage of this musical fluidity.

"So many people have a mixed menu of different types of music that they listen to, so why not put it on the same program and see what happens and see if it works," he says. "Sometimes the programs may go on a little long or the juxtapositions seem a little forced, but more often for than not it intuitively makes sense."

Nico Muhly
Nico Muhly says his music music is an expression of being 26 and living in New York City.
Photo courtesy of the Southern Theater

Ross says everyone has something to gain from the Wordless Music Series. The rock crowd can enjoy music free of chatter and the sound of clinking beer bottles. And classical musicians can expose their music to a new audience.

Series founder Ronen Givony says it's a simple answer to the old question of how to get younger audiences interested in classical music.

"You have 50 and 60 year olds sitting around obsessing over how to get twenty-somethings in the seats and they don't happen to know any twenty-somethings," he says. "They might not be listening to classical music, but my guess is that fans of Bjork and Radiohead are a lot more likely to be turned on to John Adams, Steve Reich or the Kronos Quartet than they are the next single on MTV."

Givony says the success of the Wordless Music Series after just one season demonstrates that there is an appetite among both younger and older listeners for new ways of hearing music. The Southern Theatre is already making plans for two or three more Wordless Music Series programs in Minneapolis for 2008.