They didn’t seem to mind, really. The chickens, that is. At least, during the period in which I watched them — which included a louder-than-average performance by the Donald Sinta Saxophone Quartet — they didn’t really seem to react in any dramatic way. The smaller one was just trying to sleep. Once or twice, the larger of the two let out a mildly discontented squawk, but most of the time it resorted to a sort of low, quiet clucking which came off as relatively good-natured. I think. I don’t really know anything about chickens, honestly, so I’m probably not the best interpreter of their body language.
How did I end up watching a concert in a room dominated by a chicken coop?
I attended this concert about a month ago now, and have been thinking about it frequently ever since. The event was called Strange Beautiful Music, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes adventurous sounds and doesn’t mind sitting quietly for 10 hours, on and off. The concert is dedicated to “new” or “contemporary” classical music, or whatever we happen to be calling it at the time, and it takes place annually in Detroit, organized through the Detroit Symphony. When you buy your ticket at the door, you pay whatever price you can best afford, which was a welcome windfall for students like me. At least on this year’s program, there was a tremendous variety in the types of performances, from presentations of high modernist music by Pierre Boulez to percussion arrangements of Chrome Sparks and Gold Panda. And it was great.
The chickens were a surprise. It’s my understanding (though this was my first year in attendance) that the concert normally takes place in Symphony Hall, but due to some sort of last minute logistical challenge this year it was relocated to an art gallery space called Wasserman Projects. At the time (and currently) the gallery hosted an exhibit called ENERGY/MASS by the Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen, which is the latest development in his ongoing 20-year-long Cosmopolitan Chicken Project. I won’t pretend to really grasp the meaning of CCP, but throughout the open gallery space you could find sculptures, photographs, videos and other depictions of chickens, eggs and all sorts of related subjects. The center of the room was dominated by a large construction which contained the aforementioned two chickens, as well as what must have been hundreds of eggs under heat lamps. The venue was, without compare, the strangest place I have ever heard a concert, and it was beautiful. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
It’s no secret that classical music carries connotations of snobbery and elitism. I find these characterizations to be largely unfounded, at least amongst the musicians of younger generations, but they still have an immense effect on the way the art form is viewed. The coloration of classical music is in many respects primarily created by the tinted glasses through which society looks at it. And this is understandable — as an art form, classical music is very old, and along its way it has picked up an awful lot of baggage. And while I think that the view most people have of classical music culture is likely inaccurate, there are plenty of things that classical musicians and organizations can change about themselves to make these stereotypes less justified. And I think that Strange Beautiful Music demonstrates the most important of them extraordinarily well.
(I realize that an art exhibition about chickens is probably just about the epitome of the sort of liberal-bourgeois elitism that turns people off to a lot of art like classical music, but that’s not really the point.)
Something wonderful about Strange Beautiful Music was the casual atmosphere of it all. The most apparent aspect of this was simply the space, but it was also present in the way audience members interacted with performers and each other. The whole thing was very relaxed — there were the chickens, of course, but additionally there were things like how in between performances, people would hop up, wander around, socialize and end up sitting down in an entirely different place. If you were hungry or thirsty, you could buy some food in the back. Or you could leave and walk to the Thai restaurant down the street (which I did), and return to the concert 30 minutes later. As you walked around between sets, you would bump into people you knew and recognized. For instance, I ran into my composition teacher from last year, and a composer I admire who I could have sworn was in Rome on a fellowship right now. And I don’t think I saw a single tuxedo, thank God.
In some ways, I feel that this concert was similar to another immensely positive musical experience of mine. In the summer of 2015, I studied composition at the Tanglewood Institute in rural Massachusetts, which is one of the liveliest music festivals in the country. I lost count of how many concerts I attended while there, but I’m almost certain it was more than all the rest of my life up to that point. Particularly during the Contemporary Music Series, I was attending performances daily. And at almost all of them, a similar casual atmosphere to SBM could be felt. At one of my favorite concerts — a performance of “Ancient Voices of Children” by George Crumb (coincidentally a University doctoral alum) — the performers weren’t even wearing shoes. The main venues were designed to be viewed from the outdoors, so people would come and have a picnic while enjoying the concert. The mingling was excellent — I had a chance encounter with Michael Tilson Thomas, who is the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, and another with one of my two favorite living composers (that encounter being particularly gratifying, as I walked away with both a photo and a Facebook friend). I even heard a rumor that the notorious U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was around somewhere, but I never bumped into her.
I believe that this sort of relaxed environment is essential to the future of classical music. I won’t fall into the same sort of hyperbole some of my predecessor critics and artists did; I won’t prophesy the imminent demise of the art form, the fall of high art or anything dramatic like that. To paraphrase a misquotation of Twain, the reports of the genre’s death have been greatly exaggerated — people have been proclaiming classical music moribund for centuries. It’s not. But it does contain many vestigial structures which make it less accessible to today’s society and that it would benefit from shedding. The stiff and ceremonial concert attitude is one of them. The antiquated dress code is another. So is the intransigent museum culture built around long-deceased composers. But I believe in classical music. I love it more than anything I know, and I firmly believe that if we work to shake off the unhelpful traditions passed down from its aristocratic origins, more people might realize that they could love it too.