In Jon Brown’s living room, formal wear becomes t-shirts and jeans. Stuffy theater chairs transform into sagging couches next to a staircase where students perch, bottles of beer in hand.
Since September, Brown, a graduate student studying percussion at the University, and his girlfriend Sarah Chabot have hosted small, in-home shows in their living room on North Campus, near the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Unlike the typical party, these gatherings highlight classical music and other genres typically constrained to a more formal setting.
“What we really wanted to try to do was to get people that don’t come to (formal) concerts to come out and make it a more relaxed atmosphere,” Brown said. “So it’s not just sitting in a concert hall having to be really quiet, having to sit there with your hands crossed and not say anything and not talk to your neighbor.”
Chabot originally proposed the idea of hosting the series in their home, instead of renting a venue, giving way to the name “Living Room Music.”
The mood at their concerts is casual, Chabot explained. Attendees can enjoy a glass of beer or wine while discussing and sharing notes on performances — a marked change from the traditional, stuffy atmosphere of classical music venues.
“I really love having people in my living room,” she said. “It’s a great environment to have people … playing in.”
“It changed how I view my living room,” Brown said of the first concert. “It was so communal.”
Not only is the atmosphere of Living Room Music communal, it’s welcoming. Admission is free and attendees are encouraged to bring refreshments to share.
The setup is simple: A tie-dyed green tapestry hangs behind the main performance space. According to Brown, all of the sound equipment belongs to him and consists of pieces accrued through his years as a musician.
In between sets at the second show the couple hosted, someone grabs a vinyl from Brown and Chabot’s impressive collection — showcased on a bookshelf that also hosts a White Album cover jigsaw puzzle — and throws it on the record player. Audience members mingle and wander into the kitchen for refills, discussing their favorite performances so far.
Brown and Chabot have a long relationship with music, meeting as undergraduates in the music program at Central Michigan University. Chabot has a music education degree and teaches piano and cello in Ann Arbor.
Brown — who begged his parents to let him play the drums in elementary school — drifted toward rock before pursuing classical music.
“I just found that classical music — once you really delve into it — it’s so complex and so easy at the same time, so there’s always something new there,” he said.
While most house shows around campus feature electronic music or live bands, the Living Room Music scene is more eclectic, geared toward an acoustic sound.
“I like electronic music, and that’s all very well and good,” Chabot said. “But in this environment, I love having that live, acoustic chamber music.”
The series has attracted a diverse mix of artists. Some have premiered original work in their acts, while others take creative approaches to established arrangements. During the first concert, a Fulbright scholar from India played the tabla, an Indian percussion instrument used commonly in Hindustani classical music.
But it was Brown and his quartet who kicked off the series with a piece fittingly titled “Living Room Music” by John Cage, an American composer known for his non-traditional use of instruments.
“That was just a perfect way to open up for the concert series,” Chabot said. “It’s one of these pieces where (Cage) doesn’t list what instruments you need to use. He tells you to find your own instruments. So that week before the concert, all the guys came over, and they were just walking around my house, just picking up random things and putting them down into their setup.”
On the surface, the Living Room Music concerts can feel like a casual party, but there’s an element of illusion to them. To achieve the relaxed, effortless flow of the evening, Brown and Chabot devote hours of work and planning to make each show a success.
The first step is to create the lineup. The couple uses Facebook to reach out to artists, and Brown spreads the word in his classes.
“Being in music school, everybody plays music, so it wasn’t too hard to find people,” he said. “Everybody was like ‘Absolutely! That sounds awesome, let’s do it!’ ”
In fact, the series has had such a positive response among student artists that Chabot and Brown have had to turn people down.
“Usually within a few days, it’s full,” Chabot said. “Social media: It’s great.”
School of MT&D senior Christopher Sies has performed in the concerts as a part of Brown’s quartet.
“From the beginning, I was hooked,” Sies said. “I knew it was going to be a good idea because … hosting concerts in your living room is a pretty brave thing to do. You’re surrendering your living space to a concert, and I just really liked that idea.”
As a music student, Brown usually handles the artist recruitment, while Chabot plans the logistical side of Living Room Music.
A regular volunteer for a weekend-long youth leadership seminar, Chabot had prior knowledge of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into a successful event. She came up with the idea of live streaming the concerts, which complicated the logistics.
They use two rooms for the concerts: the main part of their living room and an annex where they keep a piano. The set list is organized so that all of the piano acts are grouped together, which means switching between rooms is kept to a minimum.
Despite the careful planning, things can go wrong. At the first two concerts, the computer and microphone equipment got bumped and the live stream shut down halfway through the show, Chabot said.
Even with complications, the live stream is an essential component of making the series accessible.
“We’ve been able to have people from all over the world tune in and watch these concerts,” Chabot said. “I had a friend in Korea watching.”
The pair has already begun brainstorming ideas to make upcoming shows even better, such as incorporating visual art. Chabot explained that they will feature a visual artist at each performance and have set aside a small space where artists will be able to display their artwork, whatever the medium might be.
“We’re going to try to get some poetry readings,” Brown added. “I’d like to get some vocalists — that would be cool.”
The next show — to be held on Nov. 17 — already has a full set. There will be multiple Phillip Glass pieces, a contemporary bass performance and a composer visiting from Michigan State University who will premiere new work.
The series has garnered increasing attention since the first show. While Chabot said they’re excited to expand, they’re also limited by the size of their venue. The second show was so packed that some people had to sit on the floor, less than an arm’s length away from the artists.
And yet, Chabot said this is exactly what Living Room Music is about: intimacy and leisure.
“Nothing against any other performance out there, but when you go to a concert at, say, Hill Auditorium to see a symphony play, you’re in the audience and they’re on stage,” Sies said. “They’re dressed up in tuxedos and you’re in your regular clothes, and it creates a divide between the audience and the performer.
“With this Living Room Music idea, it brings everyone together on the same plane,” Sies added. “No one’s up on a stage. Everyone’s on the same level. Everyone is really close to each other.”
Chabot and Brown hope to continue to break down that barrier, meaning the series will remain in their living room. But when looking for a new home, they will keep their growing audience in mind.
“That would be the goal for expanding in the future: to be able to make it bigger and publicize more heavily,” Chabot said.
Running the series from their home keeps costs down, and as Sies explained, in the current economy, arts events are getting harder and harder to support.
“The underground stuff is where the real passionate people are,” Sies said. “Everyone who’s participating in this thing is 100 percent in it to win it.”