Wordless Music is a New York-based concert series, which brings indie rock, electronica, and classical music together. The series has its San Francisco debut on August 21, 2008 with a program of Jonny Greenwood, Avro Pärt, John Adams, Fred Frith, and Mason Bates. The Opera Tattler spoke to Ronen Givony, the founder and director of the Wordless Music Series, on the telephone last week.
How did you come up with the name "Wordless Music?" Has that been confusing to people?
The name "Wordless Music" was originally intended to imply a neutral space between classical/chamber music on the one hand and electronic/ambient music and instrumental rock on the other -- that fuzzy borderland where people like Stars of the Lid, Brian Eno, Eluvium, Aphex Twin, etc., fit in, or don't -- neither pop nor "classical." Also, at the beginning, the series was geared largely toward strictly instrumental rock/electronic and classical music. Over the second season (which is just wrapping up) I learned to loosen up a little and just invite bands and artists that I like, and who I admire, regardless of whether they happen to write two-minute punk songs or piano miniatures or 20-minute symphonic suites -- musicians who can't help attracting listeners who themselves are open-minded, intelligent, and curious enough to learn about new things. In a word -- the only unifying principle behind the composers and artists presented under the banner of Wordless Music -- whether it's Bach, Haydn, múm, Messiaen, Stravinsky, Deerhoof, Andrew Bird, Times New Viking, Gavin Bryars, Explosions in the Sky, Steve Reich, Do Make Say Think, or Jonny Greenwood -- is that I love their music, and I think more people might want to know about it.
So I'm very curious about this concert series, since most of the audience is drawn in by the rock acts. I read that it was 90%, is that right?
Yes, I would say this is because of the difference in name recognition -- most headlining acts in rock and electronic music rarely set their schedules more than 4-6 months in advance (often closer to 2 or 3), unlike in classical music, where people are sometimes booked years in advance, and it's almost impossible to get internationally renowned names on less than one or two years' lead time. But it's also because the classical music part of Wordless Music programs is intentionally repertoire-driven rather than personality-driven. Since so many people at Wordless Music shows have never been to a classical concert before, I myself am more interested in devoting programs and introducing my audience to people like Bach or Ligeti or Charles Ives, rather than one particular interpreter over another. Last, it's inescapable that people interested in indie rock tend to find out much more quickly about shows since so much of this news is only disseminated online -- meaning, a fan of Wilco or Explosions in the Sky knows that a show with one of these bands will sell out in a few days (if not a few hours) if they aren't ready to buy tickets as soon as they go on sale.
One of the goals in your mission statement is to "bring audiences together," but if most of your audience skews young, aren't you just bringing classical music to a particular audience rather than making two separate audiences interact with one another?
To a certain extent that's true. Again, since the majority of people in the room probably bought tickets to see Grizzly Bear or Andrew Bird, or the piece by Jonny Greenwood, rather than the pianist who is playing Bach, most of the musical introductions taking place that night will be in a certain direction. That said, there are also lots of people who are devotees of the more traditional side of contemporary/new music who have written to thank me for introducing them to the indie/electronic acts -- I'm thinking of when David Lang and Greg Sandow both raved to me about Do Make Say Think, in particular. I heard unanimous raves from every classical music person in the crowd who went to see Deerhoof, and also acts like Grizzly Bear, Beirut, Sigur Rós, and The Books.
You get an audience that the marketing people at classical music institutions covet. Why do you think that is?
I think the young people that marketing directors and traditional classical institutions are interested in are of a very particular stripe -- young investment bankers, lawyers, venture capital/hedge fund types, society types -- people that have money and can donate, and (it seems fair to say) are there for social and status reasons, in addition to just the music. By and large, the marketing people at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall are in their 40s and 50s, and are spending all this time wondering how on earth to attract these allegedly inscrutable 20- and 30-somethings, all when they don't actually know anyone in their 20s or 30s. The audience I'm interested in is people that don't necessarily have lots of money but are interested in hearing good music above all.
Especially in my classical and new-music programming, I always remind the performers that many of the young people in the crowd will probably never have heard Haydn or Messiaen or Stravinsky before, and so to try to make the strongest possible impression in the shortest amount of time as possible. The challenge is similar to making a mix tape, where you just have 10 tracks, and 45 minutes, say, and so you have to pick the most strongest and memorable music. The two objectives I ask of my classical- and new-music performers are: (1) during the show, make the indie rockers think, "Wow, I can't believe I've been missing this the whole time," and (2) after the show, send them home with the feeling that "I need to immerse myself in this as much as possible."
Also, is an indie rock audience inattentive compared to a chamber music audience? It's been my experience that the people at indie rock shows want to be there, they are interested in particular bands and know the songs and such. On the other hand, much of the classical music audience is there because they feel they have to be, they've reached a certain age and this is an appropriate activity because of their social status. They might not have any idea what they are hearing and they are practically forced to listen to new music. Have you been programming a lot of new music? It looks like it from what I've seen, Avro Pärt, John Adams, Ligeti, though you've also programmed Bach, Chopin, Bartok.
A lot of classical music people love to look down their noses at rock/jazz/pop music people: their attention spans aren't long enough, they won't get it without the benefit of laboriously detailed program notes, etc. (I actually had the artistic director of a Lincoln Center constitutent group say to me once: "So you're telling me that people who are into this band -- Radiohead? is that their name? -- that they actually have the capacity to sit through a Beethoven trio or a Bartok quartet?")
In my experience, however, fans of indie rock and electronic music are even more respectful and earnest in their listening than your typical Lincoln Center audience. Go see Wilco or Radiohead or Sigur Rós perform some time, and then compare the vibe in those rooms with that of Alice Tully or Avery Fisher Hall when a Webern or Messiaen piece is played, and you tell me which is the more respectful audience. For the most part I have trained myself not to be distracted by all the sounds one can expect at any classical music concert in New York -- the hearing aids going of, the not-entirely-unconscious coughing and rifling through bags at the start of any halfway modern/contemporary piece -- but it's still a bummer.
Have you been to San Francisco and are you coming to the performance at Herbst Theatre on August 21st? The venue seats 916 people, and it's a venue where I've heard everything from an interview of Philip Glass to Philharmonia Baroque to Beirut in.
I've been to San Francisco twice and loved it both times. Quite a few of my friends from college now live out there. I'm definitely going to the performance. I think I get in on Tuesday for rehearsals, the performance is Thursday, and I'm going to hear Radiohead at Outside Lands on Friday. San Francisco is a great place -- an almost unfairly beautiful city -- and has a lot of commonalities with New York. So if I am ever held at gunpoint and told that I have to leave my beloved borough of Brooklyn, I wouldn't mind moving to San Francisco.
Could you talk a bit about how this SF debut came together? You are having a string orchestra play Pärt, John Adams (Shaker Loops), Fred Frith, and Mason Bates, plus "Popcorn Superhet Receiver." Why these pieces? I know you had a couple of sold out concerts earlier this year in January of "Popcorn Superhet Receiver" with Gavin Bryars' "The Sinking of the Titanic" and John Adams' "Christian Zeal and Activity."
A great deal of the credit for the San Francisco show deserves to go to Terra Reneau of Café du Nord and Swedish American Hall, with whom I have been discussing a Wordless Music co-production since our first season, and also Minna Choi, who is the tireless founder and artistic director of the Magik*Magik Orchestra.
How about the big piece, "Popcorn Superhet Receiver," the work by Radiohead's lead guitarist, Jonny Greenwood? How did you manage to get the North American premiere? What is the music like?
One day about a year and a half ago, I suppose, I read a news story on the Internet that the BBC Orchestra had given the premiere of a commissioned work by Jonny Greenwood. I thought to myself: why haven't I heard about this? And more important, how do I get in on this? So I wrote to Radiohead's management, not thinking anything would come from it. But I got an e-mail back within a day or two, saying, 'No, you're actually the first person who's asked me about this.'
As far as the actual piece, I was extremely surprised upon hearing the full work. As we all know, it could very easily have been another rock-star-going-classical vanity project, but in my opinion it fully stands up on its own as real music, regardless of whether you know that the composer happens to play in the biggest rock band in the world.