I Used To Be A Musical Purist (Mostly) But I'm Not Anymore

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As someone who stuck with band through college, and even got a little bit of a scholarship for doing something I loved and would have done anyway, I’ve played all kinds of music. I was in concert band and, since George Washington doesn’t have a football team, also in what we called “pep band.”

I put on my black and whites for stage performances and my rugby to play at every men’s and women’s home basketball game for four years (and even a few away games with a notable trip to Orlando for the first round of the NCAA tournament).

Thing was, even when we did a Pops show in concert band, it was a very different sort of music than we played in pep band. The former is as you would likely suspect. The later was mostly pared down, high-energy arrangements of things like Paul Simon’s Call me Al or Europe’s Final Countdown. Two very, very different worlds. Both monstrously enjoyable, but never did the twain meet.

Random sampling from a random spot in my Amazon Music library. I have an entirely other collection on iTunes. Photo property of SW Sondheimer
Random sampling from a random spot in my Amazon Music library. I have an entirely other collection on iTunes. Photo property of SW Sondheimer

As a general rule, that axiom is also true of the music to which I listen. My collection contains everything from Bach to Yerba Buena to The Mavericks to jalisco to Jason Isbell to the Ramones to Rhiannon Giddens to David Bowie to Twisted Sister to… well, you get the point.

Right now, I’m listening to Mavis Staples. Last night, I fell asleep to Stravinsky. On my morning commute and for large chunks of many days, courtesy of Pittsburgh’s amazing public music radio station, WYEP, I am treated to such diverse musicians as Alabama Shakes, Kacey Musgraves, Kishi Bashi, Adele, Patti Smith, Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler, and Father John Misty. I wake up in the morning to Sharon Jones and the Dapp-Kings. Sometimes, I prefer Valerie June. Or Fun. Or Leon Bridges.  Or Robert Johnston. Or Queen.

With rare exceptions, however, (the Banghra-funk band, Red Baraat, being notable) I’ve been a musical purist in that, while I think every genre/type/category has something beautiful to offer, I like to know what I’m listening to when I choose an hourly or daily soundtrack, especially since music is my muse, my focus touchstone, and sometimes, my anti-anxiety prophylaxis (Mumford and Sons).

Musical fusion throws my expectations out of whack and I find that distracting and, sometimes, truly anxiety-provoking.

Which is why I didn’t have much interest in the Fuse@PSO Series being performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra until I happened to read an interview with conductor/composer Steve Hackman in which he discussed his thought process in fusing the two very distinct genres of rock and classical music. He said the first entry of the series came about when he was listening to Radiohead  and realized that many of the chords/chord progressions the band used in their songs where the same chords Brahms composed with. The same, he explains, was true of Beethoven and Coldplay.

Well, okay. There are only a limited number of cords and cord progressions in the musical world but still, the comparison was striking to someone who had always separated music with relatively rigid walls (odd, in retrospect considering how flexible the majority of my other creative endeavors are).  Interested, yes, from a purely academic perspective, but trepidatious and not entirely disconsolate when the real world intruded and I wasn’t able to make either performance because of my work schedule.

Image property of the PSO
Image property of the PSO

We took the kids to Star Wars night at the symphony back in December and while we were waiting for the show to start, announcements of upcoming performances were shown on small ad screens on either side of the stage. I noticed a third Fuse concert was planned, this one a mash-up of Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring and Bon Iver. I knew a bit of Appalachian Spring though I’m not as familiar with it as I am some other classical pieces, and at the time knew Bon Iver not at all (though much of his body of work is on Amazon Prime and I’ve since listened and enjoyed).

I remember thinking at the time I wasn’t as excited about that particular combination – if I was going to experiment I’d have preferred Brahms/Radiohead if only for the sake of familiarity with both upon which to fall back if the fusion proved an overload – but I was actually free on the night of the third show so hubs and I bought tickets. I’ve been looking forward to it though with some trepidation due to the possible shake up of my system and my comfort zones.

It was an experiment for all concerned.

I had no idea that I was going to be completely blown away.

I know, I know. Old dog, new tricks. I actually did learn a new trick last night because it was an incredible performance by Hackman as conductor, by the PSO, and by the three singers who worked with them. It was difficult to tell at times which music was Copeland and which was Bon Iver, whether the singers were matching lyrics to music or fitting Bon Iver’s lyrics with Copeland’s music.

And the most incredible thing for me was that I didn’t spend the whole hour picking the piece apart and trying to figure out which was which. I didn’t care. It was so beautiful, so powerful, so masterful that, rather than throwing me off, putting me in a place where I wasn’t sure what to expect, where I was anxious, my mind started to form a new concept of music around an entity that defied definition.

As someone with diagnosed OCD, that which is unfamiliar and outside the comfort zone is often acutely painful (not in terms of people, not for me anyway but as explained above).

What I experienced last night was the completely opposite of painful. It was brain changing.

image via audiologyonline.com
image via audiologyonline.com

This isn’t the first time music has rewired my neurons and it won’t be the last. Music is a gift I’ve reveled in my entire life but always when I knew what was coming, where I’d be able to place it in my psyche. What need a given artist or album or song would fulfill. The Fuse concert was the first time music has ever frightened me.

From the dissolution of that fear came a remarkable gift. A new appreciation. A new neuroplasticity. My brain was changed. I was changed.

I am very, very grateful. To Mister Hackman and to the PSO for giving me that gift.

For the last part of the show, the PSO and singers were joined by a local funk quartet (+ DJ), Beauty Slap and that was another mental awakening for me. I’ve heard rock played with full orchestras and I’ve heard jazz bands and pops concerts and funk bands but I have never heard a funk band backed by a whole orchestra.

Holy. Crap.

Great tastes don’t always go great together but these two did and I’m pretty sure I grew yet more new neurons listening to it. I had no idea that sounds that deep and rich and… I don’t really have words for it. It was ineffable. It was something entirely new for me and my life is the richer for having experienced it.

There’s an old cliche about music being a universal language. I always thought that referred to who music might unite (and unite it did; I have never seen such a gamut running symphony crowd). I never considered the what. I never considered the effect the marriage of two types of music might have on music. One the making of a profound thing that much more so. I never considered the possibility of such intense compound beauty.

Image property of Beauty Slap
Image property of Beauty Slap

A new way of thinking about something I’ve thought about for decades. And maybe now, I’ll be a little less scared to try something new. Musically or otherwise.

Not bad for an hour and a half long symphony show.

Fuse does tour so keep an eye out on your symphony’s calendar. Or come to Pittsbugh. We can expand our minds and then go across the street for the best dessert in the city.

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