Roll Over, Beethoven. Tell Tchaikovsky About Groupmuse.
Not six months ago, I formed Groupmuse, a social network that directly connects musicians, audience members, and willing hosts, so that the community can organically generate its own house concerts, and so that the classical music experience becomes as socially appealing as it is musically appealing, as part of a radical new effort to introduce classical music to Millenials. The decision to devote my life to The Cause strikes many as surprising, given that only five years ago, I didn’t know Schubert from Schoenberg.
It all started in 2008 during winter break of my freshman year in college, December, 2008. Sebastian Bäverstam, who is an astonishingly great musician, and now a passionate Groupmuse advocate, wanted to show me a string quartet by Beethoven he’d been working on. He’s said it was extremely hard to play. It was called the Grosse Fugue, written during the last period of Beethoven’s life, when he was stone deaf.
I’d never been a classical music listener, but I was always a music nerd. Throughout high school, my love of the Beatles was one of the essential characteristics of my personality. I’d been in various bands, I scrobbled on Last.fm, I had to get a new iPod because my 30 gig was at capacity, etc. Anyway, he puts it on, and it’s a weird and really intense piece and it’s dense and it’s confusing, but there is this one moment, when this gorgeous and sad, and yet, still agitated melody breaks through the chaos and at the moment, something sort of clicked. I must have listened to it seven times a day for the next two weeks, and, what can I say: it changed my life.
Here it is:
Before long, I went to the Newton Free Library and just started indiscriminately pulling stuff off the shelf. In the ensuing months and years I fell more and more madly in love with classical music. Suddenly my new 60 gig iPod had grown too small. And as tremendous as this personal discovery was for me personally, a distressing corollary went along with it. Classical music played absolutely no role in the world I had grown up in. It was odd: Many of my peers professed a love for great art, reading Virginia Woolf, and David Foster Wallace, checking out any new exhibits at the MFA, making sure to see the Best Picture winners each year, etc.
And yet, when it came to music, more often than not, I saw the opposite dynamic in place. Instead of expressing enthusiasm for the canonical figures of music, the hip thing to do was to be into a band that was so obscure, no one had ever heard of it.
So I spent a great deal of time pondering why that might be and ultimately concluded that foremost among what ails classical music is its social culture.
Just like any form of music, classical music has a social scene — if only because it is experienced in real time and space with a group of other concert-goers. A book you read in the privacy of your own skull. A movie you watch with your own people in the privacy of your own Netflix subscription. An art museum you wander through at your own pace, on your own terms. But to engage with classical music, you must engage with the scene associated with it, and, at present, it’s one that young folks find inaccessible.
So a couple of years ago, I started going to these house concert/parties thrown by students of New England Conservatory at an apartment in Allston. What was wild about these events is that they were absolutely parties and they were absolutely concerts. They were crowded, boozy, and dirty, just like most college house parties, but for an hour in the middle, everyone clammed up, and listened to the sweet sounds. As soon as the music was done, it went back to being a party.
It was standard, 20-something, raucous fun, but it was also enriching. As strange as it may sound, it occurred to me that this might actually be the future of classical music. See, because not only did this format seem to nullify the social problems classical music is saddled with, it actually turned the necessarily social component of the classical music experience into a huge asset. I would bring friends to what we called Linden Hall who didn’t consider themselves classical music listeners, but who would come just because it was an awesome way to spend a Friday night.
And I’ll tell you, if there is one thing my generation longs for even more than high quality culture, it is meaningful opportunities to gather in the physical world. They are simply not forthcoming at the moment. The bar scene is brutal and the concert hall is stiff.
It occurred to me that classical music can sneak back into a position of social relevance if it frames itself as providing the meat of a social experience. But in order to do that, it has got to completely free itself from pre-ordained concert spaces, and make its way into living rooms, coffee shops, bookstores, etc. (We’re starting with the living rooms).
A lot of people have been coming to these things not because they love classical music. Indeed, many of them have never been to a classical concert. They’re just looking for something to do on a Friday night that allows them to be social but won’t destroy their souls and eardrums like the bars in Allston. But lo and behold: Schubert gives me feels I didn’t know I had! I should look into this guy…
I wasn’t the only one who took the lessons of Linden Hall to heart. One of the regulars, a tremendous pianist, wonderful soul and dear friend named Yannick Rafalimanana, acted on what everyone who had been to Linden Hall felt, that great music is better in great company. Starting with the musicians who had played at Linden Hall, he formed an orchestra, the Love and Friendship Orchestra (LFO), so called because he had a close personal relationship with each and every player and the group had grown organically out of those relationships. His belief was that if the bonds that held an orchestra together were not just musical, but interpersonal as well, the concert experience, for the audience as well as the performers, would be fundamentally informed by those connections.
A few months back, Yannick and I started chatting and we realized that our projects, though wildly different, were responding to the classical music crisis from the same angle: to find its footing in our modern world, it needs to embrace and accentuate its fundamentally social nature. We immediately decided to work together, and he generously allowed me to use the first public LFO concert as an opportunity to expound upon this idea. It gave Groupmuse a huge shot in the arm, connecting me to my first batch of willing hosts, and serving to get the word out in a powerful way. And the concert was a huge success. Well over 100 people showed, there was beer, revelry, incredible music, and a great many folks told me it was the most fun they’d ever had at a classical concert.
So we’re back at it! On April 27th, the second LFO concert will be held at 7 p.m. in Jamaica Plain’s St. John’s Church, once again, presented by Groupmuse. We’ll have had 9 Groupmuses since the last LFO bash, all of which have been great fun. And hopefully, many of the folks who have been to the intervening GMs will show up to the April 27th concert, meaning that there will be a much bigger crowd this time around. Hope you’ll be part of it!
And if you can’t make it, but you want to come to the smaller scale Groupmuse events, sign up, and RSVP to the next one! Lastly, in case you are wondering, Groupmuses are often not crowded, boozy throwdowns. Many are perfectly tame. The hosts determine the atmosphere in planning the event on the website. The whole purpose of Groupmuse is that the events actively reflect the component members. So don’t be shy!
I think it’s no exaggeration to say that love, friendship, and music are never more important than at moments like this. Since the horrific attack on Boston a woman who’d been to a Groupmuse named Michelle Leip contacted me because she wanted to get a fundraiser for the victims together I told her about the event that we have coming up on the 27th and we quickly decided to turn it into a fundraiser. Once we’ve covered our expenses (mostly timpani rental), all money we take in will go to The One Fund.