Two Turntables and a String Quartet: Culture Fusion

My apologies—this is not a review. But it will orbit around a performance at the Brooklyn Museum I was fortunate enough to attend a few weeks ago.

Elan Vytal

The Sound of Brooklyn, put on by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, presents a weekly series of performances titled “Music Off The Walls” on Sunday afternoons. Their weekly intention: Display new sounds meant to push the limits of what we as listeners are used to hearing. Their latest installment has been a compilation performance composed by Brooklyn Philharmonic composer Elan Vytal (aka “DJ Scientific”) titled Always Was & Will Be. For approximately two hours, Vytal spins turntables and slides mixers alongside the Brooklyn Philharmonic string quartet. The result is a strange fusion that at times left me in awe, and at others left me feeling all was a bit too contrived, and as a result, flat. Regardless of my own personal opinion of the music, the marrying of “Double H-G” decks and “Classical” strings evoked joy and thoughtful consideration. I left the museum pondering the possibility that perhaps we are extremely close to existing in a century where the borders of color, class, and culture are becoming more similar to lines drawn in the sand on a tidal beach than lines chiseled into bedrock.

One final remark in review-form before I move to the nucleus of how this relates to my Music in Culture theme: Without question, the highlight of the afternoon was an arrangement done by Matthew Szemela (another BP composer) of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Concerto No. 3 in F Major, “L’Autumno.“ It was incredible, and I mean ‘hair standing up on the back of my neck’ incredible. And I wasn’t the only one to think so—the audience roared upon completion of this post-postmodern version of Vivaldi performed alongside beatboxing, looping, sliding, and outstanding soloing.

Elan Vytal (aka “DJ Scientific”)

What is it about classical music being the champagne and caviar of music? I often wonder if this is a stereotype we should be nobly defending, or defiantly protesting. Without doubt, there is profound brilliance in much of the classical music that has survived the centuries. In considering how this music came to represent elitism, I offer the following theory: Historically, it was the King’s court that could afford the full-time funding of eccentric composers and large orchestras; the architecture, engineering, and construction of grand opera houses; and the organizing of elaborate masquerades and balls put on to the live music of the day’s top society-musicians and grandiloquent symphonies. In turn, these performances were put on for royalty. We think of “classical,” we think of Madame Bovary and Vanity Fair; we think of Vienna and Paris; we think of Beethoven and Bach; we think of elegant fashions, velvet curtains, and crystal chandeliers. We associate these cultures with classical music because they existed in a time when composed music was reserved for the haute couture of civilizations and where social distinctions were less blurred and more defined. The violin was performed for the Queen; the fiddle was played for the serf.

It is the chicken and the egg paradox. The image associated with classical music could be a function of the much greater economic disparities that existed centuries ago but are less concrete now. What I am suggesting here is that the elite status we now associate with classical music could be a mere derivative of memory and history, and not actually because the music is more complex, sophisticated, or brilliant. This is not to say that any of the music that has come to be categorized as “classical” is anything short of brilliance or complexity. In fact, I would like to defend that in fact both classical composer and performer exist in a realm of extraordinary talent and musical excellence. Yet musical score aside, what I am contending is that the culture that surrounds classical music may be a victim of tradition that modern invention, specifically recording technology, has been unable to breach.

Elan Vytal with DBR aka Daniel Bernard Roumain

In a similar method—what does one think of when they hear the acronym “DJ?” A disco? A dance club? A wedding? A microphone and records? Scratching and beatboxing? While it is too generic to define only one specific image that is mentally associated to “DJ,” I think it would be safe to argue that almost no one imagines the same fashion and social environments (ahem, ‘culture’) for a performing DJ as they would for a performing string quartet. This does not necessarily mean it holds ‘less’ culture or that its culture is of less sophistication; but what it does prove is that for some reason, by misrepresented memory and image-association, most people would probably value classical music to withhold or represent a greater sense of cultural enlightenment than would “two turntables and a microphone.”

The history of the DJ is everything opposite the history of the quartet. In one, we have highly trained musicians who likely spent large sums of money on elite schools of music and their instruments, and who play to accurately represent and flawlessly imitate centuries of tradition in sound and score. A quartet practices hundreds-to-thousands of hours to play notes, tempo, rhythm, and volume exactly how it was written—exactly how it was intended to sound by its composer. In the other, we have a history of urban street kids who could not afford musical instruments themselves, so they went down to the local Radio Shack warehouse sale, picked up a couple of used turntables, mixers, and a microphone for twenty bucks. They then strolled the grand avenues of Harlem and the tiny streets of Greenwich Village for old records they could purchase at twenty-five cents a pop, and voila—a new musical style is conceived from the father of poverty and the mother of necessity to create music.

The two forms could not come from more contrasting backgrounds. One stems from periods of time now known as The Renaissance, The Enlightenment, and Baroque; the other from a generation referred to as The Double H-G (or The Hip Hop Generation). One was born in the castles of Europe, the other on the streets of Harlem. One is four hundred years old, the other thirty. One is performed for royalty, the other for gangstas. One written out to the last quarter-rest, the other has no score at all.

So what was Elan Vytal trying to accomplish be fusing the two forms? I cannot be certain without asking him. Yet regardless of his motive or articulation, I do believe there exists a degree of underlying intention to bring a perceived upward status to his craft. By fusing classical music with modern DJ technique and sound, the music becomes a vehicle for an attempted upward socio-cultural perception. As we, the audience, sit there and listen to modern-contemporary “DJ Scientific” beatboxing, sliding, and scratching in company with violinist/composer Matthew Szemela soloing his way through Schubert, Schoenberg, and Vivaldi, our associative memory begins to bridge traditional European elitism with African-American improvisation. Has the mixer left Harlem? Has the concerto left the Vienna Court? Or is it neither—and music is just music?

Link to this article:
– Kory French


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