A group of local musicians tries to meld rock’s wreckage to the
arcana of modern classical music.
Bob Massey can barely bring himself to say “postmodern.” He apologetically mumbles the art-fag buzzword when explaining his musical approach, then quickly dismisses it as “trite” and “a kind of disease.” Yet the concept is unavoidable in discussions of his particular kind of musical genre-hopping. In his guitar-cello-drums band Telegraph Melts, Massey pushes an attitude of catholic openness, of cutting and pasting of high art and low end. This summer, he launched a sort of salon dedicated to the same ideal.
Massey sent out an e-mail in June inviting all “who dig film music, who were classically trained, or who have cultivated an interest in classically structured forms” to his group house in Arlington for an “orchestrator’s salon/workshop/showcase.” The format for the first two “Punk Not Rock” events, the first held July 8 and the second Aug. 25, was to bracket the performances of two standards by established composers around the premiere of a piece (as opposed to a song) by a local rock musician.
Massey doesn’t fault his post-punk friends for staying inside their rock caves. “The classical music community wants you to feel like you need to know all about it to appreciate it,” he declares. “But that’s bullshit. Beethoven’s Fifth—you can hum it, right? Beethoven’s Fifth can kick your ass just as hard as ‘Iron Man.’”
For many rock ‘n’ roll primitives, the old is just that—old—and the new is inaccessible. Classical music—aka new music, serious music, modern music, or (inevitably) post-classical music—has spent more of this century retreating up its own ass than kicking anyone else’s. The Paris audience famously threw chairs at the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, but, after that incident, the form evolved into one in which academics produced mathematical exercises for other academics. In 1958, serialist composer Milton Babbitt dispensed with audience reaction altogether in his state-of-the-art essay “Who Cares If You Listen?”
Around the same time, Chuck Berry had to go back a century or two to kick over high art’s chair—”Roll over Webern and tell Schoenberg the news” was not going to mobilize the teenage troops. Unlike 12-note composition and its pointy-headed ilk, rebellion set to electric guitars found scores of listeners. Rock ‘n’ roll stirred things up for 10 or 15 years before it began to bloat into the 50-year-old car salesman it is today. As serious music turned rarefied, fun music got bought; some of the smartest (and most aggressively postmodern) music-makers of the last few decades raid both camps for scrap material.
“Ambitious rock people, the brainiac guys,” Massey says, “take music to a cerebral level, way past that 12-bar blues where it started. Radiohead isn’t really swing-your-hips music.” He calls Public Enemy one of the few groups that move both booty and brain: “They have kick-ass beats, and they’re complicated, sonically and lyrically.”
Telegraph Melts reflects Massey’s belief that pop audiences will stretch past verse-chorus-verse. In the trio’s recent DCCD appearance, his guitar (adorned with a picture of James Joyce) threw a scratchy blanket of feedback over the melancholy cello lines of Amy Domingues (who, until last week, worked at the Washington City Paper and who now teaches strings in Fairfax County schools), while drummer Devin Ocampo swung between smashing and whispering. The trio’s dreamlike dissonance, which evokes Sonic Youth at its most languorous, went over surprisingly well on the Melts 1997 tour with Tsunami. “We sold a lot of records to the indie-rock kids there to hear straight-up pop,” Massey says. “If you don’t impose a genre on people, they’ll just say they like it—or not.”
Massey is a freelance writer and self-described “piss boy” at the Washington Post. (The paper’s term is “news aide.”) Among his work pals is ex-classical critic Tim Page, who broadened Massey’s musical horizons by turning him on to Captain Beefheart. Massey seems as genuine and down-to-earth as his friends from the Post and the music scene testify, and I begin to suspect he’s Midwestern. In fact, he’s from Richmond, but a remark about singing in choirs leads me to the thread that connects it all: his desire to bring people together, his humility, his lack of rock-star cool. Massey is a Christian.
“There’s not much overlap between those two circles; my church friends aren’t too adventurous musically,” he says with rue. Later, he asks, “Look, could you put in there that you asked me [if I’m a believer] point blank? I don’t want it to look like I’m beating anyone over the head with it.”
At the first Punk Not Rock gathering, about 25 people, mostly music scenesters in their 20s, sprawled on the floor and a few chairs. Domingues played three short piano pieces by Erik Satie, after which Jean Cook (violin), Joel Rose (keyboards), and Tunde Oyewole (bass) world-premiered “Good Morning Rubop,” written by Travis Morrison of the local rock band Dismemberment Plan. After the simple, surprisingly Romantic piece—Morrison’s first nonrock effort—Jean Cook, with her sister Mia Cook on cello, played a Ravel sonata, which Jean Cook introduced as “an intelligent conversation between the two instruments.”
The discussion that followed seemed more open-minded and less knowledgeable about 20th-century music than I’d expected. Morrison talked about his difficulties transposing his score for strings—Jean Cook had bailed him out. This topic opened a debate over the importance of knowing how to read and write music and the range of notational systems. John Cage came up then, but never mentioned were Karlheinz Stockhausen, Steve Reich, John Zorn, Elliot Sharp, or any of the other composers whom adventurous rock fans generally stumble upon in their explorations.
Massey describes Jean Cook as the “ringer” of the salon. She has been playing violin since she was 4 and was raised on classical music. She bought Thriller when she was 10 but generally didn’t listen to pop music until college. She still mostly goes to see the rock bands “of people I know,” though she played recently with indie chanteuse Edith Frost and art-rock guitar hero Henry Kaiser. Her only musical prejudice is the preference for complexity instilled in her by her training. “Classical music has plenty of emotion,” she insists, “just not so much sex as rock music.”
Massey calls Jean Cook his mirror image, because he grew up on Journey, the Clash, U2, Gang of Four, and heavy metal (while singing in church choirs), and then discovered the Estonian composer Arvo Part in a college class. He’s found a few other 20th-century composers he loves, calling proto-postmodernist Charles Ives the original rock-classical hybrid: “Ives combines hooks and complexity like a motherfucker.” Massey spent 10 years in a power trio called Jettison Charlie—which left him feeling constrained. “You can only express one or two emotions with a power trio: rage and sadness,” he says. “I wanted something more nuanced, to expand the palette.”
Previous attempts to graft classical music onto rock created overblown Frankenstein’s monsters like Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. The fact that Massey is most drawn to 20th-century music may save him—and his salon—from such a fate. Furthermore, he points out that “ELP and those groups tended to be bombastic and full of themselves; there’s got to be some way to do it that’s understated and unpretentious.” He adds that bombast comes in lots of flavors: “For years people compared Metallica to Wagner—the effect that they get is real similar.”
The August crowd, twice the size of July’s, fanned itself quietly through a program of subdued, decidedly unbombastic music stretching back a millennium. The Cook sisters played ninth-century plainsong chants adapted for cello and violin by David Arbury, the bass player with the Better Automatic and a 15-year veteran of the National Cathedral Choir. Arbury’s five short-shorts for piano were the only items on the program newer than early 20th-century Bartok (the program opener, played by Jean Cook). Doug Wolf presented the organ piece by French composer Jehan Alain that he had adapted for string quartet, played by his brother James and three older music freelancers, who stood out in the day-job-holding indie-rock crowd.
Massey again led a Q&A when the music ended, asking everyone who had played, written, or arranged for details about their musical backgrounds and paths. Violist Pat Smith explained that she substitutes for members of the National Symphony Orchestra, plays weddings, does country-western session work—anything that pays. “I’ve made a living playing music for 20 years,” she explained. “I just keep lowering my standard of living.”
Norm Veenstra of the all-guitar band Tone attended both salons and said after the second, “I recognize a lot of faces. Bob’s created a forum for this group of us who go to the shows at Library of Congress and saw Arvo Part at the Washington National Cathedral, and are also musicians.”
Massey is prepared to lead that tribe out of his living room if it grows too large. He’ll keep moving toward the pomo promised land, where classical, techno, hiphop, and metal live side by side. During our conversation, he asks, eyes upward, “Where in the record store do you file Kronos Quartet covers of Hendrix? Why does there have to be this category called rock ‘n’ roll? Why do you have to name the music that comes out of your gut?” CP