September 6, 2007

Noses Up: The Two Sides of Snobbery

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My favorite part of “Umbrella” is when Rihanna insinuates a connection between expensive automobiles and her objectified lover as a submediant harmony rises to tonic. Her rhetoric is reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love,” but with a self-reflexively hip-hop musical aesthetic. Just kidding. My name is Maurice Chammah and I live two lives. They both revolve around my interest in making and talking about music, but couldn’t be more different in the ways they play out. By day and during the school year I take classes and study in the University’s department of music: home of composers, scholars and musicologists. By night, and in the summers, I play rock ’n roll in dingy bars, at noisy coffee shops and in friends’ garages. When people hear that I’m into music, they probably assume one or the other of these lives, but never both, because why would a rock star (I’ve even got the egotism) want to worry about theory and history classes, and why would a classical music aficionado want to bring themselves down to the trash of our culture? So when I listen to Rihanna, sure I notice the chord progression and the production values. But, in the end, the “theory stuff” couldn’t matter less when Rihanna churns out her sexually charged “ella, ella, ella”’s and dances with that delightfully tacky CGI water. A year ago in Austin, Texas I went to see a famous touring string quartet do a university-sponsored concert. It cost about $30 for a decent seat and once the lights went down, there was something almost ceremonial about how the quartet bowed when they came out and the audience clapped respectfully. I had to get there early, or else I wouldn’t have been let in and I would have had to just listen to the show from the lobby. It started at 7:05 p.m. on the dot, and was over before 10:30 p.m. This is the world I grew up in the world of so-called “Classical Music,” where you have concerts defined by the educated audience, the highly professional performers, and the timelessness of the compositions, whose composers are icons of our culture. Later that same night I went to Emo’s — the hippest of hip Austin clubs — to see Rilo Kiley. I knew I could make it from the string quartet concert in time because even though the posters said 10:00 p.m., I was sure the opening band probably wouldn’t go on until at least 11:00 p.m. It cost roughly a third of the string quartet ticket price. People were loud and drunk, and were even allowed to talk while the band played songs written by Jenny Lewis, not the “untouchable” Bach. Unlike the “performing arts center” I was in earlier that night, this place smelled a little like urine and had that notorious “wall sweat” you always seem to find at a good frat party. I didn’t end up getting home until 3:00am, my ears, of course, still pounding. Honestly, the Rilo Kiley show could not have been farther from what I saw just hours before. But how is it possible that these two events could be so different? Both are music concerts, right? Obviously, these music worlds are not mutually exclusive. A lot of jazz operates well in both, even if a sax player plays louder in a nightclub, and more subtly in a concert hall. Sufjan Stevens has classical instrumentation and plays in both kinds of venues regularly. Overall, however, I think there really is a split here. A divide typified by all the times my pop-rock friends turn their noses up at the symphony concert I’m going to, and by all the times my classical music friends talk about how little the former really know about music. I have learned something from this dichotomy, however. While the methods and goals of making music in these two situations differ drastically, there is something, although difficult to pin down, that they share. After all, these two worlds are treated in culture with the same general term, even if they occupy opposite corners of a record store’s inventory. In this column, I’m going to talk about music and musicians — and perhaps other aspects of popular (and not-so-popular) culture as well — and try to tie together the two very separate worlds of high brow and low brow, and explore why we think of them so differently. Of course, if I really like some band or performer that is coming that weekend, I’ll shamelessly plug it. If there is a new spin-off of Flavor of Love, I’ll probably want to write about how awesome it is. In the end, I’m just into music: classical, pop, serious and trashy.