This is what they mean by atonal, right?

Tonight, Miller Theatre digs deep and offers us the first of its brand new series of Popup Concerts. In exchange for free beer, intimate musical times, and communitarian bonding, all we must do is sit through an hour of atonal music. Punters will be encouraged to grab a bevvie and join the instrumentalists on stage. Such egalitarianism is, to be sure, a little offensive, but we cannot complain since the price is free.

Bwog spoke to Ari Streisfield, violinist with the JACK Quartet, about how modern music is weird but also good. Full interview after the jump.

Musical Experiments: Popup Concert. Tuesday, February 7th, 5.30pm, Miller Theatre. Free.

Bwog: Contemporary classical music often repels people. You suddenly hear two bars of that and you say, I don’t know this, I don’t understand. How do you listen to something like the stuff you’re playing on Tuesday?

Ari: We’ve played that piece for audiences that have never heard anything like this before, all over the country, and they usually respond to it immediately, just because of the physicality of it…if you let your mind go and all expectations gone, just allow yourself open to a new experience, it definitely opens new doors in your mind of what’s possible. It does make sense, the way [composers] weave the material together, things come back, memory is used….a lot of [the great Western composers] talk about the idea of memory, or it’s apparent in their music.

If there’s enough dissonance, does it stop being dissonance?

That’s a really good point. It’s these blocks of dissonant chords. If you listen to the whole piece, really loud—because it is a loud piece—or if you see a performance, and you just let yourself listen to it without going to yourself, “Oh, this is so ugly,” it becomes a different sound world, sound blocks, almost like white noise, but in a strangely logical way, if that makes sense.

In some ways, maybe that’s what Schoenberg was going for as well, with the emancipation of the dissonance. Why does this have to ever resolve? Why can’t we come up with other ways of treating the dissonance that still allows the mind to understand it logically? It’s a little bit more difficult to grasp, but [regarding] all the atonal music, if you listen to it with the right mindset, and with certain interest, it does all make sense. In fact, some of them make ridiculous sense, more sense than late Wagner or some of the late Romantics. The only difference is that the melody is a bit more difficult to grasp.

What’s your favorite setting to play in? I think the idea with these concerts is that they’re going to be super relaxed.

We’ve played all different kinds of venues. We’ve played at Carnegie Hall, we’ve played Wigmore Hall in London; these are some of the most prestigious, what you’d normally think of as the normal place for a string quartet to perform. They’re beautiful places to perform, but stuffy in a certain sense. We’ve also played in places like the Poisson Rouge down in the West Village. You reach a different audience, an audience that doesn’t have an interest to go to the normal concert hall for whatever reason. They like the idea that they can sit and have a beer and listen to music they don’t know, or maybe they do know, it doesn’t matter.

So these are free concerts, we’re going to have beer at the concert, we’re not going to have a huge audience, we’re going to be sitting on the stage. You get a different audience to come out. It’s also right after people get out of work – it’s a happy hour concert. You normally would go out for a beer with your friends, you go out for a beer and see a short concert, and then go home and have dinner.

That’s the thing, the sort of prestigious places you described before… I don’t know what traditional, normal is, but it feels as if that very sedate, very sombre, sober state of listening to music isn’t necessarily necessary.

It’s an interesting topic, and people have been debating this for a while now. The guy who instituted that was Wagner. He didn’t want people to clap or make noise during his operas, he got people to stop clapping.

A story…someone told me: At the premiere of Brahms’ third symphony…..supposedly the audience loved it so much that they demanded, immediately after they played it, to play it again. People were clapping between movements, people were demanding to hear repeat performances, there were all sorts of things that would go on during concerts. And of course that’s changed in the last 150 years, it’s become You Don’t Make Sound during a concert.

Yeah, it’s as if it’s a sacred space where you don’t interrupt, but that said, if you’re moved, and at the end of the movement just spontaneously start clapping, I think that’s great.

Yeah, I think that’s true. Obviously a majority of people in the world…listen to music in different ways, but a lot of them don’t listen to music in a passive way which a lot of classical music audiences do, or feel they should do…a lot of people go to classical music concerts and they go to sit there and go, “Oh this is pretty,” and let it wash over them, and there is no piece of music that I can think of that was written for that purpose.

Glorious harmony via Wikimedia Commons