Go-Go Handel! (Who Did You Call?) Go-Go Handel! (What’s His Name?)

When I am not listening to classical music, often I am instead listening to go-go, the dance music native to, and unique to, the DMV. (I will allow Wikipedia to introduce the music to the curious.) “Okay,” you are thinking, “but your blog is called DMV Classical, so why should your readers care about go-go?” Well, the large institutions of classical music seem all aflutter about what to do to increase audience engagement, and I would venture that no audience excels the go-go audience in its engagement with its chosen music.

Despite near-zero levels of corporate investment, and despite advertising so marginal that even the best listings of go-go concerts are in part compilations of flyers posted hither and yon in the DMV, go-go bands pack houses seven nights a week. Though commercial recordings of go-go have never taken off, bootlegs of live shows (aka PA tapes, even when in CD or .zip form) circulate like beneficial viruses. Partisans eagerly debate go-go issues on the Internet and around town. (Just a week ago, on the Red Line, I heard two young women discussing which of their two high schools had the realest go-go concerts.)

Even nonparticipating residents of the DMV are never far from the go-go swing: Driving, biking, or walking around the city (especially south of Florida Ave./U Street and east of 16th), you will hear go-go music coming out of car stereos, cranked-up headphones, apartment windows, and even (further east and south) at backyard barbeques during the summertime, wafting into the breeze. Palaces of culture like the Kennedy Center, I am guessing, desperately seek such ubiquity in the minds of their target audience.

In addition, since go-go has survived without the commercial recording industry, it is exceptionally well-positioned to survive the precipitous decline of the commercial recording industry (which has, of course, affected classical music more than most genres).

Why go-go? In part, because go-go is amazing music. (If you think I’m wrong, please click on this link. How else can Richard Strauss sound so funky?) But classical music is amazing too (each in its own way, people). So we look further, and we quickly find a clue: The go-go concert experience, the rock of go-go’s continued vitality and viability, encourages and demands — indeed, could not survive without — the enthusiastic participation of the audience. This contrasts strongly with classical concerts, in which the audience often seems to be superfluous to the music-making.

Admittedly, often one will read quotes from classical musicians indicating that the crowd response shapes their performances. Here’s one from Hilary Hahn that I’m including just because I knew where to find it, not because it mentions Twitter and I’m courting Internet memes:

The problem [with tweeting during performances] is that acoustic performers rely on the audience’s attention and focus and can tell when the audience isn’t mentally present. Your listening is part of our interpretive process. If you’re not really listening, we’re not getting the feedback of energy from the hall, and then we might as well be practicing for a bunch of people peering in the window. It’s just not as interesting when the cycle of interpretation is broken.

I believe her, but how the hell can I, as an audience member, tell how the quality and intensity of our attention shapes Hahn’s interpretation? If I stare at her really hard and wish for it, will she use just a little more portamento? Contrast that with, say, a Chuck Brown concert, in which he always takes the time to sing the following, over a beat, to the audience:

Thank you so much for coming out tonight
Tell you nothin’ but the truth, you’re lookin’ outta sight
Show the world what you got, this is your spot
Do it how you wanna because we love you a lot

I’ve been to Hilary Hahn concerts, and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t love me a lot! And such love is shown to go-go audiences because it must be given in return — if the audience does not participate in the call-and-response, the whole show sounds totally stupid, like a one-sided dialogue. In fact, engaging in popular calls-and-responses (like “Hold up!” “WAIT A MINUTE!”) is a surefire way to goose a lackluster show, because the audience knows and loves these chants and expects to participate in them.

But there’s more! If being loved and chanting does not meet your need for audience interaction, you can pass to the stage a slip of paper with the names of people in the audience who are celebrating a birthday. The talker will read these names and wish them a happy birthday. You can also make requests through said slips of paper. If you are a frequent attendee at a certain group’s shows, the talker will likely single you out for recognition during a percussion break (“14th Street Crew!”). Here’s a video in which a crankin’ go-go band stops the concert to warn someone that his Impala is illegally parked and will be towed. This is a kind of concern for the customer that classical performers rarely, if ever, show.

You are probably saying to yourself: “But Andrew, no classical concert could ever bring the audience into the music-making experience the way go-go does, with everyone knowing the words and hitting their cues!” And every December, classical music proves you wrong, because this is the one time of year that audiences get to help perform the most popular choral masterpiece known to English-speaking humans: the Messiah.

At the Kennedy Center’s annual Messiah sing-along, for example, people begin forming lines hours before the event, eager to pile into the Concert Hall and join a couple thousand others in singing their hearts out. Past participants have told me of people being turned away at the door. If it’s not the single most popular thing the Kennedy Center does all year, it’s certainly a strong candidate.

Hmmm.

Posting is about to get super-sparse for a couple weeks, so I’m going to take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy holiday season, including those of you who are already celebrating your specific holiday and those of you who (like me) are mainly celebrating the extra paid holidays coming up. Your attention is my gift (really! I mean it!). Thanks for reading.

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2 Comments on “Go-Go Handel! (Who Did You Call?) Go-Go Handel! (What’s His Name?)”

  1. Khalil Says:

    Great read AM, thoroughly impressed with your mini treatise on the wonders of go-go. Look forward to reading more of your musical musings.

  2. soxfan3030 Says:

    Do it yourself Handel is awesome (one of my friend’s favorite events of the year) but do it yourself Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, awesome as it might be, would require an interesting reconfiguration of the concert hall (or involve several painful elbowings)…And I will say the smaller the concert (chamber concerts come to mind) the more the love shown to the audience…


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