N o holds barred! Chamber music in ANY chamber! The Chiara Quartet is forging a new path for the string quartet. The Chiara transforms the audience experience from mere listening to active engagement with the music.”
poster for Chiara String Quartet gig at The Brick, KCMO music bar
CMT: Look at this SRO crowd, 120 people in this 1,600 square-foot downtown bar! The Chiaras are packing them in!
DSM: [ . . . listens; . . . orders another drink; looks at wrist watch: it’s 10:15 p.m. ] Okay, let’s examine this first set. How was it put together? Here’s some of the playlist that the Chiara just did.
- JEFFERSON FRIEDMAN, String Quartet No. 3, First Movement (rhythmic)
- BÉLA BARTÓK, String Quartet No. 4, Last Movement (aggressive, fast)
- PIERRE JALBERT, “Icefield Sonnets,” Second Movement (austere, cold, slow)
- GABRIELA LENA FRANK, “Leyendas” and “Tarqueada” (South American folk)
- W. A. MOZART, Quartet K. 590, Fourth Movement (joyous and syncopated)
- PAUL HINDEMITH, Quartet No. 3, Slow Movement (mesmerized, detached)
- JOHANNES BRAHMS, Adagio in B-flat (romantic, warm, reverent)
- ZHOU LONG, Song of the Ch'in (emphatic, plucked, wavered, scooped emulation of Pipa-like/Sanxian-like sounds on normal viols)
- LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN, Große Fuge (edgy, huge, 200 years later still feels avant-garde)
- PRINCE, “Let’s Go Crazy”
CMT: This is lyrical, really inspired playing. And Chiara members were “feeding” on the excitement they transmitted into this packed club, which comes back 10X bigger from the crowd to the tiny stage. No inhibitions. And yet nice control. It’s not common to see artists this physical, so palpably enthusiastic in conventional classical music performance settings. The flow of energy from the ensemble to the audience is like a “Noreaster” or a tropical depression—it picks up more energy as the storm moves out over the warm sea of people, and moves back onto the stage even stronger, a “Category 5”!
DSM: Yes, the Chiara Quartet members are very responsive. And the club audience here is very appreciative. The publicity in advance of the Chiara’s gig had been good: local music critic, Paul Horsley, had a 1,000 word piece on them in last Sunday’s paper. One thousand words is a huge amount of space for a single article on classical music performance in a U.S. daily paper. But the crowd here is not just turning out to hear something unusual they read about. This is not a ‘curious’ crowd hoping to be amused. It’s a ‘hungry’ crowd, expecting their ears and minds to be nourished!
CMT: The piece by Zhou Long, Visiting Professor of Composition at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, was fantastic! Very warmly accepted by these springjacketed and bluejeaned people. I think the Ying Quartet also does this piece regularly, as part of their ‘Musical Dim Sum’ program.
DSM: The Zhou Long is totally accessible, and anyone wary of Chinese music need have no fears. Complex but approachable work, this Chinese and Western music fusion.
CMT: Did you notice? During the playing, this bar audience is respectfully quiet. Not totally or obsessively quiet. Yes, drinks rising to meet lips; the occasional icecube sound against highball glass. But quietude during the playing, borne out of fascination, not decorum. Quietude, out of “What happens next?”; out of “I’ve never heard anything like this! Ever!” amazement; out of rapt absorption in experiencing music played in this way.
DSM: They’re getting thousands and thousands of ‘plays’ of their MP3s on the Chiara MySpace page.
CMT: Well, what do you need to carry this chamber-music-in-bars thing off? How can other quartets or chamber artists do club gigs like this, and be reasonably assured of a success?
DSM: First, you need programming and acoustical engineering savvy about the club venues. That’s something that the artists/ensembles tend not to have, unless they've gone to school at Berklee or places like that.
CMT: You need the sense of a re-mix DJ. You need a producer. You need a brilliant engineer. A chamber ensemble can’t afford to hire those. So, ideally, at least one of the musicians needs to be serious and experienced in those aspects. You need all of these skills, rolled into one person. Not to say that’s impossible. But it’s going to be pretty unusual. A virtuoso musician is rare enough. A virtuoso musician who’s a recording engineer and technical geek is rare as hens’ teeth.
DSM: Yup. But there are crazed geek polymaths in all walks of life, geekish renaissance persons of all ages. This is no different. And, what if this new-music, new-venue thing takes off in the next few years? If it does, if it’s really successful and chamber music ensembles and the classical establishment all see it being successful, then you’ll see more Berklee-type programs in other schools’ music departments and conservatories—to grow these skills in their students. They only hire faculties and build new programs when there’s an unmet need to fill, when there’s clear-and-present demand.
CMT: What else do you need? You need really decent monitors and miking and amps. You don’t want to suffer with any old junk that your garden-variety rock group puts up with. You’ve got to have sound equipment that’s capable of picking up every tiny, subtle sound and ornament clearly. What do you see up there on the stage where Chiara’s sitting? A $1,000 boom mic next to each player, plus dual Shure SM7B mics on the stand in the center between them . . .
DSM: You need rock-solid music stands and chairs with rubber feet that aren’t going to slip off the edge of a tiny stage. You need high-intensity LED micro goose-neck lamps on your music stand—ones that aren’t depending on house AC power to shine enough light on your music.
CMT: You need jazzband type music folders that can stand up to hard use on the road. You need to put plastic tabs on the edges of your music, to enable you to confidently turn pages—dog-earing the page corners as you would do for conventional concert-hall performance won’t cut it. You need to have some approach for preventing the draft—coming from the club’s A/C system or overhead ceiling fans that the bar may have spinning at high RPMs—keep it from blowing your music or flipping your pages.
DSM: You need to choose a wardrobe that’s flexible and designed for insuring your comfort—with pieces you can put on if the A/C is cranked down really cold, and with pieces you can take off if the crowd is packed in and the place is really hot. If you’re a pianist, you need to get there early-early, to check out and, if possible, fix whatever funkiness may be plaguing the instrument up there, if it’s not your own. Jazz musicians are used to dealing with these contingencies, taking them in stride without a fuss.
CMT: To return to the earlier comment, you want a house-music artist. If no member of the ensemble has a knack for this, doesn’t have an innate sense for this, then you need to enlist the help of a friend or collaborator who does have this gift and expertise. You want highly crafted playlists/mixes. The mixes mustn’t pander to the “obvious” next chart if a more exotic alternative is the one that’s capable of generating mass-bliss or excitement on a club-wide level.
DSM: You need to innovate radically. You need the mix to stay faithful to clubbing ideals – awe-inspiring breakdowns, huge rushes of energy, frenzy-inducing sonatas. You want to emulate the Ministry of Sound in London but with a pure chamber music repertoire. You want some familiar pieces, but you want radical new music, and you want “Ah ha!” pairings of disparate pieces, where you draw parallels that nobody’s heard before and that the composers would never have acknowledged, even if they lived concurrently.
CMT: Is Chen Yi here?
DSM: Haven’t seen her yet. Did you know that the Chiara Quartet was recently awarded the Guarneri Quartet Residency Award for artistic excellence by Chamber Music America. They are only the second group to receive this honor.
CMT: What else? You need a very good console surface, a front-of-house (FOH) rack housing the system's mix engine. You need a Stage Rack with recallable, remote-controlled preamps, and a multichannel digital snake.
DSM: Your engineer needs to keep a clean house. If your console has plug-ins installed that you know you definitely won’t need, disable them from the Options/Plug-ins list, so you won't get any “surprises” during a set. You want to keep your input faders around the unity-gain (0 dB) mark to prevent clipping.
CMT: The P.A. does not automatically or magically manage the room’s sound and, as such, sound system designers must include the room’s characteristics in their audio equation. Does the space have an echo? Does it sound boomy? The Brick is box-like, boomy. Do you remember what it was like at 09:00 p.m., before the place filled up? The engineer behind us was tremendously busy fixing that. He was back and forth to the stage 6 times before he was satisfied with the mic placements.
DSM: Does the sound system envelop the audience member as if the gallery is actually in the second row of tables? For acoustical and sound system consultants, matching the right rig with a venue’s sonic signature—and the playlist that will be played in that space on that night—is imperative. Otherwise, the audience will never hear the music in the way it was intended.
CMT: It’s no different, really, than a studio engineer’s craft. The studio mix must render okay in whatever playback medium the consumer listens on. So the studio engineer must choose the gear and the settings and effects and the acoustical design so that the energy generated onstage renders adequately in the room and musically meets the needs of the crowd.
DSM: Are there issues with maintaining sight lines in a place like this? The Brick has that little stage up there and the engineer raised up on a deck behind our booth here. Does the room exhibit a long reverberation time? There’s this little dog-leg in the back of The Brick, the path to the toilets. There’s also the “neighbor factor.” Is the club venue located in an urban or suburban environment where the sound from passing city buses or subways is intruding? You don’t want to be a string quartet and arrive and discover that fact 20 minutes before you go on! I don’t care if you’ve got a kilowatt of amps and monitors all over the place. You do not want that.
CMT: You may want a trellis to suspend the loudspeakers. A string quartet may want to talk with their local studio people, to get advice on this. A very small club—like Munchies in Houston used to be with their string quartets every Friday and Saturday 25 years ago—they didn’t need it. But in this black box that is The Brick, it’d be nice if they had a trellis—for visual as well as acoustic reasons.
DSM: You want a sound system that delivers lingering, enveloping sound characteristics with supplemental loudspeakersone that can simulate reflections and reverberation using digital delay-line effects. Something like an Electro-Voice X-Array as part of a distributed reinforcement system, which provides direct or frontal sound, delivering clarity to everybody in the audience. A rock audience wouldn’t give a care. But a chamber music audience in a club would care. You want them to be thrilled, blown away!
CMT: You want to fire the acoustic energy at the listener and not outside the area. The violinists in Chiara are doing fine. I’d like to hear a bit more viola, more cello. Maybe they’ll tweak with that in the second set.
DSM: In addition, the geometry of the tables seating arrangement here isn’t as conducive to the horizontal coverage pattern of the monitor array they have, such as it is. I think I’d want to visit with the club owner ahead of time to adjust the tables a bit, if I were the engineer.
CMT: Hardly matters, though, with this packed-in, standing-up crowd, does it!? Whatever they did an hour ago has long since been undone and redone by the pumped-up club-goers shifting chairs and tables around.
DSM: I was thinking more of the musicians’ needs, not the audience. The front row of tables is too close for comfort, if it were me. The bar’s got a standard 8-foot ceiling, and the stage they’re on is a riser about 12 inches off the floor—and you can’t do anything about that. But the resulting low ceiling height on the stage has a detrimental impact on the acoustic environment onstage from the performers’ point of view/hearing. You need to give ‘em a bit more space in front of them. And you ought to have at least a couple of small monitors pointed back at them so they can hear each other better, given that the ceiling above them is so low.
CMT: You don’t want an excessive amount of sound being held onstage that would reduce the clarity of sound as picked up by microphones either. Actually, the Chiara’s engineer has achieved a nice, clean signal in his mics. Ideally, you’d like orchestra-type risers that allow the musicians to feel the vibrations created by cellos and bass instruments. A floating floor with rigid interconnections and resilient materials to maximize cross-stage vibrations. But no bar can afford that. Not even Sculler’s in Boston.
DSM: Chiara—if they do this routinely in NYC—maybe could get their favorite club to install a Yamaha Active Field Control [AFC] system to control acoustical conditions based on the ambient room properties by using the system’s acoustical feedback to balance the room. You want to tune the room to be as neutral and quiet as possible—get your reverb time down below 2 milliseconds—knowing that you can increase it to whatever setting you want—for the Zhou Long or other atmospheric pieces. If you need to damp it, you know you can damp it with a vengeance, once you’ve quieted the room down with AFC.
CMT: What if you were building a brand new club? What would you say to your architect, knowing that you want to book amplified chamber music gigs in your club?
DSM: First, make sure your architect has an acoustic engineer on-staff or available. Get Johns Manville ceiling treatments for their acoustical value. Put Johns Manville soundboard or other studio-grade stuff on all the walls. Soften the floors with some industrial-grade cork or rubber—something acoustically good that’s durable and that can be swabbed clean night after night.
CMT: The wall and ceiling shapes allow sound to be reflected across the stage, providing musicians with cross-stage communication. I’d ask the architect to put inlay, raised-panel things on some of the walls. Plan ahead so that you can swap out acoustic baffling in some pocket-door-like wall recesses if you need to—you could motorize those, like you would conference-room projection screens.
DSM: No trees or water features or free-standing partitions or other visual fluff. None of that velvety stage draping, sheesh. Techno cloth-backed seating with quiet Teflon slides on the chair legs.
CMT: You gonna buy one of Chiara’s “New Voice Singles” label CDs over there?
DSM: Sure! What else? You know why this thing is cooking tonight?
- Every number has a “story” to help the audience get into it.
- Each piece announced from the stage. Jonah and his colleagues are really personable!
- When playing two sets, the second set could get away with a complete 4-movement string quartet piece, but with applause between movements entirely okay. I have to admit I prefer instead this eclectic playlist like the first set we just heard.
- The playlist is altered dynamically, based on intensity and strength of audience feeling or artist mood.
CMT: Who else could do this most readily do you think? Manny Ax? Jeremy Denk? Eric Kim? Susan Graham?
DSM: Orion String Quartet? Miró String Quartet? Turtle Island String Quartet? Kronos Quartet? Jupiter Quartet? Parker Quartet?
CMT: In Italy, there’s Pierrot Lunaire’s Gudrun. There’s Opus Avantra. In Germany, you have Krautrock bearing the marks of Stockhausen’s composing techniques leading to many adventures, not all of them very listenable. The ensemble, Bartock, and some others have chamber music roots, although their members would not be thought of as first-rank virtuosic by any means.
DSM: Well—wherever the opportunity arises, whenever we get a chance—this bears repeating! The audience is loving it. And the Chiara’s, too. More, please! Thank you, Brick! Thank you, Chiara!
- Chiara String Quartet website
- Chiara agent's website
- Chiara MySpace page
- Zhou Long website
- Jefferson Friedman website
- Mix magazine online version
- MusicProductionToolbox magazine
- SoundOnSound magazine
- Berklee College of Music MPE website
- Berklee College of Music CWP website
- The Brick, Kansas City
- Extreme Chamber Music, Ithaca College, Ford Hall, 20-MAR-2007
- Opus1 website
- Parker String Quartet website
- Jupiter String Quartet page
- Jupiter String Quartet website
- Miró String Quartet website
- Turtle Island String Quartet website
- Orion String Quartet website (see Gardner Museum [Boston] and other alternative venues)
- Kronos String Quartet website
- Cacophonous.org website
- New Music ReBlog
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T his idea of a string quartet in a club: Is it working?” [SRO crowd roars ‘Yes’; exuberant clapping continues]
Jonah Sirota, Violist, Chiara String Quartet gig at The Brick, KCMO music bar