One of my pedagogical fantasies is that someone will do a documentary on what music students are actually like—a day, week, month, semester in the life of a music school. The tired cultural image of classical musical as pastime of the lazy rich still survives, stupidly. Jazz and Rock manage to retain more street cred as musics of the down, dirty, and bad, which is hilarious—at least in the studio, they are every bit as “cultivated,” in their different ways, as classical music. There’s a hell of a lot of practicing involved with all of above, a huge down payment in time and commitment that may or may not be redeemable later. There is the continuous effort, despite the endlessly (sometimes painfully) deferred gratification that is the musician’ lot and life. Ultimately, there is also the craziness—this particularly with classical music—the quixotic pursuit of something that is not a majority interest, that still motivates the music student, bouncing like a superball between classes, rehearsals, performances, and special events. It chooses you, you don’t choose it; if more people understood what it is really like they might (or might not) envy it, but they would certainly respect it. Still, what do you do with your classical piano lessons, your violin abilities, and your cello expertise?
I don’t know if “chamber pop” is a genre or if Vienna Teng is sui generis. She is a classically trained pianist who is a singer-songwriter, whose band consists of a violinist and cellist who also sing backup, and (now) a percussionist who likewise sings backup. Last night they played Denver, at the Swallow Hill Folk Music Center, and I hied myself down for the gig—I’ve followed Vienna and her band since hearing her at a house concert here several years ago. Now, nothing against popular music’s ubiquitous guitar, but the fact remains that absent heroic electronic effects, bowed-string instruments have in some ways wider capabilities: they can sing, yowl, keen, dance, add wonderful obligati, and rip your lungs out, particularly when they are not played with uniform government-issue cutesie-sweetsie vibrato and prettiness all the time. The big secret is that they are fantastic rhythm instruments. Short bow-strokes on the backbeat have a wonderful kinetic energy, equal to any guitar—known to Gypsy bands, serenade groups, composers of string quartets, etc. for more than two centuries. With Vienna Teng & Band, we have what amounts to a seven-part chamber ensemble plus percussion: a piano trio (with the violinist also taking viola sometimes) and four voices. Vienna’s voice is very strong, so—in addition to the songwriting, which is likewise very strong, and atypical—there is a kind of kaleidoscopic changing of lead instrument throughout the songs, as there is with any other chamber ensemble. Amplify the strings for more edge, and you have some really dangerous possibilities.
To me, Vienna Teng and her group thus represent a lot more in the way of musical risk, edge, road less traveled by etc. than a basic rock band (which is a comfortable, fifty-year tradition by now, yes?), regardless of number and extent of tattoos, hair, lips, questionable language (what could be more boring?), etc. The audience last night was a gratifying mix of young and old, younger fans and folk-club members interested in checking out a new sound. The music is intuitively powerful but—key point here—does not insult the listener. (By comparison, a friend recently sent a clip of Yngwie Malmsteen; loads of chops, sure, but the lights and devil-mist and badass-axman gestures…? I felt both insulted and embarrassed.)
The musical challenges both set and met by Vienna and her fellow musicians lie, in other words, well beyond ear-bleeding volume, alpha-posturing, and the depressingly limited emotional range of much pop music. The question is whether there is a substantial listernership that is really up to the challenge of music that doesn’t pout and strut its packaged, contrived contempt or rebellion or sensitivity or vulnerability (or whatever) while offering no—I mean no—challenge at all. Here we have something intuitively beautiful and also powerful, long on musical and lyrical content, long on instrumental and vocal ability, short on poseurdom.
How many people really have the backbone to go after this?