Vienna Teng in Denver

Jonathan Bellman

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?

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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6 Responses to Vienna Teng in Denver

  1. Andrew says:

    In answer to both your final question, and your earlier one about chamber pop, check out Toronto’s Final Fantasy. Sure he’s not sold a million copies, but he did win the inaugural Polaris Prize (Canada’s answer to the UK Mercury Prize), and has gotten a lot of (Canadian) media attention… And his songwriting is (thank God) not terrible “singer/songwriter”ly.

  2. I’m checking out Vienna Teng right now and finding her a bit to sacchrinely pop for my taste, but if you’re interested in pop/rock musicians who focus on classical instrumentation check out the following:
    Rasputina — 4 cellists and a drummer, one of the cellists sings. Their first album came out in 1997, on Columbia, who promplty dropped them. they’ve persisted with varying lineups and released a number of excellent albums. They always amplify, and on some songs they run the cellos through distortion, which is pretty cool.
    Regina Spektor — She’s the latest version of the Girl and Piano thing, but she’s a lot more classical than Tori Amos or Fiona Apple were. Her current moderate hit is fairly pop, and replaces the piano with synthesized pizz strings, but the meat of all but the very first of her albums are very piano focused and very classical. Don’t miss “Lacrymosa” from her self-released “11:11” album.
    The Dresden Dolls — Piano and Drums, very goth-cabaret. Surprisingly commercially successful.
    Joanna Newsom — Plays harp and sings. Her latest album has an orchestra backup. Very long, intensely poetic songs. Start with “Emily” from her recent album “Ys”. For my money “Ys” was one of the best albums of last year.
    This Ambitious Orchestra — Brooklyn based, no record contract. Basically rock songs performed by a chamber orchestra and a singer who also conducts them.
    and how can we forget. . .
    Laibach — Slovenian industrial band, does a lot of covers, many of their songs employ orchestras or choirs, and they especially go for big Wagnerian horn sections. Their artistic goal is essentially to fight eastern European facism with artistic facism — not for the faint of heart. Start with their cover of “Let It Be” — it’s the whole album, except for the title track, and one of their best. They also have an album with something like 6 different coveres of Sympathy for the Devil. Classic.

  3. Phil Ford says:

    For post-rock, classical-orbit music I’d put my vote in for the album “Systems/Layers” by Rachels. (“Rachels” is the name of the band. Always looks funny on the page.) Also, Final Fantasy is awesome. I mean cop show.

  4. ben wolfson says:

    Not even remotely sui generis, nor is the type particularly recent or uncommon, though popular instances are probably both. There are instances from the 60s onwards.
    And then there’s so-called chamber rock, though really it’s hard to tell where the border lies.
    Alamaailman Vasarat makes excellent use of the possibilities of the cello in a rock context.

  5. ben wolfson says:

    Nico’s _The Marble Index_ and Van Dyke Parks’ _Song Cycle_ are classic chamber poppy things. (Parks is the one who made Joanna Newsom’s album _Ys_ bearable, and contributed lyrics to _Smile_.) I tend to think of L’ensemble Rayé in this context & there are lots of like-minded European groups, eg Gatto Marte, ZNR (which is defunct), Clogs (not European but wish they were), Cro Magnon. Several of the Rock in Opposition groups, and people involved with those groups, were working in a related, not especially poppy but not really rocky idiom, eg Univers Zero, Aksak Maboul, the Stormy Six, Art Zoyd, and some of Lars Hollmer’s projects (Door Floor Something Window, Looping Home Orchestra). Lots of gothy/folky/so-called “wyrd folk” bands inspired by the likes of Death in June and (the non-industrial side of) Current 93 would probably fit in here too, perhaps ultimately traceable back to Comus’ album _First Utterance_.
    Here’s a list:
    I once played a Final Fantasy song after a Volcano the Bear song on the radio for no better reason than that they both contained the line “I can see your house from here”.
    Some other bands/people: Tiger Lillies, Sufjan Stevens, Head of Femur, Spires that In the Sunset Rise.

  6. ben wolfson says:

    (I’ll go away after this…) Maher Shalal Hash Baz is an amazing chamber pop band; really great.

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