MORLOT, MIX-A-LOT AND MUSIC’S FUTURE

by Jill Kimball

A Seattle-born musician and composer caused quite a stir last week when he visited Benaroya Hall for a performance with the Seattle Symphony.

Sir Mix-A-Lot with the Seattle Symphohny

Photo: Ben VanHouten for The New York Times

The musician in question has a keen ear for rhythmic detail and often finds inspiration in electronic music. He in turn inspired a series of pieces by Gabriel Prokofiev, the talented and musically adventurous grandson of Sergei. The Seattle Symphony’s Artistic Director, Ludovic Morlot, took to the podium over the weekend to premiere Prokofiev’s latest work with the orchestra as part of its Sonic Evolution series.

The Seattle Symphony premieres new works by avant-garde composers at least a handful of times every year, so why the commotion? It’s because that as-yet-unnamed musician is actually hip-hop artist Sir Mix-A-Lot, whose 1992 breakout hit “Baby Got Back” is included in Prokofiev’s latest suite dedicated to Mix-A-Lot’s complex beats. In the weekend performance, the rapper invited several dozen female audience members onstage to dance along as he and the Symphony performed Prokofiev’s remix of the famous ode to derrières.

After watching the video, all of us at Second Inversion launched into a discussion about the Sonic Evolution series, about genres, about the future of music. We weren’t the only ones. I noticed conversations popping up all over my Facebook feed, on Twitter, even on the Metro bus during my commute. I heard a lot of the same questions posed: Does the Symphony need a video of women getting down to a popular song in Benaroya Hall to stay relevant? Does the association with Gabriel Prokofiev really turn this dyed in the wool hip-hop song into something classical? Is a group of world-class, classically-trained musicians “selling out” when it performs Top 40 music? The most scathing comment I saw: “This … is not music and does not belong in Benaroya.”

Take a look at the last three seasons under Ludovic Morlot’s baton and you’ll see that the Seattle Symphony has offered an increasingly wide variety of concert experiences to attract new audiences while still embracing traditional classical music. The day before Sir Mix-A-Lot’s performance, the Symphony played Ravel and Dutilleux before a silent, reverent, seated audience. A few weeks ago, the Symphony performed new and old music featuring a handful of SSO instrumentalists, a pair of turntables and a few other instrument oddities in the Benaroya lobby, where audience members took in the concert sitting on carpet squares, piling into small booths or milling around the walkways above. (That full concert, by the way, is available on demand below.)

When concerts of Mozart, Debussy and Rachmaninoff are still abundant–just flip through the Symphony’s 2014-15 brochure to find out how abundant–I have to wonder why those who enjoy the traditional Symphony experience are intent on keeping the music that doesn’t appeal to them out of the concert hall.

From where I sit, music does not, cannot exist in one dimension at a time. Many of the decades-trained musicians we see performing the classical canon onstage enjoy listening to non-classical music and often enjoy playing it, too. John Williams is a composer, but his well-rounded musical résumé includes more than just classical credits. Most of the composers we’ve met in our studios draw from a handful of musical genres to write their music. Sir Mix-A-Lot, then, is more than a rapper: he, like Wiliams and Prokofiev and so many others, is simply a musician who appreciates the work of other musicians.

I won’t attempt to answer the question we’ve all asked at some point–what is a musician?–except to say that musicians can still be musicians even if we don’t like them. A few here at Second Inversion admitted Sir Mix-A-Lot’s performance didn’t really “work” for them. But judging from the feedback on that YouTube video, it worked for more than a million others.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that this concert was purposefully scheduled to cap off the annual American League of Orchestras conference, hosted this year by the Seattle Symphony. That means Ludovic Morlot made a conscious decision to conduct his orchestra alongside a rapper and dozens of booty-shaking women for a room full of America’s most influential leaders in classical music. In doing so, he wasn’t just attracting young people in order to sell tickets: he was telling the guardians of classical music to rethink tradition. He demanded that they listen to something completely radical and asked them to do nothing more than consider it.

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