It's not hard to find cultural points where lowbrow meets highbrow. Some of my favorite examples are Jeff Koons's porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson, Laurel Nakadate's catalogue of crying selfies, and Beyoncé sampling Chimananda Ngozie Adichi. When this fusion works, it feels wrong to untangle the elements in these pieces as one or the other: the strictly high and profound, meeting something supposedly low and superficial. Instead, everything is interwoven. Seemingly shallow material becomes fair territory for thoughtful art, and vice versa. If high culture refers to the introspection or self-consciousness of a society, then this includes making art about our impulses to take a selfie, to obsess over an outfit, or to share an internet meme.
Blurring the boundaries between fine art and popular culture is nothing new, but classical music is still the last place I'd expect to find references to the internet or experimental fashion. Yet, on April 9 and 10 at the Flamboyán Theater, the Nouveau Classical Project will do just that by presenting Sacred-Profane, a concert that is part fashion show, part performance art, part homage to a viral email.
"I think the cultural zeitgeist right now is to do things with multiple elements," NCP's founder and artistic director Sugar Vendil said when I spoke with her in Midtown last week. Vendil, who is also the pianist for the group, designed the concert around
Sororatorio: A Cuntata, a song cycle composed by Vincent Calianno that is based on the deranged DeltaGamma Sorority email that went viral in 2013.
Calianno said he first discovered the email when a friend, Kivie Cahn-Lipman (who also happens to be NCP's cellist) read it aloud to him, and only a few minutes later he realized he wanted to turn it into music. "I was thinking, what would sorority-girl music sound like? It would be something I could listen to on the radio, something recorded in a studio. It would have all of these associations with the words and her emotions, but how do I abstract that?"
The email was written by one of Delta Gamma's executive board members who claimed, (among other distinctive phrases that helped it go viral) that she would "fucking cunt punt" sorority sisters who didn't fully participate in Greek week activities. The email reads like a comedy monologue that's trying to emulate the most hyperbolic sorority bitch-voice imaginable. She's the 2015 version of Parker Posey's mean-girl drill sergeant from Dazed and Confused, only she's real and uses all caps.
The unhinged rant stayed with Calianno past the initial joke. "I never wanted to make fun of her," he explained. "I guess the music is partly celebrating the email, and just using it for what it is. Borrowing from different parts of Americana leads you to ask, 'Is this the superficial part or the profound part?' But it's so well executed, it's both." He counted the number of times the email says, fuck (41) and divided the text into five movements, (plus a motet) all named after phrases from the text. "Rough Fucking Ride," comes from "Tie yourself down to whatever chair you're sitting in, because this email is going to be a rough fucking ride," while another is called "A Weird Shit That Does Weird Shit," as in, "If you're a weird shit that does weird shit during the day, this following message is for you."
The transformation from "stately composure to total abandonment," as NCP describes it, is echoed throughout the other musical arrangements, and in the visual elements of the performance. The musicians will be wearing clothes by Jenny Lai's experimental fashion label NOT, which will slowly transform in both color and silhouette throughout the concert. "Fashion has always been viewed as superficial," said Vendil. "I wanted to do two things: First, show that classical musicians are multidimensional—they're not just these stereotypical geeks, because we're not all just one thing. And second, elevate fashion out of the superficial. Even just putting together your own outfit involves proportions and spatial relationships—it's a way to express something."
Vendil incorporates fashion into all of NCP's productions, bringing a refreshing edge to the widely conservative genre. For a classical musician, typical concert attire means simple and black. "The point of the black is not just for uniformity. It's to hide you as much as possible," she said. "They say it's because it's not about you, it's about the sound—whatever. Sound just lives on a piece of paper without you. It is about you. So I thought, We have to wear clothes anyway. Why can't that be part of the performance?"
In other artistic fusions of high and low culture, it's hard not to make something that ends up coming across as a gimmick. On the New York City Opera's Anna Nicole last year one critic said it was more of a spectacle that made fun of Anna Nicole Smith rather than using the medium to find something interesting to say about her life.
So how do you make something profound out of superficial material—something that fully acknowledges both the seriousness of the medium and the campiness of its sources? The arrangement of references and material in Sacred-Profane uses complicated metaphors, and seeks to make less obvious connections. For example, Vendil said at first she thought of having performers tear their clothes, but that she realized this was too literal of a symbol. "It's not just a metaphor for going crazy," she said about the way fashion transforms the performers throughout the show. "There was this beautiful, more subtle symbolism that [Lai] was able to capture with the clothing. It's about transforming and growing; discovering the various hidden sides of yourself."
Her statement fits the overall project. Something classical music and fashion have in common with sorority-girl culture is that all three are easily stereotyped, and NCP's work makes a stage for finding nuance in rigid categories. The program will also feature a "Kyrie" from Johannes Ockeghem's Missa Prolationum reimagined by Marina Kifferstein, and music by Sarah Kirkland Snider and Nina Young. Vendil chose to include these pieces because they each fit the theme in a fluid way. On Nina Young's "The Meditation," for example, which is based on a poem, Vendil says, "Some are more on the sacred side, and then others are more profane. A meditation is sacred, but here the content is profane. You can't lump it all into one."
The Nouveau Classical Project's Sacred-Profane is a Kickstarter Staff Pick and is raising money through April 2 to support composer commissions, artist fees, and other crucial elements. Learn more about their projects at nouveauclassical.org.