The "classicalizing" of popular music is a neat trick, one that is new to me and, I would argue, best experienced live. Oh, I've known for a long time that there are classical and strings versions of pop songs, just like there are entire CDs of bluegrass instrumental versions of the Beatles and everyone else. No, I'm talking about something a little bit different.
Last night, I saw Sybarite 5 in concert, a classical quintet consisting of five good-looking (sorry, it mattered), casually-dressed (it mattered), young (it mattered), supremely-skilled (it really mattered) classically-trained musicians who played everything from Mozart to Radiohead, Piazzolla to Turkish folk songs, friends of the band who are composers to Led Zeppelin.
The appeals of the performance are almost too many to list--continual "what will they play next" anticipation, superb musical execution, skilled playfulness and complete dedication to the music, band interplay, satisfying arrangements, among others.
But what I realized most dramatically was how their approach pulled all of music into a continuum. Last night, there were no musical categories other than the Sybarite 5 setlist, what was in and what was out. And even then, I felt like the possibilities for what could have been there were limitless.
Take music from any time, any place, any culture and play it on the same set of instruments, and very quickly it all feels part of an expansive whole. I know, of course, of many bands that draw from a variety of influences. This was a more dramatic mix.
I knew going in that Radiohead was a particular favorite of theirs to interpret, and when I heard "Paranoid Android" I understood why. That song, like others they took on, has intriguing bass, percussion, guitar, and vocal parts, as well as different sections and time changes, that an arranger could recreate to great effect on violins, viola, cello, and bass, using percussive bows, plucked strings, and other techniques. The "melody" of the song is complex and meandering, at times discordant, at times beautiful, and although it is not the easiest song to listen to, there is always something interesting going on. And, take the voice and rock instruments away and it becomes something else.
The Zeppelin they played, "Heartbreaker," also pushes the boundaries of pop music's song structures--key changes, multiple sections, the Jimmy Page solo in the middle with nothing (recreated note for note on violin), different speeds with loud and quiet sections.
But I'm not a particularly classical guy and the tangos of Piazzolla (they played three) were no less satisfying.
In short, what they did was to take staid, respectful classical music and drag it into the modern world, while, in the same set, they took accomplished modern songwriters and gave their rhythms and melodies arrangements that linked them explicitly with that music that has stood the test time. If you think that Sybarite 5 was slumming it when they played Radiohead or Zeppelin, then you give neither Page/Plant nor Thomas Yorke (or Sybarite 5's arranger) enough credit.
I walked out with that often-realized, often-forgotten understanding that all music connects to all music. Who knows how long it will last this time, but I do hope that someday it will take for good.