Osso, Sufjan Stevens, and Lateral Prestige

November 9, 2009 at 10:36 am

Last Friday, Osso (just one word, not “Osso String Quartet,” as you might think) came to Tufts to give a one day residency. They offered a Q & A in the afternoon, followed by a multimedia evening. As I attended the various events over the course of the day, I felt keenly aware of the phenomenon the issues of instrumentation, genre, and musical marketplaces as I watched the entire event.

Osso describes itself as “a string quartet with a modernist pulse,” and is touring behind a track-by-track arrangement of Sufjan Stevens’s 2001 electronic album Enjoy Your Rabbitt, which has been titled Run Rabbitt Run. In this respect they are not unlike the Vitamin String Quartet, a Los-Angeles based collective of string players who have performed arrangements of a wide variety of rock and popular artists, including Radiohead.  Perhaps the most well known genre-bending string quartet is Bond, who have sold more than three million albums since they started touring in 2003. Yet Osso seems to have their own aesthetic project that defies easy comparison to either of these other groups.

Osso moves in the institutional orbit of Asthmatic Kitty Records, an organization that is perhaps more properly understood as an artists’ collective (or, to borrow a phrase from John Flansburgh, a “Syndicate of Sound”), than a record label. Osso has played with My Brightest Diamond and other artists on the label that is headed by Sufjan Stevens, and the fluid dynamic of their group – the violinists who played last week only joined Osso this October – suggests a more flexible approach to music making and ensemble identity than the personality-driven members of Bond. Some of their decisions suggest an effort to cast off conventions of classical musicians, and Bond does: they perform standing up in brightly colored dresses, the cellist Maria Bella Jeffers talks informally between most pieces, and their promotional photography by Mayumi Ando seems more like the stuff of album art for an indie-band. At the same time they avoid the hyper-sexualized personae of Bond, and have noted that as women performers they have been pigeonholed before: the quartet rolled their eyes during the colloquium as they related the story of an audience member who exclaimed with surprise that women could achieve such an “aggressive” sound.

Perhaps the most interesting thing in my mind about Osso’s project is the way that they are bringing a new spin on the age-old classical-popular divide. Attempts are legion these days: the pianists Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock have collaborated on a joint performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and even contemporary critics (who, I dare say, ought to know better) have obliged them by breathlessly describing their work as “thumbing their noses” at “musical purists” – even though that has been one of the tropes of Gershwin’s piece since it was premiered more than 80 years ago. (As an aside, one might also note the faintly racist overtones that cling to LL’s and HH’s collaboration – the critic for the Chicago Tribune suggested that “The distinctly American cadences” of Rhapsody in Blue “sometimes eluded Lang.” I digress.)   Even Michael Atkinson, the primary arranger for Osso’s renditions of Stevens’s  music, subtitled his account of the project “How I Stopped Being a Musical Snob,” suggesting that through the process of working with Stevens he overcame his deep-seated bias towards popular music through a transformative encounter with Stevens’s sound.

All this would be well and good if Stevens were squarely situated in the sphere of commercial, popular music. But he isn’t, and his career is in no small part buoyed by the exclusivity of his fan base. For many, listening to Sufjan Stevens is a mark of connoisseurship, an establishment of musical taste and elevation of one’s own musical experience above “mere” popular music. Stevens himself helps to fuel the myth of the eccentric artist, for example in his introduction to The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007, where he romanticizes his experience at a Waldorf School and – perhaps I’m missing something – suggests that the main use of reading in America is to be a good member of a capitalist society. Another example was his 35-minute film BQE, which was also screened as part of the evening’s program. In this film, throbbing electronic music and lush orchestral arrangements undergird a triptych of increasingly frenetic video footage of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, interspersed with sensual images of three hula hoop artists, gyrating madly in some sort of homage to the road itself. It isn’t clear what one is supposed to think about the film, except as a celebration of the road and urban life – which seems strange since another road in New York, the Cross Bronx Expressway, has been blamed for permanently blighting certain neighborhoods; in Boston one need not rehearse the urban impact that the Big Dig and, by where I live, the turnpike have had on living near a major highway.

What is special about Osso, then, is that there seems what might be called a “lateral” flow of prestige at work here. There isn’t the sense that Sufjan Stevens’s music is somehow made more esoteric by being arranged for string quartet – if anything it is distilled down to a clearer expression by the arrangements. So easy arguments about classical music “stealing” from – or at least, legitimating – a vernacular tradition don’t quite apply here. Nor is there the real sense that Osso is some sort of “gateway ensemble” into classical music, where a listener might attend their concert and subsequently become consumed with a desire to listen to Haydn and Mozart quartets.  That’s of course possible, but the relatively equal footing of Stevens and Osso in terms of any kind of high-low spectrum (if such spectra are even meaningful anymore) forestalls rehearsing the existing ways of conceptualizing the dynamics between popular and concert worlds. In this sense, I’d posit that Osso is reflecting one current face of pop-classical interchange.

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