“If high art is bracketed off from life by its absolutism and autonomy, it can by definition administer no shocks, issue no threat, convey no message.” Richard Taruskin, from The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays
A native Oregonian raised by Greek parents, Maria Choban is an Amazon musician powerfully wielding a double-edged passion: promote classical music and kill traditional classical concerts. Her own piano concerts galvanize the classically entrenched and turn on classical music virgins to high art. You can read all about Maria at her own blog and listen to samples from her CD’s. Don’t miss her FREE concert at CMC on Saturday, February 16th at 8pm! Below is my conversation with her at the Backspace on January 17th:
What music did you grow up with?
I was really lucky to grow up listening to both classical and rock genres (and a LOT of Greek music). When I was a kid, a family with four boys moved in down the rural lane, and the second-to-youngest one turned me on to Steely Dan. When their first album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, came out in 1972, he came running over with it, and we both discovered it at the same time.
I also remember hearing the Kinks for the first time. I was only eight or nine, and as I was walking to a Bluebird meeting, I heard “Lola” coming through the window; it just turned me on. I love the Kinks.
Also around this same age I heard Tomas Svoboda. Chamber Music Northwest was just in their second season, I think, when I went and heard Svoboda’s two-piano sonatas. He was playing one of the pianos and Lawrence Smith, then the conductor of the Oregon Symphony, was playing the other. It blew me away. I had never heard anything so barbaric in my life, and I instantly resolved to play it.
Honesty, I’m more piece-driven than composer-driven; this is why I created the MC Hammered Klavier project because now I can bring all the pieces together that I love and therefore can sell with a great performance. Vaudeville shows also inspire the format of these concerts, so it’s not your normal, straight-laced piano recital.
You can get tired of a pop song pretty fast, but the rich complexity of classical music provides for longer and deeper enjoyment. There are times, though, when I don’t want to listen to classical music. Like today I had a Concrete Blonde moment. And I also love Filter. These are both musically intelligent groups, but even so, they do not write with anything close to the complexity found in classical music. This type of depth is really what I’m looking for.
It seems like there’s a line to be walked. You’re defining classical music as being more complex, more multilayered; yet one can certainly stray too far and become obsessed by the complexity.
What makes classical music so brilliant is that composers are constantly trying to find that balance. It’s not like composing pop music where you’re looking for the addictive push or the instant resolve. But at the same time, a prime example of complexity-obsession is the modernists. I’m convinced the modernists hated music; they just liked playing with structures and chance. They built an algorithm for music! Lou Harrison had this great line: “I’d rather chance a choice then choose a chance.” That wisdom is aimed right at Cage and the aleatoric composers.
What “turns you on” in music?
I usually parse people into some combination of three categories: sexually based, self-preservation based (you like to nest), or socially based. I have no nesting instincts, NONE. Not at ALL. And no social instincts. I mean, these instincts have been developed, thank god my dad did that, but ultimately my creativity is sexually based. So if it’s music like Led Zeppelin, I LOVE Zeppelin, all those bass lines! John Paul Jones is brilliant. So is the drum bludgeoning John Bonham! So anything that, well let me just tell you my litmus test: if I want to fuck it on stage, it’s a good concert. That’s when the music’s good. And if I don’t…well that’s why I don’t usually go to classical concerts. There is nothing redeeming about a piano recital. Nothing. NOTHING.
Then why are you a classical musician??
Because I can HEAR! Somebody had this great line: “Does it astound you or does it move you?” If someone says, “That was a great concert! His technique was incredible!” Well, maybe that concert astounded you, but it didn’t move you. Art moves us. Art shifts something inside of us. In the moment that art shakes our inner being we’re not thinking, “Look at that digital dexterity!” Classical music has forgotten that there’s no “correct” way to play except to move people!!
All of us have different reasons for returning again and again to classical music, but for me it’s both an intellectual and a sexual pull. Classical music just turns me on. Well, Mozart doesn’t turn me on. But Bach does, oh my god. If only the classical world didn’t insist on completely neutering its composers and their compositions. How many people know that Bach had anger issues? He landed himself in the slammer for punching his employer in the mouth! The guy was a maniac, and I totally love him!
What was your experience listening to and learning classical music as a child?
I used to love the pianist Michelangeli. As a young piano student I thought he was really emotive, but then listening to his recordings as an adult, I realized how dryly he played! Growing up I was hearing what I wanted to hear, what I was already hearing inside my head, despite the fact that it was Michelangeli on the recording. As I grew older, I learned to differentiate between the outside world and my own inside world.
This differentiation took place partly as I realized that the classical genre is really screwed up. I remember playing a Chopin nocturne to my teacher. She said, “No.” So I went home and put on an Arthur Rubenstein recording and played it over and over again with the record. I took it back to her and she said, “Excellent!” This experience was a huge hint that something wasn’t right.
Because of my experiences, I NEVER tell my students to sound a certain way. I let them do whatever they need to do to find their voice. Learning to play is like learning to cook. At first you throw in all the spices you got and of course it tastes terrible for two or three years. But then you learn which spices to use, how to mix and match flavors, and the meal turns out great. That’s what it’s like learning how to play piano. Beginning students are going to be all over the place and their pieces will sound awful! But all I say is, “YAAAAAY! That’s great!! Keep going!!!” And in about three years they find their own style and sound completely different from other students, from me, whomever. But I don’t force a voice on them, and this is very important.
Is classical music relevant to Portland?
Yes! And just as importantly, Portland is relevant for classical music. There are two organizations that I champion here in Portland: Cascadia Composers and Classical RevolutionPDX. Cascadia is a very healthy organization for composers, and it creates a much needed pool of local talent. I just went to another Cascadia Composers presentation. These lectures need to be better publicized. They are open to the public and simply fabulous! The presenter at the last lecture, Mike Hsu, is a doctor, but he practices a gazillion hours and composes. He bases his music on late 1980’s dance music and computer gaming. While he talked, it dawned on me that we have all these kids who are getting immersed in new classical modern music in video games. It’s BRILLIANT! Why aren’t we bringing THAT onto stage??
Classical Revolution PDX [CRPDX] unites high quality musicians with those who are just now dragging their clarinets out of the closet. I really hate elitists and neither organizations are elitist. They’re firmly planted and down to earth. This is the main reason Portland is ahead of the game. New York is still kinda snotty. You feel intimidated if you’re an amateur. Portland has a different feel; it’s very inclusive. This town is in the most interesting phase of being highly collaborative, and it’s the newer organizations like Cascadia and CRPDX who very much foster this nurturing environment.
What does a Portland audience want?
They want shorter programs. They can’t sit through a 2 1/2 hour concert with an intermission. I can’t even do that! We need shorter shows, where the audience knows they’ll be in and out in an hour. That includes an encore and starting 5 minutes late. Keep pieces short! I have no idea how Mahler will survive the future. We also have to be thinking in terms of arc. Shows need to have a storyline. You can’t just throw something up there because you can play it well; the pieces need to fit within a larger framework. Also, classical concerts are way too expensive. I give concerts for free so that classical music virgins will want to take a chance on it.
How is a classical musician supposed to make a living?
This is a complicated situation we’ve created for ourselves. We’ve been churning out a gazillion graduates from conservatories without having any jobs to offer them. Why is the NEA funding classical music concerts?? WHY? Do rock & roll musicians just starting out have access to NEA grants when they’re schlepping their band from bar to bar, hoping for a big break? Why does the Oregon Symphony get as much money as it does when it isn’t even playing compositions from Oregon composers? We need to keep hounding the Oregon Symphony and the opera and all the groups in town: “Why aren’t we using our local resources? Why aren’t we hearing more Oregon composers? Where are our tax dollars going?” Give me a good reason to support our classical radio station! I would have a reason if they devoted two hours of prime listening time each day to playing local musicians and composers. I mean, c’mon, we already have Counterstream Radio et al. You know, at one point our classical radio station worked with the Benson High School students, allowing live performances and interviews from their studio (THAT was exciting!!), and giving them a choice in programming music.
This is a nitty gritty question, but how do you practice?
I practice intricately and with great concentration. I have the best focus and concentration of anybody I know in the field. I will take musical cells and repeat them perfectly 20 to 100 times. Then I’ll nest that into something bigger and do the same thing. I’ll build the whole piece like that. I love practicing! I love that private time with the score. I love bludgeoning the mass of score (through these focused reps) into some organic interpretation that moves me to my core.
It took me 51 years to find the musicians I currently perform with, and I am as happy as a clam at high tide. In one of my groups our mission is to play classical music written in the last five or ten years that’s accessible, well-written, and not esoteric. We just say no to esoterica. I used to say I’m one of the five happiest people in the world. I don’t actually say that to a lot of people because people tend to resent happy people if they’re not happy, too. But now I’m convinced I’m one of the top three happiest people in the world.