Thoroughly Modern Music

Synchronia founder Timothy Vincent Clark doesn't want his group associated with that "C" word -- classical

 Synchronia has a couple of things working against it in trying to attract certain music aficionados in St. Louis. First, their music is performed not in nightclubs or coffeehouses but in halls and performance spaces. For souls unaccustomed to sitting tight and keeping quiet -- not standing up, smoking and drinking -- while listening to music, walking into a place like the Steinberg Auditorium at Washington University to hear weird and wonderful contemporary music is the equivalent of stepping into a dentist's office: The sterility is overwhelming and not a little oppressive. Not a place, so the thinking goes, for sincere laughter, and definitely not a place for fun.

Then there's the matter of the "C" word, one that Synchronia founder Timothy Vincent Clark is loath to connect with the music he and his ensemble create and perform but one that inevitably pops up in mentions of his ensemble (don't get him started). The "C" word, of course, is "classical." One mention of the word conjures images of the elbow-patched and the furrow-browed listening intently to highfalutin, "if you don't understand the structure and the history how can you appreciate it?" music. It's enough to send many opened-minded, curious post-rockers, jazz improvisers and Deadheads running to the exits, even though the music that Synchronia makes often resembles, at least philosophically, much of the music that hipsters worldwide are name-dropping these days.

Hence the trials of Clark and Synchronia: "It's amazingly frustrating," Clark says. After all, it's been 15 years that Synchronia have been challenging this city's sensibilities, 15 years of seemingly banging their heads against a wall of indifference from audiences divided into neat little camps of listeners: jazz fans who only go to jazz clubs (or who will venture to Steinberg, but only when John Zorn is within); rock fans who wouldn't be caught dead in a concert hall unless Metallica's jamming with the San Francisco Symphony; Deadheads devoted only to one kind of rebellion; classical geeks whose passion can only be found at Powell. That leaves Synchronia with a crowd consisting of misfits, the kind who are able to laugh inside a concert hall, who appreciate the occasional hoot or "eeep!" of a cellist and who would think nothing of a pianist's slamming his forearm onto his ivories midperformance.

So Clark has his work cut out for him. He has, of course, developed a solution, one he implements each time he's constructing a season. "We have to figure out some way of surviving and having an audience," he says. "If you bore people to death, they're not going to come back. Or if you play music that is overly bland, which is not necessarily boring, they're not going to come back. You have to be exciting. You have to say that there's a reason to come."

Synchronia performs the work of Clark and countless contemporary composers, composers who create music that most classical know-nothings would consider "modern classical music," a reference that obviously irks Clark, who insists that what Synchronia does is not classical (put on your seatbelts): "If I could get briefly academic about it, classical music is the period from 1750 to about 1805, and if you want to talk about an idea of a continuum, well, OK, where does classical music go to? The continuum is that classical music goes into the Romantic period, then it goes into the late-Romantic dichotomy between Brahms and Wagner, and then goes into impressionism and expressionism, and goes into neoclassicism and then it goes into -- see, so we're not playing classical music under that guideline, either. Phil Glass is a classical composer? Or do you say he's a minimalist composer?" We would say that Glass is a contemporary classical composer, actually, who has worked within these broad parameters to create minimalism. It is part of the classical continuum. Clark disagrees, though:

"I make use of everything that's around me sonically, which is why there is jazz stuff and why there is rock & roll stuff. You've heard "Running,' where there are references with what you can do with rap. Any composer in any time frame has done that, unless they decide that they're going to write Débussy. So, no, I don't think "classical' is the right term, and I think there are lots of good reasons why it's not the right term."

What Clark rails against most -- other than semantic differences -- one suspects, is the perceived stodginess of classical music, and who can blame him? ("We want to avoid dry, dusty, backward-looking American music, I suppose, is the easiest way of looking at it," he says).There's a notion that classical music is created strictly for uptight doctors and their debutante wives. There's no such stodginess at a Synchronia show; we'd love to see members of the St. Louis Symphony toss streamers midperformance, as Synchronia did last month during a the premiere performance of Clark's "Running," and there are constant grins on the faces of the players.

Synchronia (Cathy Lane, flute; Elsie Parker, reeds; Mark Hochberg, violin; Janice Riemann, cello; Kris Bartman, keyboards; Don Parker, mallets and percussion) moves from levity to melancholy beauty to blissful noise as an evening progresses, and Clark programs each night to examine a range of emotions. The group's most recent performance, titled An Evening of Reprisals, consisted of "Running," "Helpin' Out Again" -- another Clark debut -- and a few Synchronia favorites from years past; Philip Glass' "Modern Love Waltz," Bryan-Kirk Reinhardt's beautiful "Pemaquid Point Light," Clark's "Too Too Low Go" and the highlight, Richard Einhorn's "Maxwell's Demon," a piece for solo violin in which Hochberg, on electric violin, created a heavenly din using effects pedals while sawing at the instrument. It was beautiful.

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