On Wednesday night a companion and I headed out to Brooklyn, along with thirty or so millennials who drifted off Malcolm X Boulevard into a house party on Quincy Street in Bed Stuy. In some ways it was a standard Brooklyn hipster house, complete with an attention starved Labrador, some hanging plants and an ironic Buck’s head mounted on the far wall. Shoeless and bearded guests milled around discussing the rivalry between Apple and Google, drank wine from mason jars, and glanced thoughtfully at each other through their wide-rimmed glasses. Many of the guests did not know one another prior to their arrival, nor did they even know the host. Indeed, it was a peculiar event as this house full of strangers gathered with a common purpose: to hear an hour’s worth of music for the viol (viola da gamba) played by a viol consort.
The evening’s festivities were hosted by Sam Bodkin, founder and CEO of Groupmuse, a social network which connects classical musicians to homes in their respective communities to provide classical music concerts in a more “chill” setting than that of Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall. Sat on the floor, the stairwell or on couches, audience members stared transfixed as they watched elegant bows on gut strings through the screens of their iPhones, Snapping and Instagramming for a social media boost. (Fear not, the crowd was assured that vegan string alternatives were available, even if they were not entirely historically appropriate.) Within five minutes, weed wafted like incense from the smoker’s lounge in the balcony overlooking the living room made stage, where several guests opted to and enjoy the birds eye view.
After the first piece ended, a member of the ensemble stood up to introduce the viol and its music, likening it to pop songs or musak (apparently Louis XIV liked listening to viols while on the loo). More mugs and iced tea glasses of wine were poured, and guests got to talk with the performers and ask them about their instruments, and in one case, even try it out. “I really feel like I’ve heard that last song somewhere,” noted one of the guests. While another ensemble member tried to talk about the specificities of harmonies and chord changes, another guest noted that one of the sadder numbers sounded like Nancy Sinatra’s My Baby Shot Me Down from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.
Shortly before evening’s end, the same ensemble member continued to talk to guests about the history of the instrument. “Really, the instrument is a living piece of history, with an itinerant past. We know that the earliest form of the instrument was brought to Spain by North African musicians, and spread across Italy and England with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain from the late 15th century onwards. Because of the instrument’s past in having travelled with migrants across Europe, it has a borderless and universal quality to it that means you can play any music from Italy, Spain, France, Germany or England from eras when national boundaries and identities were really beginning to harden. In a way, it’s an instrument without borders.”