BY CAMPBELL BANKS
Play On v_4
Collingwood Underground Carpark, November 25
I couldn’t see the cobwebs in the dark.
Even much of the grey concrete that would normally give an underground car park its essence had been swallowed by the night, its mood transformed by soft decorative lighting around a makeshift wine bar and a crate bedecked in DJ gadgetry. Dancers trod a hard floor unused to the patter of human joy, replacing the squeal of rubber with the uncoordinated rhythms of wine-emboldened silliness and shy, oh no thanks I don’t dance two-stepping. In the midst of an aborted attempt to broaden my shuffle-and-bob repertoire with a spin, the hard-won momentum abandoning me halfway such that my back was now towards DJ Laila Sakini, I saw the entrance door fly open and allow a cool rectangle of outside light to roll down the descending driveway and into this den of music lovers. A Friday night in Collingwood, and I was in some sort of hipster Batcave.
Hipster is an unfortunate word so powerful that it has just ruined all the sincerity of that introduction. It’s as if the paragraph was a lovingly made cocktail full of sugary ingredients to charm you, but just as I reached out to hand it to you, a bird flew by and crapped right in it. I don’t even know what the word signifies anymore, but it definitely has negative connotations. Like ‘baby boomer’, ‘deconstructed’ or ‘Kanye West’. My attempt to evoke an image of exuberant underground dancing has been shaken away like an Etch A Sketch doodle and been replaced by the most hipster thing you can imagine, which may or may not include:
- A waxy moustache (twirled)
- Denim overalls (vintage)
- A leather apron (vintage)
- Non-prescription glasses (over-sized [and vintage])
- Cycling (single–speed)
- Laneway listening parties (cassette tape)
- Anything cold-pressed and single-origin, preferably fair-trade and hyphenated
- Charcoal (activated)
- Hats (indoors)
- Authenticity (insincere)
- Insincerity (authentic)
- Superiority (assumed)
Like you, I am now trying to figure out why I used the word in the first place. My best explanation is that I like the challenge of positioning you in this way and then trying to coax you back to the impression – a true one – that this was one of the best gigs I went to all year. A masochistic impulse to make my life unnecessarily difficult I suppose, kind of like wearing a beanie in summer.
I do know why the Batcave occurred to me: at the beginning of the evening, as I made my own descent down that driveway, I saw a young boy dressed as Robin running about and catching imaginary criminals. He would soon be standing on a fold-down wooden clap-seat behind me, hand in a packet of chips while enjoying a performance of half of Maurice Ravel’s Duo for Violin and Cello.
When I say half of the duo, I do of course mean two of the four movements and not one of the two instruments. If you had immediately pictured a lone musician appearing from behind a temporary white wall, crossing onto a ramshackle stage to perform partnerless in front of a full audience under the grey ceiling of a car park, you’re slightly off. There were two, as required: Kristian Winther and Mee Na Lojewski, to name names. The rest is accurate though, well done.
But did you also imagine the industrial spotlight set atop a yellow tripod that was illuminating the stage? The small and somewhat woolly-toned piano that would soon be driven by Hoang Pham when he joined the others to perform Brahms’ Piano Trio no.1? The rows of subtly wobbling seats entirely filled with as varied an audience as Brahms has had all year? How about the clapping and cheering between movements? The freedom to walk to the wine bar mid-concert and refill your tipple? The absence of hairy eyeballs when returning to your seat?
I suspect you didn’t, because why would you? We’re not used to experiencing these pieces like this anymore. If I’d asked you beforehand: ‘Want to come and watch the Ravel underground with me?’, you may have thought I was a bit dyslexic and/or confused and gently replied: ‘…you know Lou Reed is dead, right?’. When you saw my face distort in puzzlement at your response, you might have assumed I’d simply misspoken an invitation to a Velvet Underground listening party, and – depending on how #melbs you are – replied: ‘oh, has their back catalogue been reissued on cassette?’.
Two terrible jokes wrung from the same barely-coherent pun, and it’s of no consequence whatsoever to the story. I know, I’m sorry, and please forgive me. My excuse is that I just can’t think clearly at this time of year; I was cured of Christmas long ago but am surrounded by a society still struggling with the illness. People are everywhere and bad music is in the air, plus I’m frequently a victim of second-hand glitter abuse and will be suffering the consequences of someone else’s poor life-choices for weeks to come. Writing is a slog right now and joke writing is worse. So again: I know, I’m sorry, and please forgive me.
Oddly though, that whole Ravel-vet Underground bit has somehow uncovered the reason why ‘hipster’ was in my head when mixing that bird-tainted cocktail above. A few days after the concert, I was raving to some friends about it and my description went thus: it’s called Play On, a series of concerts every Friday night in November in which some classical musicians play chamber music and then a DJ takes over. There’s wine and beer and wobbly wooden seats, risk-taking music making, an enthusiastic audience, dancing, random superheros, and it’s down a driveway. And they said….’meh, sounds pretty hipster’.
This bummed me out. Of all the things I jokingly listed above, it’s the last few that have an aftertaste of pejorative bitterness and capture what we really mean when we say ‘that’s so hipster’. Your own list of hipster constituents may read very differently to mine, but common to anyone’s recipe will be an aura of insincerity mixed with undeserved (in our eyes) superiority and it is this that sends us so quickly to judgement and scorn.
And if that’s how you felt about this concert as soon you read ‘hipster Batcave’, it was a grave error on my part. There was no irony in the applause between the movements that night, only genuine enthrallment and a desire to express enthusiasm for the music and its performers. We may have been enveloped in tonnes of concrete and the concert punctuated by the odd slam of a portaloo door, but despite these obvious incongruities to the norms of classical performance, the ambience of the evening actually felt like a throwback to a much older tradition. A tradition that existed before the English built a concert etiquette around their stiff upper lip, their don’t you clap there, philistine rules and the succulent pleasure of glaring judgementally at those unaware of them.
In this relaxed yet expectant atmosphere, the musicians took interpretive risks, the audience felt at ease and the music came alive. Here was further proof that classical music – undiluted, demanding, and sincere – can easily captivate an audience usually more inclined to the sounds of excited electrons and the promise of dancing in the dark.
Which brings us back to those cobwebs. After I’d descended the driveway, evaded Robin and unfolded my seat, I looked around and took note of how this purely utilitarian space had been transformed. When I noticed the spotlight upon the yellow tripod, my eyes followed the trail of its blaze up to the ceiling and along the two concrete beams that ran its length. There, hanging secretively, was a long since abandoned bundle of cobwebs, ever so slightly swaying in the tickle of draughty air that had found it. For a few seconds, I was transfixed by the unusual poetry of a gossamer stage curtain clutching tenderly at a concrete monolith. And then I smiled. Somehow in that moment, I just knew this gig would be fantastic. I really do hope this concert series can keep…playing on.
I know, I’m sorry, and please forgive me.
Featured image: Alan Weedon. Ensemble: Emma Orbach.