Music
5:13 am
Tue December 3, 2013

Classical Pranksters Don't Just Play Music: They Play With It

Originally published on Wed December 4, 2013 12:14 pm

Collective Cadenza — CDZA for short — is a loose-knit group of musicians in New York that makes videos. Sounds pretty ordinary, right? But what sets CDZA apart is that these conservatory-trained musicians don't just play music in front of a camera: They play with it, often turning familiar pieces on their ears through visual gags and sonic surprises that have drawn millions of views on YouTube.

The group's first video was "History of Lyrics that Aren't Lyrics." Vocalist Jane Lui pretty much sings what the title says, accompanied by bass and piano. The video has garnered more than one and a half million views since it was posted on YouTube two years ago. Michael Thurber, the bassist in the video and a member of the collective's creative team, says the charm of the group lies in its unconventional take on the norm.

"The kind of underpinning that's always present regardless of what idiom we're working in is we're basically playing with culture," Thurber says. "We're toying with culture. We're rearranging it. We're remixing it, using this live musical talent."

The visual and sonic twists in the videos are not editing tricks — the musicians just have the chops to pull them off. Some, like Thurber, are Juilliard graduates. Others play in Broadway pit bands and as recording-session sidemen. But they seldom get the kind of exposure they get with CDZA. Five of the collective's 30 videos have attracted more than a million views each. YouTube's parent company took notice and invited CDZA to perform for thousands of Google employees in Las Vegas.

Reaching An Audience

Charles Yang, a violinist with CDZA who regularly performs as a guest soloist with symphony orchestras around the country, says the YouTube performance offered him a new way to connect with an audience.

"Sometimes you can feel very enclosed in a bubble in the classical world," Yang says. "We played something for 12,000 people — 12,000 young people — which is something I have never done in my classical career. That's unheard of."

Yang says he often speaks to high school students about classical music, and they tend to recognize him from the CDZA videos, like the one in which he plays "Amore" on a fire escape in Little Italy.

Joe Sabia, who directs CDZA's videos, says the compelling thing about what the group does is that it's not far-fetched from what they were instructed to do, in the traditional sense.

"They're not really doing anything differently than what they've been taught to do," Sabia says. "If you have a classical pianist really, really good at the style of Bach — like our buddy Evan Shinners — if we get him to do Kanye West in the style of Bach, it's still the same language he's speaking. It's just in a different dialect."

Guerrilla Filmmaking

One afternoon last spring, CDZA commandeered a restaurant in Greenwich Village owned by a friend of the group. The musicians then invited passers-by to get a massage while a string quartet comprised of Juilliard alumnae played works by Haydn.

The massage therapist in the video is CDZA's recording engineer Matt McCorkle, who says the concept for the video came to the group on a whim.

"We never sit down and say, 'OK, today we're going to conceptualize ideas,'" McCorkle says. "And that's the most beautiful thing about it because it's natural. It's very, very natural how this all comes about."

The three principals in CDZA continue to work on individual projects, but musical director Michael Thurber says they all have a sense that they've given birth to something that will continue to evolve.

"You don't really know exactly what it's going to be," says Thurber. "All you know is that it's got a massive amount of potential and that's all we're really focused on right now: Just trying to preserve that fun and keep it going."

Jon Kalish is a Manhattan-based radio reporter and podcast producer. For links to radio docs, podcasts & DIY stories, visit his website.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's hear, now, about a loose-knit group of musicians in New York that makes videos. It's called Collective Cadenza, CDZA for short. And what sets it apart from the city's other video collective is this: These conservatory-trained musicians play music both in front of a camera and with the camera; often turning familiar pieces on their ears through visual gags and sonic surprises. All of this has been a big hit on YouTube.

Jon Kalish has more.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: The first CDZA video to hit YouTube was "History of Lyrics that Aren't Lyrics."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JANE LUI: (Singing) Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na, nana na-na...

KALISH: Jane Lui pretty much sings what the title says, accompanied by bass and piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUI: (Singing) La-la-la, la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la, lalala, la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la-la. La-la-la-la, la-la-la-la, hey, hey, oh-oh...

KALISH: The video has garnered more than one and a half million views since it was posted on YouTube two years ago. The bass player Michael Thurber is part of the creative team behind the collective.

MICHAEL THURBER: The kind of under-pinning that's always present, regardless of what idiom we're working in, is we're basically playing with culture. We're toying with culture. We're re-arranging it. We're re-mixing it, using this live musical talent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUI: (Singing) La-la-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la-la.

KALISH: The visual and sonic twists in the CDZA videos are not editing tricks - the musicians have the chops to pull them off. Some, like Thurber, are Juilliard graduates. Others play in Broadway pit bands and as recording session sidemen. But they seldom get the kind of exposure they get with CDZA. Five of the collective's 30 videos have had more than a million views each.

(SOUNDBITE OF A VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We are CDZA and we create musical videos carried by YouTube. Today's (unintelligible) a new one. We are literally going to battle against all the biggest YouTube videos...

KALISH: YouTube's parent company took notice and invited CDZA to perform for thousands of Google employees in Las Vegas.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Up next, we've got our violinist, Mr. Charles Yang.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIOLIN MUSIC)

KALISH: Violinist Charles Yang regularly performs as a guest soloist with symphony orchestras around the country.

CHARLES YANG: Sometimes you can feel very enclosed in a bubble in the classical world and we played something for 12,000 people - 12,000 young people - which is something I have never done in my classical career. That's unheard of. And getting up there and playing some Paganini for 12,000 people was pretty awesome.

KALISH: Yang says he often speaks to high school students about classical music. And they recognize him from the CDZA videos, like the one in which he plays "Amore" with a bass player on a fire escape in Little Italy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMORE")

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing) When the Moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's amore.

(LAUGHTER)

JOE SABIA: They're not really doing anything differently than what they'd e been taught to do.

KALISH: Joe Sabia directs the CDZA videos.

SABIA: If you have a classical pianist, really, really good at the style of Bach, like our buddy Evan Shinners, if we get him to do Kanye West in the style of Bach, it's like still the same language he's speaking, it's just in a different dialect.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KALISH: On afternoon last spring, CDZA commandeered a restaurant in Greenwich Village, owned by a friend of the collective.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Like, as soon as they come through that first set of doors, just go ahead and start playing.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK.

KALISH: They invited passers vie to get a massage while a string quartet comprised of Juilliard alumnae played Haydn.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KALISH: The masseuse in the video is CDZA's recording engineer Matt McCorkle, who sprinkles rose pedals over the lucky souls and serves them champagne and grapes, as the camera rolls.

MATT MCCORKLE: We never sit down and say, OK, today we're going to conceptualize ideas. You know, it happens when we're G-chatting. Or it happens when we're walking down the street, or we're out for a drink, or we're at a show. And that's the most beautiful thing about it because it's natural. It's very, very natural how this all comes about.

KALISH: The three principals in CDZA continue to work on individual projects. But musical director Michael Thurber says they all have a sense that they've given birth to something that will continue to evolve.

THURBER: You don't really know exactly what it's going to be. All you know is that it's got a massive amount of potential. And that's all we're really focused on right now, is just trying to preserve that fun and keep it going.

KALISH: All in their spare time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KALISH: For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Yo. What's up, man?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Yeah. Yeah, yo.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Hold on, man. I got to call you right back. I'm in the middle of something. Alright.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.