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Random Acts of Culture
November 9, 2010 8:06 AM   Subscribe

The Hallelujah Chorus at Macy's in Philadelphia on October 30, 2010 was the latest Random Act of Culture

(in my best NPR voice) sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
posted by Balonious Assault (50 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thanks. I love love LOVE this stuff and randomly walking into art and culture is the best thing about where I live. Buskers or organised groups, any genre. It's just brilliant and totally makes my day. There's some great videos on there.
posted by shinybaum at 8:19 AM on November 9, 2010


That is all kinds of awesome. Thanks for sharing!
posted by xedrik at 8:25 AM on November 9, 2010


Damned if they don't start singing that song earlier every year!
posted by chavenet at 8:30 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Something about this makes me really uncomfortable. It's a bit hard to describe, but the general idea is that if one of these random acts occur, what are you supposed to do? Stand there and absorb the (mostly) centuries-old Christian European music in appreciative silence before going on with your day, culturally revived? If you leave, will you be silently judged as a philistine, everyone nodding their heads and murmuring "pearls before swine"?

Would this be different if instead of “Hallelujah”, it was a few black youths performing "It Takes Two", or if you prefer to keep the holiday theme, "Christmas in Hollis"? Would this be different if the same choir was singing "Awesome God"?

The act of performing at a captive audience and choosing these kinds of pieces smacks of cultural imperialism. Look how awesome music used to be, look at how great a certain kind culture was, and implicitly, how far it has fallen.
posted by 2bucksplus at 8:38 AM on November 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


For a more secular, intimate take on this idea, by the same company, there's this one.
posted by availablelight at 8:46 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think you're over-thinking this 2bucksplus. Philadelphia has some of the most accomplished musicians in the country with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Curtis Institute, the Academy of Vocal Arts, several opera companies, professional and semi-professional choirs practically falling out of trees, a number of great schools in the area, and two other major nearby cities with their own musical infrastructure - and still, the vast majority of people feel like classical music is inaccessible to them and impossible for them to enjoy. It is slowly dying because people think it is impenetrable and unapproachable. This is just an opportunity to show people that isn't the case, and that they live and play in a city that is alive with music.

A number of my friends were among the singers in that group, as well as similar flash opera mobs in Reading Terminal Market. Sure, maybe the Peoria Better Business Bureau members who were there for lunch didn't get or enjoy the show, but my friend Maren said the woman next to her - unsuspecting and totally surprised, holding her groceries - joined in on the soprano line!

And at the end, it's 10 minutes. If you don't like it, it'll be over soon. And you can go back to eating your hot pastrami on rye or your pork sandwich from DiNic's.
posted by jph at 8:51 AM on November 9, 2010 [9 favorites]


The act of performing at a captive audience and choosing these kinds of pieces smacks of cultural imperialism.

Brian: There's no pleasing some people.
Ex Leper: That's just what Jesus said, sir.

When I was in high school, for three years running me and two of my buddies went out on Christmas Eve with our trumpets and played trios of Christmas carols around our respective neighborhoods. It brought a lot of people out of their homes to listen.

I'll also remark that, having played that piece with brass quintet, the key and chording is amazing for "modern" brass instruments. The intonation locks in beautifully and is astonishingly bright.
posted by plinth at 8:56 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Beats Yoko Ono screaming any day.
posted by Gungho at 9:01 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Does anybody else get the impression that this was dubbed?
posted by schmod at 9:03 AM on November 9, 2010


I think the music choice was perfect. Not only is it grand and over the top, everyone knows the words. It is a great song and despite being a religious it works fantastically. I sang in a public school choir for years and always resented the fact that we sang religious music, I now have a better understanding of why. Older religious music is created for a range of voices and is often simple so that non nonprofessional singers can join in. If you really want to question the choice of music watch it again and look at how many people (that are not part of the act) are singing. Great find, thanks for the post.
posted by Felex at 9:06 AM on November 9, 2010


Does anybody else get the impression that this was dubbed?
I was surprised at the volume. Sure, there were a lot of singers, but Macy's can't be that well off acoustically. In the Reading Terminal Market, they were miked.
...but it didn't look/sound dubbed to me.
posted by MtDewd at 9:12 AM on November 9, 2010


Sure, maybe the Peoria Better Business Bureau members who were there for lunch didn't get or enjoy the show

cite?
posted by chavenet at 9:13 AM on November 9, 2010


Where I live at least there's a lot of different stuff going on, from hare krishna to gospel to secular. Half the musicians might be atheists anyway, it's just good music in the end. It used to make me twitch but now I love religious music without the religion, the happy stuff anyway.
posted by shinybaum at 9:15 AM on November 9, 2010


It is slowly dying because people think it is impenetrable and unapproachable.

And because other people think it's boring.

When I was in high school, for three years running me and two of my buddies went out on Christmas Eve with our trumpets and played trios of Christmas carols around our respective neighborhoods. It brought a lot of people out of their homes to listen.

For every neighbor that came out there were two seething in their houses wishing you'd shut the fuck up.

I don't want to be proselytized by a guy with a megaphone on the street. I don't want to be proselytized by an opera company in a department store. I don't want to be proselytized by some kids hopped up on the Saved By the Bell Christas Special at my own door. I don't care if you're pushing religion or your idea of what "high culture" is. Either way, you're wrong. This would piss me off a lot, but then I'd already be pretty pissed off that I was inside a Macy's.
posted by cmoj at 9:20 AM on November 9, 2010


A number of my friends were among the singers in that group, as well as similar flash opera mobs in Reading Terminal Market.

Previously at Reading Terminal

Previously at Sheffield

Previously in a Spanish Food Market
posted by emilyd22222 at 9:20 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's tempting to overthink this or to take an obvious "department stores are the new churches," or "bringing culture to the ignorant, shopping masses" kind of perspective.
But man, what a great, great room for this kind of piece.
This one and the one with the guys singing opera at the cosmetics counter were quite effective. But their other efforts, string quartets playing at airports or whatever, are pretty much just "busking."
Also, it's too bad that these events always have to be such a "thing," where everyone's first impulse is to videotape it and post it online. It would be nice if it could just exist in the moment and then fade away as a nice memory.
posted by chococat at 9:21 AM on November 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


2bucksplus, when I think about your comment it triggers off a lot of thoughts about art and artistic appreciation. I suppose that as a music lover, a great piece of music is great not because of how recently it was written. Rather, it is great because it somehow speaks to people, still, however many years later. On the subject of cultural relevance, I get chills listening to a really tight choir singing good music, be it handel's messiah, or amazing grace, or indeed any music where the performers are enjoying the piece and singing with heart and soul, and where the audience, as part of the whole performance, are grooving on it too. Meditating too much on what boils down to, for lack of a better term, political correctness just seems pointless to me
posted by ottergrrl at 9:25 AM on November 9, 2010


I am not an opera enthusiast and I found it very moving. I feel the same at symphony concerts, though I'm not a big classical music fan. For me, the joy is witnessing so many people coming together in a common activity that seems to have no purpose but the expression of beauty and celebration of just being alive. Everyone works hard and co-operates -- not for money or fame but because it is fun and they enjoy it. I don't know how well this might work for other arts however -- dance, theatre, painting. Music has a very direct line to the emotions.
posted by binturong at 9:26 AM on November 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


cmoj: I don't want to be proselytized by a guy with a megaphone on the street. I don't want to be proselytized by an opera company in a department store. I don't want to be proselytized by some kids hopped up on the Saved By the Bell Christas Special at my own door. I don't care if you're pushing religion or your idea of what "high culture" is. Either way, you're wrong. This would piss me off a lot, but then I'd already be pretty pissed off that I was inside a Macy's.

And a merry Christmas to you, too, Mr. Scrooge.

Look, this is some of the greatest music ever written. It was written as a religious oratorio because that's what Handel, who was hard up for money, could get paid to produce at the time. It's still performed often in religious contexts, but it's perfectly enjoyable as beautiful music in a secular context. But to each his own. Don't listen to public radio, they play a lot of religious music as secular art. Don't visit museums, they have religious art in there. Don't walk past houses of worship; you might get hit by a religious message. Don't read Moby-Dick, there's a sermon in there.
posted by beagle at 9:35 AM on November 9, 2010 [7 favorites]


I remember the first time I was in that Macy's shopping for a Little Black Dress for a friend. I was totally bored because she didn't know what she wanted and was trying on about 17 different things. And so I wandered off to look up at the organ - which started to move. Vents started opening, and closing and before I knew it Sibelius' Finlandia was blasting through the entire store in that incredibly ominous pulse.

For a department store built out of an old bank, with a gigantic organ built into it, it's got great acoustics.
posted by jph at 9:39 AM on November 9, 2010


cmoj: Either way, you're wrong.

Yeah! Stop liking what I don't like!
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:40 AM on November 9, 2010


The act of performing at a captive audience

The link in the FPP omitted the part where the exit doors were bolted shut.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:47 AM on November 9, 2010


Fabulous. Simply fabulous. Thank you for this. I've tears in my eyes.
posted by Sternmeyer at 9:51 AM on November 9, 2010


So is the objection just to live music? Canned Muzak on the mall or department store speakers is ok? But because someone thinks it's a great piece of music and is performing it live, it's suddenly imperialism? I don't get that feeling myself. Any time I get to hear a live music performance, my feeling is "Hey cool, free concert!"

I was part of the Christmas choir in Pakistan (the college I went to there was started by missionaries, and continues to be supportive of the small, but active Christian student body. I was one of several Muslims in the choir.), and continued to go caroling at the senior citizen's community near my college campus.

The Hallelujah Chorus is just awesome music. Playing it doesn't imply that a particular vision of culture is being imposed upon you. I mean, yes, you are present, and can hear it, but there's nothing forcing you to stop and listen.
posted by bardophile at 9:56 AM on November 9, 2010


It's tempting to overthink this or to take an obvious "department stores are the new churches..."

It is where we go to leave our little paper votive offerings, embellished with engravings of our sacred forebears.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:57 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


available light: For a more secular, intimate take on this idea, by the same company, there's this one.

Frigging brilliant. Thanks.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 9:58 AM on November 9, 2010


Don't listen to public radio, they play a lot of religious music as secular art. Don't visit museums, they have religious art in there. Don't walk past houses of worship; you might get hit by a religious message. Don't read Moby-Dick, there's a sermon in there.

The thing is a giant mob doesn't show up during my errands to make me look at Caravaggio and nobody knocks on my door to read Moby Dick at me expecting cookies.

cmoj: Either way, you're wrong.

Yeah! Stop liking what I don't like


I meant to convey that High Culture is not a thing and you can't be right about it one way or another. Not enjoying opera or gangsta rap or pie does not make you wrong and in need of edification whether you like it or not. Okay, maybe pie, but you get the idea.
posted by cmoj at 10:04 AM on November 9, 2010


That should be "singing it" not "playing it," of course.
posted by bardophile at 10:06 AM on November 9, 2010


nobody knocks on my door to read Moby Dick at me expecting cookies.

To be fair, I didn't know you had cookies. *tucks volume under arm*
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:10 AM on November 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


cmoj: I meant to convey that High Culture is not a thing and you can't be right about it one way or another. Not enjoying opera or gangsta rap or pie does not make you wrong and in need of edification whether you like it or not. Okay, maybe pie, but you get the idea.

First of all, if you tried it a little more, you might like it a little more. Many tastes are acquired. But what you really conveyed in your first comment was not about enjoyment. It was was an objection to proseletyzing, not about "edification". And the point here is that a performance of music that happens to have religious origins in a secular setting like this, or the display of a painting with a religious theme in a secular museum, does not constitute proseletyzing; it's just presented for your enjoyment.
posted by beagle at 10:14 AM on November 9, 2010


This exchange from the blog actually makes me feel a bit better:
Sandy Smith says:

I have not viewed all of these yet, however it seems as if these are random acts of white European culture. So, the concern is that the places chosen and the “culture” chosen is an indictment against non-white, non-European culture. I certainly hope that future winners will be much more diverse in representations of what constitutes “culture”

Marika Lynch says:

Hi Sandy,

Thanks for your note. Random Acts of Culture is a three-year program. Our first year is dedicated to the classics. Future Random Acts will include gospel, flamenco and tango. In addition to this series, Knight Foundation’s arts program funds a range of engaging arts programs – including African dance in Macon, Georgia and an award-winning Hispanic theater festival in Miami. I hope you enjoy what you see and will stay tuned for more.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:43 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


The thing is a giant mob doesn't show up during my errands to make me look at Caravaggio and nobody knocks on my door to read Moby Dick at me expecting cookies.

That's not really what happened here either. That department store is home to the largest active pipe organ in the world (their claim), and it plays daily scheduled concerts, so while people were surprised by the choristers lurking in their midst, they most likely turned up to hear some music.
posted by gladly at 10:54 AM on November 9, 2010


I meant to convey that High Culture is not a thing and you can't be right about it one way or another.

But isn't that part of the point of these sorts of stunts? Something like this shows that classical music, so-called "High Art", isn't something that can only be enjoyed in a stuffy concert hall by pointy-headed intellectuals in silly robes. You watch the video and you see a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds singing and enjoying the music together. It's not about trying to drag the philistines out of their intellectual hole, its about showing people that art is something anybody can enjoy.

Art doesn't exist without people to make it; once people stop singing and playing and listening to Handel's music (or Mozart's, or Bartok's, or Led Zepplin's) it will die and be forgotten and it will not come back. The fastest way to do that is to put it up on a pedestal where no one can reach it, which we've managed to do marvelously well over the last century or so; the Random Acts of Culture are an attempt to knock that pedestal down.

I'm sorry that it annoys you, but I personally think it's great, because, y'know, art is important and stuff. But I'm kind of a sucker like that.
posted by Commander Rachek at 10:58 AM on November 9, 2010


Yeah art is important, but is this specific art important. Must we save all art just cuz?
posted by Ad hominem at 11:03 AM on November 9, 2010


Must we save all art just cuz?

I'd make an argument that it's worth making an attempt to save any art form, particularly if you love it. If everyone at Macy's had booed the choir out of the store, perhaps I would feel differently. But the Hallelujah Chorus is one of the acknowledged great works from the Western choral art music tradition, and yes, the pieces that people from within a tradition consider it's best representative pieces are well worth preserving.
posted by bardophile at 11:10 AM on November 9, 2010


If any future such occurrences should distress you, cmoj, I have heard that if you seize the ruler with a certain energy of action, you can often cause the singer to flee in terror, leaving your keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.
posted by Diablevert at 11:12 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thanks for making me cry at work.
posted by fiercecupcake at 11:12 AM on November 9, 2010


And incidentally, celebrating diversity in art and culture doesn't mean one has to deny the merit of art that has been acknowledged for centuries. Not all of Handel's works have survived. Not all of his contemporaries' works have survived. Some of that is luck. Some of it has to do with being part of a dominant culture. But in part it's just that it's fantastic music.
posted by bardophile at 11:14 AM on November 9, 2010


Steve Martin: Atheists don't have no songs
posted by found missing at 11:24 AM on November 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


I hadn't picked up that this particular Macy's has a pipe organ and scheduled concerts. I'd been thinking of this as a flash mob type deal. In that case, extending the choir into the audience is a pretty cool idea considering the intent to connect the (willful) listeners more directly with the music.

But what you really conveyed in your first comment was not about enjoyment. It was was an objection to proseletyzing, not about "edification".

Yeah, sorry. I was lumping the ideas of "You must like this music/religion/art or you're wrong!" into proselytizing territory. It just flowed together in my blind rage against the classics, so I went with it.

And I do get this tone from nearly everyone who talks about classical music. Its greatness is hardly ever presented as personal opinion (though intellectually I'm sure most people understand that it is), but as simply being true and implying or saying outright that one should like it. Like, "Look, this is some of the greatest music ever written." and, "First of all, if you tried it a little more, you might like it a little more."

Please do count me as a scrooge, though. We're about to enter months of constant (literal religious) proselytizing and less literal proselytizing for the most sickening display of consumerism and forced sentimentality on the planet, and I'm only getting warmed up.

And now the hour of shutting up the counting house arrives. And I don't really have any cookies! Really!
posted by cmoj at 11:53 AM on November 9, 2010


I simultaneously like this, and agree with 2bucks. Them saying they started with the classics (which here functions as a euphemism for white/european work) doesn't really help their argument to me.

But they are under no edict that says they have to represent anything other than who they feel like repping.

I do think if say a Muslim choir started singing something, the atmosphere might be a little chillier. But that's too easy, because if it was an Indian choir or a choir from China, I think it would go fine. Personally I tear up just imagining how incredible it would be to use a choir to sing "Man in the Mirror", and watch people go outside afterward and give to the homeless, pick up trash and hug random strCOOKIES? DID SOMEONE SAY COOKIES??
posted by cashman at 12:00 PM on November 9, 2010


I do think if say a Muslim choir started singing something, the atmosphere might be a little chillier.

And yet qawwali is incredibly popular in the West. That being the most analogous "Muslim" music that I can think of to choral music.

Its greatness is hardly ever presented as personal opinion (though intellectually I'm sure most people understand that it is), but as simply being true and implying or saying outright that one should like it.

Yeah, I guess I do think that everyone should learn to appreciate (not necessarily like) the great works of Western art music. In exactly the same way that everyone should learn to appreciate great jazz and great hip-hop and great reggae and great flamenco and great you get the picture. Liking a piece of work, and recognizing its artistic merit are not identical to my mind. And while I am willing to concede that there is a good deal of subjectivity even about artistic merit, I think that when large numbers of people have agreed for many hundreds of years about the artistic merit of something, then it's probably worth paying some attention to. If only for the fact that it has spoken to so many people for so long.
posted by bardophile at 12:10 PM on November 9, 2010


For every neighbor that came out there were two seething in their houses wishing you'd shut the fuck up.
Interesting1 burden of proof fallacy. Mental note - don't accept cookies from cmoj.

1and by 'interesting' I mean unwarranted and rude.
posted by plinth at 12:47 PM on November 9, 2010


I can't watch any of these flashmob things any more without constantly expecting it to do this 50 seconds in.
posted by creeky at 2:00 PM on November 9, 2010


And while I am willing to concede that there is a good deal of subjectivity even about artistic merit, I think that when large numbers of people have agreed for many hundreds of years about the artistic merit of something, then it's probably worth paying some attention to. If only for the fact that it has spoken to so many people for so long.
posted by bardophile at 12:10 PM on November 9 [+] [!]


And at the risk of an eponysterical coda: It's like the people who say that Shakespeare was overrated and not all he was cracked up to be -- there may be a bit of truth to that, but you can't deny the importance and influence these "high art" objects have had in (Western, although I despise the term) culture.
posted by Think_Long at 2:22 PM on November 9, 2010


burden of proof

It was a rhetorical device. I don't think anyone thinks I was there and took a poll. I do think that yelling bad songs at your neighbors is unwarranted and rude, though.

Yeah, I guess I do think that everyone should learn to appreciate (not necessarily like) the great works of Western art music.

What's the difference between appreciating and liking? I'm not saying it should never have been made, or that all classical music is boring. I guess I agree in that I think it's important to understand things to some extent (In this case because it laid some of the groundwork for other music that I do find intellectually exciting), but what if I just don't care about Handel?

This is getting to be a pretty nebulous distinction between arguments to me. For me, artistic appreciation is the same as intellectual excitement and enjoyment. I can understand the religious duress that pieces like this were made under and stuff like that and that can be interesting, but doesn't necessarily translate into me being appreciative that that particular piece exists.
posted by cmoj at 2:26 PM on November 9, 2010


I like it, but I'm sadly reminded that our local Nordstrom no longer hires live pianists and plays recorded music (and totally jealous that there's a pipe organ at a department store!)
posted by vespabelle at 2:47 PM on November 9, 2010


this brought tears to my eyes.
so beautiful,
so humbling.
posted by liza at 3:11 PM on November 9, 2010


Would this be different if instead of “Hallelujah”, it was a few black youths performing "It Takes Two", or if you prefer to keep the holiday theme, "Christmas in Hollis"?

Dude, I LOVE "Christmas in Hollis." I'd LOVE stumbling upon a flash mob singing this while out shopping.

I also love "The Hallelujiah Chorus." And Adam Sandler's "Hannukah Song." And "Fairytale of New York." And Bruce Springsteen wailing on "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" and the Eels "Everything's Gonna Be Cool This Christmas" and madrigal choirs singing "The Coventry Carol" and children's choirs singing "Silent Night"...

Because -- honestly? It's free music. Free music that I wasn't expecting. Yay!

....If it's something I don't like? I just don't stick around to listen. Who cares what people think of me? Most of them are probably too busy asking each other "....what's up with the music?" anyway. Worrying about the cultural significance of mall choirs is...really overthinking things, to my mind. It's music. It's free. Score!
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:28 PM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


What's the difference between appreciating and liking?

The distinction that I make between them is that appreciation implies familiarity with and understanding of the art form, generally leading to a certain respect for it, within its own parameters. Liking is an entirely personal preference for it. Generally, once appreciation has been gained, enjoyment increases, but it doesn't necessarily get to the point of preferring it over other art. That is the way I understood "art appreciation" and "music appreciation" courses. The teachers hope you will end up liking the work, but their teaching goal is basically that you end up understanding it.

The difference is perhaps subtle, but quite clear. It opens up a space for artistic respect without demanding a personal affinity.

So I'm not asking you to be appreciative that the piece exists. I only want you to appreciate that the piece has merit within its genre. You don't like Handel? Fair enough. But you can't dismiss Handel. In exactly the way that you can't dismiss Coltrane, whether you like jazz or not, and even if it's just that you prefer Charlie Parker, or Duke Ellington.
posted by bardophile at 9:13 PM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


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