Musicians You Should Know
written by Jay Ruttenberg, illustrations by Mike Reddy
This series originally ran in the wonderfully humorous publication The Lowbrow Reader (issue #9). These pieces are drawn from a larger project that TLR may expand on.
If you're interested, there's a Lowbrow book anthology published by Drag City in 2012.
The New York Symphony Orchestra Under the Directorship of Curtis Colsen
The New York Symphony Orchestra was already imperiled when, during two successive performances in 2012, a member of its audience died of old age. The incidents did little to temper the NYSO's image as a flagging institution with a predominantly geriatric audience, all wrinkly and disgusting. Hence, when conductor and musical director Jean Monfils announced his retirement, the symphony's board took it upon itself to find a replacement who could court a younger crowd. And so it was that Curtis Colsen - Bushwick guitarist, DJ, and Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer enthusiast—became musical director of the august New York Symphony Orchestra. From the get go, the “Hipster Conductor," as the press invariably took to calling Colsen, sought to shake things up.
He rescheduled rehearsals from 10AM to 2PM, reasoning that, “in the history of mankind, nothing cool has ever happened in the morning." He commissioned a Swedish design firm to retrofit a conducting baton that would allow him to post Twitter updates from the stage. And in a grand ceremony held before flashing news cameras and a cheering board of directors, Colsen donned a hardhat and bulldozed Symphony Hall's handicapped ramps, thus preventing the older and smellier ticketholders from attending concerts with their depressing walkers. The night of his debut, Colsen walked onstage to enthusiastic applause, looking resplendent in his tuxedo T-shirt and Pancho Villa moustache. He led the orchestra through a traditional, impassioned reading of Mahler's Fifth, yet made clear through subtle gestures and strategic sips of Pabst that he was doing so ironically. Afterwards, the crowd showered the orchestra with a sustained ovation. Colsen was a hit!
In the months to come, stuffier members of the orchestra objected to some of his initiatives: the mandatory tattoos, the American Apparel ads picturing the orchestra's female violists, the composer bust of Ol' Dirty Bastard planted atop the Steinway grand. Yet Colsen's conducting was unimpeachable and attendance at the landmark concert hall (newly rechristened as Converse Symphony Hall Presented by Vice Projects) soared. And it goes without saying that no American classical institution throws after-parties like the New York Symphony Orchestra under the directorship of Curtis Colsen, Hipster Conductor.
Evan Blecker, the famously irritable frontman of Washington, D.C. hardcore favorites Undisciplined Mutation, lives by a strict straight-edge ethos and expects his bandmates to follow in kind.
His lips welcome neither drink nor drug; sexual activities are prohibited, as well as other hedonistic acts such as dancing at rock concerts and enjoying sunny days. Because of Blecker's straight-edge code, Undisciplined Mutation's line-up remained in flux for years, as members drifted out of the band in search of an occasional beer or the embrace of a good woman.
Eventually, Blecker settled on the quartet's current and best-known line-up. At the drums sits Doris McBurney, local spinster and church secretary. On bass is Muhammad al-Shahri: Taliban enthusiast, probable terrorist, and moderate Muslim. And on lead guitar is Ned Schwartz, a nerd. Few punk bands play with such fierceness and pent-up rage.
Scandal erupted briefly in 2010, when Schwartz smugly arrived at band practice, victoriously raised a pair of women's underwear above his head, and announced to his bandmates that, “Ned has climbed Mount Pantysaurous!" While Blecker immediately ejected the guitarist from the group, it soon came out that, in truth, the panties in question belonged to Ned's mother, with whom he resides, and the guitarist was reinstated.
Later that year, Muhammad got into hot water when his participation in a 9/11 reenactment club—a hobbyist group similar to those of Civil War recreationists—began interfering with his band activities. But after Blecker scolded him, al-Shahri, understandably scared of the singer, withdrew from his jihad hobby to focus on his bass playing.
Hopefully, members and fans alike will continue their practice of selectively forgetting to inform Ned of the group's stringent ban on masturbation, thus allowing Undisciplined Mutation to roll on indefinitely.
The Italian operatic tenor Serafino Paina rocketed to fame within minutes of his La Scala debut when the audience, spurred on by the finicky enthusiasts up in the loggione, returned the singer to the stage for a remarkable eight curtain calls. The applause was rapturous. One particularly fervent loggionista, insisting through tears that his ears would never again experience such joy, attempted to leap to his death from the balcony (his fellow cognoscenti held him back).
Before long, opera buffs the world over had welcomed their newly anointed star, swooning over his noble timbre and wide girth. Fans marveled at the sacrifices Paina made to pursue his dream—namely how, at only 32 years of age, he courageously moved away from his mother's apartment in order to study at a Milanese opera academy. The three months he spent away from Mamma, while painful, proved vital to the singer's legend and work. It was during this period of exile that the rotund tenor concluded that his singing acutely suffered when he was away from his mother-and particularly his mother's cooking. Accordingly, Signora Paina travels with her son, whose contract stipulates that any opera house where he is scheduled to perform set aside an area backstage for her to assemble a makeshift kitchen. When the great tenor exits the stage at, say, Wiener Staatsoper, Mamma is there to greet him with a plate of linguine alle vongole, thereby fortifying Paina's voice for his next scene.
In a tradition that began with a particularly triumphant performance at the Metropolitan Opera House, the singer took to bringing his mother onstage at curtain call. Dressed in her sleeveless house dress and sauce-stained apron, Mamma Paina basks in the applause and, on occasion, drops to her knees to scrub the stage with Pine-Sol.
As with anybody involved in the arts, the tenor's mother is no stranger to criticism. At curtain call following a subpar performance in Milan, La Scala's loggionisti booed the old washer woman, blaming the singer's phlegmy aria on the surfeit of cheese in her pasta alla Siciliana. Mostly, however, mother and son are showered with applause, as Mamma Paina is fêted as Italy's donna di opera casa.
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