Groupmuse & its classical music house parties

Chamber music is often referred to as the ‘music of friends’, traditionally performed by amateur musicians in their homes. In recent times, chamber music has moved from the home to the concert hall but one collective out there is doing its utmost to take it back to its roots.

US-based Groupmuse describes itself as “halfway between a chamber music concert and a house party. It’s equal parts musical and social. It’s a way to enjoy yourself and enrich yourself”. We caught up with founder Sam Bodkin to find out more about it.

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2MF: How did you come up with the idea for Groupmuse?

SB: Well, there were really two major inspirations for Groupmuse. I took a year off before college and travelled extensively using the international hospitality service known as Couch Surfing. It was revelatory. Not only did I meet an unbelievable range of fascinating folks, the whole experience clued me in to how generous people were willing to be with strangers for the sake of a cultural exchange. I fell insanely and forever in love with classical music the following winter, in December of 2008, (Beethoven’s Große Fuge, op. 133, in my best friend’s basement) and, despite not knowing the first thing about it , I had, within about a year, decided I was going to devote my life to The Cause. I basically just combined that experience with the dynamics and ethos of Couchsurfing, and the idea of Groupmuse was born.

2MF: How long has it been going?

SB: I decided to devote myself to the idea in September of 2012, and I finally got the first Groupmuse together in January of 2013. We had our next one a month later, then another one two weeks later. Soon they were happening every week, and this past week we had seven groupmuses in Boston alone, all of which were packed with 20 and 30-somethings, most of whom were not previously classical music listeners. It’s absolutely wild how well it’s been working. We’ve since expanded to NYC, San Francisco, Austin, TX, Bloomington, Indiana, Boulder, Colorado, and Los Angeles and Chicago are having their first Groupmuses in the next few months.

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2MF: How does it work?

SB: A willing host creates an event, chooses a date, sets a capacity, and then once the admins of the site approve the event, it gets listed for musicians to make bids upon. We choose an ensemble that we think would suit the space and crowd, and 48 hours before the event begins, members of the Groupmuse community can begin RSVPing. Events often fill to capacity within hours. People show up at the predetermined time, socialize for about an hour, and then the Groupmuse Rep gathers the crowd and asks that, after the performance, everybody donate to the musicians.

2MF: How do you go about becoming a host?

SB: You press the big red Host button on the website! At the decided upon time, wonderful people and terrific musicians just show up at your house and the music begins!

2MF: What groups have you had signing up to play?

SB: Most of our ensembles come from the New England Conservatory, though we’ve increasingly been making inroads into the professional gigging community. We’ve had some of the best musicians in the world play at groupmuses: Two first prize winners from the International Concert Artist Guild Competition, the first prize winner at the most recent Clara Haskil competition, a fourth prize winner at Tchaikovsky, and on and on. Musicians LOVE playing groupmuses.

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2MF: What sort of reactions do you get from the party-goers?

SB: People just can’t believe the talent that lives in their midsts and they also can’t believe how warm and friendly and engaging the scene always is. There are countless examples of people coming to a single groupmuse because the host or a friend invites them. They think, “Well, classical music ain’t really my thing, but this sounds like a weird night and I’m always down for weird” and then, before they know it, they’ve been to ten in two months, listening to more live classical music than any other form of performed music.

2MF: Why do you think it’s been so successful so quickly?

SB: My generation is a bored and lonely one. I think the alienating effects of an overly-commercialized society, the heightened sense of self-conciousness engendered by our addiction to social media, the isolation that our personal technology devices induces, and the increasingly hollow and corporate texture of popular culture are all to blame. A groupmuse provides them with warm bodies, smiling faces, and tremendous emotional and mental stimulation (courtesy of Ludwig van and many of the other great geniuses in human history); in other words: Escape and relief from some of the nightmares of modernity.

There’s something totally unique about the social atmosphere of a groupmuse. The fact that, during the performance, all cliques and conversation circles, and friend groups just meld into one audience, that’s actively engaged in this intimate art experience that will take all of them to the edge of the emotional universe (especially in the case of late Beethoven or something), is conducive to a particularly convivial social atmosphere. The volume of conversation during intermission and after the music just goes through the roof. It’s also nice to share a social experience with a group of people and not feel any pressure to talk.

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2MF: Will you be bringing Groupmuse to the UK any time soon?

SB: Yes, we’ve gotten a lot of interest from folks in the UK. Soon, the sun will never set on Groupmuse.

2MF: Do you think classical music needs to be taken out of traditional concert halls and into more unusual spaces to attract a younger audience?

SB: Absolutely. Because classical music is a performed art form, it takes place in time and space, and thus it necessarily has a social scene that it’s associated with. Other forms of high art are not so inextricably bound to a scene. A book you read in the privacy of your own head. Art galleries you stroll through at your own pace, on your own terms. These forms of art haven’t taken a beating the way classical music has, and I’m convinced that’s because they don’t presuppose a social scene.

Think about it this way: Why is it that, when you ask a hip, self-conscious 20-something, concerned about how he comes off to everyone, what his favuorite book is, he’s WAY more likely to reference some massive tome that everyone’s heard of (Ulysses, Brothers K., Gravity’s Rainbow (my personal choice for “the greatest thing that’s every happened in the history of literature and quite possibly human culture”)) than some obscure volume no one cares about, but when asked the same question about music, he’s way more likely to say some obscure band you’ve never heard of than, well, Mozart? There’s no social caché in Mozart, because classical music, by virtue of the fact that it is a real time experience that you must share with others, presupposes a social scene, and the social scene of classical music is defined by the space in which the experience transpires, and it’s a space that, for reasons economic, cultural, and historical, has been associated strongly with wealth, elitism, and octogenarians. Textbook uncool.

So if we want to rid classical music of all of these extra-musical associations, we’ve gotta take it out of the concert hall. I think. I mean, I also think that the concert hall has played an invaluable role in keeping this venerable tradition alive, even through these dark times, and I certainly don’t think Groupmuse and related efforts will ever supplant the concert hall, BUT they are essential in whetting the rising generation’s appetite for classical music, and then, hopefully, this rising generation does, in fact, make its way into the concert hall.

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