Friday, February 11, 2005

...that dirty word, "Cabaret"

A few weeks ago the opportunity to accompany two days of Cabaret auditions fell into my lap. I took the gig, triumphed (on the spot transposing, anyone?), and am now playing for rehearsals once a week. One aspect of working with high school students (vs. a professional company) is that in between pounding out voice parts and designating who-sings-what-when, I have enough mental downtime to quietly ponder some of the material at hand. This past Wednesday, for example, it struck me that the general idea of cabaret (with a small "c") is completely married to a particular time, place, and social-political climate, and even to a particular type of performer and patron. The culture of the early twentieth century, of the bohemian bourgeoisie in pre-war Europe (specifically, in cities like Berlin, Paris, and Vienna) exists in our romanticized vision of the past and continues to define cabaret. The old model lives like an historical snapshot and haunts the new. I have often referred to my own creative musical duo, Sidecar Syndicate, as a "neo-cabaret" of sorts, and I have often been reprimanded by friends who've seen me perform, "you're not cabaret at all! Cabaret is..." (at which point they offer a whole litany of definitions.)

So in the coming weeks, as I fall under the spell of perhaps the most familiar version of Cabaret (Kander & Ebb's), I shall try to investigate some of the following questions. With what exactly do we associate cabaret? Why a particular time, place, personnel? More pressingly, who or what is cabaret today? Can we crack the definition open to include more than the boa-wrapped chanteuse singing from the Great American Songbook down at the Plush Room? Where does cabaret fit alongside the current classical, popular, and avant-garde music scenes? Is cabaret, by virtue of being defined by its historical associations, dead? Just a dirty word we sling around with misconceptions?


I suppose some of the social function of the cabaret has been more recently occupied vaguely by the "coffee house" or even the "poetry slam", but it's a poor fit. I'm not an expert on either, but it seems to me that what people normally say about Cabaret-like activities from the late 19th to the early 20th c. is that they provided what may have been the only source of entertainment for working-class or broad-based consumption. The thing I like about that assumption is that it reminds us that unlike the coffee house of the poetry slam, cabaret could command more concentrated energy and resources of a larger number of people. You had a small orchestra, you had people organizing their lives around the possibility of seeing one or another traveling star. So the music could be more elaborate, it could include a story line or a series of story lines, the satire could be a developed script rather than just individualistic psuedo-bohemian "self-expression." In that sense, cabaret was more to its audience like TV is to us...except without the advertisements. The elite classes had opera and high-drama and piano recitals, the working-classes had cabaret, silent movies, and maybe the circus.

But there's probably plenty of evidence that this is an oversimplification, imposed on the past from a falsely universalized late 20th-c sense of high-art and low-art distinctions. At least couple of different musicologists have studied the history of opera and subscription concerts and found that from the Italian Opera's early public, to Handel's English Audience, forward to the Parisian love of symphonies in the 1780s- and onward, and to love of Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, and even Wagner in New York City around the turn of the 20th century...that the audience that really constituted the reason for these traditions existence, was never particularly elite.

I dunno. If it's true that the majority of what we now study as "art music" was always circulated among not only middle class but lower class audiences, then we'd have to explain cabaret in terms of its having a different political/expressive function, rather than thinking of it as serving a fundamentally different audience. Then we could blame later 20th century musicians and artists for retroactively building wall between one kind of audience and another, between the vernacular and the refined, when maybe the distinction wasn't all that interesting or powerful to anyone until we started making loud noises about tearing it down. Maybe we make such a big deal out of our post-modern "problematization" of the high-low distinction that we gloss over the real messy-ness of the history that led us to thinking of the distinction in the first place.


By Blogger Heather, at 8:43 AM  

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