For years now, the classical music world has implored its artists to find a way to reach out to a new and younger generation of listeners in order to secure a future audience. Performing compositions that were written sometimes hundreds of years ago doesn’t always appeal to new generations focused more on the present than the past.
The classical illuminati would do well to take a page from Black Violin, two classically trained musicians – a violinist and a violist – who have breathed new life into the form for scads of younger listeners, many of whom might not know a sonata from a fugue.
The formula is deceptively simple: Take your usual classical melodic string motifs like theme and imitation, call and response and basic thematic harmonies, and package it on top of an underlying structure of hip-hop DJ loops and snazzy funk drumming. Tie it all up in two – to four-minute cuts perfect for radio, and voilà.
Oh, and they also sing, and occasionally rap as well.
Their new album, Taking the Stairs, dropped on Jan. 15 and is the duo’s third studio effort in their 16-year history. It reveals a substantial maturation process. “This time, every i is dotted and every t is crossed,” violinist Kev Marcus says. He admits to a rushed element in the last album, thanks in part to a deadline they had to hit after signing the record deal. “This one we funded and produced ourselves, so it was a more deliberate process. We had more time to live with everything and get comfortable with it all.”
The classical-meets-hip-hop twosome – Marcus and violist Wil Baptiste – cover substantial thematic ground. “We had ideas about what story we were going to tell on the new record,” Baptiste says. “It kept coming back to the idea of hope – songs about going against the grain, and remaining optimistic while carrying on through struggles.”
The two players’ soaring string passages are backed live by turntable spins from DJ SPS, along with highly punctuated rhythms from drummer Nat Stokes. The resulting mashup creates far more emotional and harmonic expression than either classical or hip-hop do taken alone, and that power has people responding.
The first single released ahead of the album, “Dreamer,” tells all. “This is the day when I go all the way/ I make it my own/ Here’s to the dreamers,” Baptiste sings.
“That one just really hits home,” Marcus says. “It gets to the very heart of what we’re all about.”
BLACK VIOLIN 8pm Sunday, March 8. Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. $39-$59. 649-1070, goldenstatetheatre.com