Roll over Beethoven
By J. C. Lockwood
These days, he’s the guy with the bow — and the baton.
Kenneth Woods, who will perform with Trio Epomeo in a June 6 preseason fundraiser for the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, has received the Aspen Fellowship as both a cellist and conductor. He’s toured and recorded extensively as a cellist, and bounces between England and the United States in a mad schedule of performances with the Surrey Mozart Players and the Oregon East Symphony, among others.
He’s also the principal conductor of the Lancashire Chamber Orchestra in England, which he led in a performance of Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 sandwiched between a week-long residency at Festivale d’alla Musica da Camera d’Ischia in Italy and a quick six-date US tour with Epomeo. After that, it’s back to Guildford and the Surrey Mozart Players and Stratford-upon-Avon and the Shakespeare Proms festival, where he will conduct the Orchestra the Swan. Yes, he’s on the road a lot.
But it hasn’t always been Schumann and Shostakovich all the time for the cellist and conductor. In fact, he was a pretty serious rocker during his teens and college years. He blames it on Brian May, specifically, on Queen’s “News of the World” album ‑ yeah, the one with “We Will Rock You.”
He was 12 years old. He bought a guitar and played in a rock band, in addition to studying cello, through high school. It was fun stuff that he fully intended to ditch for more serious, longhair pursuits. But by the time he unpacked his bags at Indiana University in the mid-‘80s, where he would study cello performance, he ended up playing in two successful regional rock bands: The Watchmen, an acid-funk band, and the Screaming Yardvaarks, both of which imploded just as they were attracting the attention of A&R guys, both of which never lasted long enough to put out a proper album.
The latter achieved “somewhat legendary status” in southern Indiana with the single “Mr. Potatohead” ‑ a hilarious collection of metal clichés and goofy lyrics, like the spoken ad-lib from the doctor warning the missus that her husband, Mr. Potatohead, might survive the horrific car accident he was in but could very well be a vegetable for the rest of his life.Dumb fun? Maybe, he says, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Silly can be good,” he says.“I think the point is that music should be honest ‑ whether that honesty comes off as anger, tenderness, sarcasm, whatever. A plastic mentality, which exists in abundance in classical music and pop, uses music for the opposite of what it’s supposed to be.
“Music is supposed to heal and enlighten. When we use it just to entertain and calm the nerves, it’s as if we’re masking our symptoms. If you’re depressed and you listen to banal music because it calms you down, you’re going to stay depressed longer; if you’re ignorant and you listen to plastic music, you’re going to stay ignorant longer,” he says.“These days, all classical musicians are supposed to like pop and rock ‑ it is a way of branding yourself as normal and safe. How boring! How sad when a great player feels the need to say, ‘I don’t even really listen to classical music.’“I like music ‑ all genres and eras ‑ but I don’t like aural wallpaper,” he says.
Here’s what Woods had to say about his years as a rocker. The interview was conducted by e-mail shortly before his performance with Trio Epomeo inNewburyport.
KW: I got my first rock album when I was about 12, which I suppose was pretty late actually. It was Queen’s “News of the World,” which, if I say so myself, is a pretty damn fine first album to have. I’ve always felt drawn to playing whatever kind of music I listen to, whether it was classical or the folk music my dad played and loved, so I suppose the die was cast as soon as I took the shrink wrap off the LP.Within a year, I had my first electric guitar, and a year after that, my first band, which I played with off and on throughout high school. I had a broader range of interests when I was in high school — writing, science, stage crew and the rock playing as well as cello in all its guises of solo work, chamber music and orchestra. When I headed off to college, I declared myself done with all that and was just going to focus on classical stuff, but in a moment of madness I packed a guitar “just to have something to relax with.” Practically the first guy I met at Indiana University was a keyboard player with a great voice and his own PA system, so I was drawn back in and kept playing all through college.
JC: There was no conflict between playing classical and rock music in your mind?
KW: No, there certainly was conflict. On the one hand, I was quickly becoming aware of how competitive the cello world was and that I really couldn’t afford too many distractions from practicing. On the other hand, I found the orchestra experience at IU very, very depressing. In spite of a seemingly unlimited number of gifted players, the conducting faculty seemed to range from ‘washed-up’ to ‘never was any good.’ Rock gave me a chance to connect to a visceral kind of music-making I used to get from orchestra but lost for a while at IU.
JC: So, in your mind, it was just ‘music is music?’
KW: It was, in the sense that almost everyone I played with was a music major and brought the same training and seriousness to the band that they did to their lessons and recitals. On the other hand, particularly with the Watchmen, where I had a much bigger role as a songwriter, it was also a question of the power of rock music as protest music. I may sound like an old fuddy-duddy saying this, but I think the potential for true outrageousness in rock music still existed back then, more so than today. The ‘80s were such a suffocating time to be a creative young person, and the rather corporate environment at IU was no place to break out of that. We were fed up with politics, with style, with mass media, with pointless war, with vacuous pop culture, and we still thought the sheer craziness of rock ‘n’ roll could be a protest against that.Actually, as I say that, I realize the biggest change is that I no longer feel much hope that music can be an effective protest against the same outrages, which have just continued to get worse for the last 20 years. How grim!
JC: Did you think or hope or dream that you would make it as a rocker?
KW: When I graduated from IU, I planned to give the band a go. I didn’t apply to grad schools or take orchestra auditions that year. We were busy making demos and had just hooked up with high-powered management when the band imploded. All the rest of the guys stayed in rock or related music, and some have been quite successful, short of stardom, and I’m full of admiration for them. But my body took a real beating in the years I played. All those late nights, moving PA systems, smoke and noise. I still have back problems. I think I would have had quite a laugh if I’d ended up as the next Pete Townsend, but I’m not sure I would have survived as working indie rocker touring 320 days a year.
JC: What do you think would have happened, if, say, Watchmen were signed?
KW: Our agent was lining them up, and he had a plan. The band was racing against time ‑ the kind of aggressive, funky rock we were playing was huge at that moment. It was the peak of the popularity of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fishbone. But the ‘90s would not have been kind to us. I wanted to play John Coltrane solos on Wayne Shorter chords with a Hendrix sound over a P-funk groove with Zappa-meets-Seuss-lyrics- it probably was ambitious to hope we’d sell a million records. Grunge, in retrospect, is a very pop-oriented, neat and tidy style. We were neither neat nor tidy, and not grungy in a trendy way. Since then, it’s been mostly techno-pop on the radio. We might have gotten a couple of albums out there, and we had a couple of decent singles, but the moment for that music was gone within a year of our breakup.
JC: Do you listen to rock?
KW: I listen to the rock I know and love: Hendrix, P-Funk, Queen, Zepplin. Through my producer friend, I am made aware that there is a lot of nice stuff out there, but I can’t help but feel sometimes that rock has run its course. It used to be the ultimate music of protest ‑ real outsider music. Now it is corporate, mainstream, mass-produced and market-tested. The Stones used to be controversial, even outrageous. Now they’re a nostalgia act; you’ve got to mortgage your house to afford a ticket. There are still great musicians out there making great rock albums, but does anyone still care?
JC: There are certain expectations and entrenched positions on both side of the classical-rock dividing line ‑ that classical is “real” music, or that classical musicians are just stuffed shirts, that classical is serious and everything else is silly, that you guys, you classical musicians, are pretentious stuffed shirts minuet when you go out to clubs?
KW: I think the position has shifted 180 percent from when Hendrix was playing. Rock and pop is now the territory of huge, huge multinational corporations. It is owned completely by the establishment. No song makes it onto radio or TV until hat has been put through focus groups, marketing tie-ins have been negotiated, artists have been made over and on and on. Rock originally came from the poorest corner of America ‑ the Mississippi Delta ‑ but a young Chuck Berry or Elvis could never afford the hundreds of dollars to get into a stadium concert today. It has become an upper-middle class luxury industry, offering instant trendiness for the young and nostalgia for the old.
On the other hand, classical musicians are out there now playing Bartok in coffeehouses and nightclubs, doing school concert and street performances. The concertmaster of the London Mozart Players just spent a year busking around the world to raise money for charity. Every orchestra and opera company has opened their doors to less-affluent listeners, and is making a point to get out into their communities and make a difference in children’s lives.Don’t get me wrong ‑ there are still plenty of stuff shirts, but my generation and the next one know that the mega institutions that sustained previous generations so nicely are gone, and we’ve got to accept risk and earn a place for ourselves in this profession. Meanwhile, you’ve got accountants at the big record companies living in castles.I try not to think in terms of an audience as a monolithic thing, but as a specific gathering of specific people. One of the luckiest accidents of my professional life has been escaping the tribal mentality, which to a certain extent permeates so much of our thinking about music and the music industry. In my rock days, we were consciously making music for our peers, for our generation- that is fun but limiting. Being a conductor and a teacher as well as a performer, I’ve gotten to be close friends with people from wildly different backgrounds, age groups and social strata. Without the tribe there, you find they’re all incredibly different ‑ not the masses of clones we often think.
When I play or conduct, I try to remember that ‑ that we’re not playing to “our audience” but to individuals, each of whom needs different things from the music, each of whom will respond to different things in the music. The more you respect those differences, and leave space for them, the more common ground we find as human beings.What I want new classical listeners to know is that there is room for them, for their experiences and their needs and their tastes, in this music. It’s about creating space, not dumbing down.
J. C. Lockwood is an independent freelance writer who has been covering the Newburyport arts scene for more than two decades. To see more of his work, visit newburyportarts.blogspot.com.For more about Ken’s work as a rocker, click here.