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Classical Pranksters Don't Just Play Music: They Play With It

By Jon Kalish | NPR
Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Collective Cadenza — CDZA for short — is a loose-knit group of musicians in New York that makes videos. Sounds pretty ordinary, right? But what sets CDZA apart is that these conservatory-trained musicians don't just play music in front of a camera: They play with it, often turning familiar pieces on their ears through visual gags and sonic surprises that have drawn millions of views on YouTube.

The group's first video was "History of Lyrics that Aren't Lyrics." Vocalist Jane Lui pretty much sings what the title says, accompanied by bass and piano. The video has garnered more than one and a half million views since it was posted on YouTube two years ago. Michael Thurber, the bassist in the video and a member of the collective's creative team, says the charm of the group lies in its unconventional take on the norm.

"The kind of underpinning that's always present regardless of what idiom we're working in is we're basically playing with culture," Thurber says. "We're toying with culture. We're rearranging it. We're remixing it, using this live musical talent."

The visual and sonic twists in the videos are not editing tricks — the musicians just have the chops to pull them off. Some, like Thurber, are Juilliard graduates. Others play in Broadway pit bands and as recording-session sidemen. But they seldom get the kind of exposure they get with CDZA. Five of the collective's 30 videos have attracted more than a million views each. YouTube's parent company took notice and invited CDZA to perform for thousands of Google employees in Las Vegas.

Reaching An Audience

Charles Yang, a violinist with CDZA who regularly performs as a guest soloist with symphony orchestras around the country, says the YouTube performance offered him a new way to connect with an audience.

"Sometimes you can feel very enclosed in a bubble in the classical world," Yang says. "We played something for 12,000 people — 12,000 young people — which is something I have never done in my classical career. That's unheard of."

Yang says he often speaks to high school students about classical music, and they tend to recognize him from the CDZA videos, like the one in which he plays "Amore" on a fire escape in Little Italy.

Joe Sabia, who directs CDZA's videos, says the compelling thing about what the group does is that it's not far-fetched from what they were instructed to do, in the traditional sense.

"They're not really doing anything differently than what they've been taught to do," Sabia says. "If you have a classical pianist really, really good at the style of Bach — like our buddy Evan Shinners — if we get him to do Kanye West in the style of Bach, it's still the same language he's speaking. It's just in a different dialect."

Guerrilla Filmmaking

One afternoon last spring, CDZA commandeered a restaurant in Greenwich Village owned by a friend of the group. The musicians then invited passers-by to get a massage while a string quartet comprised of Juilliard alumnae played works by Haydn.

The massage therapist in the video is CDZA's recording engineer Matt McCorkle, who says the concept for the video came to the group on a whim.

"We never sit down and say, 'OK, today we're going to conceptualize ideas,'" McCorkle says. "And that's the most beautiful thing about it because it's natural. It's very, very natural how this all comes about."

The three principals in CDZA continue to work on individual projects, but musical director Michael Thurber says they all have a sense that they've given birth to something that will continue to evolve.

"You don't really know exactly what it's going to be," says Thurber. "All you know is that it's got a massive amount of potential and that's all we're really focused on right now: Just trying to preserve that fun and keep it going."

Jon Kalish is a Manhattan-based radio reporter and podcast producer. For links to radio docs, podcasts & DIY stories, visit his website.

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