What sounds do you associate with a taproom? The clinking of glasses? The hum of pumps and boilers? Maybe some radio rock blaring from a speaker in the corner?
You probably don’t think of classical music that combines violins with electronics, or of Vellumsound, the resident string ensemble at the Museum of Fine Arts. But that’s just what visitors to Slumbrew’s American Fresh Brewhouse in Boynton Yards got to hear last summer, when pianist and composer Kirsten Volness stopped by the bar to play her spiritual string music while backed by the MFA’s band.
This was Original Gravity—a series that combines new classical compositions with original, limited-batch beer from local breweries specifically made to compliment the evening’s music. Over the last few years, OG has partnered with Slumbrew, Aeronaut Brewing Co. and Bantam Cider, plus a number of breweries beyond Somerville.
Why combine classics and beer? (Besides, you know, the obvious.) Scout sat down with pianist, composer and conductor Keith Kirchoff, artistic director for Original Gravity, to learn what these events are like and how heading to the bar helps him reach an untapped—pun very much intended—audience.
Scout Somerville: Where did the idea for this kind of collab come from? I have to say, brewing and classical music aren’t things I’d necessarily put together.
Keith Kirchoff: I can totally see how one might think them incongruous, but I’d argue that brewing and classical music aren’t actually all that far apart. Both are creative arts steeped in history, and both can be really inspirational to the consumer. And when you can sip an inspirational drink while listening to an inspirational piece, that’s when the magic happens!
I often hear people argue that “classical music is dying.” I really disagree with this sentiment. What I think is accurate, though, is that people are growing disinterested in the concert hall. For people who haven’t grown up or are unfamiliar with the classical music culture, the concert hall can appear dry or stiff. But this really isn’t a reflection of the music, just the venue. A brewery is a naturally relaxed environment. People are free—encouraged!—to drink and move around during the concert. It’s still a concert, it’s not just background music to people drinking, but in the relaxed environment of a brewery, people naturally become more receptive to new sounds and new art.
I am insistent that I put the beer and music on equal footing. Both the composer and the brewer address the audience during the show. Because I value each art equally, I am very careful to let them complement each other: the brewery isn’t “just a venue,” nor is the music just a background band. These are two artists coming together and sharing their creative craft with an audience.
SS: How does the process of brewing and creating music work? The breweries hear the pieces and… work backwards? Is there any back-and-forth between the musicians and the brewers?
KK: For each show, I share the composer’s music with the brewer a couple months before the concert. They listen to the music and design a beer they think best reflects that music’s attributes. For example, for our concert at Rising Tide Brewery, the brewer—Adrian Beck-Oliver—wanted to highlight the experimental nature of the music and accentuate the woodiness of some of the sounds (there was a lot of percussion). He ended up brewing a wild farmhouse saison that I thought paired beautifully!
Back-and-forth? Some. Sometimes the brewer will send me a couple different ideas and I comment with which seems to resonate more. But most often the brewer just does what she or he feels is most appropriate. We really want to give them full artistic freedom!
SS: Can you talk about experiencing the music and the beer together? How do they work in concert, so to speak?
KK: We actually take the pairings pretty seriously. Different beers work well with different types of music. If the music is super fun and upbeat, a light, sessionable beer makes a good pairing. But if the music is a little more abstract or requires a little bit more thought, I always recommend a contemplative, big beer: a slow sipper that heightens focus.
Though we don’t really program any, one of my favorite pairings is Mozart with an Austrian-style Pilsener. Mozart’s music is so clean and precise, and on the surface appears simple and light. But in reality, this music is incredibly difficult to perform, and any mistake will be immediately noticed by any listener, regardless of their experience with the music.
A Pilsener is exactly the same—the most popular beer style in the world, it’s light and super easy drinking. It’s super pleasant, but easy to not pay attention to. Yet while it seems so simple, it really is the most difficult style to effectively brew: there’s no room for error. Any flaw would be immediately noticed by any drinker.
SS: What’s the audience at one of these nights like? I’d imagine the experience is a little unlike your, uh, classic classical music production?
KK: The audience is pretty varied. Probably most concert-goers are in their 30s or 40s, though we have several retired audience members as well. Pretty much anyone who likes beer, music and the slightly unusual will find themselves at our shows.
Though we certainly have some regular classical concert-goers, we are really targeting people who wouldn’t generally consider going to classical music concerts. Our goal is to expand the audience for new classical music, by introducing it to people who probably didn’t even know it existed. But, most often, people walk away really excited about what they hear.
SS: I read in your bio that you’re always traveling in search of the perfect pint. Have any of these pours come close to achieving that?
KK: There has been some amazing beer brewed for Original Gravity! A couple of highlights were a barrel-aged wild ale brewed by Rising Tide and a gruit by Mystic. But the quest for that perfect pint is a lifelong journey!
Original Gravity’s next pairing brings Boston Percussion Group to Barrel House Z in Weymouth on July 30. The complete 2017–2018 lineup is available here.