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  • Bringing sexy Bach: How the 1781 Collective is changing the way we experience classical music

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Bringing sexy Bach: How the 1781 Collective is changing the way we experience classical music

This classical music crew is striking a chord with Berlin's younger experimental music lovers.

Photo: Makar Atemev, costumes: Silvia Vitali

The first room is down a dark corridor, brick and concrete. There’s a violin player standing in the centre, draped head to toe in white, illuminated by iridescent liquid smoke. The sound coming from the violin is unlike anything you’ve heard from a string instrument, discordant and experimental. The next room you’re led to has a man playing the cello, lit by glowing red lights.

In the next, there’s a French horn. Then a flautist, accompanied by a dancer. Finally, in the last room, there’s intricate piano music, the sound of the keys echoing off the high ceilings. You’ve just been through the LABYRINTH, a performance series run by the 1781 Collective, by a group of classical musicians who are attempting to do something extraordinary – to turn a traditional art form into a brand new experience. 

Chris Lloyd. Photo: Makar Atemev, costume: Silvia Vitali

“Our job is to pretend it’s entertainment and deliver art,” says Chris Lloyd, co-founder of the collective. “We’re bringing people in under the concept of fun and participatory theatre – a cool venue, fancy lights. It’s Instagram-friendly, but people are getting a genuine artistic experience. And then you get a situation where a bunch of people in their thirties think that contemporary French horn is an objectively good thing to listen to,” he says.

The whole traditional classical music industry is sort of clutching their pearls

If it’s hard to imagine the appeal of contemporary French horn, the 1781 Collective is ready and waiting to convince listeners otherwise. Founded in 2018, the Berlin-based group is working to develop and support a global network of musicians and provide an alternative to the mainstream classical music industry, loosely defined by their experimental performance contexts and diverse musical styles.

The name is a nod to a classical great: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who in 1781 left his organist job in Salzburg to be a freelance composer and performer in Vienna. “The concept of Mozart saying ‘Leck mich am Arsch’ to a system that undervalued his skills resonated with us when forming our beliefs and desires for the 1781 Collective.”

Valentina Migliorati. Photo: Makar Atemev, costume: Silvia Vitali

Breaking through the brass ceiling

Lloyd and the 1781 Collective know that it’s increasingly rare to maintain a wide audience for classical music, but that’s exactly what they’re out to change. “The whole traditional classical music industry is sort of clutching their pearls and worrying about the 0.1% of the population of the world that currently engages in classical music,” says Lloyd, himself a classically trained pianist with a graduate degree from the Royal Academy of Music in London.

“They’re really, really worried about losing those people.” Germany has a global reputation as an epicentre of classical music – Berlin is home not only to the Berliner Philharmoniker, widely considered to be one of the best orchestras in the world, but also to a host of other well-respected institutions and top-tier classical performers, composers and conductors.

For classical music aficionados, it can seem like the scene is thriving, particularly on the well-trodden stages of old-world Europe, but the numbers say otherwise. Concert attendance in Germany has been stagnant for over a decade, and pandemic lockdowns left a deep mark on the cultural sector. Young Berliners are more likely to haunt Huxley’s Neue Welt, Funkhaus or Astra Kulturhaus for their live music fix than darken the doors of the Philharmonie, the Konzerthaus or the Staatsoper.

Shasta Ellenbogen. Photo: Makar Atemev, costume: Silvia Vitali

Back in 2018, watching the crowd at Kater Blau from a balcony at the riverfront venue, Lloyd and cellist Angela Zamarano were struck by the conviction that they could find a truly new audience for classical music. Lloyd remembers saying, “We want these people. These are the people we want to share music with.” Let the major institutions worry about retaining the tiny percentage of classical concert-goers, they decided. They’ll focus on the 99% who don’t listen to classical music – yet.

Rewriting the rules

Our job is to pretend it’s entertainment and deliver art

Classical music has a certain reputation: conformist, predictable, boring, restrictive. There’s usually no talking or moving around allowed during concerts, no visuals, and strict expectations of what repertoire can be played and how it should be performed.

Anyone unlucky enough to clap between movements of a symphony at an orchestra concert quickly learns that there’s a right and a wrong way to listen to traditional classical music. “The traditional classical music machine is its own thing. It’s got a lot of value for some people, but I think it can be limiting.

We should have other options,” says Lloyd. “There are awesome people around the whole world doing weird and wacky shit with classical music. We want to show that there are a thousand different ways to do classical music.” 

Lydia Paulos. Photo: Makar Atemev, costume: Silvia Vitali

Open-mindedness is a cornerstone of the collective’s philosophy. The community is oriented around a shared spirit of experimentation and creativity, not a specific artistic sensibility. Collective members are not the “arbiters of taste”, as Lloyd puts it. That sense of inquisitiveness is reflected back by the audiences that attend the 1781 Collective’s concerts, too. “Berlin’s full of curious people. If you’re putting on classical music, they come at it with an open mind,” Lloyd explains, though he quickly points out that Berlin audiences are still discerning.

Berlin’s full of curious people. If you’re putting on classical music, they come at it with an open mind

“That’s not to say they’re not going to be critical. If it’s shit, they’ll call it out. But they really are much more open to experiencing new things.” While Lloyd has a self-confessed soft spot for 19th- and 20th-century music, the members of the 1781 Collective can’t be pigeonholed into one niche. The group includes experts in early music, folk, improvisation and electronic music, alongside a number of contemporary classical and new music specialists.

Cellist Moritz Ebert is one quintessential example. Upon moving to Berlin after finishing his degree in cello performance, Ebert started experimenting. “Improvisation covers so many other areas and genres. For me, it built the bridge from being a purely classical musician to [engaging] with jazz music and folk music, electronic music, pop music,” he says. “I cannot say that I’m a classical musician anymore. Like, this is where I started and it’s still a huge part of me, but this is not how I identify myself.”

Janina Picard. Photo: Makar Atemev, costume: Silvia Vitali

Lloyd and many of the other Berlin-based members are transplants to the city, hailing from all corners of the globe. This gives them an outsider’s view of the deeply rooted appreciation for music here. “In Germany, classical music is part of your heritage growing up – that’s fucking cool,” says Lloyd.

“Everyone has this sort of connection already to classical music, even if it’s something their parents or their grandparents listen to. If you play music here, people will stop and listen.” The challenge that this presents, however, is how to retain those new listeners and show younger Berliners that classical music isn’t just for their parents and grandparents.

Striking a chord

Lloyd believes that the obstacles have nothing to do with the music and everything to do with context. “The music’s not boring. The context of a traditional setting is boring, therefore people don’t want to engage in it,” he argues. “The traditional classical music industry has always gone on about how they need to attract new young people, but they actually don’t want new young people.

They want new young people to come to their concerts and experience it like they’re old people.” Meanwhile, the 1781 Collective’s events consistently attract an audience that’s between 25-45 years old, according to Lloyd – decades younger than the average retirement-age orchestra-goer.

Adam Goodwin. Photo: Makar Atemev, costume: Silvia Vitali

Classical music is good, Lloyd insists, and the music will win people over if it’s presented in a way that they can identify with. “You can add context to the content to make it more relevant, to be able to invite more people without changing a single thing. [People] really like Ravel, Bartok and Stravinsky when you present it to them in their comfort zone, in their spaces.” One recent example: Lloyd’s solo performance at Fusion Festival this year, where he played piano works by Schubert and Chopin.

“The stage was the regular techno stage, with huge speakers, a full lighting/smoke machine set up, people filling every inch of the stage and dance floor,” Chris recounts. “Several hundreds, if not a thousand people, in various different stages of inebriation and chemical balance, having the most intense connection to classical music I’ve ever witnessed. People were in their own worlds having visible emotional responses, hugging each other in tears, dancing as if they were conducting the music into the air.” The collective has also made appearances at festivals like Reflex, Feel, Garbicz and Hedone.

Alexey Kochetkov. Photo: Makar Ateme, costume: Silvia Vitali

On top of the collective’s aim to convert new classical music fans, it wants to give performers and composers a path to a sustainable career outside of traditional institutions.

“The collective has always had two different strands, one of which was setting up our own events representing what non-traditional or alternative classical can look like,” Lloyd explains. “The other has been developing a network and community.” With these two strands, the collective hopes to grow a cohesive, alternative movement of classical musicians who have the chance to reach newly-initiated fans.

As Lloyd sees it, part of the issue facing classical musicians today is a surplus of talent. From that perspective, a sold-out Berliner Philharmoniker concert at the Waldbühne doesn’t help the many other highly-trained musicians who haven’t won their way into an orchestra seat – which are few and far between, even in Berlin.

Moritz Ebert. Photo: Makar Atemev, costume: Silvia Vitali

“When the collective first got started a lot of people started coming in, saying ‘I want this, I need this,’” Lloyd remembers. “[Elite schools] are very, very happy continuing to train more musicians, knowing there is no demand for them. They’re very happy to keep taking school fees and keep telling students this mythology that all they need to do is practice really, really hard.” Young musicians often find themselves struggling to compete in an industry where so many people are highly skilled.

Lloyd compares the experience to that of professional chefs who spend years perfecting specific techniques, only to flounder when they get the opportunity to run a restaurant and create their own menus for the first time – if they ever get that chance. “The only thing we weren’t taught how to do is how to be creative, which is hugely ironic considering we’re supposed to be an artistic discipline. I think that the whole traditional industry is being really disingenuous and irresponsible.” 

The cost of playing

He points out the near-impossible economics: an orchestra is made up of more than 100 professional musicians who have each trained at least 8-10 years to get there – as many years of schooling as surgeons have, he notes – and who all need to be paid a living wage.

“Financially, that is a terrible model. It was developed in the age of aristocracy, and then the church would pay for it,” he explains. When they don’t turn a profit, many institutions rely on public funding to survive – Germany alone funds 129 different orchestras around the country. “The German government is fantastic with funding. We’ve got it easier than probably everyone else in the entire world, but there are still issues with it,” Lloyd acknowledges.

Liz Talbert. Photo: Makar Atemev, costume: Silvia Vitali

As city budgets get slashed and funding threatens to dry up, Lloyd has strong words about the stereotype of Berlin as an artist-friendly metropolis. “‘Poor but sexy’ is an excuse. It was sold to musicians and artists as a personality – maybe unintentionally,” he says firmly.

There are a lot of musicians out there who are bored, uninspired or frustrated

“But the city’s changed a lot. There’s a reason Köpi and all these other places are getting shut down. Because ideals, unfortunately, do not beat fucktonnes of money at the end of the day.” The necessity is greater than ever for musicians to take their work and expertise seriously, he thinks. “Musicians specifically have had their heads filled with this shit that ‘If it’s artistic, it can’t make money.’ We are not good enough at communicating how much effort, time and energy it takes [to make music].”

The reality many classical musicians face is a daunting one: there’s a relatively small number of long-term jobs in orchestras and opera houses, new opportunities are limited, and incomes are unstable. “There are a lot of musicians out there who are bored, uninspired or frustrated,” says Lloyd.

He and his fellow collective members want to be part of a solution: “Just sitting down and complaining that the world isn’t how you want it to be is not going to make it the world you want it to be.” That’s why the 1781 Collective is not only offering solidarity to musicians who have been left out of traditional spaces, but also working to break expectations about where classical music is performed, how it’s presented and who listens to it.

Sebastian Urbanke. Photo: Makar Atemev, costume: Silvia Vitali

A new age of classical

In this complicated landscape where economics, cultural mores and fleeting social trends collide, it’s hard for the collective to predict which solutions will actually work. To gauge which ideas have traction as an alternative to the mainstream, Lloyd looks back to the establishment. “Whenever anyone from the traditional industry pushes back, that feels like we’re doing something right.” Ebert agrees; it seems to him that the appetite for experimental performance approaches is increasing.

Whenever anyone from the traditional industry pushes back, that feels like we’re doing something right.

“Squeezing yourself into a suit, coming on stage, playing your piece and just walking off and having no other interaction with the audience – I think that time is over,” he says. Ebert was immediately attracted to the sense of community and openness that he found in the 1781 Collective. “People really appreciate each other [and] they were allowed to present everything in the way they wanted.” This attitude isn’t common in many traditional institutions.

At the same time, the 1781 Collective’s growing network – now 38-strong, each recommended and inducted by the group’s board members – gives musicians a sounding board to question or encourage their musical decisions. “Am I just being kitsch for the sake of being popular? Or is there an artistic purpose for this?” Lloyd asks. “I think some of the better ideas will eventually seep into the traditional industry. At the end of the day, that’s just providing value to more audiences, and that’s got to be the main motivation.”

Valentina Migliorati. Photo: Makar Artemev, costume: Silvia Vitali

Currently, the 1781 Collective is preparing for the fifth iteration of their biggest and most ambitious event, LABYRINTH: The Cabinet of Curiosities. In 2020, amidst mask mandates and restricted audiences, the group conceived of a room-by-room performance structure that could turn these limitations into features of the experience, rather than a liability. This year, LABYRINTH returns to the Musikbrauerei in full force, with a stacked lineup of performers and the theme ‘Melancholia’. “These days, it’s all about feeling better, feeling good, being the best version of yourself, yoga, spiritualism. Every meme is about being better and feeling happy,” says Lloyd.

Classical music is just pain. There’s no release, it’s just ripping your insides apart.

He and the collective has an alternative proposal: “What if we actually embrace, in a 19th-century model, that sadness is okay?” The impending seasonal darkness is certainly ripe for a deep dive into our darkest feelings, and Lloyd is sure that the collective will provide the perfect soundtrack. “Classical music is just pain. There’s no release, it’s just ripping your insides apart.”

Content warnings aside, it won’t all be tortured self-pity and sorrow. Now that performance restrictions are a thing of the past, attendees will be able to explore the LABYRINTH independently, discovering what they like and choosing where to linger. Completionists can roam widely to hear something from every performer; those who don’t suffer from FOMO might prefer to take in one performance from beginning to end. 

With LABYRINTH, as with all of their concerts and initiatives, the 1781 Collective is aiming to create an atmosphere where the Kater Blau weekend warriors can feel as welcome as the Brahms and Wagner connoisseurs. As far as the collective is concerned, there’s no wrong way to listen to classical music: come for the Instagrammable lighting and set design, stay for whatever weird and wacky shit strikes a chord.

  • LABYRINTH, Musikbrauerei, Greifswalder Str. 23A, Prenzlauer Berg, Nov 12, 15:30, 17:30, 19:30, 21:30, details.