Bach and Boombox declassifies the classics, mixing the Beastie Boys with Beethoven

Nathaniel (“Nat”) Chaitkin grew up in the music world. Both of his parents were musicians and he grew up about a mile from the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York. “My idea of living on the edge was sneaking into New York Philharmonic concerts!” he laughs.

Though training as a classical cellist, in high school Chaitkin spent two years listening to nothing but Jimi Hendrix. “There was this pingback of what I was working on as a musician and what I was actually listening to, and that made perfect sense to me. But then I got into the real world and people don’t listen to or care about the music that I [play].”

He remembers a friend of his in college saying, “No offense Nat, but I hate what you do,” listing all the reasons why there was no way he would ever see a classical concert. At the same time, Chaitkin was talking to one of his music school professors who played a lot of jazz, “someone very comfortable in being seated in two different worlds.”

At the time, classical musicians sat on their cultural thrones inside lavish concert halls, revered by the socioeconomic elite (who could afford to attend the concerts and support the organizations through charitable giving) and generally seen as being “above” everyone else. There was a schism between those who attended such concerts, donning all their fineries while quaffing champagne, and the general public, who might prefer to wear jeans and T-shirts on weekends and catch a rock band playing for free at a community festival. Those two worlds seemed entirely separate, almost alien to one another. And as a result, the general public has a perception of classical music being impossibly elitist.

But Chaitkin doesn’t agree.

“That’s the way people have viewed this music, but that isn’t what it was when it was written,” he says. “That’s very 20th century and a very American thing – the idea of exclusivity and it being the providence of the rich. Classical music is expensive [to train and produce] and you need wealthy patrons, but then a lot of other people feel left out because their image is that they’re not always welcome. They take that exclusivity they perceive and project it onto the music itself. It’s one thing if they don’t want to dress that way and spend that kind of money on something they’re not sure they like, but for the music itself to not be accessible is a misperception.”

He believes that classical music is made of the same basic building blocks as all of the popular rock, hip-hop, and pop music of today. “There are certain things that go on in every kind of music that people can latch on to whether they’re aware of it or not,” he says.

The idea of straddling these two different worlds appealed to him tremendously. Where so many people saw only differences, he saw all of the similarities. He brainstormed ideas of things he could do to bridge this gap, but it would be several years before he acted on it. He finished school, went to Washington D.C., joined the marine band, played at the White House for eight years, taught at Georgetown, then at Michigan State University in Lansing, then moved to Cincinnati. It was there in Cincinnati, two years ago, that he won a grant that was offered to local artists to bring what they do out into the community. “So almost 20 years later I pulled out this [idea] that had been sitting in a filing cabinet.”

And that was how Bach and Boombox came to be.

With Bach and Boombox, Chaitkin “declassifies the classics.” Structured as an interactive performance and conversation about the essence of music, Chaitkin plays music from Bach and other classical composers on his cello, then plays recordings by pop, rock, and jazz artists like the Beastie Boys and Myles Davis on a boombox, all done in a relaxed, casual setting.

“My main goal is to present what is often seen as different, or remote for some people, as just as fun as anything else to listen to,” he says. “I spend the first few minutes playing Bach and introducing them to Bach the person. Then I play AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black’ to get people’s attention, Beyonce for my daughter, Beethoven’s 5th is in there…”

The underlying discursive theme to his work is that music repeats itself – it all works the same way.

“I use James Brown to get people to hear trio form. That’s a perfect example of how a bridge works, and it’s the same thing that people run into at a symphony concert,” he explains. “I just try to make it as barebones and fun as I can. Wherever I go and whoever I’m playing for I try to make it as fun as possible. The classical world is isolated and insulated, often for financial reasons, but those things have nothing to do with music; not the perceptions people have of it. Music is music. That’s the goal – I want people saying, ‘Oh, I never thought of it that way,’ and maybe down the road get people going to a concert. I’d like to be the person helping orchestras and arts organizations expand their audiences after seeing me.”

Chaitkin brings his program to youth outreach programs, schools, community centers, retirement homes…even the airport. “I’ll go pretty much anywhere! I think that’s been the most fun of this – going places and people saying, ‘What on earth are you doing here?’ There’s [the idea that there is] a certain place and time for this music more than any other kind of music, ‘it should be in this kind of hall and you dress up and be quiet.’ It’s just fun to blow that up. [I played] across the street from the ballgame last summer [and in the airport food court in front of the McDonald’s last winter]. That’s not behavior you expect from a classical musician. I enjoy deflating that stereotype whenever possible.”

What Chaitkin is ultimately trying to do is open the doors to classical music to a much wider audience, and the vehicle he’s using to present it is what they’re comfortable with. After opening up that door a little bit, those same people might be more willing to check out a classical concert that they might not have before, which also serves the ever-growing number of arts organizations trying to overcome perceptions of exclusivity and inaccessibility in order to engage new audiences.

“There is much more competition for philanthropy now,” Chaitkin says. “For a long time orchestras thought they had their people and they would always be there, and that’s not true anymore.” Just look to recent strikes, lockouts, and renegotiations in major symphonies in Atlanta, Minnesota, and Detroit for evidence that the cultural climate has changed faster than these organizations have been able to address it.

Chaitkin says he expected some of his classical colleagues to turn their noses up at what he is doing. “[There’s this idea that, as a classical musician,] you don’t compromise anything. What we’re doing is so noble and so wonderful that if you do your job as an artist then people will show up, and they stop there because for a long time that was all that was needed. Now that ship has sailed. Now [it] is a given that we’re going to have to do things differently.” And his colleagues generally seem to know and accept that. “By and large, [they] think [what I’m doing] is great.”

In the future, Chaitkin would like to continue growing Bach and Boombox and build up his network of schools, bring the program into theatres and smaller performance spaces, take it on the road, and even partner with classical organizations on co-programming. “I spent my whole life playing in orchestras and that’s what I love,” he says. “I would love to partner with different groups to get new people to come and build a program that uses what I do as a connection to something specific that they’re doing in a week or the next night and get this group of people engaged in the orchestra. It’s something to open the door for people. Let’s make this piece accessible so when they go they have something that makes them feel at home and makes them want to come back.”