What kids can teach you about art

DJ Spooky faces the audience, spinning vinyl discs, wearing headphones and fiddling with his turntables and other electronic … stuff. Actually, it’s hard to tell what he’s doing from where we sit, a mile up in the balcony of the Paramount Theater in Oakland.

With his back to the audience, Michael Morgan, conductor of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, slices and hacks the air with his baton.

I’m here with a group of Reno-area teenagers, more than 30 talented kids who make up the Reno Philharmonic’s Youth Chamber Orchestra. The concert begins with a standard orchestral piece, a stunning hour-long rendition of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Opus 92. The kids listen intently, some with eyes closed—they’ve been up since 4 a.m. But after Beethoven, this cacophonous new thing—this mix of classical, techno and hip-hop—turns a few teens into media critics.

“I like the parts where the DJ isn’t playing,” one girl tells her friend.

The musicians’ two-day field trip to the Bay Area includes dressing up and heading to the Paramount for Friday’s premiere of Devolution—billed as the first piece written for orchestra and, yes, DJ.

A San Francisco Chronicle article describes it as “a mash-up … in the highly unlikely milieu of classical music.” Writes pop culture critic James Sullivan: “That the performance did not crumple in an unsightly collision of metal and wood was an achievement in itself.”

That no cellists were forgotten at rest stops or lost at Pier 39 during the trip was also a notable achievement.

My daughter plays second violin in the YCO. I went along as a chaperone. A pre-performance prep talk included advice: No chewing gum—that’s not classy. (At this, I swallowed mine.)

“You already know when to clap. And remember, we’re all representing the Reno Philharmonic.”

The teens played their instruments a few hours earlier during a workshop at San Francisco State University. One eighth-grade horn guy told me he aspires to play professionally. He’d researched the salaries paid by prestigious symphonies in places like New York. And $70,000 to $100,000 sounds like a lot until you consider that starter homes in, say, the Bay Area can run around $700,000. Yikes.

Smart kids talk about interesting things during bus rides and overnight hotel stays. I learned the health benefits of Bikram yoga and caught part of a debate on gender and violence. (For the record, guys, female serial killer Aileen Wuornos was executed in 2002 for the murder of six men in central Florida.)

I overheard a couple of long, sad sagas regarding parents’ marriages and divorces.

The performance of Devolution is a joyful saga. It’s sandwiched between Beethoven and Ravel’s “Bolero.” At first, there’s so little audible DJ that you can’t imagine why Spooky is on stage.

He gently injects samples, like a Pink Floydish wing-whapping and a female voice, while working his way up to a naughty dum-cha hip-hop beat.

The piece turns loud and, much like adolescence, it’s less than aesthetically pleasing in the traditional sense. Some nearby oldsters, I’m guessing, want it over. But when DJ Spooky gets moving, I’m wishing the ritzy, high-ceiled Paramount had a dance floor.

Finally, the point seems evident—the music of high and low culture devolves into primal noise then evolves, recycled from chaos, emerging richer and unified into a lovely paradoxical whole. Or something.

The joy is in the midst of change—on the lively bus traveling over the Bay Bridge and in a Chinatown restaurant as a teen flicks fried rice across the table. These are the kids who’ll perform in black gowns or tuxedoes, who’ll shave their heads and spin vinyl at clubs, who will create new art of their own.

They are nearly ready. They know when to clap.