Skip to content

Classically Trained But Now Rocking Out.

December 6, 2013

GiuseppeDiCristino01Text by Beth Ann Downey. Top image by Rachel Barrish. Middle image by Doug Seymour. Bottom image by Rick Kauffman.

Giuseppe DiCristino remembers being enthralled by Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons as a child.

“Especially the ‘Winter’ movement, a very famous movement because it’s really, really fast,” DiCristino recalls as he sits on the porch of The Barnes Foundation, where he is a member, before taking a late-night pass through the museum’s collection. “So, it was very cool to hear that as a child and be like ‘Woah, that’s amazing.’”

By the time he heard The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, DiCristino knew he wanted to play a classical instrument. He picked up viola and starting taking free lessons at his “rough” middle school in South Philly, and went on to attend Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts as well as Temple Music Prep at Boyer College of Music and Dance.

“I really, really loved playing and I practiced every single day,” DiCristino says of growing up playing viola. “I didn’t have technique or anything because I didn’t have strict private lessons but I just had the passion.”

That passion led him to study music further at The Boston Conservatory, but while working catering jobs to support himself between sporadic gigs, DiCristino started fiddling around with piano, bass and Pro Tools. He began to branch off from the classical music he grew up on.

“I started to get really into listening to everything, listening to electronica, hearing the sounds and the tones that they create,” DiCristino says. “You can create the tonality with just gear instead of using your fingers.”

He gave the $20,000 borrowed viola back to his Boston teacher, permanently stripping away the instrument that had rested beneath his chin for more than a decade. Now he cites bands like Daft Punk and Boys Noize for the music he makes as part of Man Like Machine, the Philly-based electro-rock band DiCristino started with his brother Joshua Bright and drummer Wesley Paul. He and his brother also run their own label, Collapsible Empire, through rented studio space at Aurum Recording in Manayunk.

“I don’t need an orchestra, I have that with synthesizers, you know, and pedals,” DiCristino says of his foray into keyboard playing and songwriting.

DiCristino isn’t alone in applying his classical upbringing to more rockin’ genres of music later in life. Writing and performing everything from EDM to rock to jazz, local musicians are using their experience with these strict theories and techniques to make music better suited for little bars and clubs than the Kimmel Center.

Christen Hooks, a classically trained violist and pianist who studied with Philadelphia Orchestra members and played Carnegie Hall all before college, is now a violist for heavy rock band Disco Machine Gun.

“It’s kind of funny because the guys in the front, at certain points in certain songs, they’re you know screaming. We have some pretty heavy guitar riffs in some of our songs, and then I’m playing viola on the side,” she says. “Heavy rock with strings isn’t so common. But that’s part of the reason why I like it, because it challenges me to come up with parts that can fit for that kind of music.”

When Hooks first started playing with the band, she had no idea how to function without sheet music in front of her. But she soon learned to play by ear and has enjoyed the room rock music gives her to improvise.

“Sometimes I’ll push really hard on the bow and get this crunching noise and that can fit with a lot of the heavier stuff,” she says. “Other times I’ll just make noise and not necessarily know what notes or what rhythm I’m playing. In classical, you never get to do things like that. Everything is very measured and precise, so that’s kind of nice just being able to play what you feel and not having to play exactly what’s on the page. It’s definitely a lot more free. That’s why I’ve been gravitating toward it for such a long time.”

MelissaMenago01Classically trained pianist and vocalist Melissa Menago went from studying Chopin and Debussy to playing the Warped Tour circuit with her pop-rock band, June Divided. She met three of the band’s four members while studying Music Industry at Drexel University. She enjoys the fact that they can write by ear but also apply the music theory they all learned to create songs with complex structure, nuance and depth.

“I can understand what’s going on,” she says. “I can talk to my bass player about chord changes and I’m not just naming the frets, I’m naming actual chords. So it’s a really, really useful tool. … It’s like an art form, and it kind of bothers me when people don’t at least learn the basics.”

Stanford Thompson, CEO of the tuition-free music education program Play On Philly!, wants his students to have both the classical training needed to play their best but also the experience of making more creative music. That’s why, in the upcoming school year, they will introduce a POP Creates program, which will integrate jazz, improvisation and composition into the curriculum.

“They won’t get hit on the hand if they play a wrong note,” explains Thompson, who studied trumpet performance at the Curtis Institute. “We’re going to take away all of those rules of reading music. Here’s your chance to be creative.”

Thompson recognizes that the generations of avid classical music lovers is dying but he believes that the social aspect of appreciating live music will keep any genre alive.

“Perhaps if they took all of the chairs out of the concert hall and let everybody dance to Beethoven…” Thompson begins but can’t finish due to a fit of laughter.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: