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EXCLUSIVE: Classicalite Q&A with Groupmuse Founder Sam Bodkin

By Louise Burton l.burton@classicalite.com on Mar 17, 2014 12:04 PM EDT

For more than a year, Groupmuse has been organizing classical music house parties in the Boston area. It all started with a group of New England Conservatory students who regularly got together in one musician's apartment to socialize and play chamber music until the wee hours of the morning.

Sam Bodkin, a Columbia University student who attended some of these get-togethers, was taken with the mixture of serious music and socializing that spontaneously sprang up at these convivial events.

Bodkin decided to organize similar events in people's homes in and around Boston, featuring performances by New England Conservatory chamber ensembles.

He was inspired by his use of the CouchSurfing.org site, which hooks up travelers with people who have a couch to rent, to build a social media tool that connects classical musicians in the area to people who have living rooms in the area.

And what he got was a grassroots approach to building a classical music series, in which members of the community organically generate their own chamber music house parties. Bodkin calls it Groupmuse, but you might want to call it Chamber Music 2.0.

These chamber music house parties have really taken off in Boston and are popping up in other cities as well. There is no admission charge, but a hat is passed around for donations, part of which goes to pay the musicians.

Bodkin recently chatted with me from Boston about his obsession with classical music and his vision of building a new kind of chamber music series from the ground up.

Classicalite: What is the experience of a Groupmuse event like?

Sam Bodkin. There's something uniquely convivial about the atmosphere at a Groupmuse. And I think that's because, when everyone comes, there are all these different conversation circles...But then, when everyone gathers and sits together and just concentrates collectively on one intimate art experience, often times if it's a great masterpiece, it'll take the crowd to emotional places that are sometimes very challenging. Beethoven takes you to the edge of the emotional universe. And you go through that with the crowd, all together.

And I will tell you, that at intermission and after the performance, the volume of conversation just goes through the roof. Everyone is talking to everyone else. Everyone can talk about the music, but there's just this notion of shared experience which makes everyone feel so tightly knit.

And so people who don't really care about classical music necessarily, they just keep coming back, because it's such a wonderful evening...And if you keep coming back enough, then you really start to develop a taste for the music, and that's when we're really doing what we need to be doing.

Q. How have people responded to Groupmuse events?

A. We get people who come every week. Literally, we have many 20-somethings who had never been to a classical music concert before, and now they have been to 10 in the last two months. They're listening to more classical music than they are to any other form of live music. It really is amazing. They come twice, and they see, oh, there's a familiar face, and they understand, wow, this could be a group of friends.

Q: I think that's more the way classical music was intended to be. Chamber music wasn't written to be played in Orchestra Hall. It was written for families, or groups of friends who got together to play.

A. That's true. Part of the inspiration behind Groupmuse is the idea of the Schubertiad, the intimate gatherings of friends who listened to Schubert play his new songs for them... It just goes to show that Groupmuses have been happening for hundreds of years, it's just this new [technology], this social network, that gives it a whole new scope and depth.

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TagsGroupmuse, Sam Bodkin, New England Conservatory, Couchsurfing.org, chamber music, chamber music house parties