Marijuana in the Concert Hall

In 2014, the Colorado Symphony put on a concert series called “Classically Cannabis,” attracting media attention from around the world. On November 8, 2016, California, Nevada, and Massachusetts followed in the Rocky Mountain State’s footsteps by passing referenda legalizing recreational marijuana. As decriminalization spreads through the U.S. and perhaps to Europe, will we see more classical ensembles imitating the Denver-based orchestra?

In the meantime, however, the original “Classically Cannabis” has been discontinued. The series was by open to donors by invitation only, 21 plus, and strictly BYOC (Bring Your Own Cannabis). Still, there were complications with the city of Denver. “We have no plans to enter into partnerships with the cannabis industry again,” wrote Rachel Trignano, Marketing Director at the Colorado Symphony, in a recent email.

After Election Day, I checked in with major orchestras in the states where the recreational use of marijuana has been newly legalized to see if plans for similar concert series were in the works. Press representatives of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the San Fransisco Symphony, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic stated that there would be no cannabis-integrated concerts in the near future. Michele Madole, VP of Marketing and PR at the Las Vegas Philharmonic, wrote in an email, “It’s too early to comment until all the facts are known,” perhaps leaving open the slight possibility of such events.

Beethoven, String Quartet Op. 130, V. Catavina; Guarneri Quartet

It may seem as though the brief experiment in combining classical music and weed is now over as quickly as it began. As the experience of the Colorado Symphony shows, orchestras who attempt to integrate cannabis into their performances take on risks, not least due to still-murky issues of enforcement of the federal government’s ban on marijuana. At the same time, there are major potential rewards in terms of press, audience, and sponsorship. Classical music as a whole was fairly slow to react to the developments of streaming, online video, and social media. Lately, it has been more proactive, jumping on new technologies such as virtual reality. It would be a shame if this new, more adventurous spirit doesn’t carry over into marijuana.

Cannabis, of course, has long been associated with other genres of music. In the early 20th century, the drug was used in “tea pads,” jazz venues where peopled smoked and that “were characterized by incense, dim lights, furniture to lounge on, and a radio, phonograph, or nickelodeon for music,” writes John Charles Chasteen in his history Getting High: Marijuana Throughout the Ages. Later, it became inextricably linked with 1960s counterculture and hippie music, then hip-hop.

But today, the drug has become less associated with a particular lifestyle or set of values than it used to be. In August, when I visited a depository in Nederland, Colorado, it was a pleasant experience accompanied by the vague embarrassment, caused by lack of knowledge, that usually goes along with buying a nice bottle of wine. Chasteen wonders if marijuana will simply become another “legal recreational euphoriant for upscale blue-state consumers.”

In the Colorado Symphony’s experiment, what emerged was a focus on integrating pot in the atmosphere normally associated with classical music. In an article around the event, the Associated Press quoted one cannabis industry professional as saying that “You can be intelligent and savvy and enjoy cannabis as well,” while an event organizer used the word “upscale.” These characterizations feel coded and possibly contribute to the alienation that some audiences already feel about orchestra concerts generally. (In an eye-opening report on the legal marijuana boom, the BuzzFeed reporter Amanda Chicago Lewis writes about the way whiteness privileges both legal pot entrepreneurs and users.) Emphasizing marijuana as a luxury product too much may confirm unpleasant stereotypes about classical music elitism.

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 7 in E Major; Sergiu Celibidache (Conductor), Munich Philharmonic

Rather than advertising marijuana as an intermission equivalent to champagne, ensembles would do well to program concerts for the drug. That would involve reclaiming some parts of early 20th-century jazz culture, or perhaps creating a new culture (ideally, without Leonard Bernstein “Radical Chic”-style awkwardness). “Weed lowers anxiety, drops the ego, connects people. It will help bring classical music back to where it should be, which is a community of people experiencing a beautiful piece of art. The act of a small group of people sitting around having a joint equalizes us,” said Andrew Trovato, a composer and pianist based in Massachusetts. “I basically do this all the time with people who don’t listen to classical music, and that brings them into it,” he added.  

Another composer, who asked to remain anonymous because he lives in a state where marijuana is illegal, told me, “It should be done. I don’t know why [orchestras] wouldn’t do it. It’s not even so much about being high, it would just give people an excuse to let go a little bit more than they normally would. I think people are always a little hesitant to embrace a lot of different art situations, and need an excuse to step out of that comfort zone and say, ‘I really appreciated this experience.’ ”

Choices of pieces is essential here—it’s an area I wished the Colorado Symphony had explored further. In probably the most vivid report from “Classically Cannabis,” in Slate, Joel Warner writes, “What, exactly, should an envelope-pushing symphony perform at an ostensibly pot-themed concert? …In truth, admitted Justin Bartels, the principal trumpet player who programmed the music, the selections weren’t designed around any sort of marijuana theme at all.” The problem here is the idea of the marijuana “theme.” Rather than looking for repertoire with a direct connection to the drug itself—cue the inevitable “Symphonie Fantastique” references—performances should be designed around music that is enjoyable to listen to when high.

For some classical musicians, pot increases enjoyment of individual sounds and textures while reducing the ability to perceive form, structure, and the sense of the whole. When you’ve smoked, Trovato said, “you really start to notice the other moments that are more special: the color, tempo, and texture changes. They all become more drastic and vivid, every little sound.” When I asked him what music he’d like to hear stoned, he cited slow pieces for strings that allow the perception time to absorb what’s happening: the Catavina from Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 130, Strauss’s “Metamorphosen,” and Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht.”

Maurice Ravel, “Daphnis et Chloé” Suite No. 2; Adrian Boult (Conductor), Philharmonia Orchestra

One European instrumentalist struck a similar note, saying, “I had a beautiful experience listening to Bruckner being stoned. In fact I couldn’t handle this symphony without smoking.” He added that being high is a good state for “dense” classical music, allowing people to “listen clearly.”

“I remember the Vienna Philharmonic was in town. And we smoked right in front of the doors. It was just mind-blowing,” the U.S.-based composer told me. On what music goes well with marijuana, he said, “Immediately impressionist music comes to me…Probably any music that you like is good high. But I think there’s something to be said for going to ‘Daphnis and Chloé,’ and just having walls of sound thrown at you.” We also agreed that, as he put it, “Michael Pisaro is really enhanced by weed.”

For now, these thoughts are purely hypothetical. (I haven’t even touched on the question of what weed combines well with which pieces.) I’m writing them to encourage ensembles and presenters to experiment, and to give some thoughts about what might work and what might not. It’s very possible that a format which attempts to answer these questions will end in failure; though many traditional concerts fail, too.

An excerpt from Michael Pisaro, “Hearing Metal 2”; Michael Pisaro and Greg Stuart

For a new cannabis-inspired concert series to be successful, it would have to work on a perceptual level, not just in its atmosphere or marketing. It would need a clear aesthetic direction. Importantly, it would have to rely more on the long, the quiet, and the new than the average concert. It would need music that works with drug—that the drug is able to enhance—in order to avoid being a simple gimmick.

The impulse for this will probably need to come from new music ensembles, smaller venues, and independent or private concerts first. It’s one thing for a symphony to take a risk on a new format, like a marijuana-friendly concert. For an orchestra to put on concerts of radical, uncompromising aesthetic vision—that often feels much harder. ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.