Interview: Richard Perlmutter (Beethoven's Wig)

I sometimes wonder if Richard Perlmutter, the musician and producer behind the wildly successful classical-music-by-way-of-"Weird-Al"-Yankovic series Beethoven's Wig, gets the same type of "are you Hootie" questions that Darius Rucker, lead singer for Hootie and the Blowfish, gets.  He's not literally Beethoven (or his wig), but no Perlmutter, no Beethoven's Wig.

He released the delightful Beethoven's Wig: Sing Along Piano Classics last year and has been spending an increasing amount of time taking the Beethoven's Wig concept to live audiences.  We chatted by phone recently and in our interview below we talk about the origins of the series, learning to enjoy performances, and whether or not there's a crisis in classical music.

Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?

Richard Perlmutter: Sitting around, listening to the radio in the '50s -- I remember that Frankie Acalon song, "Venus."... I also remember performing in third grade, in a pretty primitive school talent show.

I built my own guitar, then spent $13 for a Harmony guitar.

Was there lots of music in the household?

Our family was not really musical.  My parents paid for some guitar lessons, but after that it was my doing.

How did Beethoven's Wig come about?

I had done a couple other albums on my own, produced some other albums, written for TV shows, wrote jingles -- lots of stuff was comedic.  My strength is as a lyricist.  I liked classical music and been thinking about doing something with it.  I always tell the Beethoven's Wig "story," which is that I had thought of the phrase "Beethoven's wig... is very big" sung to the start of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.  At first, I didn't know how it would all sound, how it would be received.

Were you surprised by the initial success of the first album?

I had an inkling -- a friend heard a couple songs I had done as a demo, and thought it was a cool concept.  So I finished the album and got a record contract for it.  Within a week after it came out, it was on NPR, at the top of the charts on Amazon, I was invited to be on the Today show.

Everything was new.  No musician plans for success -- it happens, then you deal with it.  Fortunately, it happened when I was a little bit older.  It was nice, but I didn't feel like a rock star.

What comes first, the melody or the lyric -- or, put another way, do you have a germ of an idea and expand on it, or do you assign yourself a song, and work on putting lyrics to that?

The first.  The last three albums I've done had a loose concept -- instruments, dance, piano -- which have let me explore different themes or genres in classical music.  I really like to explore things.  As I explore, some ideas settle in more and are a better fit for lyrics.  My last album [Sing Along Piano Classics], some selections were popular, others (like Schoenberg or Stravinsky) aren't "hits."

Were you intentionally ranging through a long time period?

Yes, I was.  To pick a Stravinsky piece, for example, I listened to a lot of different songs.  I actually played as a writer.  I sort of felt like a singer-songwriter.

Which do you enjoy more -- recording or performing?  The project started out as an album, but you seem to be making more concert appearances.

You've noticed I've amped up the touring over the past year.  My first instrument is classical guitar, then mandolin.  I didn't take classical piano 'til after the first Beethoven's Wig album, but thought it would be good for me to do so.  My classical piano teacher said it would be good to play onstage.

Doing that gives me more opportunities.  Bringing in five singers and an orchestra is a hard sell in this economy.  Lately I've been hired to perform solo, then maybe I'll bring in local singers.

I've got a lot of curiosity, ambition -- not commercial ambition, but personal goals.  To sustain yourself, most people in music are trying new things.

It seems like there's a lot of hand-wringing about a crisis in classical music.  What's your prescription for solving the crisis -- or is there even a crisis at all?

I don't think about it that much but I also don't think there's that much of a crisis.  Maybe for large symphonic performances -- economically there may be some problems, some are doing well, some are not.  Many that are playing repertoire are now doing new things.

Audiences for every kind of music have become smaller.  You have to find your audience.  Someone recently said something along the lines of, and I'm paraphrasing, "There used to be millions of fans for a few artists, and now that's reversed."  The idea of having gigantic audiences is old.  I've been thinking a bit about a Beethoven's Wig TV show, but what does that look like in this age?  You've got Mr. Rogers, but he was one of a few people.

I'm not that worried.  Trying to save classical music, that's not my job.  Beethoven, Bach -- they're like Shakespeare and Chaucer.  As long as humanity is around, they will be, too.

If you love music, you can find a way to do it.

What's next for you?

Mostly concentrating on the live show, working on my musicianship, performing skills.  I'm really having fun performing.  I'm also developing workshops, performances with students, trying to use Beethoven's Wig in different ways.  I'm working with animators on developing a mix of visuals for the live show, too.

I've also been toying around with ideas for a new album, but that's a little ways off.