Friday, February 07, 2014

Classical music takes the shape of the container that holds it

Sounds fly around the listener and are able, he says, to awaken dormant primal impulses. "Ancestrally, we had to be engaged with the sound world in a much more spatial way for survival, from birds sweeping down behind you to the weather approaching from a distance. If you take a high-timbre piece of sound and move it over the listener's head from behind, it gives them a frisson, like some vestigial flight-or-fight response thing."
In a recent post about making classical music more engaging for new audiences I pointed out that "the spatial opportunities offered by new audio technologies remains neglected". The quote above, which confirms the power of the spatial, comes from a Guardian article about Martyn Ware's pioneering surround sound projects. Ware is best known as a founder member of The Human League, but is also a leading exponent of immersive sound projects including a short-lived surround sound auditorium in Sheffield. More recently he has collaborated with high-end speaker manufacturer Bowers & Wilkins - whose speakers, incidentally, are used by both Jordi Savall and On An Overgrown Path - in projects which included a surround sound work celebrating the 2012 London Olympics built around Eric Whitacre's virtual choir composition Water Night.

Growing resistance to the dumbing down of classical music is a double-edged sword. It is quite right that there is resistance to turning art into tacky entertainment; but it is quite wrong that this resistance is also blocking more evolutionary change. Jack Maguire has written that "One of the most vital aspects of Zen is its ability to take the shape of the container that holds it". In the same way, one of the most vital and most overlooked aspects of classical music is its ability to take the shape of the container that holds it, whether that container is an acoustically impeccable concert hall or an iPod.

Depending on your point of view, classical music has benefitted from or survived a Death in Venice, a wrap-around Rite, cycling in the Malvern Hills, intimate relations with a prurient novel and the close encounter with Mickey Mouse seen above. Right from its 1940 release Fantasia, which was recorded in nine channel surround 'Fantasound', brought classical music to new audiences. Over the years innovative surround sound projects have been featured On An Overgrown Path; one of the first was a 2005 post about Janet Cardiff's frisson inducing Forty Part Motet. But in the past I have been guilty when confronted with Martyn Ware's style of immersive ambience, of rolling my eyes and stuffing a 1970s EMI Kingsway Hall stereo recording of Vaughan Williams into the CD player. Which I now realise is very short-sighted: because too much effort is being directed towards making the container fit the shape of the music, rather than vice versa. Whether we like it or not, technology, sensory hierarchies and lifestyles are changing. If we really want classical music to survive and widen its audience we need to wake up to its ability to take the shape of new containers.

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