Thursday, June 12, 2014
Classical music is not good at handling paradigm shifts
Back in 2006 I ran a post about the Vienna Symphonic Library, a computer program that uses technology to replicate the sound of an orchestra. My post's headline quoted the creator of the program Herb Tucmandl, a former cellist with the Vienna Philharmonic, as saying "I don't think orchestras are threatened". Which is ironic, as a major row has blown up over the use of the Vienna Symphonic Library to accompany singers in a Ring cycle at Hartford Wagner Festival in Connecticut. Let me say at this point that I have a great deal of sympathy for the musicians whose livelihood is threatened by this new technology; although it must be pointed out that the Hartford Festival management has made it clear that a Ring cycle with a conventional orchestra was never a viable option. But what is happening at Hartford Wagner Festival is very disturbing; not only in its potential impact on the future of live music, but also in the confrontational reaction of some orchestral musicians.
Unquestioning capitulation is not the solution, but neither is inflexible resistance to technology driven change. Do the protesting musicians reject email to protect the livelihood of postal workers? Do they boycott mobile phones to protect telephonists? Do they ignore Sibelius and other software aids and transcribe their parts by hand to protect suppliers of music materials? Do they dismiss Eliane Radiques masterpieces as worthless because they are created on an ARP 2500 synthesizer? Do they advocate banning the Touch Press classical music iPad apps? Do they boycott Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony because it uses the synthesized sound of the Ondes Martenot? Do they refuse to buy music downloads to protect record stores?
At the core of the problem is a profound reluctance within classical music to accept fundamental change. As has been pointed out here in recent posts, technology, lifestyles and soundscapes have changed almost beyond recognition in recent years. But classical music has changed very little. And audience figures, particularly among younger demographics, show that serial resistance to change is unhealthy. I feel for the musicians that are threatened. But classical music is not good at handling paradigm shifts. Its future health does not depend on tweaking the peripheral conventions of concert dress and silence between movements. Nor does it depend on the wholesale replacement of musicians by computers. The solution is to find a middle way that accommodates the recent irreversible shifts in technology, lifestyles and soundscapes, while retaining the very essence of art music. The real problem is that, to date, there has been very little recognition within classical music of the need to find that middle way.
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