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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5 comments:

brutus said...

Not good at paradigm shifts? Both true and not true, I think. Divisions between art music and popular music used to be blurrier than they are now. Arguably, the whole point of art music these days is preservation and ongoing performance of a tradition now more than a century old. Attempts to stay contemporary in art music have failed to attract much of an audience, and even the classical-music-as-reliquary crowd is a very modest fraction of the crowd attuned to popular music, which continues to be very contemporary but shows its own signs of calcification.

I am sympathetic to musicians who, exercising their musical judgment in addition to protesting to protect their own labor niche, insist that opera (or ballet) without a live orchestra isn’t really worthwhile. Such technology-driven developments are steps in the process of whittling down the experience to something that fundamentally betrays what the art is. It’s been underway for decades already with pit orchestras in musical theaters everywhere. The audience has not yet rebelled that their experience is debased (opera and musicals becoming, essentially, karaoke) they way performers have been shamed for lip-syncing. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine audiences ever will rebel except passively by failure to attend. So the vocal opposition by musicians may be the best way to alert the public that if they still want to hear classical music in its full artistic glory, it’s not possible to enjoy that experience when musicians are (gradually) replaced by electronics.

William Paceley said...

Hey Pliable,

Thank you for the thought-provoking post. I decided to include my own thoughts about this on my blog, and quoted/linked back to this article as well.

Check it out (if you feel so inclined): http://arpegg.io/music/dont-tell-others-make-art/

-William

Pliable said...

Brutus, we are, again, going to have to amicably differ. For me, the acid test is not the instruments that are used, but the experience the sound produces. Invariably the transcendental experiences come from conventional orchestras, but, as per my post, they can also come from electronic works such as Eliane Radique's Jetsun Mila. I do recommend William Paceley's take on the Hartford Wagner Ring - http://arpegg.io/music/dont-tell-others-make-art/

D Whitley said...

"At the core of the problem is a profound reluctance within classical music to accept fundamental change. .............But classical music is not good at handling paradigm shifts."

I think it's unfair to single out classical musicians before you've demonstrated the superiority of these developments. Surely "classical" is the clue. Rightly or wrongly, a large part of the repertoire is old or relatively old and people want to listen to it as the composers intended.

We know what happens when crossover singers are misrepresented as opera singers. It happened again recently on BBC's Today programme. Some people are lead to believe that they're listening to the real thing and are short changed as a result. Classical musicians are aware of this and I think their fears are justified. The real stuff gets gradually squeezed out.

Unlike painting or architecture, music is unusual in that for most people it doesn't really exist until it is performed. It needs people; it doesn't just sit there. When I go to an art gallery or look at a great cathedral, I expect it to look as close as possible to what its creators intended, taking age (and often misguided restorations) into account. I'm not bored by the fact that it hasn't changed since my last visit, so I don't want to see it modified or tweaked by the curators solely to accommodate a fad or the perceived expectations of younger visitors.

I design electronic equipment and have a long standing interest in Hi Fi. I'm not a sentimental luddite. If technology can genuinely bring us closer to what a composer wanted, then fine but, to my ears, most electronic adaptations miss the point entirely.

Pliable said...

DW, thank you for that. On topics such as this there will always be more than one point of view, and you summarise the more traditionalist point of view well. In brief response I would make the following points.

'Surely "classical" is the clue' - that's why I very deliberately used the term 'art music' and not classical in the final paragraph.

'I think it's unfair to single out classical musicians before you've demonstrated the superiority of these developments' - I make no claim that these developments are superior. I do suggest, however, that paradigm shifts make them inevitable, and that classical music needs to be a lot more open-minded about them.

' I don't want to see it modified or tweaked by the curators solely to accommodate a fad' - the incursion of digital sound technologies into the concert hall is no more of a fad than ubiquitous technologies such as mobile computing, portable digital audio devices, headphone listening etc etc etc.

The key point of my post is made in my last paragraph - 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.