Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Never mind the music, feel the algorithms


That header photo shows pianist Valentina Lisitsa performing at the 2014 Bristol Proms - yes, there is a piano in there somewhere. As the caption on the Classic FM website explains: "There ain't no party like a Valentina party! Chopin, Beethoven, a crowd-sourced programme, YouTube clips, a Classic FM live blog projected onto the back wall - it was all happening at the Bristol Proms".

In a planning meeting for the 1969 Woodstock Festival the festival's co-ordinator of underground advertising Bert Cohen proclaimed: "It's got to be prevalent in your advertising; you're gonna hafta take some of the emphasis off the music and place it on the vibes". Woodstock became a legend, and the emphasis on vibes defined the direction of rock music for decades. Universal Music, which is led by ex-rock band manager Max Hole, is the driving force behind the Bristol Proms, and Valentina Lisitsa's concert (happening?) is an attempt to add rock vibes to classical music. Thankfully only a few Universal Music senior executives with fading Woodstock posters on their office walls are taking classical music with added balloons seriously. But there is a more insidious shift in emphasis happening in classical music which demands closer study.

A recent BBC news story told how a viral YouTube video that purports to show a young boy rescuing a little girl under gunfire in Syria was actually shot on a film set in Malta using professional actors. Forget about the ethics, or lack thereof, of the deception, and forget the frightening evidence of how social media can turn fiction into reality. In the BBC report there is this alarming paragraph:
So once the film was made, how did it go viral? "It was posted to our YouTube account a few weeks ago but the algorithm told us it was not going to trend," [director Klaus Klevberg] said. "So we deleted that and re-posted it." The filmmakers say they added the word "hero" to the new headline and tried to send it out to people on Twitter to start a conversation. It was then picked up by Shaam Network, a channel that features material from the Middle East, which posted it on YouTube. Then it began to attract international attention.
This is just one example of how social media is controlled by algorithms; it is not the content that matters, it is whether the headline triggers the algorithms. Headlines such as 'Mozart’s brothel opera goes topless for Turkey' are more than journalistic taste crimes; they are a crude - in more ways than one - way of pandering to the algorithms that control social media news feeds. And it works: because the great and good of the classical music establishment fall over themselves to be featured on the algorithm whoring websites.

But the problem comes when the well-whored audience is tempted into the concert hall or opera house. This is where expectation meets reality and one of Mozart's more popular operas turns out not only to be fully clothed, but an abstruse three hour journey through the outer reaches of Freemasonry. At which point the pressure builds for the algorithms to start influencing the music itself. In fact the algorithms have started to influence the music. An example of how concert planning is pandering to social media algorithms is the uncomfortable mix of the Pet Shop Boys and Mozart that is now found at the BBC Proms. And they are influencing the music in a more transparent way at the University of Malaga, where researchers have composed "coherent symphonies" - their words not mine - using computer algorithms. We cannot stand in the way of progress and Max Hole is almost certainly right when he says that classical music must shed its traditions. The problem is it seems that the music itself will be one of the traditions that is shed.

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1 comment:

Pliable said...

Brutus has emailed the following comment:

you wrote: “The problem is it seems that the music itself will be one of the traditions that is shed.”

This is the crux. I’m not convinced that the options boil down to change or die, but clearly enough promoters and performs believe that they must abandon/destroy the music in favor of cheap theatrics (theatricks?) just to attract audiences.

It’s hard to define what makes a merely good concert experience rise above so many others to reach excellence. Vibe might be one of the ingredients, but it’s not something that can be conjured on command. Rather, it seems to emerge organically out of deep devotion to the music itself -- the antithesis of what you’re describing.