Monday, December 01, 2014

Classical music is already in the 'post source' era

In response to yesterday's post about a student newspaper article that positions Wagner as a a contemporary and confederate of Hitler, reader Monte Stone has commented: "Not really surprising. We're already in the 'post source' era. next comes the 'post chronology' era". Monte's comment demands expansion, as it applies not just to an errant student journalist, but to so many aspects of classical music. Just as the distance between journalistic source and reader introduces a distorting refraction, so the distance between music source and listening experience - both live and recorded - introduces a distorting refraction. Music depends on a direct chain of transmission*; from the source of musicians on the concert platform or in the recording studio, to the audience listening in the concert hall or via audio devices. 'Audience engagement' is the buzz phrase of choice, but in the 'post source' era chains of transmission are becoming longer and longer: with digital distribution networks trading fidelity for accessibility, and the concert hall trading direct communication between performer and listener for marketing driven disintermediation.

Classical music will only win new audiences if listeners are involved with and moved by the music - that is what engagement is all about. Listeners needs to be as close to the music source as possible, both emotionally and technically. Short chains of transmission generate engagement, long chains generate disengagement. Despite this, in the 'post source' era the chains of transmission are growing longer, not shorter. Classical music is struggling to engage new audiences. As Monte Stone says, not really surprising.

* Chains of transmission are central to the wisdom traditions of Buddhism and Sufism. The header graphic shows the recently released recording of Sufi invocations and songs made in Aleppo, Syria shortly before the city was ravaged by civil war. The short transmission chain field recording, which was made by Jason Hamacher and released on his new Lost Origins label, demonstrates engagement par excellence - listen here. No review samples used in the post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


billoo said...

This was another thought-provoking post, Bob.

Is it the case that the shorter, more direct transmission requires greater time-or a longer time perspective-whilst the long chains are somehow related to shorter attention spans?

Was reading this yesterday:

'But how could we possibly develop a style-that is, how would it be possible to acquire any consistent form..(which are always simply the fruits of fairly long experience and of a certain continuity in taste, needs, and methods) when impatience, rapid execution and sudden changes in technique beset all our works, and when novelty has for the past century been required of every production of every genre?...

We are witnessing the dying out of the man who would be complete.'

---Valery (1925)

Pliable said...

Billoo, the proposition that there is a connection between long chains of transmission and short attention spans seems, to me, to be valid. Long chains of transmission with their high levels of data manipulation are ideal for slicing and dicing content into the easily digestible nuggets of information that form the diet of the online generation.

My theory is that the current fashion for applauding between movements at classical concerts has nothing to do with overthrowing conventions. Reduced attention spans mean audiences now see a movement rather than a symphony as a complete work, aided and abetted by BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM. Listeners signal that their attention is exhausted at the end of a movement by applauding.

Digital technologies mean diminished attention spans are here to stay. Which is why I fear for the future of classical music and many other long form art genres.

billoo said...

Pli, this is probably a silly question, but have you read Oliver Sacks's 'Musicophilia'? In the book (and in a brilliant online New Yorker article called 'The Abyss') there's the remarkable story of a musician with a 'seven seconds memory'.

A line that struck me from the chapter-and that resonates with your comment here: 'A piece of music is not a sequence of notes but a tightly organized whole'.

This breakdown into isolated/separable units seems to me to be a widespread economic and cultural phenomenon and is probably not unrelated to the view of the mind as simply a computer, processing bits of information.

At the end of the line on the tube they always say "all change". Quite disconcerting!

Keep well,


Paul Muller said...

Makes a good case for disintermediation as it relates to performed music. But at the same time the new Internet environment creates a shorter path from composer to listener for electronic music. What if the device that connects the Internet to your ear buds is creating the music as you hear it? Evolution occurs when environments change - maybe this is one of those historical inflection points...

Philip Amos said...

A very thought-provoking comment from Billoo.What struck me in the passage Billoo quotes is how much it applies to another problem. I read it twice, the second time putting out of mind the current topic. Doing that confirmed my thought that Valery could be writing about the teaching of musicians now and for some time past. "...long experience and...a certain continuity in taste, needs, and methods" versus "impatience, rapid execution and sudden changes in technique...We are witnessing the dying out of the man who would be complete."

What Valery says is lacking is precisely what I think has gone by the board in the teaching of musicians, and I think it ended with the generation of great musicians who died a few years either side of 1990. So it is not so long gone, and even Garrick Ohlsson, now in his 60s, has spoken of what was passed to him in his lessons with Claudio Arrau. Arrau is a particularly good example of this, for he was very conscious of his direct musical ancestry back to Beethoven.

Only one generation older, Gary Graffman in his fine memoirs wrote of what was passed to him by Vengerova, when she wasn't hurling furniture across the studio. This business of heritage is a remarkable thing. Arrau studied the Grieg concerto with Mrs. Grieg. When Solomon first performed Brahms Concerto No. 1, the conductor was Sir George Henschel, a close friend of Brahms who heard the composer play that concerto. We know he told Solomon how Brahms paid certain passages, but I find most fascinating that the tempo of the first movement is a matter of great dispute, and I can't believe that Henschel did not pass to Solomon Brahms' own tempo. The pianist's concert performance with the Berlin PO and Jochum is more revealing than the studio recording with Kubelik. Backhaus himself heard Brahms play his second concerto.

Musicians of that era, not so very long gone, felt a duty to pass on the lore of their teachers and those teachers' teachers. And thus long experience and a certain continuity in taste, needs, and methods. And they were complete, for they were encouraged by their teachers to read deeply in literature, philosophy, history, etc., so that they could have a sense of context and influences when playing each work in their repertoire. Thus, a long time perspective and direct transmission requiring a long period of study and thought. This produced distinctive techniques and interpretations, not mere novelty that has no roots, that comes from nothing and nowhere.

The key point in Valery's writing here is in the phrase "requires greater time". Teaching is now almost wholly done in universities (Indiana, e.g., which has a horde of distinguished musicians) or conservatories such as Julliard, which are no different from the universities. And that means set courses and degrees, both of which have a time limit, no different from a degree in English or Physics. There is no time for lingering or pondering, to discuss rather than play, no requirement to take courses in national literatures, histories, philosophical traditions. The clock is ticking. A semester typically is 13 weeks. A degree four years.

I think the ticking clock may be why certain teachers, most notoriously violin teacher Dorothy Delay at Julliard, pushed their pupils onto the public stage long before they were ready. And why certain young performers can only seek distinction through novelty that often turns into eccentricity and so to travesty in the manner of Olli Mustonen or Ivo Pogorelic. And, of course, a horde of deliverers of generic performances by pianists all of whom might well be pupils of Felicja Blumenthal, or violinists such as Vanessa-Mae.

The agencies and record companies of course have their part in this, for the merely eccentric or generic would not be foisted on us if they were not pretty or handsome.

Thanks, Billoo, for a stimulating comment and quotation. Valery's words are pregnant with thoughts applicable to so many endeavours.