Friday, July 10, 2015

Music and memory

In Memory, Music and Religion Earle H. Waugh identifies how music functions as a tool for subconsciously reclaiming the past. Based on research with the mystical chanters of Morocco's Sufi brotherhoods, he proposes that at the heart of religion is ritual remembrance enabled by music. His theory can be extrapolated to propose that memory is the cultural glue that holds classical music together. Ritual remembrance shapes much of the core repertoire, from sacred remembrance - e.g. Verdi's Requiem - through ethnocentric remembrance - e.g. Smetana's Má vlast - and mythological remembrance - e.g. Wagner's Ring - to existential memories evoked by the symphonies of Mahler. The ritual remembrance need not be backward looking: one of the most widely acclaimed compositions of recent times, John Luther Adams' Become Ocean, looks both forward and back in its evocation of climate change. But conversely music lacking the quality of remembrance - e.g. that of Pierre Boulez (yes, I know he composed Rituel In Memoriam Maderna) - fails to appeal to a wide audience, despite its obvious artistic merit. Ritual remembrance is also at the core of classical music performance: playing styles and concert halls are historically informed, as is the complex etiquette of concerts - dress, silence etc. While until recently listening to recorded music, which involved sitting respectfully in the 'sweet spot' and focussing on a soundstage delineated by two speakers, was also rooted in the historical concert hall ritual.

Today the music we listen to remains rooted in remembrance; however the way we listen to it - performance and listening rituals - has been overthrown by new thinking and new technology. Concert hall conventions are being dismantled in the frantic search for new audiences, while mobile streaming technologies have changed the way we listen to recorded music. Digital concert halls are replacing their physical counterparts, and, the free streaming of virtual performances has, paradoxically, become the standard way of promoting paid for live concerts. Classical music - like everything - is impermanent; which means it must change. But it is widely acknowledged that despite many changes, the art form is struggling to engage with both existing and new audiences. Is the role played by ritual and memory misunderstood? Is the transition from experiential memory to the virtual memory of digital technologies inhibiting audience engagement? Back in 1964 Benjamin Britten suggested, with appropriate qualification, that "the loudspeaker is the principal enemy of music"? Streaming services Apple Music and Spotify are also coming under increasing fire for their corrosive business models; so in 2015 has virtual memory become the principal enemy of classical music?

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