Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Classical music must connect with the head-fi generation

In the editorial for the February 2016 edition of Stereophile John Darko describes how headphone listening has taken the audio market by storm. In the early-adopter Japanese market headphone-only retailers now dominate the hi-fi market: the bi-annual Fujiya Avic Headphone Festival fills six floors of a Tokyo hotel, and the leading retailer 'e-earphone' - that is their store in the photo - is rolling out an ambitious store opening programme. In fact headphone listening is now so big that industry talk of 'hi-fi' has been replaced by talk of 'head-fi'. Even the terms 'headphones' and 'ear buds' are passé, with the neologism 'in-ear monitors' (IEMs) highlighting that quality and not portability defines this new category, and the importance of the big-spending and young head-fi generation is reflected in Sony spinning off an IEM offshoot Just Ear. As has been discussed here previously, headphones provide a totally different - more intimate and visceral - listening experience compared with traditional stereo via loudspeakers. So the new head-fi generation want their sound up close and personal; yet classical music remains in denial and doggedly wedded to proscenium arch sound that consigns concert newbies to seats that are far distant from the sound source. A recent Huffington Post article asked Can Technology Save Classical Music? but goes on to enthuse about providing iPads to the audience. iPads in the concert hall are Band Aids when what is really needed is major surgery. Because no one mixes for speakers these days, except symphony orchestras.

Let's forget all the arguments about the natural sound of the concert hall. The only natural sound of an orchestra is when it plays in an anechoic chamber, and that sound is very nasty indeed. 19th century architects used the best available technology of hard reflective surfaces to project and warm the sound, and in the 21st century infinitely better digital technologies are available to do the same thing. And these technologies also allow the sound to be shaped for the head-fi generation. Orchestral scores - with very few exceptions - do not define spatial layout, tonal balance or absolute loudness. Those who argue that digital technologies have no place in the concert hall conveniently overlook that the very same technologies are now the distribution platform of choice for classical music. I have been privileged to hear the world's best orchestras in the world's best concert halls, and I have argued here the case for listener to music rather than music to listener. But times have changed, and the sound of classical music must also change - as Marshal McLuhan explains: "We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us".

Talk of a hideously expensive new London concert hall perpetuating an increasingly redundant sonic convention is ridiculous. Thankfully there are enough acoustically superb halls around the world to keep classical music in business for a few more centuries. But classical music needs to start appealing to the head-fi generation, and reservations about the sonic performance of existing London halls provide the perfect opportunity to experiment. The Barbican Hall is perfectly serviceable, even if it does not reach the exalted peaks of architectural and sonic excellence. Using advanced digital technologies from specialists such as Meyer Sound and CSTB Carmen, the marginally flawed acoustic of the Barbican can be corrected. In fact using these technologies the sound can be mapped to replicate the acoustic of the Berlin Philharmonie, which should keep Simon Rattle happy. But more importantly, digital sound shaping technologies can give the Barbican a variable acoustic; this would allow not only a variable reverberation time but also varying degrees of immersive head-fi surround sound. And for the purists there would always be an 'off' button, which would restore the hall's natural sound. Variable acoustics are not a pipe dream, they are a fact of life in venues such as the San Francisco Symphony's experimental SoundBox.

In the 1970s IRCAM was created in Paris as an experiment in how music and sound could be redefined from the composer's viewpoint, and, as we all know, IRCAM under the mercurial leadership of Pierre Boulez became a transforming force. London now has the unique opportunity to lead the world in redefining music and sound - not from the composer's viewpoint, but from the audience's viewpoint. There is also the clinching argument that reinventing the Barbican complex as a centre of excellence for techonology-driven audience engagement would cost considerably less than the £278+ needed to build a new museum of sound close by. London does not need a new designer concert hall. But there is a desperate need for classical music to exploit new technologies in radical ways to appeal to new audiences, and rejuvenating the Barbican to create a versatile digital concert hall could do just that.

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