If classical music is not live it is dead
'We are the children of our landscape; it dictated behaviour and even thought in the measure to which we are responsible to it. I can think of no better identification' - Lawrence Durrell writing in JustineOver the years I have been fortunate to travel extensively, but my recent extended visit to Morocco was the longest time I have spent on a different continent and in a different culture. With me went an iPod loaded with an eclectic mix of classical, world, jazz and folk music, plus high quality headphones and a pair of the wonderfully portable XMI X-mini II speakers. Now here is the interesting point - as my trip progressed and as I became more atuned to both the physical and cultural landscape of North Africa, I found myself listening to less and less western classical music, and to more and more from other genres. There were exceptions, most notably Bach who transcended landscape. But I was surprised at the change in my listening pattern, and it was a change that had not occured on dozens of shorter trips with mobile music players. It seems classical music's ability to make the essential connection with inner life is surprisingly sensitive to external circumstances. Which, presumably, is why applause between movements and tweeting during concerts are such contentious subjects.
Clearly my experience was a statistically insignificant sample of one. But I am becoming increasingly convinced that the solution to classical music's current problems lies not with the fashionable mantra of increased accessibility, but rather in the fuzzy area that lies between science and pseudoscience. An earlier post touched on Bell's theorem, which asserts that one subatomic 'object' can instantly affect another particle of the same sort no matter how physically distant the two particles are from each other. This could mean that in classical music the composer, performer, audience, instruments, hall acoustic, physical performance space, climactic and environmental conditions, in fact every aspect of physical and cultural landscape, are connected more deeply and subtly than is currently thought.
Following this path takes us from rural Morocco to the more immediate subject of new technology. There is clear evidence that classical music struggles to work at more than one remove. It is written for live performance in a concert hall and that is where it works its magic best. The music survives the first remove of being heard from a recording replayed on high quality equipment in a familiar domestic environment. But as the removes increase, geographically, culturally and technically, the power of the music to engage decreases in inverse proportion to the number of removes. Which explains why a Mozart symphony heard through the multiple removes of a digitally compressed file and headphones on a different continent and in a different culture struggles to engage.
Now here is the point of this post. New technology in the form of the internet, digital files and mobile computing, are all designed to allow access to content at many removes. But classical music struggles to survive through those removes, which means new technology may be part of the problem rather than solution. There is scientific as well as anecdotal evidence to support this view. Power outputs of mobile music devices are capped to conserve battery life. This means the audio power output of the headphone stage of an iPod is limted to around 0.2 watts and to achieve the all important loudness high efficiency earbuds are standard issue. But high efficiency transducers are the enemy of bass, transient attack and dynamic range, all essential components of classical music. So starting with the compressed MP3 file format, compromise is piled on compromise. And if slam is what matters in a Beethoven symphony you are more likely to hear it in the concert hall than through an MP3 player.
To date classical music has actively courted new technology as a desirable and superior partner. But is it not time to rethink this position and start driving home the message that anything other than live music is actually a poor substitute? Marketing and social media could play a big part in the call to action in the concert hall. How about aggressive collegiate marketing campaigns for live music built around straplines such as 'Test drive a concert hall', 'Live classical music is louder than your iPod', 'Play an instrument not Facebook' and 'If classical music is not live it is dead'. And why not attention getting offers such as discounted concert tickets for anyone trading in iPod earbuds?
This post is one of several brainstorming paths intended to challenge the preconceptions and hidden agendas that are currently bogging down classical music. Lawrence Durrell opined that landscape dictates behaviour and thought. Live performance in the concert hall has dictated the behaviour and thought process of classical music for centuries and, despite recent attempts to create digital substitutes, no viable alternative has emerged. So surely it is time to accept this preeminence and to stop apologising for the concert hall and really start promoting it?
* My header photo was taken at the recent performance by Aldeburgh Young Musicians of Louis Andriessen's Workers Union and the footer at the Norwich Cathedral performance of June Boyce-Tillman's Revelations of Divine Love. Both were priceless examples of how if classical music is not live it is dead. If any readers are revelling in the live sounds of the Bach St John Passion at Snape on Good Friday I will see you there.
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