Classical music must break through the electronic glass ceiling

Why does classical music have such entrenched antagonism towards electronic sounds when one of its most successful recent compositions is closer to ambient electronica than a Beethoven symphony? Now don't get me wrong. For me John Luther Adams' Become Ocean is a masterwork which thoroughly deserved the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the 2015 Grammy for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. But after listening to it many times I have come to the conclusion that John Luther Adams' orchestral tour de force is, in fact, electronica by another name. And what's wrong with that?

In his ecstatic review of Become Ocean Alex Ross describes Become Ocean as possibly "the loveliest apocalypse in musical history". But there is also a strong case for arguing that this apocalypse could be created with similarly magical impact by electronics instead of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, if only deeply reactionary factions within the classical establishment would allow it. Classical music has a love/hate affair with electronics. There is the passionate and long-standing love affair with digital technology which, of course, has electronics at its heart. The classical industry simply can't get enough of streaming services which are domiciled on global data centers consuming 3% of all electricity generated on the planet. Then of course there is the art form's devotion to social media which is driven by electron flows. But electronic sounds in the concert hall are a very different matter indeed.

Historically electronic instruments have, understandably, been treated with suspicion by the classical world because of their potential impact on employment of musicians. But still today, despite the hegemony of digital technologies, suggesting electronics and its bastard offspring amplification have a place in the contemporary concert hall is a dreadful form of heresy. This despite electronic instruments being given the stamp of approval by a number of great and visionary composers including Messiaen - the ondes Martenot in his Turangalîla Symphony, Valentin Silvestrov - a synthesizer in his unrecognised masterwork Requiem for Larissa, and Michael Tippett, whose opera New Year calls for - horror of horrors - electric guitars. And electronics in the concert hall is still heretical despite successful applications of electronic variable hall acoustic systems from Meyer Audio in the States and CSTB in France. And did anybody mention that iPhones, the mobile listening device of choice, digitally manipulate and amplify the music?

This technophobia in the concert hall is very puzzling. Because classical music's great and good are continually banging on about a new and younger audience, and the default music of that target audience is electronic dance music, a market worth $7.4 billion. However there are, thankfully, some inspiring exceptions to art music's rampant technophobia. One notable example is the Ambient Church concert series masterminded by Brian Sweeny which has been running in New York and elsewhere since 2016. Ambient Church concerts provide the visuals for this post*, with the header photo showing the 'diva of the diode' Suzanne Ciani at one of the events.

The Ambient Church website describes the series as 'a nomadic experiential event series dedicated to working with artists to bring new ecologies to architecturally unique spaces through transcendent audio and visual performance', while Pitchfork more succinctly dubs it 'Where weird music meets mindfulness'. That latter description highlights the double whammy delivered by Ambient Church. Because not only does it provide a concert showcase for electronic composers such as Robert Rich and Steve Roach who are best known for their recordings; but it also taps into the human potential movement, a very large market assiduously ignored by Western classical music. (Prior to Ambient Church Brian Sweeny ran the Body Actualized Centre in NYC which a magazine article explained "From all-night raves to cosmic yoga, the Brooklyn DIY Venue rolled partying and self-improvement into one".) Visual artists are commissioned to create complex light shows and projections specific for each Ambient Church event, bringing a much-needed visual element to art music. All of which provides a refreshing contrast the increasingly po-faced and self-reverential attitudes in classical music.

Ambient Church can be sampled on its YouTube channel. But the best way to sample weird music meeting mindfulness is in the newly-released double CD The Sky Opens which captures Steve Roach's 2019 Ambient Church set in the First United Methodist Church, Pasadena, California. It is particularly impressive how Steve 'plays' the Methodist Church's generous acoustics. For instance the opening track, which is his signature Structures From Silence, is slower than on his celebrated 1984 studio recording, thereby allowing the church's acoustic to contribute. In the context of classical music this album represents electronica coming of age. To date acoustics and hall ambience have been integral to defining the classical experience. At one fell swoop Ambient Church brings electronic music into that defining experience. Suddenly Steve Roach is making classical music - whatever that is - with electronic instruments. If semantics obsess you The Sky Opens can be defined as electronic chamber music, as he plays eighteen electronic instruments during his set - extended audio sample via this link.

You may gather that I am very impressed by The Sky Opens. For me this is an important album; far more important, in fact, than yet another interpretation of a Beethoven symphony. (Before the Twitter hunting pack is let loose, I do believe Beethoven is god. But you can have too much even of god.). This album is important because it shows how electronica can shine in the same acoustic context as Western classical music, but it is also important because it raises crucial questions about how where we listen, affects what we listen to.

In recent years there has been a massive shift in how we listen to music, with mobile devices becoming the listening mode of choice. But there has been no inquiry into how mobile listening is reconditioning the audience, not just in terms of sound quality but also in terms of repertoire. Classical music is a fuzzy science, and in recent times much less fuzzy science, notably Heisenberg's 'uncertainty principle', has proved a clear relationship between the observer - listener - and the observed - music. Yet classical music remains wedded to the dogma of independent absolutes whereby the absolute of the music and its impact on emotions remains unchanged irrespective of whether the other absolute, the listener, is sitting in an acoustically perfect concert hall or a noisy train.

Last year I expressed surprise at the extensive coverage I was devoting to electronic music. One reason is that I am fortunate to be able to travel extensively, and electronic music survives well in acoustically hostile environments such as aircraft. Yes, I know noise cancelling headphones exist: but listening to Beethoven's op 131 Quartet on a Boeing 737 is an emotionally barren experience even wearing wearing state-of-the-art noise cancelling headphones.

The Chilean biologist, philosopher, and neuroscientist Francisco Varela was a leading exponent of the emerging scientific viewpoint that 'objective knowledge' cannot be acquired independently of the person acquiring it. This radical viewpoint proposes that the observed (music), the observer (listener) and the result (the emotional impact of the music) are in a relative relationship. Which means the emotional impact of music on a listener depends on who is listening, and where and how they are listening. In simple terms, as an Overgrown Path has previously pointed out, my music is not your music. In fact this reality challenging assertion goes further, because my music is not my music when I listen to it in a different place or on a different device. Those who dismiss this as New Age babble, and there will be many, are referred to the work of F.M. Alexander. He developed the Alexander Technique which exploits the mysterious and seriously under-researched link between the intangible mind and the physical body, a discipline which has benefited many leading musicians including Julian Bream, Colin Davis and Sir Adrian Boult.

Aaron Copland told us 'When the audience changes, the music changes'. Classical music's target audience has changed dramatically in recent years. But has the music changed at all beyond cosmetic tweaks such as relaxing concert dress codes? No, and let me hasten to add I do not advocate ditching Beethoven for Steve Roach. But I do advocate classical music embracing far more adventurous repertoire - Beethoven and Steve Roach. Art music should be a very broad church, and Ambient Church is an inspiring example of challenging elitist comfort zones.

Let me leave you with the observations of someone far wiser than me, the visionary and much-missed composer Jonathan Harvey who made a major contribution to the synthesis of classical music and electronics. In a 2010 radio interview with me - listen via this link - Jonathan made predictions about classical music's future that can be interpreted in different ways. His vision of listeners moving around and leaving during a work is prophetic of the mobile listening, playlists and mixtapes that have dramatically changed classical listening in the ten years since the interview. And his vision of a performance space freed of the dogmas that still haunt classical music is realised by Ambient Church and similar experiments. Here are Jonathan Harvey's words, and if, no matter how heretical to some, Ambient Church makes young people realize what they’re missing in classical music, it is job done.
I think what the future must bring is things which are considered blasphemous, like amplifying classical music, in an atmosphere where people can come and go, where they can even talk perhaps, and it wouldn’t be sacrilege, and they can certainly leave in the middle of a movement if they feel like it; these are the sort of situations where young people’s music takes place, and it’s of course not expecting as much of music as those of us who are musicians would want. But it is a kind of compromise that I think will have to happen, and if it happens, I think young people will really realize what they’re missing.

* Photo credits from top to bottom are:
1. Ambient Church website
2. Greg Cristman via Brooklyn Vegan
3. Ambient Church website
4. TeleFantasyStudios

** An accessible introduction to the Alexander Technique is Principles of the Alexander Technique by Jeremy Chance.

No review samples used in this post. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).


Pliable said…
Zut alors! A blog post that does not mention coronavirus.
Jeff said…
I concur, with the only exception that I don't see quite the level of antagonism toward electronic music that the article describes. Look, for example, to the music of John Adams, who has embraced electronic instruments from synthesizers in his symphonic works to a full-on ambient electronica album in Hoodoo Zephyr. That said, I couldn't agree more that classical and electronic music should overlap more often -- there is enormous potential here that composers and musicians should explore.
Pliable said…
Jeff, thanks for that and the observation about John Adams' use of electronic instruments is useful. I have to admit that after an enthusiasm for his earlier works, the music of John Adams - as opposed to John Luther Adams - has rather slipped off my radar. So your contribution is appreciated.

I assume you are based in the States. Is, perhaps, the antagonism towards electronic works more pronounced my side - ie UK - of the Atlantic? John Adams, Steve Roach, Ambient Church etc are all based Stateside.
Jeff said…
@Pliable: Yes, give John Adams's Hoodoo Zephyr a try; you would probably like it a lot if you appreciate Steve Roach. On the symphonic side, Adams's use of synthesizers in works such as "Fearful Symmetries," "The Dharma at Big Sur," and others adds an interesting (albeit non-dominant) texture.

I'm located in Los Angeles, where I'm fortunate that LA Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel and LA Opera are extremely forward-thinking. I hear electronics in the concert hall on a somewhat regular basis. I've even seen at least one composer, Christopher Cerrone, on stage at the back of the orchestra performing on his laptop! I can't, however, say for sure the same would be true for concert halls in New York, Chicago, or elsewhere.
Pliable said…
Thanks Jeff. Immediately after your first email I looked at Hoodoo Zephyr and saw it was released on CD by Nonesuch in 1993. So my appreciation of early Adams was rather incomplete! One of the pleasures of an Overgrown Path is I learn as much - more? - than my readers.

Ambient Church, please come to the UK. How about an Ambient Church Prom?

As an additional comment I would point out that the lamentable reactionary attitude among classical music's great and good which I have highlighted here several times and which is referenced in this post all originates from a clique of influential UK-based critics.

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