How classical music ignored the awakening electronic dream

Eclectic Dutch composer Louis Andriessen has died at the age of 82. So I am reprising my 2019 post inspired by his brother Jurriaan Andriessen which ran under the headline 'Classical music is not connecting with its rewired audience '.

Classical music's new audience is new not just because it hasn't yet learned to appreciate classical music: it is also new because it has different behaviour patterns and value systems to the traditional classical audience. It is an important but overlooked point that the traditional audience is also becoming 'new' as its neural connections are rewired by the extended use of new technologies. The defining characteristics of this rewiring are well documented: shortened attention spans, demand for instant feedback/gratification, decreased reliance on linear thinking, reliance on mobile technologies, increased visual acuity, multi-tasking capability, etc. 

 A typical American adult spends more than 11 hours each day interacting with media. Our brains are being rewired by this extended use of all-pervasive digital technologies, and the resulting re-synapsing of neural connections is fundamentally changing behaviour patterns and value systems. My proposition is that classical music is not adapting to these fundamental changes with the result that the artform is failing to connect with a new audience.

A simple example of how quickly and easily neural connections are rewired is provided by an experiment carried out by the respected neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandaran. Test subjects viewed an image of jumbled black dots on a white background. After a short time the dots were seen to form a dog. Detailed brains scans taken during the recognition process showed that neurons in the temporal lobes became permanently altered once the dog had been recognised. That the dog was easily seen subsequently is confirmation of the new neural connections. Studies of musicians and of those practicing meditation have identified similar changes in the brain's structural connectivity.

One expressions of this rewiring particularly relevant to classical audiences is the change in sonic expectations. Research has shown that listening via computer speakers - notoriously lo-fi transducers - was the most common way for Americans to listen to music (55%), followed by headphones on a portable device (41%). The traditional reference standard of a component audio system was the listening mode of choice for only 12% of research subjects. This research also identified that 52 per cent of on-demand music listening is via video streaming. As a Financial Times article explains: "Then there's where people listen to music. Not in solitary confinement, but out on the streets, on public transport, in the car and in their bedrooms. External sounds, even with whizzy noise-cancelling headphones, have a habit of interfering with music. And that's OK. No one minds".

For years classical music has been engaged in an obsessive search for a new audience. Yet it has singularly failed to recognise that new means fundamentally different. The most glaring example of this failure in cognition is the long-running saga of the acoustically perfect concert hall. As explained above, research shows that among the general music audience - very sadly - 'no one minds' about sound quality, and that accessibility is what really matters. Yet the the classical music establishment continues to devote huge sums to building inaccessible - public transport problems, urban crime etc - city centre concert halls with impeccable acoustics, instead of spending a fraction of the cost on taking classical masterpieces out into the provinces and into acoustically-challenged venues.

Classical's new audience must be drawn from the wider general music audience. Among the craved-for young demographic dance music is the genre of choice. Widespread exposure to EDM (electronic dance music) - it is a $7 billion global market - has dramatically rewired the sonic expectations of this market segment. Sound levels are higher, low frequencies dominate, and synchronised visuals are integral to the performance. But the classical industry still assumes that the neural circuits of its new audience were hardwired in 18th century Vienna. New technologies are still considered heretical in the concert hall, despite the invention of the ondes Martenot in 1928 and its adoption by Messiaen and others, and of the use of a synthesizer as an orchestral instrument in one of the unrecognised masterworks of the 20th century, Valentin Silvestrov's Requiem for Larissa.

It is one of many classical conundrums that electronic compositions are marginalised, while the huge new audience waiting on its doorstep listens to nothing but electronic music. Classical music's duplicitous attitude towards electronic music is shown by coverage of the award of the Giga Hertz Grand Prize to Éliane Radigue. Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc has been adopted by the classical music community as its 'go to' online resource. When covering the awardt Lebrecht piously lamented that it may represent "an epitaph for mid-20th century experimentalism". Yet a search of Slipped Disc reveals that Éliane Radigue had never previously been mentioned on the website. Presumably mid-20th century experimentalism died because it is not good click bait.

But some brave souls have tried to bridge the culture gap. Dutch composer Jurriaan Andriessen (1925-1996), who was brother of the better-known Louis Andriessen, studied in Paris with Olivier Messiaen and in the USA with Serge Koussevitsky and Aaron Copland. Although best know for his compositions for conventional orchestral forces - he composed for state ceremonies including the coronation of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and wrote the score for the Oscar winning film The Assault (1986) - Jurriaan Andriessen recorded three synthesizer albums in the late 1970s and the artwork for these provides the illustrations for my post.

Of particular interest is Jurriaan Andriessen's 1977 album The Awakening Dream which he sub-titled 'A Trance Symphony'. In a nod to the zeitgeist the album takes listeners on an electronic music, rather than hallucinogenic, trip. In a pre-echo of an Eliane Radigue performance and of Robert Rich's Sleep Concerts, Jurriaan Andriessen suggested - without success - that Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum provide mattresses in one of their exhibition spaces so listeners could lie down and meditate to the music - listen to the album on Open Spotify via this link.

The Awakening Dream was created using a Minimoog Model D, a Fender Rhodes piano, a Hohner Clavinet and a Philicorda organ recording directly on to two-track Revox A77 reel to reel recorders in the Dream Studio, the home studio 
Jurriaan Andriessen built in The Hague; see photo below. What makes the album particularly relevant to this discussion of bridging the audience gap is its alignment with the sound of contemporary non-classical electronic bands such as Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, rather than that of Stockhausen and his Darmstadt peers. One other very obvious influence is synthesizer pioneer Walter/Wendy Carlos - an important but now forgotten figure who was resoundingly successful at bridging the gap between classical and other genres with the 1968 album Switched on Bach.

My personal route to classical enlightenment was via 1960s/70s prog rock, and it puzzles me why today classical music does not reach out to the progressive non-classical audience. This, of course, does not mean dumbing down the classical masterworks, so no Beethoven Nine with added synthesizer. However a post here discussed the difficulty of finding music to preface that symphony. So how about Beethoven's Ninth prefaced in the first half with Steve Roach's essay in electronica Truth & Beauty? Or Pictures at an Exhibition paired with Brian Eno's 77 Million Paintings, and Mahler's Sixth Symphony following J. Peter Schwalm's The Beauty of Disaster?

Visionary composer and Renaissance man Jonathan Harvey was deeply committed to new technologies. In the 1980s he was invited by Pierre Boulez to work at IRCAM's cutting edge electronic studio in Paris, where he composed another overlooked 20th century masterwork Mortuos Plango, Vivis Voco - listen via this link - and his other notable compositions utilising electronic sounds include Bhakti (for chamber ensemble and quadraphonic tape), Advaya (for cello, electronic keyboard and electronics) and his Fourth String Quartet (with live electronics). One of his later and most ambitious works Speakings uses digitally manipulated speech blended with the orchestra through surround sound speakers, and the scoring includes a precise list of the work's technology requirements.

In a 2010 radio interview with me Jonathan explained that "Young people today, the mass of young people, don’t like concert halls, or not until they’ve been converted... They have no concept of what it is to hear music as soft as a pin dropping, and that kind of delicacy and refinement... I think what the future must bring is things which are considered blasphemous". Of course we can dream, but these blasphemous and, yes, worryingly disruptive ways of connecting with the rewired generation will never happen. Because the artistic alt-right has now comprehensively infiltrated classical music, while the stranglehold of the celebrity artist/super-agency cartel effectively blocks any radical change in the concert hall. Which leaves classical music to choose one of two options. It can continue the audience-chasing race to the bottom currently headed by Lola Astanova. Or it can continue with building acoustically perfect museums of sounds from the past curated by a comfortingly diverse cast of celebrity musicians.


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