Classical Music in the Age of Technology

By Anne Midgette

Change is afoot in the music world, and it is unclear exactly where it is going to lead. The role of music itself is fluid: Is it a functional accompaniment to daily life or something that one ought to listen to in worshipful silence? And new technologies are altering the very concept of sound, as instruments change and develop in myriad ways, their makers searching for the sounds of the future.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose
. The above is a description of the late 18th century, when music composition was in creative ferment; the harpsichord was beginning to yield to the pianoforte; and the makers of keyboard instruments were exploring all kinds of avenues--from adding bells and cymbals, literally, with the popular "Janissary stops," to simply improving and developing the basic components of their instruments--as they tried to come up with the definitive piano of the future.

But, of course, it is also a description of our own time, a period of transition when technology once again seems to be poised to fundamentally affect the experience of classical music.

The concept of "technology" itself is fluid. It can mean new ways of making violin strings; or the transparent shieldcum-piano lid that Christoph Koller developed, together with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, to enable Aimard to conduct from the piano with his back to the audience and still have the sound reflect out into the auditorium. It can mean the acoustics of new concert halls, like the high-tech Frank Gehry hall-cum-media center planned for the New World Symphony in Florida. But to most people today, "technology" implies a computer or digital component: the software that most composers now use to write their music; the phenomenon of electronic orchestras standing in for live players. And the biggest specter of technology in the field is the confluence of digital downloads and the Internet: an ambiguous form that, like a storybook wizard, may prove either a powerful ally or a terrifying enemy.

No one in the field doubts that Mozart and Beethoven will continue to be important 20 years down the road. Indeed, one of the most heartening bulletins from the technology front is the success of classical music on iTunes. "I think young people are more likely to have classical music on their iPods than they would have been to have a classical CD," says the conductor Marin Alsop. "It's a great equalizer and increases our reach tremendously."

But it is hard to say exactly where we are headed. "I'm waiting for technology to take the fog out of my crystal ball," quips Henry Fogel, the president of the League of American Orchestras and former president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

As a result, asking prominent figures in classical music about where technology may be taking the field is a little like polling the blind men about the elephant: Each answer relates directly to whatever chunk of "technology" stands closest to the responder. Compiled, however, these answers give a better idea of exactly what kind of animal we are talking about--and of the rich and strange possibilities of a brave new world.

Like many imaginings of the future, that world is filled with shiny new toys. In the future, we are told, people will use their mobile phones to listen to music from vast central archives containing every recording ever made. Performers will carry electronic readers, a single device loaded with hundreds of scores. Record companies will focus less on individual recordings and more on different ways of getting music out into the world. "Classical record companies will be fullservice music providers," wrote Chris Roberts, president of Universal Classics, in an e-mail as polished and shiny as the future he was evoking, "producing and distributing everything from high-end and on-demand physical products to digital audio and audiovisual recordings and packages of recordings, programmed for the specific needs of retailers or consumers."

And the Web sites of orchestras and concert halls will be portals to the community, used not only for ticket-buying and viewing videoed program notes, but also for transmitting performances, via Internet2, to the HDTV screens that will finally, as we've been promised for so many years, merge with computers and stereos into a single home-entertainment system. This future is not so very far away. The Metropolitan Opera has already gotten the ball rolling with its unexpectedly popular live broadcasts into movie theaters and over satellite radio. The house is already exploring the possibilities of cable television and pay-per-view. "I think it is important that every possible means of communication with the audience is utilized," says Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager. And he may have created a new model.

"I think in five years' time you will have opera houses as mini-broadcasters using technology to reach an audience all around the world," says Tony Hall of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. "I can envision a future in which I can watch what's happening at the Met, here, La Scala from my home. The cost of capturing productions for broadcast has come down--especially when, like Hall or David Gockley at the San Francisco Opera, you have installed a new HD studio suite in your theater. Gockley, however, opines that after the initial boom, there will be a period of attrition: "It will probably drop back to the point where there are maybe ten, 12, 15 of these per year."

In public, industry leaders express little doubt that today's institutions will survive.
"I am absolutely convinced that in ten years' time we will still be performing great music on the stage," says Zarin Mehta, president and executive director of the New York Philharmonic, "and this technology is probably going to bring in more people."

Yet many also sound a note of caution--even of trepidation. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, for example, praises the freedom and interactivity that are possible thanks to new forms of transmission: Listeners "are not just passively hearing something; they can all the time choose, interrupt, hear again." But he also voices concern.

"If everybody can express himself, this is great in terms of culture and democracy," he says. "But this means also that you have a much less specialized network of people controlling any given field. So that one loses the sense of what is quality. We could have big problems in terms of controlling what is what."

And David Robertson, the conductor, worries that people have been removed from the concept of actual live performance. "The problem is finally that you have the lunatics running the asylum," he says. "You have people who want to write orchestral music but don’t have a connection to the orchestra. What they know about writing for orchestra comes from a program that imitates the orchestra."

But the archetypal fear that the masses will storm the castle and overturn the proper order of things--shared by many in the field--is not entirely supported by the facts. There is a myth, for example, that record-company executives used to be gatekeepers, keeping the riffraff out of the temple of music. This myth is promulgated, with much hand-wringing, by Norman Lebrecht in his recent book
The Life and Death of Classical Music--a book that also inadvertently depicts these gatekeepers as historically ineffective and often clueless.

The actual role of record-company executives was less to guard quality--after all, plenty of inferior recordings flooded the market--than to generate profits. They were able to do this because there was a huge demand. "The average Solti recording in the early- and mid-1980s," says Henry Fogel, "would sell between 60,000 and 100,000 within three years after it was issued." Today, classical sales are often measured in the hundreds.

It is hardly news that classical recordings are no longer a moneymaking proposition. "When you decide to do a CD," says James Undercofler, president and chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Orchestra, "you know you're not going to make any money on it. You do it for artistic reasons; to promote your brand."

But after years in which virtually no American orchestra recorded, new technology means orchestras are recording again. The Philadelphia Orchestra is making three or four recordings a year, selling many of them on its own Web site; the Cleveland Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, after years of not recording at all, are once again releasing commercial recordings (principally as downloads on Deutsche Grammophon).

The question the "gatekeepers" face is how to make money out of this.

"We have to find new ways of monetizing our content," says Klaus Heymann, the founder of the budget label Naxos, which with an unconventional business plan has managed to become one of the most successful labels around. Heymann's focus on building up a deep catalogue of often unconventional repertory is today less about sales of individual CDs than about creating a resource that can be offered to users in different forms—from the Naxos Music Library, which allows subscribers access to tens of thousands of recordings, to Naxos's classical answer to iTunes, the downloading shop

Digital downloads have certainly helped record companies boost their profits. Because selling tracks over the Internet frees a label from the costs of manufacturing or storage, a download makes considerably more money than a CD.

But Heymann is betting that the current downloading model may be replaced by something even more ephemeral. He points to the recent assertion of pop media guru Rick Rubin in
The New York Times that music will become the equivalent of a utility; people will pay a monthly bill to access a music library over high-end computers or mobile phones. "In Japan and Korea," Heymann says, "people already download more classical music through mobile phones than through their computers." Others argue that classical CDs will never move entirely out of the picture. Even if the sound quality of downloads eventually reaches that of a CD, "people really do want the package," says Eric Feidner. Feidner's on-line store, taking advantage of the Internet's ability to reach niche markets (the "long tail" theory), is proving that there is still a healthy one for classical CDs. "It's very possible that we will still be selling physical CDs on Arkiv music ten years from now," Feidner says, bucking conventional wisdom about the CD's imminent demise. For him, new technology means he can manufacture out-of-print CDs on demand, program booklets and all, for his customers.

For the people who make music, rather than selling it, technology offers a range of possibilities. "I find myself increasingly dependent on digital realizations of my music," says Kyle Gann, the composer, critic, and Bard College professor. "This is because I'm exploring rhythms and harmonies that conventional acoustic instruments and players can't securely handle, and also because I have ideas for large ensembles that I can't possibly get performed. And, as there are more and more composers in the latter position, more and more are turning to advanced sampling programs." As if realizing David Robertson's worst fears, he opines "that that trend will continue, and that new orchestra music will long outlast the orchestra--which is why so many composers don't give a damn whether the orchestra is going to die as an institution or not, because we never had access to it anyway, and we're learning to do without it."

According to Joseph Polisi, the president of the Juilliard School, technology is helping performers be creators. Young performers "are becoming the composers," he says; they embrace "a host of technological quasi-acoustical and purely computer-based iterations of how to produce sound. They're comfortable with the technology; they're willing to experiment with it; and you're hearing it more and more.

"I think it will become a new genre that's just in the early stages," he adds. "You've gone to small spaces downtown where young artists are doing very alternative types of concerts. It's a more interactive experience than you have in a traditional concert hall. Chamber music and symphonic music and opera will survive; there will just be this much more distinctive genre of technology. People will seek it out, and artists will be presenting more and more of it."

In the more traditional realm of orchestra musicians, some performers are galvanized by technology's potential.

"We don't just play a concert any more," says Marin Alsop. "We play a concert for posterity. It's not just live; there's the potential for downloads, live streaming, or recording for the orchestra's own label. The pressure on all of the artists is greater, but the benefits are exponential. You're able to be part of a broader marketplace in a way that you can’t do even from a single CD release.

"I think what's going to happen," she adds, "is that there will be cult followings, even if small, for some younger talented soloists, some conductors who are not as well known, and maybe for some orchestras that are wonderful but do not have the resources of the top five." What she is describing has already been shown to work: It is, in effect, the Naxos model.

But there are risks about the penchant for live broadcasts and recordings. "I don’t think every performance is necessarily broadcast quality," the singer Thomas Hampson observes.

There is, too, a question about whether orchestras can follow the model of the opera houses. While the Philadelphia Orchestra is already experimenting with live concert Web casts over Internet2, Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is less sanguine. "Symphony concerts are wonderful to listen to and to see in person," she says. "But how many shots do you need to see of an oboist putting his reed in? Our challenge is going to be to go further out as a result of it."

The L.A. Philharmonic launched its newest Web site in November, including room for a panoply of innovations: a mobile phone platform, the orchestra's recorded archives, audio and video podcasts, and, of course, ticket sales. "Sixty percent of our sales are done on the Web now," Borda says.

For orchestras, in fact, one of the most tangible benefits of the Internet has proved to be as a marketing tool. At the New York Philharmonic, special Internet-only ticket offers have helped the orchestra reach new audiences that are "substantially younger and less well-heeled than our typical audience," says David Snead, the New York Philharmonic’s marketing director.

Henry Fogel agrees. "Twenty years ago, you wouldn't have had easy ability to know who bought a single ticket the last time we played Mahler," he says. "Now, we can send them an e-mail the next time we play Mahler. I think in some ways the more dramatic effect that technological developments have had on the orchestra is in the way you can communicate with audiences and have the audience communicate with you. At the Chicago Symphony you can send e-mail to any musician: You can ask, 'Why does the timpani player change his sticks in a given piece?' and the timpanist will answer."

This kind of communication, indeed, may prove the key to the orchestra's future.

"The economics of classical music are so bizarre," says Doug McLennan, the new director of the National Arts Journalism Program and founder of the Web site "The classic business model is: The more you produce, the more money you make. With classical music, the more you produce the more you lose, and if your product is a money-loser it's a dead end. But maybe you can flip it around and say, 'Maybe that traditional thing is not my product; maybe my product is creating a community around what I do.' I think a lot of orchestras in this country are perfectly well aware that the business model they're in right now is just unworkable. So you've got to start thinking: Is there a model that can make this work? I think that a lot of this community-building is the answer to being able to do that."

And many classical institutions seem to be exploring this kind of role. The conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is actively employing a whole gamut of media platforms, from his Keeping Score project with the San Francisco Symphony (reaching out to new audiences on television, radio, and the Internet) to using Internet2 as a teaching tool with the New World Symphony in Florida. The new Frank Gehry Hall, which may well become a beacon for the new face of classical music and technology, is poised to become a center for a whole range of experiments. But Tilson Thomas is already using the NWS as a laboratory for developing new ideas, like a pilot program in which children practicing an instrument at home can ask orchestra musicians for help on-line.

"So often when people give up pursuit of fine arts, it’s because of loneliness," he says. "You have to go off and practice, which is such a lonely experience; you're not sure if you're right or wrong. My goal is that anyone who's practicing would be able to dial up a coach or mentor, who could say, "Do this or that; here are other kids in your area who are doing it; and call me back in ten minutes.' " 

Clive Gillinson, the executive director of Carnegie Hall, appears tacitly to concur. "I think education will be an absolutely central part of our mission," he says. "Thirty years ago that wouldn't have been our core mission. Our job was to present the most important musicians in the world. But now, for all of us, access and education are our core mission, because we have a responsibility to the whole of society."

Yet the view that classical music has to work to create a new audience for itself might not be the whole picture, either. For the Internet's ability to reach niche markets has accompanied an increasing fragmentation of our society's interests. From three television networks, we have moved to hundreds of channels; from a monolithic Top-40 chart to a wide spectrum of smaller pop bands with specific audiences.

"With pop culture breaking down into all these niches, it's interesting that classical music happens to be one of the larger niches," McLennan observes. "We're used to thinking of classical music as a tiny thing in the context of larger culture. What if it's one of the more robust audiences? It calls into question the business model, the support model; why are we publicly funded?"

The response may be that, while technology offers the possibility of vast new audiences, the question of how to make it lucrative remains one that the present is still waiting for the future to answer. 

Anne Midgette is a regular contributor to
The New York Times. She is working on a novel set during the heyday of the development of piano technology in the 18th and 19th centuries.


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