Search This Blog

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Music for the Future

Lately two exquisite pieces of music have come to my attention, harbingers of the future of music, but built on the history of music.

The first I'll mention is Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir performing his work Lux Arumque, a choir recruited, and taught over the Internet, and then recorded by their own webcams and edited into a performance. Stunning to look at, stunning to hear, and doesn't it sound like Allegri's Miserere? (I have provided the link a performance by the King's College Cambridge, who seem to own the bragging rights for their performance. If you look down the comments, someone has provided the [awesome] text in Latin.) Props to the Beethoven Lives Upstairs series. I first heard Allegri's music on my kids' Mozart's Magnificent Voyage disc, and I fell in love with it immediately. I even bought it from itunes to have on my iphone. I often get a chance to recommend this series and I do so by saying any music lover of any age or expertise can learn something they didn't know about the music or the composer by paying attention to these stories.

And then there are Felix's Machines, by a young guy called Felix Thorn, who cannibalizes his family's piano, adds some household objects, and drives the resulting instruments by his computer. He says in Wired UK "I look at the advantages of what machines can do. People must realize you can extract emotion from them, and enjoy the music they produce." The music is delightful. Yes - and emotional.

Meanwhile,  I had a chance to be a guest with some friends at a fundraiser for a project that also mixes past and future: Paola Marino  is a video director using the medium to interpret opera arias in a trilogy of short videos. While the videos are pretty cool, but what is really exciting is standing in a small room while an opera singer sings. The power is enough to raise the hair on the back of your neck, and that is the level of musical thrill that I am always hoping for. I am guessing that Paola's goal roughly fits in what with I am always on about in having opera work in the 21st century: Use what is universal about opera, in this case choosing as a theme for her series "Desire". Integrate it with modern technology, in this case video (manga works too - see my tags). Add a dash of Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies: "Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify", and you have cool 21st century opera. (See Fun, Cool, Funny on my sidebar to use an Oblique Strategy to problem-solve for yourself.)

The young opera singer who features in this trilogy can also be seen in another version of Carmen, a performance she did at a benefit to attract young people to the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. Watch Lauren Seagal  exploiting her gifts.

But there's more: digital video and YouTube are providing a brave new world of interesting music experiences.

I heard about this one at the music school I attend. By this I mean listening whenever I can to the CBC Radio 2 program Shift, with my radio-hero, host Tom Allen. He has a twitter feed - the first one on planet earth that almost interests me - and a blog where this clip is also featured, although I can't figure out quite where. He also happens to be a trombonist. This is a little homemade video by a Russian bass-trombonist FEATURING the trombone part of Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto, quite possibly the best-known piece of classical music written in the 20th century, and that's exactly what makes it effective. Music you can hum along to, with just one instrument pulled out. I don't play in an orchestra, and probably neither do you. OK, well I know some of you do, else would I ever get this perspective? And it sounds great! Only in a world where a guy can set up his camera (or phone?) in an orchestra pit, and then post it to YouTube could this ever be possible. I LOVE the future of music.

Then, of course, I had to show my kids the video and tell them my favourite Rachmaninoff story - that although he wrote and performed this music, at a certain point he decided that the new young guys could play it BETTER THAN HIM and he stopped performing it. So, we looked up Rachmaninoff on YouTube, and he is there. Sadly it seems he was too early for there even to be film-to-video performance clips, but there was an audio recording of him performing his 2nd piano concerto from 1929 by RCA Victor with his favorite orchestra: the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting, and what do you know - the part he pulled out of the music sounded very much like the trombone pattern! Unbelievable, and would we have even really noticed that if he we hadn't watched the trombone part first? Incidentally, there are video clips of Van Cliburn playing this concerto, and his is the performance I grew up listening to and loving, plus performances by Kissin and Lugansky, two current Russian pianists filling these big emotional shoes. Love them, too.

Then...glancing at the other suggestions on YouTube, we noticed a video labelled Rachmaninoff had big hands. Just watch it.


  1. You have found some incredible links! I really love the trombone video. For me, that's one of the best examples of the future of music! And I really must read up on Brian Eno - his point of view still reverberates over these past few decades.

    As for the Lux Aramque...though a fascinating project, digital reverb can never replace the natural reverb created by a full choir reverberating off the wooden pews of a cathedral or the acoustic boards/walls of a recording studio. I know this is a common complaint from old -timers like me (haha). But I think the value of this project lies (mostly) in its trail-blazing. It takes the creative mind to a new and unfamiliar place. It may inspire new channels of expression for composers, or have the opposite effect of driving the traditionalists further into their "analog is superior to digital" mind-set. Either way, it's a challenge, and a challenge is always a good thing.

    I lean toward the latter point of view - analog is just superior, no arguments. For me, music is irrevocably tied to kinetics - nothing can replace the sonic complexity of a piece of wood being struck or a wire string being plucked and the sound wave travelling through the medium of earth's atmosphere. As you mentioned, that prickling at the back of your neck feeling that a live singer can create! As well, that music infiltrates our brain and stays there forever as an abstraction that is unique for us - living forever as a memory. The digital world takes both of these extremes and tries to come up with a way to duplicate them, through a computer program, and it simply can not. It is different, and I don't think it will ever be able to replace what happens in the natural world.

    All that being mediums can be a useful tool. There is a marked difference in a digital music file that started off as an acoustic recording (e.g. a band that records onto tape, and then mixes and masters with Pro Tools) vs. a song produced from the ground up with digital instruments. So, you can retain some of that acoustic energy - even if you end up with a digital end-product. At least, that's how my ears hear it. And Neil Young argues the same point - he would prefer analog start to finish (vinyl records as the end product), but feels he can keep a lot of the analog warmth by keeping the process analog for as long as possible along the recording through to mass marketing spectrum.

    But then that leads me to a lot of questions about the human brain. Will it be the case in 20 or 50 years that we can no longer distinguish between digital vs. analog? Will our hearing have adapted to digital so well that we have the same emotional response to an electronic keyboard that we now have to a piano? Only time will tell.

    Anyway.........that trombone video is extraordinary! I love the fact that it affords us an opportunity to be in the orchestra pit! Now THAT is a good use of digital media :)
    And after my mini-rant on analog vs. digital, there are a gazillion positive things about the accessibility of the digital world. Something as simple as a child being able to go on Youtube and learn different bird songs - amazing!

    Thanks again – I love your blog!

  2. MUSIC IS IRREVOCABLY TIED TO KINETICS - of course that is true - and it is such a provocative lens through which to analyze a music experience. Perfectly links to the thrill of the singer in the room rather than on the screen. It will be delicious to just think about and observe in the world. (Glenn Gould anyone?)

    Without taking anything away from that kinetic power, I think it should be said that digitally-produced soundwaves do travel through the medium of the earth's atmosphere.

    Re: Analog/Digital recordings: I understand that so much music is now appreciated in mp3 format, that the audio quality end of the recording process is now largely absent from popular music. HOWEVER, I imagine it being another area in which you have Gucci on one side and Old Navy on the other - pure audiophile classical and jazz for, well, audiophiles, and pure digital beats for mainstream consumption, with no middle. I mean, valuing the acoustical quality of Neil Young??? Where is that going to fit? And I often wonder by what edict is the analog sound of a vinyl record valuable beyond its position as the paradigm of a certain (short-lived) period of music? (Please understand that I do actually like Neil Young, and that I love a person who pursues his trade thoughtfully. And I must admit that there may be an "ultimate beauty" kind of aesthetic value in the sound of a vinyl record. I think it's still an unanswered question.)

    Now, re: brain and analog/digital emotional sensitivity, if you are thinking about Felix Thorn extracting emotion from a machine, funnily his sound is analog, and the recording is digital - like most music. He is innovating along a different split - the PLAYER is digital, and yet emotional. Now that is something NEW. ("It's ALIVE!")

    Meanwhile, I practice the piano on a 60-yr old spinet, but take lessons on a current yamaha with, what? a dozen piano sounds. I love the tuning idiosyncracies and the pressure idiosyncracies of my old friend, and find the perfect yamaha, even on mellow, even on honky-tonk, quite inhibiting. But do my kids? And, pianos were once more organic, and the changing technology of production is changing their sound too. I love the difference baroque instruments make to recordings or performances of baroque music. It is so easy to identify the sound, but very hard to make clear to someone who doesn't know how to listen for it or recognize it. I know, because I've tried.

    Finally, the killer app for me, the one that really convinced me to trade my BlackBerry for an iphone, is a bird-identification program that you can not only use to identify birds but to call them to you.

    It's a wonderful world!

  3. You make some great points here......that digital music still travels through the atmosphere, and of course, that does bring it back to the kinetic world. And good point about the vinyl record being around for what will turn out to be a short-lived period. 100years from now, the record album will be as obscure as the piano roll is now for us.
    I think that "music" as an abstract or as an idea can exist anywhere and can speak through any medium....even through a computer program. However.....the vinyl record is still a physical translation of the music. And the needle on the record continues the physicality of the sound. The physical is lost once the sound is digitized.
    I liken this to the genetic modification of corn and wheat and soy.....those foods were starting to be tampered with around the same time that the CD overtook the vinyl record. We don't yet know how our bodies will adapt (or not) to a laboratory-created version of corn. And we don't yet know what we're losing now that we are digitizing sound. Maybe we're gaining a whole new emotional musical response that will inspire us in ways that are yet to be known?
    I could discuss these points forever!!!hahaha

  4. One other thing.....the last paragraph of your response comment kind of blows my theory out of the water. If you can call a bird to you with a sound produced by an iphone (!!!), then maybe the digitization of sound has come to a near-perfect match of the original. Heck, if a bird can be fooled, I guess the future of music is NOW!

  5. I never thought of the birds as being an ultimate test, but that makes sense.

    In fact what popped into my mind is a story my parents tell, of being in the Caribbean where there is a kind of bird called a sugar tit. They come down to restaurant tables and steal sugar from the bowl. They do not steal artificial sweetener.

    They are a kind of ultimate test of the real - they can't rationalize the artificial.

    How cool are you?

  6. Love that! The birds' connection to food bypasses the rational mind. We rationalize constantly about what's going into our stomach. The bird just knows. I wonder how though? Is it the way the sugar crystals refract the light? Does sugar have a smell for them?
    For us, a slick ad campaign telling us we'll look great in our bikini if we buy Slim Shake or Skinny Snack has us gobbling them down with probably just a cursory scan of ingredients. Mexachloranihilate? No problem - there's only 25 calories! But would I rather be a bird? No - birds can't blog :)