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Technology is infringing on classical music

Invite smartphones and iPads into the music hall? That overlooks the point that a concert is a chance to untie the digital umbilical cord and replace it with chords that resonate.

August 28, 2011|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Rock musician Frank Zappa in December 1989.
Rock musician Frank Zappa in December 1989. (Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles…)

Popular music and classical music may be distinct genres with their own traditions and social mores, but cross-pollination has long been the way of most musics. If nature abhors a void, she adores a hybrid.

Jazz, for instance, developed when 19th century African Americans filtered the waltz and other aspects of Western music through African musical traditions, producing a new language to express their situation in America. Take a peek at 21st century Brooklyn, which John Adams called the new Montmartre at a Green Umbrella concert last season. No one seems to have told the composers in their late 20s and early 30s who flock to that borough that indie rock isn't an integral part of classical's new music tradition.

As for the rock world, it's been getting ideas for years from the innovations of new music. Frank Zappa considered the mother of all musical inventions to be the experimental composer Edgar Varèse. Radiohead knows its Messiaen; Björk, her Meredith Monk; Sonic Youth, its John Cage.

All of this is as it should be — natural, healthy and artist-driven. It is also an excellent way to build new audiences. I became interested in Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós thanks to the Kronos Quartet's advocacy. Sigur Rós fans now attend Kronos concerts.

Hand in hand with this exchange of musical ideas has been an enthusiastic exchange of technology. Much electronic equipment that fuels pop has its roots in classical's experimental wing. Pop makes it own modifications and then hands them back. The instrument of Steve Mackey, who heads Princeton's venerable composition department, is the electric guitar.

But something has suddenly gone terribly wrong in this mutual musical wonderland of give and take. The technology is starting to take over. The exchange is becoming one-sided. And artists are being left out of the future of music by marketeers. Just because you can, Marshall McLuhan said about the application of technology to media and the arts, doesn't mean you should.

What is setting me off is a story this month in The Times about the uneasy marriage of music and technology, which includes symphony orchestras inviting audiences to wile away an hour with Tchaikovsky by tapping on their smartphones and iPads. I was heartened that reader comments about the desirability of these digital devices in the concert hall have been almost exclusively negative, pointing out that light is a disruption and that tweeting is an engagement in tweeting, not music. That's hardly surprising. People who care about music are the ones who are truly engaged, and they are going to take the trouble to respond. Tweeters have already moved on.

This has nothing to do with technophobia but with big and serious issues, and ones that go beyond classical music. But first let us note who is primarily advocating bringing phones and tablets into the concert hall. Social media consultants are increasingly being hired by orchestras and other arts institutions and given the mandate to fill theaters and museums with young bodies by creating online video games, misleadingly marketing classical music as if it somehow related to pop culture like, say, reality TV. Any novel idea to scam the social networking system to get the word out is apparently also OK.

Unfortunately, if the scammers have their way, the result could be an updated "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Treating classical music as if it were pop culture is no attempt to move an art form in a new direction but rather to find a convention for everything. We're not talking pop people but pod people impelled to respond in a certain, single way. Technological fascism is not, I think, too strong a term for it.

Classical music covers an enormous range historically and stylistically. And listeners bring a wide range of experience, expertise and artistic needs to the concert hall. Listening, moreover, is a personal act.

Some may enter into a dialogue with history. What, for instance, can Beethoven's affirmation offer us politically today? Others may be more concerned with their personal relationship, their own history, to a specific work. There are those for whom the music will be something unfamiliar to be encountered in any number of ways. Maybe falling in love with the sounds of a piece will be your bliss. A writer friend of mine loves to fantasize at orchestral concerts, using them as an inexhaustible source of ideas.

The important point is that a classical concert provides an opportunity to untie the digital umbilical cord and replace it with chords that really do resonate. I don't know about you, but I find turning off the cellphone a liberating experience. For those who say this is alien to young people who know nothing else but being perpetually online, let the prospect for a new experience be the attraction.

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