The Music of Catastrophe

If music means something important to us, our contact with a new person finds us trying to discover what musical loves we might share. Thus do friendship and romance begin.

In a world where isolated suffering comes easily, music, like some of the other arts, reveals we have much company in our emotional distress.

Songs add language to instrumental expression, making them more precise in meaning than purely instrumental music. Vocal composition is literally sung to words, but there is just as much of the human experience in the more abstract forms, even if a symphony is not so easily identified with the particular circumstance (say, a broken heart) described in lyrics.

Sound offers solace if a composition reaches the tender, injured place inside. Few pieces, however, deal with cataclysm and collapse. To my ears, one of those is the Symphony #4, the last such work of German composer Johannes Brahms.

Brahms was a life-long bachelor from Hamburg, who died in 1897. He achieved recognition early and much success afterwards. The major unhappiness of his life was his unfulfilled romantic attachment to Clara Schumann, 14 years his senior; the widow of the man who first recognized his genius, the composer Robert Schumann. Some believe their age difference, his virtual adoption by the couple, and the shadow of Brahms’s indebtedness to her late husband made the consummation of his ardor impossible. Brahms’s final symphony reveals he knew much about human calamity, whatever its source.

Lacking a description from the composer about what his symphony “meant” — if anything or nothing — we are left to make our response personal. Perhaps no language exists with which to “understand” Brahms’s Fourth and my use of catastrophe is misplaced, but I am not alone in the opinion.

That disaster, if there is one, occurs in the fourth and last section of the work, the concluding 10-minutes or so. There, too, you will hear a much commented upon “conversational” quality in Brahms, when the wind instruments “speak” to each other. David Hurwitz of Classics Today, finds “active rage and impassive grandeur” in the ending. Jerry Dubins wrote, in Fanfare magazine, of the “final rush to oblivion … on the symphony’s preordained appointment with disaster and annihilation” in “a score of gloom and doom.”

Why might one want to listen given this description?

To me and the many who rank the work one of the most perfect and moving in the entire classical repertoire, much poignant beauty accompanies the ride into the abyss; indeed, because of it. The reasons for listening are no different from those causing us to appreciate a sad song. In Brahms’s 40-minutes we become the composer, inhabit his intellectual and emotional journey, and are seized by towering grandeur; perhaps even  swept away, exhilarated by the suspense and power, and moved to tears. Some would say a great work of art, if masterfully performed, can change us.

Franz Kafka knew the power of all art forms and wrote about the potentially transformational impact of writing:

What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be like an ax to break the frozen sea within us.

Will you be changed?

You can find out in 40-minutes time.

The top photo is the work of Ville Miettinen. It is described as, “A crevasse (moulin) in the Langjökull glacier, Iceland. At the time it was perhaps three or four meters long, a meter wide and some 30-40 meters deep.” The second image is the 20-year-old Brahms in 1853. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How Vulnerable Can We Be? Emotional Openness in Therapists and Performers

We get to see public people expressing private emotions on TV. Allowing themselves to be vulnerable. Not only on dating shows. Politicians do it on occasion, including George W. Bush, whose voice cracked and eyes moistened more often than any U.S. President I can remember.

Still, most of us try to stay in control. We hesitate to let down our guard for fear someone will reach into our chest and rip out our already wounded heart. In my experience, however, some of the most touching public situations occur when a self-possessed person displays the courage to live so much in the unselfconscious moment that the voice breaks or tears flow a bit. Before I tell you about my own challenge with this, I will relate two other public examples, as well as describing a therapist’s hesitancy to feel too much in session.

Fred Spector, a retired Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinist, told this story in 2001 about an event then three decades old:

We were doing the Verdi Requiem and we knew that the mother of Carlo Maria Giulini, the conductor, died (unexpectedly, while he was in Chicago). He walked on stage (to rehearse with us), starts to conduct the Requiem and stops. He was crying and he said ‘They want me to come home (to Italy). What good is that? My mother is dead. It is more important that I have this experience with you and the Verdi Requiem and think about my mother.’ And now he’s got us all crying, the whole orchestra in tears. ‘That’s more important because then I can experience and think about my mother in this marvelous Requiem. … and those were the greatest performances I’ve ever played of the Verdi Requiem, bar none. … We wanted to get that feeling he wanted for his mother.

Giulini was a private, ever-dignified, old world man (born in 1914) for whom this exposure was uncustomary if not unseemly. Indeed, the orchestra and chorus had been instructed by an administrator not to say anything to him about his loss. Such a direction could only have come from Giulini or his wife.

Of course, it’s one thing to be unguarded in an empty hall and another to “lose it” during performance. Indeed, among the greatest sins of public musical or theatrical presentation is to be so moved by the words you can’t do your job: enable the audience to experience emotion while you remain in control. I am aware of one instance alone when the rule was violated, but the artist succeeded anyway.

A 1947 Edinburgh Festival rendition of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) was the occasion. This hour-long song-symphony portrays the transient beauties of existence and concludes in a 30-minute Abschied (Farewell) to a friend and to life, based on ancient Chinese poetry.

The work’s last moments are a whisper of exquisite, heart-rending beauty as the singer reflects on the passing away of human life, while the world itself blooms anew every spring, “forever.” The last word — “forever” or “eternally” (“ewig” in German) — recurs several times, ever more muted against the fading, shimmering, ethereal consolation of the orchestra.

According to Neville Cardus, a critic for the Manchester Guardian, Kathleen Ferrier, the contralto soloist, was “unable to enunciate the closing words.” Moved by the music, she broke down.

Ferrier, a 35-year-old woman soon to become an international celebrity, was then new to this composition and in awe of Bruno Walter, the 70-year-old conductor who had been the composer’s disciple and given the work its world première in 1911. Cardus tells the story of his arrival backstage after the curtain calls:

I took courage and forced my way into the artists’ room, where I introduced myself to this beauteous (unselfconsciously beauteous) creature. As though she had known me all her life she said: ‘I have made a fool of myself, breaking down like that.’

When Walter came into the room she went to him, apologizing. He took her hands, saying: ‘My child, if we had all been artists like you, we should every one of us have broken down.’

For Cardus, it was one of the greatest, most life-changing performances he heard in a long career as a music critic.

Where does a therapist fit in our discussion? He is not a public performer, but must empathize with his patient. Unmoved by the human suffering he witnesses, he is of no value. But what if he is moved to the extreme? Were he to experience the same level of emotion as his client, he himself would become the patient. The room would be occupied by two people equally anguished, both needing support and relief with no one available to give it.

Someone must possess a therapeutic (but not unfeeling) distance from the suffering. The therapist must.

My own challenge with public vulnerability came in toasting my first child’s marriage. Tears interfere with an adoring parent’s speech at many such events. A guest’s attention is then drawn to the speaker’s unraveling, however sympathetic or touching, not his words about the newly married couple. I wanted the assembly to know what I had to say about my daughter and son-in-law, the better to appreciate them. The language, properly spoken, would externalize the internal, convey emotion, and move the audience.

The problem was, in practicing I could not get through the speech. Time after time I tried, time after time I failed, overwhelmed. Were I to tell you the number of rehearsals I attempted, starting months in advance, I suspect you would not believe me.

The day came — the moment came — and I still had not a single run-through without the internal tidal wave overwhelming my words. Once on stage, however, — finally, finally — the elusive control arrived and the toast went well. I was not as emotionally “present” as I could have been, but the cost of unconsciously distancing myself from my sentiments was the price for moving the audience by words and delivery, not becoming overwrought and a bit incoherent.

Why am I reminded of all this? I just completed a course at the University of Chicago’s Graham School in which our instructor, near the class’s end, discovered her voice cracking with emotion. Sometimes this happens in intimate conversation, frequently in counseling, but not so often at the U of C, and not from this confident and expert guide to literature. She said (to someone else) after the session, she “didn’t know where that came from.”

But, you know what? It capped a great class discussion of a moving novel with a flourish. Sometimes one needs to go with the flow, even if the flow is both figurative and literal.

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The painting at the top of the page is called Tightrope Walker by Jean-Louis Forain(1885). The next image is Australian Artistic Gymnast, Lauren Mitchell at the 41st World Artistic Gymnastics Championship in London, UK, October 14, 2009. The photo was taken by Steven Rasmussen, Explorerdk. The following picture is Gymnast Feet on Beam, January 19, 2008, by Raphael Goetter. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Finally comes Tightrope Walker by August Macke (1914), sourced from WikiArt.org/

An “Ode to Joy” in a Difficult Moment

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For those searching for joy (and who isn’t), I offer a musical destination. For those searching for defiance — making a statement — I offer the same music, played differently. In both cases the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. You’ve heard it before even if you don’t know it. TV admen for cars and toothpaste made sure.

In a lifetime of listening, the most joyous performance known to me was played by the Boston Symphony under the direction of Charles Munch on April 27, 1956. You might have been brought to tears or thrilled by this music before — and this rendition is thrilling — but, the combustible singers and players, “drunk with fire” in the words of Schiller used by Beethoven, generated an unexpected smile impossible to prevent even if someone paid me to be grim. I’ll give the source below, if you care to put your money where my grin is.

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Unfortunately, not only admen and women turn musical art into a tool. Politicians do too. The Ninth was used in Hitler’s Nazi domain to celebrate his birthday, putting the requested performers in a dilemma: to play or not to play, that was the question. One man in particular gave a peculiar, but memorable response. He played the Ninth, especially the finale’s “Ode to Joy” — including heavenly words about a time when “all men become brothers” — as if to transform the celebration into something joyless, toxic, and dystopian. Indeed, until you experience it, you cannot think this piece could be played in this way. Of course, the conductor was already faced with something beyond imagining: the corruption of the most civilized nation of his time, one he called home.

Here is what Michael Tanner wrote about the concert in notes to a CD of the complete performance:

In April, 1942, (the conductor Wilhelm) Furtwängler was tricked by Goebbels into conducting this work on the eve of the Führer’s birthday in Berlin, something he had always managed to avoid before. Try as he would to insist that he was unwell, had commitments in Vienna, and so on, he was forced to take part and conduct it. … And in the last movement, after stupendous ecstasies and paens, the unspeakable happens: Furtwängler always accelerated wildly for the closing bars, suggesting a barely controlled excitement. But on this occasion the last bars are a nightmare of nihilism, a stampede towards the abyss, such as I have never heard in any other music. It is as if Furtwängler is doing what Thomas Mann’s fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn says he will do in Dr Faustus: take back the Ninth Symphony, because all the hope and aspirations of the noble side of humanity have come to naught. But instead of writing a new piece to negate the Ninth, Furtwängler does the unthinkable and revokes the work by the way he plays its own ending.

Tanner is not the only person with this opinion. Lynn Rene Bayley wrote in Fanfare Magazine, “Even if he was not really trying to hurl Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the face of Hitler, one definitely gets the feeling that, in his mind on that day, this “Ode to Joy” had become an act of defiance, almost distorting the music (and words) to produce an almost apocalyptic vision of the score. In short, one gets the feeling that Furtwängler was not certain whether he, or German art, would survive the Nazi horror, the war, and the Holocaust.”

Hyperbolic? You can be the judge, since the last four minutes of the performance are preserved below. But do find a way to listen to the piece in some other performance, too. The abyss is not a friendly place.

The top photos are of Charles Munch, the second being the cover art for the joyous performance I lead with. The recording of the Munch/Boston Symphony performance is produced by the St. Laurent Studio, catalogue #YSL T-315. The CD includes a rendition of Roussel’s Piano Concerto and only the finale of the Beethoven. Trust me, you won’t feel shorted by the absence of the first three movements. It can be obtained directly from St. Laurent Studios. Note that prices are in Canadian currency. It is also available here.

Marilyn Monroe and Rachmaninoff: Can Movies Sell Music?

Sex sells everything or so it seems.

My earliest recollection of any connection between sex and music was the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch, with Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe. The former imagined seducing the latter when a combination of circumstances fueled his fantasy: a stale, seven-year-old marriage; his wife’s temporary absence; and the availability of Ms. Monroe, his smoldering new neighbor. Ewell’s plan was to use Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2 to win her ardor. The scene above depicts his strategy.

Classical music in film usually isn’t intended to engender lust, although the cinematic hit 10,” starring Bo Derek (with Dudley Moore playing the Ewell-like role), gave it a try in 1980, with Ravel’s Bolero serving to keep the erotic pace. Various recordings of the piece dominated the pop and classical charts in the months following.

The use of such music raises the question of whether a movie featuring a classic opus can open the audience to classical scores beyond those pieces featured in the film. Favorites like Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001: A Space Odyssey), Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (Platoon), or Mozart’s Piano Concerto #21 (Elvira Madigan) raised interest in the featured works, but not other selections from the oeuvres of those composers. In light of these failures, should a film be expected to convince a classical newbie to dive deeper into the world of symphonic music simply because of its connection with a single appealing piece?

Let’s start with the music attached to Ms. Monroe and Ms. Derek in the already mentioned films. Does any lonely soul watching Tom Ewell or Dudley Moore think he might achieve his romantic fantasy solely by his choice of CD while on a date? Surely no man with a recording of Bolero or Rachmaninoff playing in his living room regularly brings sex to the mind of women. Thus, a film’s featured sound track, if it is to cause anyone to listen after the cinema’s end, will have to stand on its own. Powerful men have an evolutionary/sexual advantage connected to the need of our female ancestors to find a protector and bread-winner. Contemporary males who listen to Bruckner give their dates no clue to those talents.

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Nor is film likely to create wide interest in classical music without a sexual connection to ladies like the two featured above. No boom in the record sales of Richard Strauss’s other compositions was created by Stanley Kubrik’s use of Also Sprach Zarathustra in Space Odyssey, nor did Mozart’s 600+ compositions fly off the store shelves because the slow movement from his Concerto #21 was featured in an art film hit.

Those who believe cinema might increase the classical audience should consider what must be overcome to do so. Music used in movies competes with dialogue, scenery, and plot for the viewer’s attention. By comparison, the standard concert hall symphonic fare offers no dialogue, no story, and the unremarkable sight of a group of sitting musicians — usually at a distance — fiddling, drumming, and blowing; all dressed in similar outfits.

Music at a concert is supposed to speak for itself, while a movie’s narrative line is intended to transcend the background audio. The implied message is that the score is secondary, designed only to create a mood. If the film tunes are being given second class status by the movie makers, why would anyone believe the rest of the composer’s works were worth their time?

Then there is the obstacle classical music confronts when it is heard by an audience of the uninitiated. The standard wisdom of the crowd is that classical music is “relaxing” at best, boring at worst. If they listen to something attractive on the film’s soundtrack, most may conclude the beauty or excitement is an anomaly, nothing like the standard classics they know or think they know. Surely this belief doesn’t spur the listeners to explore beyond a particular piece that, for them at least, is the exception proving the rule.

One more challenge stands in the way of the film-goer’s transformation from someone who doesn’t listen to many classics to one who does: effort. Anyone who wishes to learn to love the classics must put in a good deal of time. The Beethoven Symphony #5 takes somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 minutes no matter what. A Rodin sculpture, on the other hand, can be observed for whatever unit of time you wish to put into the examination. Concert promoters do what they can, but they cannot generate motivation or cut the score without mutilating the art.

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Don’t underestimate the effort required to become a convert to an unfamiliar art form, even in the case of visual art. Chicago’s grandly successful and much visited Millennium Park was expected to generate increased attendance at the nearby Art Institute when the former opened in 2004. The failure to achieve the expected bump in Art Institute admissions was “a puzzle” to the museum because the art repository was only one block from the new outdoor venue. Perhaps part of the answer then, is that movies are movies, paintings are paintings, and Bolero’s ability to attract an audience guarantees no crossover even to another of Ravel’s famous works, like La Valse. Those who go to a public park want a park experience, not one authored by Van Gogh. Those who visit a Chinese restaurant aren’t looking for pizza.

Presenters have added movie screen close-ups of the players to the concert experience, big screen painting reproductions to enhance performances of Pictures at an Exhibition, iPads to provide a technological jump from the old style paper medium of program booklets, and lectures before concerts to tell the audience what they might want to notice when the program starts. In the end, however, do these produce the “buy in” intended? Doesn’t the music live or die on its own merits?

Concert promoters have tried about everything to expand the audience for the classics, with questionable success. What can one say that hasn’t already been said? Two things:

  1. In the words of impresario Sol Hurok, “If people don’t want to come, nothing will stop them.”
  2. If you have a seven-year itch, try some talcum power.

Following the scene from The Seven Year Itch is a poster from the movie “10” featuring Bo Derek. The bottom image is the Crown Fountain (facing Michigan Avenue), part of Chicago’s Millennium Park.

Eating and Shopping? Something Else to Think About on Thanksgiving

Today is the day Americans imitate a Roman orgy without the sex or the vomiting. Mostly we hope to embrace the ones we love, keep from assaulting family members we can barely tolerate, and jam down as much good food as our bodies allow. This is a symbolic repetition of a meal among Pilgrim immigrants and Native Americans in the early 17th century. We give thanks for the bounty, dear relationships, and any good fortune that comes to mind.

Then Americans watch football. That is, if we don’t fall asleep because of this “epic in bloat” (to quote Oscar Levant).

Thanksgiving is a lazy day except for the hostess or host, who work themselves to a nub preparing the feast. Ah, but the effort will be equalized when the slackers get up early tomorrow to shop for discounted merchandise. The day is called “Black Friday” because the merchants operating at a loss for the year “go into the black” (meaning they make enough money to turn a profit). Somewhere in all this there must be a comment on American values, but I’m already too tired to think about it.

So, if you are a layabout and don’t wish to get into anything heavy (since you’ll feel heavy enough), I have just the thing to pass the rest of your post-meal day.

Want to know what kind of music young adults are listening to? Check out the video above. Be sure to stick around for the punch line.

And “have a nice day.” Really.

 

What are You Trying to Prove? Show-offs on Stage and Off

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We called them show-offs, the kids who did anything to capture your gaze. One such, eight years old, turned his eyelid inside-out on the playground. Girls gasped, screamed, and stampeded away. A tough guy (me) kept watching with the other boys, wondering what would come next. Act Two involved the young showman’s zippered trousers. You can imagine the rest.

This youthful exhibitionism seemed akin to those playmates who displayed “real” talent, who enjoyed doing difficult tasks requiring skill as well as brazenness. I’m talking about the sort of boy who walked the edge of a high fence without falling off; whose sense of balance was superb. “I can do something hard (or scary) and you can’t,” he seemed to say, and he was right.

Does this have anything to do with adults? How about the performing arts? Both.

I’d suggest we divide stunts into two categories: those not requiring any special ability and those that do. Thus, I’d place the eyelid-turner or a man who bit off the head of a bat (rocker, Ozzy Osbourne) in the first group. I’m classifying Ozzy as a bat-biter, not a musician. The kid who walked the fence belongs in category two, as does Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist. Both daredevils draw a crowd, but the first requires only shamelessness and “chutzpah,” the Yiddish word for nervy audacity.

Stewart Goodyear fits in the second group. He has, more than once, played all 32 of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas in a single day. Ten hours’ worth. This is not simply an athletic feat, but an artistic one. His recordings of these pieces demonstrate more than endurance. One still might ask, “Why?”

In 2013, David Patrick Stearns of the Philadelphia Inquirer, did:

You’ll inevitably ask what he’s trying to prove.

“Nothing,” is his first answer. “Well, maybe a little at the beginning,” he recently conceded in Philadelphia, where the Toronto-born pianist now lives.

The artist elaborated in an interview with Elijah Ho in the same year:

There is an inner glory, a kind of salvation when one plays Beethoven. My goal in presenting the complete Beethoven sonatas was to bring the audience into the world of Beethoven so that they could experience a retrospective of his art, from his early 20’s to his 50’s.

I felt I was being taken on a journey as I was performing each one. There is the kind of connotation that the day was all about stamina. For me, it was a baptism and one of the deepest performing experiences of my life, and I actually felt myself getting stronger as the day progressed. Beethoven’s music was my bread and water, so to speak, and the reception was very, very warm.

Well, Mr. Goodyear is a young man and perhaps it is proper for a young man to “feel his oats.” Better Beethoven than going to war.

What might make an older man, however, do something similar? In 2009 the Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra played all nine numbered Mahler Symphonies and more, in the space of 12 days at Carnegie Hall. Two conductors presided. Or take Valery Gergiev’s 2013 tour concerts of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring. The evening lasted over two-and-a-half hours inclusive of two intermissions. Twice, the late Lorin Maazel conducted all nine Beethoven Symphonies in a single day. Like Goodyear’s “long day’s journey into night,” the architects of these feats gave similar lofty rationales: an “immersion” experience, an opportunity to learn more about the development of the composer’s thought, etc.

I witnessed the Gergiev concert in Chicago and a few of the Mahler evenings in New York. The “immersions” left me worse for the wear. And wondering.

First, my hat is off to the performers. Regardless of age, they demonstrated an exceptional level of stamina and concentration. But, to paraphrase Toscanini, I put my hat back on when it comes to the ill-conception of these alleged “artistic” projects. If you want to be as fascinating as Harry Houdini, get yourself straitjacketed, chained, and dumped in a tank of water. You will have your audience enthralled and be done in a few minutes. For me, all the performers accomplished was my “immersion” in an ocean of sound. Even without being straitjacketed, I was sunk.

That said, the events required extraordinary musical and physical preparation. Goodyear told Colin Eatock this in 2010:

Physically, I trained like an athlete, building up stamina and strength so I could play all 32 in one day. I learned them so thoroughly I could play them in my sleep. It’s like the Method acting made famous by Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Sydney Poitier: learning the words so thoroughly that you become the character.

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Analogies are useful to give a sense of things. I will offer two in order to explain the possible motivation of these daredevils:

  • #1: A famous man I interviewed, but never before met, whipped out his cell-phone during a break in our conversation. This gentleman, on the dark side of 60, showed me a photo of his new wife, a beauty half his age. What he did not say was, “See, I can still do this,” meaning attract a hot young babe.
  • #2: A couple came to marital therapy.
    • Exhibit A: a movie-star-handsome husband, around age 50.
    • Exhibit B: a traffic-stopping wife, somewhat younger, either well-preserved, cosmetically enhanced, or both. I asked what first attracted him to her: “She shows well,” he answered. He might have described a show horse. Amazingly, the woman did not leave the room, pull out a weapon, or strangle him.

These two examples offer us a few inferred human characteristics. Inflated-egos, boasting that is just short of locker-room tales of sexual heroics, and talent. Both were ladies’ men. Not every man is the alpha dog and these two well-understood their place in the pecking order.

The musicians might be characterized in the same way, with a narcissistic display proclaiming, “Look at me.” Not just big egos, but perhaps some underlying insecurity requiring a public affirmation of their fearlessness to do something no one dared before.

I suppose I was to blame for my disappointing concert experiences with Barenboim and Boulez conducting Mahler, and Gergiev leading Stravinsky. If Goodyear or I thought enough about his marathon in advance, we might have realized that the entire audience needed physical training for these events. The stunts were beyond the crowd’s endurance and perhaps their pocket books. I didn’t have the “Sitzfleisch” (patience to sit still) for Gergiev’s two-and-a-half hours, let alone Goodyear’s Beethoven day. Wisely, I chose not to spend the better part of 12 days listening to concert after Mahler concert, hearing only the first three installments.

I’m left with several questions, not only how an audience might endure these undertakings without a post-concert visit to an undertaker.

  • Is serving the composer the genuine goal when listeners are worn to a nub? How many ticket-holders made the complete “journey” through the composer’s thought? Even sales figures wouldn’t provide proof of souls who thrived and survived. Tickets can be exchanged, shared, sold, or go unused; and people are free to leave before a concert’s end.
  • Where is the line between a serious endeavor and a stunt? Some amount of attention-seeking is both human and essential to performance. Where is the line marked, TOO MUCH?
  • Might well-known composers be better honored by setting their music aside for a year or more? (An impossible feat to enforce, I know). Perhaps we’d emerge refreshed. It would be like a fast that leaves one with a renewed appreciation of food.
  • What did the majority of people think about the use of their money and time? How many heads were nodding off among those who heard an entire marathon? Am I too critical of these “complete works” projects? No one was forced to attend.
  • Is the audience to blame? Are we, like the ancient Romans, easily swayed by “bread and circuses,” a preoccupation with food and spectacle?

Perhaps it comes to this, in P.T. Barnum’s words:

The show business has all phases and grades of dignity, from the exhibition of a monkey to the exposition of that highest art in music or the drama which secures for the gifted artists a world-wide fame princes well might envy.

The Barnums of the world would know.

The top photo is Harry Houdini in 1899. It was sourced from Wikipedia.

Our Musical Future? “Live” Performances and the “Second Machine Age”

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I love attending concerts, but musicians may think my upcoming words are heresy. I hope technology doesn’t reduce the need for live performers, but the technological future includes many possibilities — more than anyone can imagine. Prepare yourself.

We must start by revisiting the Hartford Wagner Festival, the enterprise of Charles M. Goldstein. He expected to begin a cycle of The Ring of the Nibelung in Connecticut this month. The details leading to its postponement until 2015 can be read on Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog, A Ring Without Musicians, or the New York Times.

Mr. Goldstein knew a performance of Wagner’s four opera event would be too costly to stage with a conventional orchestra. According to the New York Times, his monumental effort to create a substitute began in 2005. He started to enter every note of music for the 15 hour epic into musical software, having purchased “access to the Vienna Symphonic Library, a collection of sampled sounds of orchestra instruments (played by real players).” The idea was to create a computerized version of the orchestra out of the orchestral bits. “Singers from the Metropolitan Opera were engaged for the major roles, along with young artists for smaller parts.” Mr. Goldstein collaborated with the musicians to establish tempos. The plan was “to set up 24 speakers to mimic the positions of instruments in (a genuine orchestra) pit.”

Publicity produced a backlash. Singers’ careers were threatened. The inflexibility and sterility of computerized music was attacked and words like “absurd” and “travesty” were written. The Hartford Wagner Festival’s website now lists a 2015 start date.

Is the battle over or is it only beginning? The truth is, the conflict began much earlier. The New York Times covered the story in 2003. Local 802 of the Musician’s Union picketed Broadway shows in response to the threat of fully electronic delivery of what was previously the instrumentalists’ in person artistry. Anthony Tommasini, the critic who described the conflict, thought their argument had some holes. Orchestral and choral amplification with electronic support, synthesized instruments, and body microphones of principal singers were already a staple of the stage, he argued. The Union won, but technology has advanced in the last 11 years.

The Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL) is a tool intended to allow the creation of a good, albeit recorded, orchestral performance for the purpose of the user. In the case of Mr. Goldstein’s planned public presentation, input from the singers expected to be on stage, as well as the “conductor,” would determine the interpretation of the composition. Thus, the VSL holds the possibility of something greater than getting actors to lip-sync. Nonetheless, critics believe it does not permit the nuance, spontaneity, and sound of a real orchestra. Moreover, some say, unexpected mishaps on stage during an opera (an early or late entrance by a singer, for example) would be difficult for the conductor to adjust to.

I consulted a couple of musicians familiar with the VSL and its use. How much time might it take to “assemble” a fully realized rendition of a major symphonic work like Debussy’s La Mer? As Mr. Goldstein’s example suggests, they thought the time involved would be far too long to compete with today’s marvelous live instrumentalists (even for a talented, computer savvy conductor familiar with the VSL and musical notation software). You can listen to Andrew Blaney’s version of the second movement of La Mer on the VSL website and judge the quality for yourself. A first-class orchestra typically accomplishes its own magic in a few rehearsals using traditional printed scores. Wouldn’t live musicians therefore be safe?

Not so fast. Once the notes and instruments are “in the machine,” another conductor could come along and tweak the performance to his or her satisfaction. Still, for now at least, a computer-experienced maestro would have to learn how to use the VSL. The time involved in preparing his interpretation would be large even after that.

Does the situation change when we look only at opera and its audience? Might some music lovers be willing to attend an opera of live singers and a digitized orchestra if the price were cheap enough? Perhaps some who live in the provinces would.

Imagine a generous donor purchasing loudspeakers, the computer, musical notation software, and the VSL (one time expenses) for a small community with a decent auditorium, thus enabling staged operas. There exists a plethora of talented young singers and competent conductors of high school, college ensembles, and community orchestras. We are not talking James Levine or Riccardo Muti here, of course.

A digital orchestra reduces costs after the original outlay by our hypothetical donor. Goldstein’s long effort to enter the notes into the software for his “Ring cycle,” once done, needn’t be done again. Of course, he would have to be willing to sell his work product for an affordable price or simply give it away. Alternatively, several small communities could band together to pay whatever price Mr. Goldstein would set, or hire someone to do the job of entering the notes for an agreed upon opera. From that point, it could be widely and cheaply shared among them, as digital music commonly is today.

The cost of such an arrangement would be far less than hiring an orchestra and paying a major conductor tens of thousands of dollars per performance. Still, the result would be both poorer and different, at least until robots and androids are far more developed than they are now; replacements, that is, for some or all of the musicians!

Did I say robots and androids? The latter are robots designed to resemble humans. I’ll get to androids in a moment. Nonetheless, we are already in the world of the “second machine age.” Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, two MIT professors, elaborate in their book, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. Even Goldstein’s idea of a digital orchestra puts us well beyond the era of steam engines, a prime contributor to the first machine age.

Would an enterprise such as Mr. Goldstein’s have an effect on major opera houses? Much depends upon the audience’s perception of the product. If most opera lovers believe the human beings at the Lyric Opera or the Met are worth the ticket price, as I hope they do, their orchestras have no worries. If, however, a sizeable number of patrons don’t, downward pressure on prices would follow (or at least the portion of the admission fee attributable to the orchestra). Instrumentalists and their salaries may be more vulnerable to the technological changes because they are in the pit, unseen by much of the audience. The human contact between the listeners and the players is more easily realized by the singers and the chorus in an opera house, unlike a concert hall where the ensemble and the podium focus our attention. Nonetheless, I don’t expect the technology we have now puts a superb opera orchestra in danger.

Ah, but the future — a different question altogether. Scientists speculate about something called “the singularity.” The singularity represents the point at which a fully conscious machine with greater than human intelligence is achieved. Coupled with the advanced android capabilities of that time, many of today’s jobs might vanish, perhaps even those of violinists and tuba players. The MIT professors cite evidence of the exponential growth of technology in recent years, predicting acceleration as we go forward. Self-driving cars already exist, as do computers that can beat the best Jeopardy or chess players. Ray Kurzweil, in The Singularity is Near, made a 2005 prediction placing the singularity somewhere around 2045. Kurzweil is a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, won MIT-Lemelson’s half-million dollar prize for innovation, and received the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton.

If one lets the imagination go wild, the possibility of android orchestras, conductors, or singers is conceivable, regardless of the year they turn up. I didn’t say preferable, particularly since the friendliness of such machines to humans is also an open question. Nor is it clear whether they would be interested in music, in the artistic history of the human race, or in presenting concerts of the works of humans in the formal way it has been done until now.

Assuming they are well disposed to Homo sapiens, however, it might become possible to pour all the recorded performances of the conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler, into a capable machine and generate imagined interpretations of pieces for which we have no evidence of his work. A Furtwängler performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis comes to mind. Does this violate Furtwängler’s memory? Were Mahler and Elgar violated, respectively, by completed performing versions of Mahler’s sketches for his Symphony #10 or Anthony Payne’s elaboration of Elgar’s unfinished Symphony #3? And could an android “inspire” human or robotic musicians in the hypnotic fashion of some of the greatest conductors? Would inspiration even be required? Live long enough and perhaps you’ll find out.

IBM is already working on a machine to do something similar for physicians minus the inspiration “to better diagnose what’s wrong with their patients. Instead of volumes and volumes of general knowledge, the supercomputer is being trained to sit on top of all of the world’s high-quality published medical information; match it against patients’ symptoms, medical histories, and test results; and formulate both a diagnosis and a treatment plan. … IBM estimates that it would take a human doctor 160 hours of reading each week just to keep up with relevant new literature,” according to The Second Machine Age authors.

Today we have opera supertitles and a giant in-concert video screen display of the Chicago Symphony in the Ravinia music shed, its summer home. We have digital music at our fingertips and in our earbuds. Robots guided by surgeons work on delicate human body parts. Some operas and orchestras simulcast their work around the world.

Once men thought Jules Verne’s 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon, was silliness.

The MIT authors remind us, never say never.