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.

Living in a Disposable World


Look carefully at the above photo. How does it relate to the way that so many things in our world have become disposable? I’ll tell you my personal answer at the end. First, though, I’ll give you a few examples of how much has become less permanent in a country that remains affluent compared to most of the world.

Let’s start with employment. In the early days of the USA, large numbers of people worked for themselves. As the industrial revolution came and cities grew, most cottage industries died and many individuals found that they could no longer compete with the larger, machine driven industrialists who could make the same goods more quickly and cheaply. So, the formerly independent man or artisan who worked for himself (with perhaps some family assistance) now had little choice but to find a job working for one of those entities. A phrase was born to describe this: he had become “a wage slave,” an idea that became increasingly popular in the nineteenth century.

For much of the last century, a good worker in that position might expect a long period of employment with one company. Today, on the other hand, that man is likely to work for several different companies over his lifetime, perhaps by his decision, perhaps not. Those that are not given the choice, now find that their skills are no longer needed or that they are more costly to employ because there is a cheaper labor force overseas or maybe even that robots are available to replace them. All of these folks have become disposable.

Now think of the various gadgets and machines you own. Smart phones that were said to have all the latest advantages just yesterday are considered obsolete due to improvements of design and technical capacity in the new and upgraded model that seems to have emerged in almost no time. Cars, too, fit this paradigm.  Clothes, although still often mended as they commonly were in the past, seem increasingly to be discarded for reasons of outdated fashion and limited storage in most of our residences, assuming you have the money and time to buy the “new” and dump the “old.” Even a bed was expected to last for most of a lifetime in my parents’ lower middle class home, with the possible exception of replacing the mattress when necessary.

Before the invention of the safety razor by Gillette in 1901, men who wanted a shave had to rely on straight razors, which required the use of a strop and a hone to keep them sharp. Now razor blades are commonly discarded after the blade becomes dull. And in my baby boomer life in a public elementary school, everyone was expected to write with a fountain pen, even though disposable pens soon took over. Styrofoam and bubble wrap are also useful 20th century inventions, which we get rid of almost as soon as we get them.

Those climbing the corporate ladder today get bigger houses with more amenities, selling off the old comfortable ones, often at the expense of disrupting their children’s lives; almost as if trading one style of life to be replaced by another. The same forces even operate on the cities or countries in which we reside, so that the need to find a job or advance one’s career causes moves from place to place, often by thousands of miles; sometimes more than once in a working life. Today one lives in Boston, in a couple of years in Chicago, and eventually maybe Hong Kong.

Even those of us who might wish to dispose of fewer things and make do with those with which we are comfortable are forced to follow the herd, if for no other reason than the fact that the replacement parts needed to fix our old appliances are no longer made or too expensive to install, not to mention those technological advances that our work might require of us, which make the scrap heap (or landfill) the new home of the old devices.

Friends, too, seem more interchangeable. How long does it take to make a really good friendship? If school is an example, it takes a bit of continuous time together and shared experience, not to mention the opportunity to live close enough to interact outside of school with some regularity. But the new mobile man or woman might not stay long enough in one place to create durable and lasting relationships that survive the residential movement for either themselves or their children.

To the good, the divorce rate hasn’t recently increased, although it appears that for many, marriage has been replaced by something that is perhaps more temporary: cohabitation.  A Pew Research Center study indicated that 72% of adult Americans were married in 1960 compared to 51% in 2010. There are doubtless many factors that explain this, but we are left with the bottom line that the anticipation of one and only one partner for life isn’t what it was in “the good old days.”

Witness the following commentary. It can be found in the book, Sketches From a Life, published by Pantheon:

I cannot help but regret that I did not live fifty or a hundred years sooner. Life is too full in these times to be comprehensible. We know too many cities to be able to grow into any of them, and our arrivals and departures are no longer matters for emotional debauches — they are too common. Similarly, we have too many friends to have any friendships, too many books to know any of them well; and the quality of our impressions gives way to the quantity, so that life begins to seem like a movie, with hundreds of kaleidoscopic scenes flashing on and off our field of perception — gone before we have time to consider them.

“Gone before we have time to consider them.” These words were written by George Kennan, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, diplomat, and scholar. Yesterday, you ask? No. They were written over 86 years ago in his journal, on December 20, 1927 when he was 23.

Which brings to mind a long time BBC radio program called Desert Island Discs, about which I’ve written before, as I have about Kennan. The idea here is for the moderator to interview some famous person (not just musicians) and ask him which recordings are his favorites. And, if he were marooned on a desert island, which of these would he take along. In a way, I suppose, the question is really about those tunes you could live without and others which you consider indispensable.

That is the real issue here, isn’t it? The tendency to treat so many things as if they are so important to us that we sometimes can’t wait to acquire them, but things that people used to hold on to and now will more readily replace unless living in the middle of nowhere, out of the very long reach of Amazon and companies like it.

If you choose to see the this “getting and spending” phenomenon in person, go out before sunrise to see long lines of people who wish to be among the first to buy a new geeky gadget — who queue up well before the store opens. Admittedly, sometimes we are required to dispose of things for something newer and “better,” but often we aren’t and virtually never are such purchases of the latest device required for our work on the first day that they are available for sale.

What exactly is going on here? Are we in danger of making the wrong choices because we hold incorrect beliefs about what will make us happy?  There is actually a good deal of research on this, which briefly summarized concludes that we are not very good at knowing in advance what things or activities will provide happiness — give some lasting satisfaction. In fact, psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Charles Wilson have coined a phrase for this: “miswanting” or wanting things that won’t provide the emotional benefit we are hoping for. There are doubtless more reasons than those I’ve listed for living in a disposable world, but the behavioral result is the same: out with the old and in with the new.

One could go in many directions with this idea, from the effects of globalization that have created jobs in one part of the world at the expense of another part, to the idea of what makes for a satisfying life, to the research that indicates that we often feel better giving something than getting something: Happiness and Giving to Others.

I can’t help but notice, however, that disposing itself has become a major preoccupation and job source. The proof is to be found in the increasing size of garbage cans in posh suburbs containing many things that used to serve us well for years and now go to the recycler or into the diminishing landfill space — the underground version of what we used to call a garbage dump. Or your can take a ride north on the Metra Milwaukee District North Line Train from downtown Chicago and pass a gigantic lot filled with discarded cars as far as the eye can see. Well, at least that gives the lot operators a way to make a living.

I know I’ve focused on the dark side of this. So, to balance things a little, it is worth mentioning that the same technological capacity that fuels our interest in what is fashionable and new, must be said to have produced some pretty wonderful things: cars, medical discoveries that improve the quality and length of our lives; central heating, air conditioning, and indoor plumbing; and air travel, just to name a few. Technology, it appears, is a sword that cuts two ways, especially if you are among the people who believe that man’s use of fossil-fueled energy to do all these wonderful things also means that we are treating planet Earth as if it too were disposable.

So what then is disposable to you? Put another way, what do you consider so precious in the world of people and things that you would take them along if you were a castaway and could manage only a little cargo?

Here is a hint to my way of thinking. The answer is to be found in the top photo I mentioned earlier, so you might scroll up to the picture — the one of goats on a hillside — and wonder what that is doing in an essay called Living in a Disposable World. Well, the photographer calls the photo Goats Kissing. Coupled with the hillside and the gorgeous blue-clouded sky, I find it all quite beautiful.

The photo is recent, but the scene would have been visible at virtually any point in human history to the average person who lived near a hill and a shepherd, or perhaps just naturally occurring in nature. No, I probably wouldn’t think to take goats to the desert island. But if there is beauty and love there, perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad at all. I guess what I’m saying is, be careful what you ask for and what you choose to leave behind when you reach the desert island. Some of those new things that won’t be on offer at any store just might have the most value.


The Goats Kissing photo comes from Wikimedia.org, furnished by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos.