Classical Music and Technology: A Bright Future?

People now live their lives through an information technology which is all-pervading and on a dizzying upward development path.  Whether one considers this on the whole a good thing, as I think I do, or a bad one is not relevant – it is inescapable and, barring global catastrophe, irreversible.  This is an intensely Darwinian moment – those things which can be carried by such technology will be more and more an essential and intimate part of life; anything which cannot will stand no chance of survival.

In this respect, classical music, in my view, stands on the brink.  As an art form it is ideally suited to be part of the info-tech world; already we know that it is freely available to us to be “consumed” where, when and how we wish.  I use freely here in all senses of the word – not only is almost every sound ever recorded available to us, these sounds are, or can be, largely cost-free thanks to the vast stocks of recorded music from the last seventy years; the equipment, thousands of times more powerful than that which sent Man to the Moon, is given away free in exchange for a phone contract costing a few quid a month.  If your fancy takes you that way you can listen to Strauss’s Alpine Symphony from on top of the Matterhorn or Holst’s Planets Suite from on top of Mauna Kea, each played by the greatest artists, with fabulous sound quality and costing you nothing.  How few years does one have to go back to find a time when that would have been seen as the futuristic fantasy of someone with a weird laugh, a large collection of the works of E.E. “Doc” Smith, and dubious personal hygiene  – and how astonishing it is for those over thirty to realize that the world now finds such wonders normal and mundane and takes them utterly for granted as a birthright.

You would think, then, that lovers of classical music should be in clover, looking forward to a future of free and unbroken access to their spiritual nourishment of choice.  Well, that’s where the problems lie, of course.  All those of us who live and work in classical music know the danger signals we face – a mistaken but forgiveable public perception of cultural elitism that is rooted in social history, fuelled by unforgivably ignorant and fatuous media coverage; falling audiences at live music events; enormous pressure to modify music (which is permanent) to suit public taste (which is ephemeral); the disappearance of music from schools and the life of the young; and so on.  The estrangement between classical music and the general public is a very large and difficult subject and its causes must form the gravamen of discourses aired elsewhere and elsewhen.

One thing is clear, however.  Classical music cannot afford merely to react more or less reluctantly to new technology – it must see it as an integral part of its new life, embracing it enthusiastically as a creative resource and actively seeking to drive it forward down exciting new paths.  There will be those who find such thoughts threatening, delicately shuddering at the thought of brash info-tech muscling in on elegant and fragrant performances of their beloved Schubert or Bellini.  They need not worry; a Schubert song is a Schubert song, as a Brahms Symphony is a Brahms Symphony; they are eternal and require nothing more of us than the time and tranquility to listen and reflect – this does not depend on technology, it depends on us.

Many classical musicians have liked to see themselves somehow as Keepers of the Sacred Flame; this is defensive and backward looking, perhaps, but understandable (and frightfully romantic!)  Perhaps it is time to refocus – to look away from all the extraneous paraphernalia of the concert tradition and concentrate on the music itself; its magnificence, its wild terror, its seductiveness, and its eternal consolation.  Therein, surely, lies that which is truly sacred.  A life spent tending such a light, as it waxed bright in a world of wonders, would be worth living indeed!

© 2012 Philip Hesketh

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