Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Technology in Music: Combining the New and Old in Classical Music

I was reading PianoMorphisis, an ArtsJournal blog by Bruce Brubaker, the chair of the piano department at New England Conservatory, and found a link to a Boston Globe article about a recital he gave in February. The article, written by David Weininger and titled "Onstage, a grand piano and an iPod," is based on a phone interview with Brubaker, in which he discusses his programming for the recital.

His recital contained the Boston premier of composer Nico Muhly's "Drones and Piano," a piece written for Brubaker by Muhly. The drones mentioned in the title are tracks that have been pre-recorded by Muhly which Brubaker plays on a sound system through his iPod. The backing track also contains rhythmic punctuations, a viola solo, and additional layers of "odd sounds" as Weininger described them. Despite the variation contained in the backing track, the score does not specify how it should be coordinated with each section of the five-part piece. In fact, the piece is designed so that if one of the sections is finished before the track stops, the pianist can skip to the next track on the iPod.

In his programming, Brubaker did not follow the two paths Weininger says most performers would: he didn't create an entire evening of new music around Muhly's piece, and he also didn't use Muhly's piece as an introductory first piece that would be followed by a familiar program. Instead, he filled the rest of the program with a variety of old an new: Schumann's Fantasy Pieces Op. 111, nos. 1 and 2 were alternated with short works by Philip Glass (Etudes nos. 4 and 5), and works by Alvin Curran and more by Philip Glass made up the rest of the program.

Why the inclusion of the Schumann in a program of relatively new works? Brubaker says that the he noticed some "interesting connections" between Schumann and the Muhly work, including the presence of drones in one of the Schumann pieces. As Weininger says, "The point isn’t to suggest a clear lineage from the Muhly work back to the Schumann; it’s to create a listening experience where similarities can emerge subtly out of dissimilar parts." Brubaker elaborated on the combination of the seemingly "old" with new music on a program, mentioning that at the time of their composition, works of the classical repertoire were new music themselves:
that kind of programming allows us to be more comfortable with the new, but at the same time, to be a little less comfortable with the old. We start to recognize, actually, [that] all music is new music. It’s just that it ages and eventually becomes something we think we know.
Brubaker drew an interesting parallel between the use of technology and Liszt, mentioning that Liszt's recital programs from the 1840s rarely contained music of previous generations, but were presentations of "music of the moment," as Brubaker says. The connection to technology is that it was "new music delivered through the vehicle of the latest high-technology instrument — the modern piano." Therefore, perhaps the use of technology isn't something contradictory the classical music tradition. In fact, as Brubaker suggests, including the latest technology in new music performance may be an "authentic" way of adhering to tradition, and creates continuity between new and old when combined in a program with more "traditional" works:
“To really honor what Liszt did, or to really get in there and experience what that would be,’’ he continues, “well, you’d have to play with high technology, you’d have to play new music, and you’d sprinkle in something else to represent where it came from.’’

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