Friday, September 5, 2014

Technology in classical music: when is it no longer our ally?

This June, I had the privilege of being a ringer with the Bard Conservatory Orchestra on their Eastern European tour. The many new and different things and foreign cultures and beautiful concert halls were obviously fascinating, and it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime trip. I also had the opportunity to see how the Bard College Conservatory student body works. They are really a unique bunch of people, and it was intensely interesting to me how many of the conservatory students took it upon themselves to document the tour in some way. One mathematician-violinist told me she was recording all the tuning A’s from every performance and rehearsal to see if our concept of “in-tune” changed over time, and how our pitch was influenced by tuning to different pianos for performances of Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (played captivatingly by Bard’s and Longy’s own faculty member Benjamin Hochman). Many students took pictures from the various stages around Europe, or even during sightseeing tours, to post on instagram with a Bard Conservatory Tour hashtag. One student made an announcement at the beginning of the tour that he had somehow contacted Google and obtained two Google glasses for use during the tour, and that any interested member of the orchestra was permitted to wear them during a concert or rehearsal. The idea of this, as far as I could ascertain, was to create a series of videos giving an insider perspective of the students’ experiences on the tour.

This was my first contact with the idea of using Google Glass or classical music-related purposes. Apparently, however, the Google Glass phenomenon was already a pre-existing bandwagon upon which the Bard Orchestra chose to jump. According to Ivan Hewitt of the Telegraph (United Kingdom), there a number of Google Glass-related trends cropping up around the world. There are not only music videos being posted to YouTube that primarily feature footage from the Google Glass-view of one performer in an ensemble, audiences are attending live performances and dawning Google Glasses to experience the performance through the perpective of one performer in an ensemble (at least, in one corner of their vision).

Hewitt condemns this practice as everything near an abomination, positing that there’s no point attending a live performance this way, because the reason to attend a live performance is to absorb the WHOLE musical product that is being delivered to you. Furthermore, we are tainting the concept of live performance itself, and reducing concert to mere documentary. I can see a certain truth in that. Documentaries are wonderful and informational when they are on your living room television. However, perhaps live performance should be held dear in this day and age of technoeverything. As an audience member at a live performance, part of the experience is allowing your attention to drift where the music beckons you. Your eyes move freely around the stage as you hear something interesting and you want to find the source of that something interesting. There’s something magical about that moment you locate the instrument making that beautiful sound that seemed to come out of nowhere. There’s something beautiful about seeing musicians react to each other in real-time on stage, spinning a rich musical dialogue. Maybe the sea of synchronized bows is mesmerizing, or maybe watching the string basses athletically maneuver around their giant instruments is what’s interesting. I think there’s something to be said for letting audience NOTICE at their own pace. With the introduction of the Google Glass into concert halls, perhaps we are tampering with the very essence of what makes a live performance, live. With the rise of the recording industry and the availability of synthesizers, I think this is an issue that should be examined carefully.

Like all new technology, I suspect there is somewhere a happy medium for Google Glass’s relationship with classical music. Perhaps in a live performance is just not the best place. It is evident that we live in a world where this precious art form is dying. We who make our living in classical music would do well to make friends with technology in ways that will help keep our art relevant. Seeing what goes into the rehearsals of a Bard Conservatory Tour could make audience members more interested in the finished product of a concert. There might be people who just have always wondered what it would look like to be that person playing the harp. There might be a counductor-to-be somewhere who is drawn in and fascinated by the up-close view of a baton in the video Hewitt linked in his article: Despite these possibilities, though, I think every musician should be careful to weigh the up- and downsides of using something like Google Glass. The last thing we want is to further supplant the concept of live performance-- for without our live audiences, our art has nary a chance of survival.

No comments: