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Forefront of a Revolution: The Integration of Modern Technology in Classical Music

0 Zachary Preucil
Editor's Abstract

In this article, cellist Zachary Preucil presents a convincing case for the integration of technology in classical music. Preucil and those he interviews are careful to point out that technology will not replace the wonderful live music experiences that we all love, but rather provide myriad opportunities for innovation and improvement of what we do. Enjoy this thought provoking read!

Stephen Danyew

“Artistic revolutions in culture change everything and are changed by everything,” NEC Theory and Music-in-Education Professor Paul Burdick explains. “If you look at the Beatles, or if you look at Beethoven, they were of their time. And the Beatles would not have been the Beatles without JFK having been killed…and Beethoven wouldn’t have been Beethoven without Napoleon. Strong cultural movements are changed by and change everything.”

It is a quiet February afternoon as we sit in Burdick’s self-described “man cave” of an office in the basement of the St. Botolph building. Symbols of the digital age are all around us; we are situated directly across the hall from the Music Technology classroom, and are adjacent to the NEC Computer Lab - invaluable educational spaces which Burdick helped to design. Both of our faces are lit by the screens of our MacBooks, and I frequently check the time on my cell phone to ensure we will be done before Paul has to teach his 4 P.M. class - Music and Learning with Technology. The year is 2011 - and it certainly looks like it. The daily life of a conservatory musician is replete with digital necessities - virtually any piece of music is available at the click of a mouse (whether you be looking for manuscript or a recording), our colleagues send us Facebook invitations to vote for their selection to the YouTube Symphony, and, thanks to the capabilities of Skype, we can now have lessons with our teachers even if they are out of town on tour. Yet, a mere decade ago, this would be the content of a science-fiction fantasy, although primitive forms of these innovations did exist. What, I wonder, was the genesis of this technological music revolution? How did it all start? And most importantly, what does it mean for the lives of aspiring - and tenured - classical musicians?

Burdick greets my first query - whether it was just within the past decade that all of this really came about - with a not unkindly chuckle. “It’s interesting that you say that you only recently noticed it and it’s because you play cello - because you’re a classical musician. And classical musicians are just now starting to notice - which is kind of a problem,” he tells me. “As musicians, when we say music we basically mean the kind of music we’re interested in. But if you’re an anthropologist, or if you’re looking at music from other aspects, specifically anthropology and economics, you’re looking at it in a very different way and you’re looking for different cues to reach conclusions about what’s going on. From an anthropology standpoint, 1984 is it.”

Although bearing no apparent relation to the George Orwell novel of the same name, the year 1984 saw a number of groundbreaking technological inventions, most notably the Macintosh computer, the Midi standard, and the Yamaha electric piano. In order to not transcend the boundaries of techie competence, I will omit the tedious details of exactly how these machines work, but basically the Macintosh was the first computer to have a graphic interface, allowing for looking and listening - something that its predecessor, the PC, lacked the capabilities to present. For the first time, musical instruments and computers could “talk” - the genesis of music notation software. As a result, Macs were bought by musicians and artists, and PCs were bought by the business community - a trend that continues to this day. Thus 1984, while completely devoid of “Big Brother,” started the ball rolling. By 1992, the first mp3 files had been developed, and by 2000 we began to see the birth of what we know today as internet musical media. By the time most of us students were in junior high, it was feasibly possible to get a recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto “online” (a term that left our parents frowning in confusion). It seemed as though the classical music world was surely on top of things when it came to integrating all of this “new” technology. Yet, this was not so.

For 1984 was not the start of the integration of technology in music - it was only the start of its latest transformation. In fact, we have to look all the way back to the beginning of the twentieth century to find the roots of the union of music and modern technology - and surprisingly, it was not classical music that we find on top of the ball. Instead, we find two new musical models taking over the innovation scene: Jazz and, to put it generally, Rock n’ Roll. Burdick points out that recording and broadcast technology were the technologies of the twentieth century - and jazz and rock ‘n’ roll could not have existed without them as these technologies were what propelled their art forms into the scope of popular culture. As a result, the first albums of this genre were marketed much more so than classical music, and became, as Burdick puts it, “commercially driven.” “[Buying] songs,” he explains, “is like getting chewing gum on the way out of the grocery store. They don’t sell turkeys on the way out of the grocery store.” To put it plainly, Burdick asserts, classical music didn’t become as integrated as Jazz and Rock n’ Roll because it didn’t need to - it had already embraced technology in its own genesis. The technology of early music was notation and instrumentation - the first devices that “froze” music. Out of these grew additional instruments and modification, eventually growing into the standard classical genres that we see today. “There was this love of instruments and there was this love of notation,” Burdick explains. “And classical music grows out of that love. But it’s still committed to live performance - because there’s no other option.” Those of us who have had exposure to the classical art form have such a great love for it that it has endured against all odds to this point in time - and it surely will endure in the future. Yet, so many people have not had exposure, and it’s not because they don’t listen to music. It’s because of the inevitable technological divide that, through the fault of no one, fostered a new musical revolution.

But here we see irony at its finest - for we are now at a point where technology is no longer the source of division but a bridge into the currents of modern culture. Classical music fell from the popular eye “because the means of making it didn’t require a change,” Burdick says. “[and] the means of promoting it and the means of interacting with an audience didn’t require a change. I think the Classical World has wrestled with that. And I think it’s time for the classical music world to take it seriously and to really be intentionally think-tank thoughtful about it. [It’s] not a trivial ‘Oh, I’m going to make music the way I normally make it and at the last second I’ll put some technological spin on the ball.’ It needs to come through the technology in a deep way.”

Enter NEC. Our school has been a pioneer in the music world since its founding as the first independent conservatory in America. In 1969 it became the first conservatory to offer a Jazz program, and in 2009 it launched the unique Entrepreneurial Musicianship department, now requiring all undergraduate students to take a class that teaches them how to be innovative in the modern-day field. One of the most important innovations we have witnessed in recent years, however, is happening in one of our prized Ensembles-in-Residence: the Borromeo String Quartet. Beginning in the fall of 2007, the ensemble has pioneered the use of FootTime, a software that allows for performers to download the score of a piece onto their computer and “turn” pages using foot pedals. As a result, the quartet can now see the full interplay of the score while in performance of a piece - something that in the past could only be experienced by a pianist. “My first intention was just to use it in rehearsals, but especially in unfamiliar music it added something quite noticeably positive to the way the group functioned,” Nicholas Kitchen, the Borromeo’s first violinist, explains. “The depth of communal understanding of the interrelationships of details that comes from everyone reading off of the score is orders of magnitude greater than the experience of working together off of separate parts. Besides the obvious disappearance of ‘what do you have there?’, there is a kind of sensitized absorption of the multi-layered independence of the parts- which is truly a revolutionary change.“ Even more importantly, however, is the subsequent involvement of the audience in the performance - whether it be through enhanced audio or visual cues, or the projection of the score onto a screen in back of the performers.

“Classical music’s survival depends on our tapping into the curiosity of people who are not musicians, and modern technology gives us more tools to explain [to the audience] exactly what is so wonderful in this music,” Kitchen continues. “How we use these tools will show how ingenious and energetic we are, and what we contribute will build the future for our art.” But the Borromeo’s use of MacBooks in performance is not the fullest extent to which they are using modern technology. Many of their performances are recorded on video and posted to LivingArchive.com, a free online database of select BSQ performances. Although the BSQ does not have an extensive discography, they have a more extensive online presence than most ensembles of their caliber. “Musical experiences at school and church which used to be part of almost every person’s experiences are no longer experiences we can count on people to be exposed to,” Kitchen states. “All the efforts of Living Archive are to give listeners more access to music, with an emphasis on the uniqueness of the personal exchange of each concert.

Some people make CDs and DVDs part of their entertainment; others use them to satisfy curiosity and promote deeper learning. Any and all of these uses for the material of Living Archive are valuable and it is for this kind of access to the events of the live exchange of music that Living Archive was founded.” LivingArchive is a unique and growing presence in the chamber music world; yet, the mother of all online music sharing is a site we all know - YouTube, which Burdick describes as “the beginning of the final transformation of broadcast technology.” Before 2005, the year the site was launched, all music that was shared with the public was decided by the content censures of radio and television. Now, an equal number of consumers to radio and television are also the people deciding the content, and this essentially makes YouTube an online democracy of personal expression. If a musician gets an email from Violist Smith, asking them to play a gig, that person can search for Mr. Smith on YouTube to get an idea of what he might be like. If the top hit is a badly-spliced upload of Mr. Smith’s senior recital at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, the prospective collaborator might think twice before considering the gig.

But the importance of YouTube goes beyond its revolutionary music-sharing capabilities - it is the precursor to what will ultimately be the result of this latest artistic revolution. And, according to Burdick, whenever there’s a revolution, there’s one thing that always changes - the venue. “We’re ten to twenty years away from a change in venue that will change everything - being able to play in real time with other people on the Internet,” Burdick states. “[It will be] so you can play in musical time together and not have a time lag. The next Beatles will be some kid from Finland, some kid from Liverpool, some kid from Anchorage, and some kid from Paris forming a band. That is what’s going to happen.” A small microcosm of this is in fact right here at NEC - namely, NEC-#. Created in 2010 by graduate composition student Albert Oppenheimer, the program allows for people to record a video in the keys of E Major or c# minor that can be simultaneously played with other uploaded videos of the same parameters. This “Beatles of the Future,” Burdick goes on to explain, will see YouTube as their ancestor - much in the same way that garage bands spawned the birth of Rock ‘N’ Roll. “Rock n’ Roll starts from hanging out,” says Burdick. “You’re already in the garage - you just have to buy some guitars. Well, YouTube is the garage. We just don’t have guitars yet.” So, perhaps when the Borromeo Quartet celebrates their fortieth anniversary in 2030, they won’t be using their MacBooks to read off of the score - they’ll be using them to cue, in perfect time, with a guest artist from Switzerland as he stands in his kitchen overlooking the Alps.

It’s a paradisal vision of the ultimate use of music as a universal language. Then, we will have truly possessed the capability to connect with musicians and artists around the globe, and expand our art form to new heights previously considered impossible. But within the bright future of the marriage of music and modern technology, a shadow falls across the face of innovation. Music has always utilized the live performance as its ultimate medium. What if we reach a point where music is experienced more and more indirectly? If all the greatest works are available at the click of a mouse, will we still dress up and go to the Symphony? Will all of our advancements mutate into fuel for our destruction? “The tone of a great musician as a real physical experience is something which can not be reproduced,” Kitchen imparts. “We need to use these great resources for all they are worth, but remember that a picture of a piece of food will give us no nourishment.” Burdick, too, echoes these statements.

Ultimately, he explains, the ethical implications of technological integration depend on the situation and contextual setting that you, the listener, are experiencing the music in- essentially asking yourself whether you are being provided an appropriate aesthetic content. “If you’re driving in your car and you have an iPod player and it’s connected and you’re listening to Sibelius 5, that’s really appropriate,” Burdick explains. “Conversely, it would be really inappropriate to try and have the orchestra in a truck! On the other hand, if you go to Symphony Hall and someone gets out their iPod and Boombox and says ‘Well, here’s Sibelius 5, we recorded it last night’ - that’s really inappropriate. Same iPod, same recording - but now it’s not okay. It’s a matter of looking at the implicit communication that’s going on that is necessary to satisfy the needs of the current social situation - not just the explicit means of accomplishing the communication.” In fact, the recording aesthetic allows musicians to truly present their interpretation of a piece without the pressures of a live performance. Now, as recording technology becomes more and more sophisticated, we have a new set of tools at our disposal - not just in performance, but in practice as well. Kitchen and Burdick both encourage students to use recording resources to their advantage, whether it be taping a run-through of a piece or recording an actual practice session for later analyzation of effectiveness.

Then, we can experience the perspective of the listener as well as that of the performer - and subsequently integrate that perspective into our artistic expressions. The issue of music-technology integration is possibly the most important process impacting aspiring professional musicians today. It is expanding our art and expression to audiences, allowing for previously unimagined intimacy and communication, and potentially illuminating a pathway that classical music has shied away from for nearly a century. It is up to us students - the musicians of the future - to harness these advancements and utilize them to their maximum potential. Now, we have the potential to take our art to heights we have never dreamed of, and share our gifts in ways we have never conceived. But, as we see all of this progress throughout the course of our careers, we must maintain an innate perspective. We may live in an era of computers and iPhones and Facebook. But there are some things in life that never go out of style, and one of them is music in its purest form - a performance, maybe in a cavernous concert hall, or maybe in a quiet living room on a Fall afternoon, with the tones of stringed instruments only interrupted by a whispering autumnal wind. Music is, and has always been, a part of Nature - and that is one thing that will never change.

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