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  • Writer's pictureAlan Cook

What makes classical music unique in a digital age?

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

The recent need to close down the live music industry due to COVID-19 has effectively forced all musical activity online. The popular music genres in particular have embraced it since the core of their activity is in electronic format. However, it has forced the classical music world into taking up online activity that it has previously resisted, or at best, very tentatively engaged with. Some would have you believe that the reason for this difference is that classical music is resistant to change and behind the times. However, I believe that there are more serious issues at stake.

Classical music performance operates on the very extremes of human ability. The performance of great works of Western art music demands not only talent, but years, even decades, of study and practice. Virtuosic works of any instrument require precision motor skills and speed that put any mechanical or digital invention to shame, as well as artistry and sensitivity that only decades of experience and insight can provide. The sheer brain power required is incalculable. Studies show that in musical performance, the brain is fully utilised in a way with which no other human activity compares. Additionally, when musicians perform in ensemble, from chamber music up to a large symphony orchestra or opera, the combined skills and musical intuition in action is nothing short of breath-taking. Such feats of live performance, without any technological assistance, are unmatched in any popular music performance. Classical musicians are truly the elite athletes of the music world and the experience of witnessing it live is unparalleled.

The nature of classical music is a pure dynamic of person and instrument, unadulterated, unmediated sound from performer to audience, coloured and carried only by the very air we breathe and the acoustic space we occupy. In such an environment, the instrument and voice are heard in their purity, the artist is totally exposed, and no means of deception or fakery are possible. The silence and the sensitivity of the acoustic space allow for a dynamic range as quiet as a pin-drop and as loud as thunder. It also permits the maximum perception of the musical overtones and frequencies that is unmatched by any sound system whether digital or analogue. Electronically mediated classical music damages delicate acoustic qualities and richness of sound. Complex overtones heard from the instrument and enriched by the acoustic space are lost. Classical music becomes compressed and ‘airbrushed’ by digital processing, and dynamic range and spectrum of frequencies crushed. The listener hears an inferior copy, a shadow of the real music.

Going to a classical music concert is a spectacle. It is the ritual of live performance, the atmosphere of audience anticipation, of high expectations, as well as the social/communal aspect of sharing the experience with like-minded music-lovers. Music has always been a social activity by its very nature. It brings people together. There is an exchange of energy between performers and audience. Online, this is practically lost. People sit alone with their devices, or in small groups at best. If it is a live stream, some of the gravity is maintained by virtue of not being pre-recorded and edited, but the experience of performing for a live audience has a profound effect on the artist’s ability to perform at their peak. Most artists report that having a live audience raises their standard of performance to a level unattainable in a studio or practice room.

Until the advent of the microphone and amplification of instruments, acoustic performance of music was the only way to hear music. This new technology allowed voices and instruments which normally would not be heard by any more than a few people to be heard by an entire stadium. This permitted the proliferation and popularisation of styles of musical performance that were previously impossible. Classical music never needed this except in the exceptional circumstances of outdoor performances or to very large audiences in unsuitable venues. It was understood that such technology had few benefits to offer when compared with the sacrifices of tonal quality and immediacy. The classical music world embraced recording technology in the 20th century to allow music lovers to hear their favourite composers and works at home rather than wait for the next time their local ensemble played the work. However, editing practices, bent on creating a ‘perfect’ recorded performance, destroy the immediacy and beauty of the raw performance. Hence, it has never been considered a serious substitute for live performance.

Conversely, popular music easily survives in electronic format. It grew out of the recorded music industry. It is by nature mediated. It does not require the extremes of human skill and precision, nor the highest quality instruments and acoustic spaces. Quality is increased by subjecting it to electronic manipulation. The excitement of popular genres lies not in the spectacle of human skill and artistry at its limits, but in the aural and visual assault on the listener via technology.

There have recently been calls from some directions for the classical music industry to be more progressive and create a greater online presence for the post-COVID-19 future. Popular music can benefit from online presence without any loss. The digital world is its home, live performance is not its essence. However, online, classical music loses much of that which truly sets it apart. Digital concert halls, ‘Zoom’ ensembles, performances with backing tracks, and even professional recordings have their novelty uses, they may even bring some new fans to classical music, but they should never be any more than a tool to lure music-lovers to the real thing. They are a poor substitute for live performance.

It is a disease of the present era to abandon quality for quantity, to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator and mass-produce inferior copies of the exceptional and the excellent. By driving classical music performance into digital spaces with the resulting reduction in live performances, we sacrifice quality, purity, and excellence on the altar of convenience. We sacrifice height for breadth, we take away the very characteristics which make it a truly unique and remarkable human endeavour, and in my view, we sell the music short, to the detriment of the art, the artists, and society. As we look ahead to our post-COVID-19 future, we should not forget what makes our art truly unique and strive to keep that experience alive for future generations.

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