Why a blog? Why now?Posted: February 27, 2011
A couple weeks ago, Alex Ross published a piece on the New World Symphony’s new home, the New World Center in Miama. The Frank Gehry-designed building is a spectacular statement on what it means to be a 21st-century symphony orchestra. Together with neighboring Soundscape Park, the new facility enables WallCasts – projections of concerts taking place inside the hall onto a 7,000 sq. ft. wall outside, with sound delivered through 167 speakers – that look and sound amazing, and make concerts accessible to a wider (more sociable, less reverent) audience. But what really got my attention was Ross’s observation that the concert hall “is explicitly designed as much for the projection of images as for the projection of sound. The fusion of film and live music is so mesmerizingly seamless that I felt I was witnessing not just a technological forward leap but the emergence of a new genre.”
The combination of sight and sound in musical experience, and the use of technology to alter their combination, are particular interests of mine. As I’m presently completing my dissertation on music and optical technologies of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, I spend a lot of time thinking about “old media” like magic lanterns and shadow-plays. But in the days following Ross’s article, I found myself reading about new 3-D projection technology developed for Robert Lepage’s Siegfried at the Met next season; an article on the International Music Scores Library Project led me to one I had missed on the Borromeo Quartet’s use of laptops in place of printed parts (though it’s the projection screen that has me most intrigued); and an article on Hahn-Bin had me unexpectedly in the Fashion & Style (as opposed to Music) section of the NYT, with the Juilliard-trained violinist declaring “how I choose to express myself visually is equally important as the music itself.”
These articles were in the back of my mind when, two days ago, I attended a talk by Dan Cohen on The Ivory Tower and the Open Web. His talk had numerous tweetable moments, but I was particularly struck by his comparison of the “academic way” and the “web way,” the former being to refine and polish one’s work to perfection before letting it out into the world (in the form of print), the latter being to experiment and iterate, allowing for continued dialogue and change. As a writer, I have a lot of “academic way” in my life. I could use a little “web way.”
Hence this blog: a space where I can collect musical/technological/cultural phenomena of interest to me, and do some thinking out loud. We’ll see what it turns into – as is the web way.
So, what do I make of the New World Symphony, the Borromeo Quartet, and Hahn-Bin? One take in broad strokes: the nineteenth-century embraced the Romantic, (seemingly) anti-visual practice of listening with eyes closed. In the twentieth century, radio and recording technologies fostered the idea of musical listening as a purely auditory experience. Now, amid proliferating audiovisual devices, the visual has reasserted itself as constitutive of musical experience: we have entered an age of listening with eyes open, and the classical music world is learning to adapt. In this phase of experimentation, we can experience again and again the pleasure of the unprecedented – like the “emergence of a new genre” Ross felt he was witnessing at the New World Center, and the “I’ve never seen/heard anything like it” reactions elicited by Hahn-Bin. But while much is new, we are also witnessing revivals of largely forgotten, previously outmoded forms. The description of what the 3-D technology at the Met will do, for example, recalls Pepper’s Ghost of the late nineteenth century. The competing claims of the old and the new will, I expect, be one of the themes of this blog, as will classical music’s ongoing competition for our eyes and our ears.