Can new technology help classical music in renewing its audience?

It’s been a very long time that classic music is being seen as a very serious and elitist art reserved to rich and educated people who can understand it. It was not necessarily the case in the past centuries when public concerts were longer (3 or 4 hours), the audience could go in and out, talk or laugh during the performance like in a football match.

Also, the audience used to react strongly against a new piece of music if they didn’t like it. Let’s not forget that when the Rite of Spring was premiered in “Théâtre des Champs-Elysées”, half of the audience was standing up screaming against “Danse Sacrale”. Even if half of the audience would sometimes feel like shouting against some of the premieres they hear, nobody would nowadays dare doing so. It might be hard to say how and why classic music has become so serious, traditional and conservative.

The BBC Proms is the only place where you can feel some of this old days concerts spirit, making classic music a fun experience for all generations and social classes. Its audience is like a fan community club, collecting money during the festival for charity, queuing in the streets from very early in the morning to get the 5£ standing up evening concert tickets, and even having a “pique-nique” in the Royal Albert Hall top floor gallery during the concert! So British! The always sold out 5000 seats Royal Albert Hall audience for the Last Night of the Proms sing together with the orchestra the traditional British songs with their Union Jack flag on hand. However, if some of them don’t like a new modern piece played in another Proms concert, they feel free to boo the performance, which might be upsetting for the artists but makes the concert process a lively experience.

Apart from the Proms whose attendances are going up every year (2013 has been a peak in the festival box office), classic music audience is melting more or less all over the world. Even the most prestigious musical institutions like the New York Metropolitan Opera are worried to see their average attendances going down. The necessity to make classic music more attractive among western countries population is an emergency to save our business and culture.

And what about trying to adapt classic music to the modern world we live in, rather than trying to keep going with the same untouchable, sacred tradition? How digital world can help classic music concerts in being more popular and more easily accessible to everybody?

In 2002, I played in the BBC Scottish Symphony a young audience project called “Toy Symphony” composed by Tod Machover, composer teacher in MIT Media Lab in Boston. Toy Symphony is a piece of music for hyperviolin soloist, a kind of electric violin created by Tod Machover, and many children on stage performing a handheld musical toy, all accompanied by a large symphonic orchestra. During workshops the week before the concert with MIT Media Lab students and voluntary musicians from BBC Scottish Symphony, children with no musical knowledge were trained to compose melodies with these grapefruit sized digital toys. The performance included some of their melodies played by the orchestra, the hyperviolin soloist and themselves with the toys. Thanks to that, they get the chance to perform on stage next to Joshua Bell and a big symphony orchestra. This project was part of a Toy Symphony World Tour in Dublin, Glasgow, Manchester/London, Berlin and Tokyo; children in all these cities could share this experience.

More recently, Tod Machover has created a new concept called “City Symphony”. This project is coming up next year for 2015 Lucerne Festival.

But before that, cities like Edinburgh, Toronto and Perth (Australia) have commissioned to him their own symphony. As you can see in the Lucerne Festival video trailer, the piece is being composed by him in MIT Media Lab from the noise recorded in the city by people living there, in the streets, in the parks, in their house or in factories. It’s a very clever way to attract inside a concert hall people who have no connection with classic music and feel the experience of a symphonic orchestra.

If you ‘re interested in Tod Machover’s work, there is currently an exhibition in Le Laboratoire (digital art private center) in Paris, called “Vocal Vibrations” presenting some digital tools making you feel your voice activity in your hand.

Another concert I’ve been involved was quite interesting in terms of trying to attract more audience in a symphony concert hall: a 3D project co-produced by three Scandinavian orchestras including Oslo Philharmonic: “Manyworlds”, a piece by Rolf Wallin, the most famous alive Norwegian composer.


The Oslo Concert Hall audience could see on a big screen with 3D glasses a video by Boya Bockman (Norwegian videographer) while the symphony orchestra was performing “Manyworlds”, a piece of music by Rolf Wallin. That was fascinating to observe that for the first time, a contemporary music concert was nearly sold out and that half of the audience had probably never gone to a classic music concert before this unusual 3D video concert.

New technology can be a fantastic tool to help classic music in being more popular by attracting new audiences in concert halls, but it certainly can get an outreach role as well to make music much easier to learn for children and adults.
I would take two examples of young French start up having created very good ways to learn music differently than on the traditional path. All these start up were presented in Sounds Labs (organized by our friend and colleague Philippe Nikolov) at NUMA in Paris the 20th of June.

“Les Clés de l’écoute” is an artist collective led by Geraldine Aliberti and based in Créatis, the Gaité Lyrique business incubator. They work closely with “Ensemble Carpe Diem” and regularly present together children concerts in “Auditorium du Louvre” which are very creative. Les “clés de l’écoute” has always been involved in working with children excluded from musical education. Geraldine Aliberti presented in NUMA an Ipad application where you can arrange yourself a piece of music recorded on different tracks, so you can actually choose which instrument is going to play the melody or the accompaniment. You can also alter the dynamic for each instrument and once you find the best combination, you can send your arrangement to your friends by email. That’s such a nice way to give children without musical knowledge a chance to “create” music, and may be encourage them to learn more about music.

Meludia is an ear training website created in 2012 by Vincent Chaintrier (composer/teacher) and Bastien Sannac (his former student) quickly joined by a sound engineer and a strategy consultant all co-founder of the new company. Meludia concept is based on a very good point: 85% of children having started music stop playing before they’re 15. Their idea is that we should learn music the same way we learn to speak: we don’t learn our mother tongue grammar before being able to speak. We speak without knowing anything and thereafter, we learn the grammar, syntax, writing etc… We tend to learn foreign languages the wrong way: learning first the grammar, syntax and writing without being able to converse. Idem in music: first, we need to learn the notation (bloody “solfège”) and the basic technic on the instrument forgetting most of the time the emotional music aspect. I personally spent ten years in learning solfège in Clermont-Ferrand Conservatoire without being clearly explained that the main point in music is this incessant round trip between tonic/dominant.

Meludia website is offering ear training exercises with a sensorial approach which makes beginners able to improve their ear without any musical knowledge. The game is very simple for beginners, and quite difficult for advances and experts. I tried it and I have to confess that I became addicted in less than half an hour, realizing quickly that I would need to improve my not so good harmonic ear. I really advise all of you to try it: it’s always good, even for musicians to get a better ear: the subscription costs 100€ per year per person (cheaper than Spotify) and they have special discount for collectivities (schools, companies etc…) They’re about to get an important contract in the most famous jazz school in the world in the USA and employ already 15 people. Watch the space!

Many more inventions are being made in France, our country having very good IT engineer schools (Silicon Valley companies know that very well). But why French classic music institutions are being so reluctant to program these kind of digital projects in their orchestra season? Is the audience more conservative in France than in the UK or in Scandinavia? May be public subsidies policy in France make classic music institutions reluctant to necessary changes?


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