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Essays and Reviews

A New Mission for the Symphony Orchestra
(With Signs of the Times)

by Daniel de Quincy

The signs of the times are troubling for lovers of the classical arts. Last year, for example, in the great city of Cleveland, a highly accomplished ballet corps was dismissed. The management had sought $1 million dollars to maintain a stage for their semi-resident ballet, which shared its dancers with a sister company in San Jose, California. The art of ballet has long been an ornament of civilized society – until now. According to the New York Times, Cleveland was able to raise exactly $60,000 dollars for the cause. This happened in the most prosperous year of our nation’s history.

How this relates to musicians and to the kindred institution of the symphony orchestra is a function of the current social position of the arts and of artists in general, to which this sign of the times points eloquently. The financial position of the average symphony orchestra was already precarious during our years of greatest affluence. One hesitates to predict what may happen now as the business cycle begins to reassert itself. A great city may find that it cannot raise even $60,000 for one or another of its performing institutions.

The suggestion that I will put forth here will not help to establish symphony orchestras with a broader audience and with more secure endowments from their customary sources of patronage. As I may demonstrate, however, it can help a chosen few of them to gain a new source of income in the market. More importantly, however, my suggestion speaks to the ideal role of the symphony orchestra in the art of music, and offers a way of broadening its functions in a changing world.

Frankly, it is my assumption that the symphony orchestra as we know it today will be essentially extinct in our lifetime. The new mission I have in mind takes this for granted, and so its radical nature may be seen by some as a betrayal of the symphony orchestra. But, I breathe not to fan the flames of contention. I am a violinist and a composer of orchestral music; I have a profound affinity for all of the instruments of the orchestra, and for the people who play them. I am motivated in this essay purely by a sense of what I consider to be inevitable, and by a desire to see something good come of it despite the loss that it must necessarily entail.

In the interest of the art of music, something must be salvaged for the future from the ruins of the orchestra. This cannot be just a library of classic recordings, to be heard indefinitely into the future, surely with less and less comprehension. That would be a ghost, of no real use to the living. Hauntings, even happy ones, end by being tedious. Those who remember and love the deceased can bear it, but in time newcomers arrive, and with them the exorcist.

Before turning to my suggestion of a new mission for the symphony orchestra, it is necessary to prepare the ground a little better. The financial plight of the nation’s performing organizations reflects but one of our many dilemmas. There have been other developments of recent years that demonstrate a wider circumference of change in our musical life than can be ascribed to economic contingencies alone. They are even more portentous of decline than the position of the musical arts in the market. My suggestion cannot be properly evaluated without reference to some of these other developments, described here obliquely by, again, certain signs of the times, to wit:

  • Music teachers in the California pubic schools now offer a new form of music education: i.e. students are taught to "lip-sync" to a recording of the Spice Girls. (Believe it! This is true.)
  • Music teachers everywhere have declared that jazz, rock, and other forms of popular music are fully commensurate with classical music in the realm of art. In recent years, President Clinton appointed the former Director of the Museum of Country Music to lead the National Endowment for the Arts. Garth Brooks appeared on PBS, the erstwhile forum, arena, support, and stimulus to the high arts. On the same network, Duke Ellington was declared the greatest composer of the 20th century. Aretha Franklin performed with the Detroit Symphony. Mazur and Marsallis "made music" together at Lincoln Center. Critics applauded. The Columbia Classical Music CD Buyer’s Club now includes Tony Bennett and Yanni on its preferred list to members. Composers of "serious" music everywhere are stampeding to the "accessible" bandwagon. It is leaving without them. (All of these are true, even if my undisguised judgment is arguable.)
  • Symphony orchestras now think to enhance the merely musical experience with lectures and get-togethers before and aft. Thus, the core experience - the music - is confessedly either incomprehensible or inadequate. (This is unbearably true, especially for the musicians who must endure it all with a smile.)
  • The six-billionth performance of the "New World Symphony" was heard on a concert stage in America during last year’s concert season. (This might as well be true, and almost is. We have lost count of the true number and can only marvel at its order of magnitude.)

Then there are other less clearly distinct signs of the times, about which we wonder, but without quite knowing their import. For example,

  • A great contemporary string quartet, the Kronos, now uses amplification even when playing in the best concert halls. Otherwise, audiences accustomed to the quartet’s CDs complain that their live performances are a disappointment.
  • Opera houses (even the best of them - who knows how many of them?) now apply "sound enhancement" by way of hidden microphones and speakers. The subject is shrouded in secrecy.
  • Somewhere along the line during the transmigration of recorded music from analogue long playing records to digital CDs, the aesthetic of recorded instrumental sound has completely changed. Digital CDs do not attempt to reproduce the experience of music as it is heard in the concert hall. A seat in Carnegie Hall is no longer the standard for the culture’s ideal of sound. At the same time, the art of recording has yielded body and soul to the studio technology known as "post-production." It seems that now, as a result, musicians no longer make mistakes.

The combined effect of the last three items is that, in the consciousness of society at large, the sound of music has effectively become identified with the sound of recorded music. The public has forgotten that there is an original of which they have but the copy. Moreover, people have come to prefer the copy to the original.

These developments highlight a well-established principle asserting that it is not possible to control the ongoing evolution of the musical ear. It’s true, conservative theorists and revolutionary composers have tried to test the invariance of this principle, but with disappointing results in both camps. And it is a fact that the musical ear does evolve. At the present time, without fully intending it, society has contrived for the contemporary musical ear to be "electrified" (possibly "electrocuted" better expresses the idea). This means in practical terms that nothing can be done to prevent the ascendancy of a new aesthetic of sound, for it is already an accomplished fact.

It remains only to note one other factor that contributes to the changing aesthetic of sound. This is the increased pace of development we are seeing in the field of electronic music, per se. Of paramount importance is a greater availability of electronic musical instruments and technology. This has led to the adoption of electronic instruments in popular music, giving even greater momentum to the trends that are revolutionizing our musical culture at large. Indeed, something truly astonishing may be discerned in young people’s growing fascination with popular "dance music," which is the product exclusively of electronic devices. Many of the musicians making this music have never touched a traditional orchestral instrument, and this must be considered food for thought, tasty or not. In our lifetime, something is happening of momentous significance for the future of music, and with incalculable implications.*

But we are being only slightly prophetic to say that orchestral instruments as we know them are endangered species. We should remember that musical instruments have come and gone before, and remember too that all things everywhere are nothing but transitory. The diverse species and families of musical instruments are born, evolve, and die in ways not entirely unlike their biological cousins. The entire community of instruments employed by a culture tends to form an ecology of its own. We do not have a word for that specific kind of ecology, but, curiously enough, the ancients did. They called it the instrumentarium.

When one instrumentarium is replaced by another, it is often the case that something of the old is imparted to the new. In individual cases, the soul of an instrument is transmogrified into a new form. Think, for example, of the timbre that we associate with any kind of whistle, and consider how it lived and breathed in the Renaissance recorder until, over the span of some years, it was reborn in the modern day flute.

The leap from recorder to flute is large enough, and wasn’t accomplished without controversy. The leap being taken at this time, by contrast, is so great as to completely confound communication over the divide. We wonder if there may be no common ground between the musical culture of yesterday and that of tomorrow. Most of us are horrified at the way things are developing, a few of us intrigued by some of the new sounds we are hearing. But the point is not to bemoan our fate or to celebrate it. The point is to make the best that can be made of it.

As an expression of our love and faith in the musical tradition we inherited, we must try to capture for the future as much as we can of its carefully cultivated musical sensibilities. This idea should be conceived in terms of material consequences. As the soul of the recorder was reborn in the flute, so it should now be reborn yet again in still another form. We bear this responsibility as musicians no less than the father and mother bear the burden of carrying on their lineage by begetting the son and daughter. In this way only, our cherished instrumentarium may be rescued from oblivion.

Thus, we come at last to my suggestion for a new mission for the symphony orchestra in our time: that is, to make a bequest of itself to the future, in the form of instrumental "samples" suitable for use as the raw materials for new music.

Samples may be defined here simply as minute recordings, both solo and ensemble, of any and every sound made by each and all of the instruments of the orchestra. Since musicians are capable of imparting an infinite array of nuance to every sound, the task is unimaginably monumental. But to imagine the unimaginable is part of the essence of our art. As witness to the reasonableness, and to the reality, of the project, I may simply note that a few intrepid pioneers - those who are not to be daunted by the enormity of the task - have already undertaken it. Various libraries of instrumental sound are even now available on the market, both to popular and to classical musicians and composers. These libraries have achieved, admittedly, only a rudimentary level, only scratching the surface as it were. Yet it is worth noting that they already account for remarkably vivid and faithful simulations of orchestral sound that have been made in Hollywood for commercial, and elsewhere for artistic, purposes. And, most notably, they have demonstrated the way forward toward more comprehensive libraries.

The value of instrumental samples with regard to the future of music cannot be exaggerated. Each orchestral instrument represents an ideal category of sound that exists independently of the particular means by which it is produced. Each instrumental timbre occupies a necessary location in a purely formal dimension of musical sound. Our instrumentarium represents a comprehensive division of that sonic dimension, a remarkable accomplishment through centuries of effort and continuous refinement. We could put this another way. Being inhabitants of an ecology of sound, the instruments as we know them occupy specific niches with strictly marked boundaries of function and practice. But the biological analogy is not distinct enough for our purpose, for one sees that wholly new kinds of biological creatures seem to evolve in the course of time. This is not true with musical sounds.

Instrumental timbres are more like the colors that we discern in the rainbow, in which the primary colors stand out. There are an infinite number of various mixtures of the primary colors, but one may not simply pop in a new primary color at will. Similarly, on the spectrum of sound, there is no instrumental category in-between the place where we find the clarinet and the place where we find the oboe. All of the intermediate points produce more or less imperfect or incoherent mixtures of these two "primary" instrumental timbres. An instrument that produces a mixture of timbres is usually of no great utility (the saxophone excepted), since much richer and more pleasing mixtures have been obtained with ensembles of the primary instruments in the concert hall. In fact, in every case, the development of each orchestral instrument has reflected a desire to define its primary identity more closely, in effect by narrowing its location in the spectrum of sound. Its development has obeyed what might be called its "categorical imperative." The goal by and large has been one of refinement, a cutting away of impurities, so as to make each categorical timbre as distinct and individual as possible.

To expect our instrumentarium to survive by virtue of its merit, however, is pure fancy. As noted above, the aesthetics of sound are changing in surprising and unpredictable ways. In my opinion, having experienced so-called acoustic and electronic ways of making music, it is inconceivable that the demands made by traditional instruments upon the time and attention of young musicians will be able indefinitely to compete with the sonic impact and attraction of electronic instruments. At the same time, fewer and fewer professional opportunities will encourage the young to persist with our antiquated instruments. This is something that I can say only with the bitterest sense of loss. But I also understand that the loss can be mitigated up to a point. It is important for classical musicians to take advantage of certain positive potentials that exists in our new technology – potentials that can be bent to the purposes of classical art. For if we cannot literally pass on our instruments, it should still be possible for us to pass on the sonic sensibilities that they reflect.

The new mission of the symphony orchestra, then, is to retain for future musicians the full spectrum of instrumental timbres that constitute our current orchestral palette of sound, in the form of recorded samples. We do not need another recording of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. It is almost always a pleasure to have a new recording of anything by Beethoven, but we do not need it. What we need is a library of samples: single notes on and off the string, blasts from trumpets and noble calls from horns, winds in piano and forte, glistening tremolos, shuttering flutter-tongues - in short, sounds of all kinds, shaped in myriad ways, according to every nuance and touch. Sounds, sounds, and more sounds.

Is there a kind of ghoulish morbidity in such a project? It is akin to the provisions of a living will, giving the corpse’s organs over to science or for transplant. Admittedly, this is not what we had hoped for. But the consequences generated in the development of a new technology do not disappear with our reluctance to confront them. There is a clear and present need for this project to be supported and executed, by the best musicians, and in the finest halls. The need is already expressed in the market, and orchestral samples are in great demand by a fast growing number of composers and arrangers. When this is understood, competitive orchestra administrations may realize that it is possible to profit by this need, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. They will hire qualified consultants for the purpose of marketing orchestral samples that are made to their own distinctive standards in their own chosen halls. The new financial resources that they generate through the recording of samples will benefit orchestras and the musicians in them.

History is littered with lost arts. For centuries, the ancients carved stone with a perfection of fidelity to nature. Then, with the fall of Rome, and almost overnight, the world was left without a single person capable of doing it. More than a thousand years later, Donatelo learned from relics, and had no one to teach him. For the most part, we can only look on the past with wonder. It is a graveyard of long lost beauties, and resurrections are rare.

The most dramatic changes in culture happen even as people are not aware of them. Or perhaps especially when not aware of them. Were Toscanini alive today, would he marvel to see no network orchestras? Would Bernstein, awakened fifty years hence, have surprises of his own? We see ourselves each day and perceive little change. But those who knew us "when" are greatly surprised at seeing us after a long absence. If we could only see what is to be in the future, if we could see it in the bright light of morning staring back at us in the mirror, we might then take better care of ourselves.


*It is not my intention to imply that classical musicians should concern themselves with electronic musical technology because it is used in popular music. I do not hold out popular music as a model for classical music. The conventional wisdom of the moment is that classical music must incorporate the supposed innovations of jazz, pop, and rock if it is to survive. This is based on little understanding of how music evolves. Most of the new sounds in the battery of today’s pop musicians were heard in the music of certain classical musicians who experimented with electronic instruments during the last century. Popular music always follows, and in a laggardly way, the innovations of classical music. Popular music and jazz learned their harmony from the classical music tradition. Where else? The discovery of country music’s famous three chords didn’t happen in the country. It was the collective project of musicians laboring away in monastery cells and palace cloisters a thousand years ago - and their music was anything but popular. Consider, finally, the undeniable fact that all of the instruments in use today, including the saxophone, were invented by or for classical musicians.

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