Alan Edward Williams

Composer/ cyfansoddwr

Music as technology / music as culture

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I was at a very stimulating research day at the RNCM last Thursday. Springing out of the REF’s emphasis on the “impact” of research on wider society, presentations showed how RNCM staff and students and staff were involved with music in healthcare, as well as exploring the impact on the Northwest of the NMNW festival amongst other things.

In a lively discussion following the opening session, I suggested in response to a comment by Richard Wigley, General Manager of the BBC Philharmonic, that the orchestra, and the infrastructure that surrounded it could be regarded as a technology which relies on a substantial resource both financially and emotionally. We should ask, when there are so many other musical technologies competing for audience share, what jobs it is particularly good at doing.  My purpose in asking this, was not to attack the existence of the orchestra, but to prompt us all to think beyond the idea of the commissioned work as the sole aim of the composer in the orchestral medium.

I was surprised, to say the least, when my suggestion was rejected out of hand by Prof. Adam Gorb, known to very many as a fine composer of music which has an unerring commitment to social impact, as his recent opera Anya 17 shows“The orchestra is not a technology” was his response.

Why the resistance to the term technology? I would guess it comes from a well established opposition in classical music between instrumental composers using the score as the means of recording the composer’s intentions, and electro-acoustic composers whose work is presented in a fixed medium, and doesn’t require much in the way of interpretation.  Perhaps, like C.P.Snow,  Adam would define the orchestra as a culture, rather than a technology.

The notion that in music, technology is opposed to culture is well established, but misleading. What defines us as humans is the use of technology, starting with the most basic of tools. Around these technologies grow cultures of use, and these can continue even when the original purpose the technology addressed has been superseded. For example, many thousands of people are emotionally committed to horse-technology, even though the car has superseded it as a means of transport. But people are emotionally and aesthetically committed to the technology of horse riding because of what they feels it says about them: an aesthetic statement, in other words.

One could say the same with orchestral instruments, and the interpretation of the notated part. It was at one time – coinciding with the high-water mark of the classical tradition – the only way of filling a large space with a massed sound (alongside the choir and organ in churches). There are many other ways of doing this now, which don’t depend on gathering together 90 people who have had years of specialist training in interpreting notation, with hand-made instruments costing many thousands of pounds, not to mention acoustically designed specialist buildings in which to play. So why doesn’t everyone simply abandon this demanding culture and expensive technology in favour of something easier and cheaper?

Many do, of course. But some people are emotionally committed to the technology of orchestral instruments, and to its related technology of notation as a means of representing musical ideas. Classical music culture depends on this community remaining committed to this particular set of technologies which can do some things better than any other music technology. It’s up to composers to identify what those things are, and to continue to convince people beyond that community that they are worth investing in. If we can do that, now, that would be some impact.

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