But Is It Art?

Jonathan Bellman

I’m probably the last blogger to talk about Tan Dun’s Youtube Symphony.  Tan Dun wrote it, the score Michael Tilson-Thomas will be conducting it once auditions are over: you download the music, you learn your part, you send in an audition video with you playing your part and another piece, and whoever is chosen gets a trip to NY and a performance.  Quite the event.  Matthew Guerreri at Soho the Dog blogs about it here; Lisa Hirsch at The Iron Tongue of Midnight discusses it here.

Of course, there is no music for piano, though piano is one of the instruments listed.  Fine.  I don’t mind.  I’ll just sit here in the dark.  Actually, it would be pretty amusing for all the participants to be bloggers…actually, probably pathetic, like the flock of commentators trying to come up with interesting new angles on the election, or Obama’s cabinet picks.  Imagine what a bunch of bloggers would do, out of sheer desperation: “As I’ve written many times, scoring for double-reeds has never been Tan Dun’s strong suit.  Never has this been more true than with the English Horn obligato about five minutes in…”

What I can’t figure out is, simply, the point.  Is this about trying to Interest The Youtube Generation In Classical Music?  Silliness.  Classical music fanatics crawl all over youtube, commenting on each other’s posted rare videos, and musicians E-Mail video auditions all the time.  The piece, which can be heard on the website, sounds like something…bland, that sure enough quotes Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.  Is it about New Music?  Can’t be; too bland.  The piece seems almost to be a here’s-what-an-orchestra-sounds-like demo.  Does opening an orchestra to WWW participation somehow make it more relevant, or hip, or interesting?

I’ve heard interesting Tan Dun, but I wouldn’t number this piece among those works.  Yes, this moves an orchestra two steps closer to a garage band, but there are amateur and professional orchestras all over to participate in.  So what’s the point?

A Happening.  There is a certain amount of hoo-hah associated with this, the first ever something or other—and I can’t get over the feeling of a Let’s-Make-the-Guinness-Book project (we recently had one here).  It does not seem like there’s a point, otherwise.  Or is it that I Just Don’t Get It?  I suppose this may be a much bigger deal than it appears to me.

Remarks welcome.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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12 Responses to But Is It Art?

  1. Wrongshore says:

    A Happening. There is a certain amount of hoo-hah associated with this, the first ever something or other—and I can’t get over the feeling of a Let’s-Make-the-Guinness-Book project (we recently had one here). It does not seem like there’s a point, otherwise.
    Need there be? I think you’re closest with this — in fact, I think it’s exactly between the two.
    The Guinness idea is perfectly closed: you have a plan, you figure out how to succeed, you do a thing that doesn’t really need to be done, you get in the book.
    The Happening is more open: you ask, “What would happen if we did this?”
    This isn’t quite that open — the piece is written, the instructions are very set — but I think there’s an openness to result that comes from a never-before-attempted process, as if to say, Here’s a new way to use our toy.
    Cage would do it better. But it’s not so bad.

  2. squashed says:

    I am excited. I can’t wait until the entire videos start to come out.
    Thus far, works online are scattered. individual performances, passive recording, maybe reply and answer… But never a big project that lead to a huge group of people working together. (classical music at least)
    Maybe this experiment will lead to better project in the future. How people group and create something together in large scale.

  3. Aisha says:

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot. If you read the official entry rules, MTT will have final say over who gets in; the judges “may” use the votes garnered by the Youtube community in their decision process, but he basically retains artistic control. Certainly MTT, Google, et al. don’t want the concert to be a disaster, so I think there will be some motivation to choose really good players. And, if the concert goes well, the musicians will have another line to add to their resume – and maybe even a chance at participation in followup projects.
    I think the participating musicians will gain the most of anyone because of the networking opportunities. My guess is that most of the orchestra will be made up of high-level pre-professional players with a couple more avant-garde types, all of whom are looking to get their name out there. For the serious classical musicians among them, the chance to work with MTT and TD will be invaluable, even if it’s in an unusual context.
    But this all brings me back to why Youtube and Google would do this in the first place. I don’t get it. What is Google standing to gain from this enterprise, and what plans do they have for the future? Surely it’s not just a love for the music… Maybe there’s an interest in making Youtube seem less anarchic, in proving that it can produce something better than [insert favorite meme here]. But I always thought that anarchy was the lifeblood of Youtube. I’ll be interested to watch what happens in April.

  4. Jonathan says:

    The youtube picture is more complex than that, I think. It can be anarchic and non-anarchic both, and there are people whose consultancies consist of finding strategies to get more youtube hits–to game the system, in other words. So the fact that MTT and Dun and everyone can control the situation more but still use youtube as the rest of us do is not necessarily un-anarchic.

  5. squashed says:

    I am sure there will be plenty of screaming and yelling. It is global internet afterall. We are here for the drama…

  6. glen says:

    Hey I think this is all about access, not in the traditional sense of wanting to bring “classical” music to the people, but more like feeling (groping?) around to find ways to open the process up. If this is successful, perhaps we could see commissions becoming available for composers who would have much more ease in finding musicians to play their compositions. It probably would help if they started out with something less…cheesy. But hey that’s MTT’s style man, and if anybody thinks he’s the one to make the symphony hip, they’re probably not going to get too far either! Maybe if they broke away from using the “standard repertoire” approach to auditions, that would make the project much more appealing as well – unless the ultimate goal is to target youth and give them a cyber-audition as preparation for…well I don’t know what. The symphony orchestra as an institution isn’t growing anywhere near fast (or at all, in many places) as the pool of aspiring orchestral musicians, and I for one hope to see a day when professional ensembles can restructure enough to play new music in a paradigm not so beholden to the 18th and 19th century styles.
    Anyway, youtube is way ahead of this…I’m going to audition against DJ Lambchop.

  7. danblim says:

    One thing that might be interesting is to make available the audition tapes. The way screen tests with commentary get added as extras on a DVD, get MTT and/or Dun to give some commentary about these.

  8. karl henning says:

    What if I youtube you my remark?

  9. Jonathan says:

    I dunno, Karl, what if?

  10. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Good posting and discussion! I will link to this.

  11. Sarah says:

    The other commenters are right. So it’s not exactly high art, but in this age of postmodernism (or is it post-postmodernism now?) does new high art even exist anymore? Classical music is dying because it’s so divorced from the rest of culture. I say kudos to these people for being creative with the new mediums we have available. You never know, this could be valuable as New Music because it pushes the boundaries of convention and it’s much prettier sounding than throwing nickels in an oven and calling it music 🙂

  12. Peter says:

    Longtime reader, first-time commenter.
    Hmm, this brings to mind a particularly nasty little youtube subculture: I’m a trumpet player, and every once in awhile if I’m playing a piece, I’ll search for a performance on youtube. 1 out of 3 times I’ll find a high-quality recital performance that a proud, skilled student or professional has uploaded.
    1 out of 3 times I’ll find nothing.
    But that third time, I’ll find stuff like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EvAVV05HLY (forgive my lack of html tags)
    Nothing wrong with it, and the guy sounds alright. It’s very democratizing, but totally antisocial. Then there’s stuff like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXgw95gqYzQ&feature=PlayList&p=6BE10DEFD8AA78C8&playnext=1&index=42
    I don’t know… encouraging individual achievement and taking pride in your work is one thing, but I think these–and probably the majority of youtube audition tapes–just encourage the attitudes of high school All State warm-up rooms or thin-walled practice rooms at self-consciously “competitive” music schools.

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