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Innovating Classical Music
Cisco Systems deployed marketing materials, speeches, and videos to advance the slogan for its 2014 summit: Amazing Together. Then, as the corporate partners of the multinational technology corporation met in Las Vegas to network, the event's branding extended to a special performance of the Las Vegas Youth Orchestra (LVYO), which played briefly for the assembled tech executives. The ensemble performed "The Rise of Exotic Computing," a work for small orchestra and laptop by Mason Bates, a Juilliard- and Berkeley-trained composer and a rising star in the world of contemporary classical music (in the 2014–15 season, he was the second-most performed living composer in America, after John Adams). At the Cisco summit, the then thirty-seven-year-old Bates briefly introduced his piece, then took his usual spot behind a laptop and digital sampler, which he used to accompany the orchestra with an array of electronic beats and sampled sounds.
For the duration of its performance of "Exotic Computing," the LVYO was surrounded by large screens displaying images and text. Animated grids were superimposed on footage of leaping dolphins, naval ships, farmland, assembly lines, spiderwebs, and outer space, linking the images and imposing a teleology on the visuals. In one sequence, the interlocking circles representing a dolphin's use of sonar transformed into a naval ship's radar bleeps: an image linking nature and technology. These images were overlaid by segments of text associating the sounds and visuals with Cisco's corporate slogan: "We are all connected ... one universe ... one planet ... one ecosystem ... thriving as one network ... working with one purpose ... we are amazing together." The whole performance naturalized technological innovation and universal connectivity, linked those processes to the timeless grandeur of high art, and presented them as the reason we can be "amazing together."
Cisco had donated money to the LVYO, so the group's performance at the corporate summit demonstrated the company's socially minded endeavors to support not only young people but also the kind of "high culture" that classical music still represents in the popular consciousness. But the music the LVYO played revealed much more than simply a display of philanthropy. Bates is especially applauded for his incorporation of new technologies into orchestral music; most of his work makes use of drum machines and sampled sounds. Furthermore, as I will discuss below, many of his compositions programmatically valorize tech entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, and he has also been involved in projects like the YouTube Symphony Orchestra (YTSO) that serve to mythologize the valiant role tech corporations like Google are playing in remaking our world. "The Rise of Exotic Computing" also valorizes technology at a musical level. The piece comprises tiny motives that flit from instrument to instrument; it's meant to aurally depict synthetic computing, a process that links computers by instantaneously replicating lines of code without human intervention. Thus, the piece essentially presents Cisco's product, networking technology, as art. The video that accompanied the performance accomplished a similar presentation, by linking man-made technologies with naturally evolving processes like dolphin sonar. In this way, it fit in nicely with the corporate branding strategy of Cisco and its partners, which involves packaging the products required by the surveillance state under inspirational rhetoric about connectivity.
In this chapter, I seek to explain Bates's phenomenal career success, arguing that he serves two related — but not wholly overlapping — functions within the power structures represented by traditional classical music institutions on the one hand, and tech corporations on the other. In his institutional function, Bates represents a heroic figure, someone who is saving classical music by fusing it with contemporary values like innovation, diversity, and connectivity. Popular perceptions of classical music often figure it as a musty relic of the distant past, and as elitist, sexist, and racist; by contrast, Bates presents it as a thriving participant in a tech-savvy, multicultural global community. In the first part of the chapter I lay out the institutional function Bates serves, examining his creative work with the YTSO, a project that positioned classical music as a leader in technological innovation but also as a facilitator of multicultural communication and connectivity.
Bates also serves a corporate function, one similarly grounded in a valorization of connectivity. In the second half of the chapter, I examine his characteristic glorification of digital connectivity via an analysis of "The Rise of Exotic Computing" and its correlations with Cisco's marketing strategy. By sponsoring and promoting Bates and his projects, tech corporations like Cisco and Google can borrow the aura of commercial disinterestedness that still adheres to the idea of classical music, and use it to legitimize capitalist globalization and the surveillance state.
There is a long precedent for the kind of technology-oriented musical-corporate connection such as the one between Mason Bates and contemporary tech giants like Google and Cisco Systems. In the previous generation, institutions like IRCAM, the BBC Radiophonic Workshops, and Stanford and Princeton Universities constructed a similar rhetoric privileging scientific research and technological innovation, one that appealed to power and secured funding and prestige for new music in a changing world. Even from its earliest moments, "computer music" has had strong ties to powerful industry; the first computer-generated music was made via a technology invented by a Bell Telephone Laboratories researcher who was trying to convert audio signals to digital information in order to automate the tasks performed by human telephone operators.
That tech corporations would patronize a symphony orchestra or a young composer should come as no surprise; art music composers and performers have a long history of appealing to those with money and power. Since much of the great music of the past was created with at least one eye toward pleasing the financially solvent of a given era, changing musical aesthetics have often accompanied changes in the ideals of those with the most power and money in a society. To this extent, the YTSO or the Cisco-funded performance of "Exotic Computing" is certainly nothing new; however, the structure in which wealthy people and corporations can become patrons of the arts — as well as what they choose to patronize — has changed, and along with that change has come a shift in cultural beliefs, tastes, and, inevitably, the practice of music. IRCAM, for example, is state funded, and its founding was part of the French government's nationalistic plan for rebuilding its image in the wake of the social turmoil of 1968. By contrast, in the contemporary United States, the power that some of the most successful and widely acclaimed musical innovations are aligned with is corporate power, the power of private enterprise, which is a power that neoliberalism deliberately counterposes to that of the oppressive state and its obsolete nationalisms.
Contemporary discourses of innovation often credit new technologies with both liberating individuals and promoting social connectivity. As the Cisco presentation put it, "We are all connected ... thriving as one network." Technology's unique ability to "bring us together" was also ceaselessly promoted during the performance of the YTSO, a Google marketing scheme in which musicians from all over the world uploaded audition videos to YouTube, hoping to be chosen for performing in a live concert of classical music broadcast to millions online. Here, too, we can see a difference between the state-sponsored centers for musical-scientific research and Bates's various projects. Composers at Princeton, for example, tended to value computer-generated music for how it allowed the individual artist to maintain total control over the work, and for how such musical research represented a means of safeguarding musical creation from the necessity of appealing to the entertainment industry; these institutions or departments were erected in an effort to construct spaces for autonomous creation, and they did so by emphasizing the idea that music should not have to connect with audiences. By contrast, Bates and his supporters present his use of computers and electronics as entrepreneurial and market oriented, saying it will draw in young audiences and appeal to those who don't like traditional classical music. These qualities, in turn, are praised for being "democratic."
Throughout this book, I document the way products and practices that find wide market success are often dubbed "democratic" and celebrated for promoting "community." Corporations like Cisco and Google present the connectivity their products enable as uplifting — such products allow us to be "amazing together" — and composers like Bates similarly talk about widening music's commercial appeal as a means of bringing people together. This rhetoric is meant to oppose the kind of hermetic, closed-off, individual autonomy that academic music research centers allow, and so on its surface it seems to promote the superiority of democratic collectivity to elitist isolation. However, the version of collectivity offered by Cisco and advocated by audience-pleasing composers is one wholly mediated by the market, and thus I will argue that it is a hollow one.
Bates and the Innovation Fetish
Mason Bates has a prestigious pedigree. He received his BA from the Columbia-Juilliard Exchange Program, where he studied with John Corigliano and David Del Tredici and majored in both composition and English literature. He then went to UC Berkeley, where he studied with Edmund Campion and earned a PhD in composition in 2008. Bates has been highly honored by august arts institutions; shortly after finishing his undergraduate education he received a Rome Prize, and the year he finished his PhD he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2010 he became one of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's composers in residence, and in 2012 he received a Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities category. In 2015 he was named the first composer in residence at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. At the Kennedy Center, Bates programs evening concerts that blend the performance of traditional classical music with DJ sets (he calls these evenings "post-classical raves").
Bates himself is also an electronica DJ. In addition to performing regularly (as DJ Masonic), he incorporates DJing into his works for orchestra; not only does most of his music deploy drum machines and sampled sounds, but Bates routinely performs these sounds live with the orchestra, standing behind his array of technology, wearing headphones and bobbing his head to the beat. The impression that he is saving or rejuvenating classical music by infusing it with hip new technologies and the driving rhythms of techno is widely felt in the arts press as well as in the traditional institutions that have rewarded him so highly. His supporters in the classical music world include luminaries like Riccardo Muti, Marin Alsop, and Leonard Slatkin, all of whom maintain that because of Bates's use of digital technologies, programming his music will bring in newer, younger audiences than classical music usually garners in the United States. "Often he's in the orchestra with his laptop," Alsop notes, "and his music resonates with audiences of today, with younger audiences." Reviews, press releases, and bios of the composer regularly describe him as "innovative," and his Heinz Award website profile credits him with having "moved the orchestra into the digital age." In a glowing profile of the composer, Anne Midgette wrote that the secret of Bates's success is multifaceted and includes "his love of electronic music, his active second life as a DJ and his burgeoning activities as a curator of interesting new-music concerts" that "represent a link to the younger audience the orchestra world is so hungry to reach."
One of Bates's most prestigious supporters is the San Francisco Symphony director Michael Tilson Thomas, who has been championing and collaborating with Bates for a decade. Tilson Thomas has consistently recorded, programmed, and promoted Bates's music, and often associates him with the greatest composers in the Western canon (in 2014 the symphony programmed a festival titled "Beethoven and Bates," with performances that alternated works by the two composers). In 2009 Tilson Thomas invited Bates to be a guest soloist at the inaugural concert of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra (YTSO), a marketing project Google undertook shortly after acquiring the video-sharing site in 2006, and for which Tilson Thomas served as conductor and creative director.
The YTSO project was, in part, meant to showcase the radical new possibilities enabled by the internet; hundreds of musicians worldwide uploaded audition videos to YouTube, and the winners performed an evening of canonical classical music that served to celebrate both the West's timeless traditions and the transformative innovations of Google and YouTube. The project has been executed twice: first in 2009, with a culminating performance at Carnegie Hall; and again in 2011, with a concert at the Sydney Opera House. Bates served as one of the creative advisers for the Sydney iteration of the YTSO, and he also wrote a short symphonic piece, "Mothership," that premiered at the performance.
The video that introduced the Sydney concert featured a montage of Turkish minarets, Venetian gondolas, Chinese pagodas, and the Statue of Liberty, interspersed with shots of musicians playing their instruments in iconic global locations and overlaid with the following text:
From the sands to the seas, from the forbidden city to the city that never sleeps, from their own world to the whole world: 33 countries, 5 continents, 101 musicians, 1 stage.
The concert program contained three new commissions and included one excerpt from a work by the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera; the rest of the evening was devoted to well-known pieces and excerpts by European composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: Berlioz, Mozart, Robert Schumann, Schubert, Stravinsky, Mendelssohn, Percy Grainger, Richard Strauss, and J. S. Bach.
This program of canonical art music was accompanied by "live digital painting" projected onto every surface of the venue, including the building's exterior. During the concert, camera operators moved silently among the musicians, filming close-ups of fingers on keys and rapt expressions that were also projected all over the venue. These were interspersed with short, inspirational video interviews with selected musicians, and with speeches made by Tilson Thomas. The whole performance, including the digital painting, the close-up shots, the speeches, and the musician interviews, was live streamed on YouTube to millions of viewers worldwide.
During the YTSO performance, Tilson Thomas routinely credited the project with using technological innovation to show the world that classical music is an "ongoing" tradition, one fully commensurate with participation in a digitally connected global community. Such attempts to associate classical music with innovation are common in US classical music discourse; commentators associate "innovative" artists, programmers, and venues with saving classical music from market extinction. For Tilson Thomas, the YTSO project clearly served as a means of associating classical music with the innovative products that corporations like Google have bestowed on us, as well as with the wholesome process of constant change that such innovations generate. He opened the Sydney concert by proclaiming that the performance represented "the culminating of a weeklong celebration and collaboration between the worlds of classical music and technology"; later in the concert, he deepened this connection:
Well, classical music really does connect the past and the present, and even predicts the future. Over the centuries, as new thoughts, new instruments, new technologies have come along, classical music has initiated many of them, made use of them, and absorbed them. And it's still going on.
Innovation, especially technological innovation, is a key value in neoliberal thought. Milton Friedman described our "dynamic world" as one in which "new products emerge and old ones disappear, demand shifts from one product to another, innovation alters methods of production, and so on without end." Because we cannot alter this constant change, our only option is to accept it and learn to flexibly adapt to an ever-shifting environment in which we experience an accelerating turnover in jobs, fashions, neighborhoods, industries, and ways of life. Friedman argued that "experimentation" as a broadly adhered-to social value is what will bring "tomorrow's laggard above today's mean." He also upheld the great potential of innovation to contribute to individual freedom by demonstrating that most technological innovations in history have benefited "the ordinary person" rather than the wealthy. Since the 1970s, innovation has been increasingly enshrined as a desirable goal not only in economic theory but in everyday life. It has become so commonly accepted as an obvious truth and an unmitigated good by corporate and political leaders as well as by average citizens that the political economist David Harvey goes so far as to call it a "fetish belief" of contemporary culture.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Composing Capital"
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Table of ContentsIntroduction: Music and Neoliberalism ONE Innovating Classical Music TWO “Indie” Individualism THREE Opera and/as Gentrification FOUR Intel Beethoven: The New Spirit of Classical Music Conclusion: Music against Capitalism
Acknowledgments Notes Bibliography Index