Bow up, bow down, is it really interesting?

12 Jun 2016

To attract young audiences, classical music is trying to leverage the power of digital technologies. Not just single enthusiasts, but high-end  players of the industry - Boston Symphony Orchestra with Andris Nelsons, Los Angeles Philharmonic with Gustavo Dudamel, Berlin Philharmonic with Iván Fischer, London Philharmonia Orchestra with Esa-Pekka Salonen, Royal Opera House orchestra with Antonio Papano and others at the same level. Social media and press visibly welcome this arising trend (“Technology might just be what classical music need”).


In the digital age, where everything is influenced by technologies, classical music can’t remain unaffected. A hundred to one, our genre has big and bright digital future.


Yet, what is being done now does not look very convincing. In many respects, it may be great for repeat audience to facilitate and enrich their relationship with classical music. However, seems, it will hardly increase the number of first-timers, at least to the extent of seriously improving the situation with attendance. 


This was illustrated already in regard of some digital innovations for concert marketing. The research was held among the students at the elite universities in London, who were supplied with special mobile app. This app kept the students informed and allowed them to easily buy discounted tickets. The results of the research demonstrated that the app couldn’t contribute to widen the audience for live concerts. It helped to reach existing music lovers but left potential first-timers indifferent.


The same, supposedly, is to be expected in innovations of music performance on stage or in studio. Take, for example, Royal Opera House with its “one of the most ambitious uses of immersive tech we’ve seen yet from a classical music organisation”. What is it all about? 


“Production company Play Nicely used 31 cameras (including a GoPro360° rig with binaural audio head) to capture the ROH orchestra performing Rossini’s William Tell Overture in a single take.

Viewable via tablet, desktop or VR headset, the campaign is introduced by musical director Antonio Pappano, himself filmed in 360° in his ROH office.

Users are then invited to ‘Enter the pit’, where they can watch the performance from a variety of perspectives:

  • A 360° view of the orchestra and auditorium from behind Pappano

  • Via GoPro Hero 4 cameras attached to players, instruments and Pappano himself

  • Static cameras focusing on individual players and their instruments” 


So, it is about the observing the process of making music from different unusual angles. Try it here, it’s a really fresh and amusing experience, cognitive as well.


Now, the question is how long one can enjoy this experience without losing interest or getting a headache? Ten minutes or more? How fascinating is a lengthy watching the bow moving up and down, or inflating cheeks and fingers pushing down on three trumpet valves?  Just compare it with ordinary computer game in interactivity, diversity and creativity – what is more captivating for common mind?


Beyond any doubt, the ROH project will be entertaining for children, teens and adults who have never seen musicians in action.  But, it seems, it doesn’t suit for the permanent use. More to that, in substance, the variety of music and musical interpretations are disparate to the variety of physical movements that musicians produce. Therefore, these movements cannot somehow adequately reveal the essence of music for newcomers, and to truly engage them with it.


And the last but not the least, the problem with the attendance of concert halls live. Does virtual reality projects like of ROH’s will increase it? Technology is a double-edged sword. It works, depending on circumstances, both to the benefit and to the detriment. I don’t see any compelling argument on why one should prefer to observe the orchestra pit sitting just in the concert hall but not at home or at the beach. Especially since the latter is much less costly in terms of money and time. 


Designed to attract first-time audience to the concert hall, this use of technology may easily make the concert hall redundant. And, in this way to reduce the live attendance even further. If to take into account the psychology and habits of digital natives who are obsessed with having things here and now, this unfavourable outcome seems more than likely.





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Violinist deeply rooted in classical tradition and concerned about the future of the genre >> more about the author 

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© Yevgeny Chepovetsky 2015-2017