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Archive for April, 2009

Youtube Symphony’s Audition Player

In the days when most classical music was written, you heard it when someone played it. Unless you were a class A VIP with an orchestra on call, that meant you left home, went to the concert hall, and paid for your ticket.

If you wanted music at home, you had a few choices. You could hire musicians. This was obviously an option mainly for the Person of Means. More often, you played it yourself, or someone else in your family did. Or you might have spent an evening with friends, reading through chamber music.

From at least the 18th century, inventors have been looking for ways to bring the concert home. They’ve given us such efforts as flute-clocks, barrel organs, reproducing (player) pianos, phonographs, radios, and compact discs. Every development was another effort at making virtual virtuosi, musicians that anybody can afford to "hire."

Only the wealthiest tycoon could finance a private concert by George Gershwin, but thousands of more modest means came pretty close when they furnished their living rooms and parlors with Aeolian and Welte reproducing pianos, and bought the piano rolls that Gershwin made for those firms. The music was affordable because they were sharing the cost of Gershwin’s performance with all the others who bought his recordings. A few fine musicians could serve more listeners than ever before. You could call this a "few-to-many" system.

Comes now the internet. (That’s a bit of a leap. Sorry!) One of its fundamental principles — built into it quite deliberately — is that nobody is the master. Every node on the net is equal (please support net neutrality to keep it that way). If you think of the net as a community, it’s probably as close as any society has come to being truly egalitarian. It’s just about as easy to be a content provider as it is to be a content consumer. Anybody can have a website or a blog (and sometimes it seems as if everybody does). The internet is a "many-to-many" system.

If the player piano was music’s mass medium for the late 19th century and the compact disc the one for the late 20th, what’s the musical mass medium of the early 21st century?

Could it be the internet — and Youtube?

Well, now, let’s think about this. Big media companies try to use Youtube for their "viral marketing," but what really predominates? Homemade video clips, with the emphasis on homemade. There’s no audition for this talent show. The viewers are the gatekeepers, such as they are, and about the only post that will earn you the hook is something lewd or deeply offensive. All you need is a cheap digital video camera and something to say or demonstrate. You too can show the world how to electrocute a Furby or unlock a mobile phone.

Or how to make music. The corporate media often rail against Youtube because some users post copyrighted material, and you can’t blame them. But try a search for, say, Stairway to Heaven. Sure, a few are performances by the original artists, but you’ll find page after page of fuzzy videos shot in living rooms and bedrooms round the world. Here are people you’ve never heard of, playing (or attempting to play) the tune on electric guitar, classical guitar, harp, even ocarina. Here are anonymous musicians who say they can teach you how to play it, and fiery orators who claim to expose the secret symbolism of its lyrics or its fiendish back-masking.

Better yet, it’s not just pop. Youtube is brim-full of classical music. If people play it or sing it, you can probably find it, from Chopin’s Military Polonaise (93 performances) to a Swedish folksong arrangement by Bengt Hallberg (sung by the Moriarty High School Messenger Chamber Chorus).

But is it good? Are these performances that a music lover would enjoy, or that a music student could learn from? That depends on how persistent you are. Not long ago I was trading email with a friend who’d never heard Aaron Copland’s "I Bought Me A Cat" (from Old American Songs). I found about two dozen performances of it on Youtube, from one by an unaccompanied six year old girl (pretty cute, but what she sang didn’t quite match up to Copland) to a spirited reading by the men’s chorus of James Madison University.

You can’t be too fussy, though. Even when the performance is top-shelf, often the clip’s been recorded from the audience by somebody documenting his kid’s or friend’s performance. The visual excitement is usually limited to zooming in and then out again, and panning across the stage just in time to miss the solo. The sound is often tinny mono from the camcorder’s rudimentary sound system, accompanied by the rustling and whispering of nearby listeners. Youtube’s digital bandwidth compression makes matters worse, often adding a swishing, watery effect.

But who says that has to be the only way Youtube makes music? Seventy years ago, radio was the medium, and NBC was the channel that gave us the NBC Symphony and Arturo Toscanini’s timeless interpretations. Now the internet is the medium and Youtube is the channel. Why can’t we have a Youtube Symphony?

Indeed, why not? With all the performances available — including some historic ones — Youtube has become a go-to resource for music students and young musicians all over the world. What better way to reach them? And in early December (2008), conductor Michael Tilson Thomas decided to try extending Youtube’s reach. The Youtube Symphony Orchestra became the first collaborative online orchestra, and the first ensemble to audition its members by Youtube video.

This evening (15 April 2009), all the IM, email, and practice bears fruit, as the Youtube Symphony Orchestra gives its first public performance at Carnegie Hall.

Now, with worldwide auditions, what state do you suppose has contributed more members to the Youtube Orchestra than any other? WKSU reporter Vivian Goodman has the answer.

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Further reading:

Youtube Symphony Orchestra

Youtube Seeks Harmony Out of Diversity at Yahoo News

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