Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Sinfonia synthetica

Jonathan of Dial M thinks he's the last blogger to comment on the YouTube Symphony, but no one gets to the back of a line better than me. Anyway, count me as completely bewildered by the whole thing. First, the idea that they'll build a performance from all the winning submissions is just goofy. Aside from how they'll deal with all the low-quality webcam audio they'll be getting, doesn't this take all the fun out of playing in an orchestra? Kenneth Woods had a great post recently describing how a blind trombonist is able to play in an orchestra because of his great listening skills, but the larger point is that the deepest and best kind of ensemble experience comes more from listening than watching and counting. (As an experienced accompanist, I find watching is needed only in a few specific moments - like during the bows.)

Sadly, it sometimes seems that people look at the process of learning what to listen for as something they shouldn’t have to do. Yes, I suppose one can be good enough to play the notes on the page, count the rests accurately and watch for a cue and do their job, but is that making music? More to the point- do you really just want to be living in a world where your whole universe is your part and the conductor? Playing an instrument is fun, but playing music is more fun…

Yes, I know multi-track recordings are made this way all the time, and I'm not saying that can't be a musical process (here's a terrific recent example; thanks, Elaine). I just don't see how Tan Dun's YouTube Symphony has any special qualities that lend it to the global multi-track approach. Come to think of it, I'm not sure what special qualities this piece actually has. Maybe it's cruel, but watching it reminds me of nothing more than the Frasier episode in which Frasier conducts his own overblown jingle - in each case, the composer/conductor looks a little too pleased with himself, while the musicians look like they're punching time clocks.

[Compare 1:27 of Frasier to just about any moment in the Tan Dun.]

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