Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Globalization in Classical Music

I've been watching with interest the development of the youtube symphony orchestra over the past few months. The idea was fairly simple: find a composer to write a new piece of music, put the parts out on the internet for enterprising young musicians, ask said musicians to create a video audition of themselves playing sections of the new work, pick the best submissions and invite them to New York to play together in a premiere performance. Add names like Michael Tilson Thomas as conductor and Tan Dun as composer to the mix and you've got guaranteed press coverage.

Parts of me shake my head at the entire endeavor. For the auditions, the selection of members for the orchestra is certainly no more arbitrary than typical orchestral auditions, but I hate to think that a great young player who didn't have access to decent recording equipment might get passed over simply because their sound quality was poor. And an orchestral sound take lots of practice together to gel - a few days in April won't create a cohesive unit.

Still, it is an interesting idea and since the orchestral is playing in Carnegie Hall tonight, it was a perfect lead in to my class today. We've been discussing globalization in music of the past 20 years and talking about how you deal with issues of exoticism and cultural borrowings with composers like, say, Toru Takemitsu. If you don't know Takemitsu, he was a Japanese composer who first became enamored with Zen Buddhism from John Cage. He then began writing quite avant-garde pieces in a Western style that were influenced by Zen Buddhism and other cultural notions from his homeland. So he was a Japanese composer presenting Western music tinged with Japanese elements that he first encountered through a Westerner as artifacts from the East to primarily Western audiences. And if these kinds of cross-cultural brain twisters don't send you into contortions as you try to figure them out, just think of someone like Tan Dun who was born in China, trained in the US, and pulls multiple influences from all over the world. Once I figure all this out I'll let you know in my seminal article on the subject.

Along those lines comes the youtube symphony which pulls in musicians from around the world with multiple languages and musical customs but all playing Western-inspired music from a Chinese-American composer. I'm not sure how it will all work out, but it does raise interesting questions of who is borrowing musically from whom and where musical meaning rests since the music is from multiple cultures.

And if you are interested in the entire process, check out this mashup they made of all the audition recordings from the people accepted into the orchestra:

No comments: