Tag: YouTube

Whose Classical Music? Assumptions and Representation in Online Participatory Projects

What is a community in new music? A panel of musicologists attempted to answer this question at the second annual New Music Gathering last January. Community might be manifested in an experimental commune, in the practices of minimalist music, in the radical identity politics of an opera, or in the labor of administrators and institutions. Rather than provide a singular answer to what a new music community might be, our panel provided many. Over the coming weeks, you can read our examinations of new music and community from a variety of historical and ethnographic perspectives. We are very grateful to NewMusicBox for hosting this weekly series, to the organizers of New Music Gathering for sponsoring a thought-provoking conference, and to our home institutions for supporting our research.—Will Robin

On February 12, 2016, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir posted a call for submissions to its new “virtual choir” version of George Friderich Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. The virtual choir format (first used by composer Eric Whitacre in his various “Virtual Choir” projects from 2009 to 2013), encourages participants from around the world to submit videos of themselves singing an individual part of a choral composition. Organizers then compile these individual parts into a final audio/video track to form the full choir, often accompanied by impressive animations that emphasize the projects’ remarkable accomplishment of allowing participants to “sing together” even as they do not inhabit the same physical space.

As a form of religious outreach, the Mormon Tabernacle virtual choir had clear ideological implications, many of which were easily read from its original call for participants. The project’s website explicitly encouraged the unification of Christians across denominational boundaries and featured scriptural quotation from the Book of Mormon explaining the spiritual benefits of the act of singing together. The final video—featuring footage from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir alongside clips submitted online—was released on March 13, 2016, just in time to serve its stated purpose as an Easter celebration. These factors clearly delineated the project’s boundaries, as a space meant for the involvement of Christians (and, implicitly, not for people belonging to other faith traditions) and more specifically as a site in which to assert interdenominational unity.

What I want to discuss here, in contrast, are cases in which the ideology behind the use of music derived from a Western classical tradition might not be so immediately evident. Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir performances are only a few of a number of online projects organized in roughly the past decade that use online technologies to call for general participation in classical music making. These projects range from orchestras arranging performances with interactive Twitter components to even more active roles, such as contests in which the winner has a musical composition exhibited (as in the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin’s 2013 and 2016 contests to remix Dvořák and Bruckner) or performs in some capacity themselves (as in David Lang’s 2011 competition to find a featured performer to play his piece wed at (le) poisson rouge).

Such projects often feature calls to—and claims of having achieved—more actively participatory and widespread inclusion, opening up the world of classical music to new groups that might not have had the chance to engage before. But as recent social discussions about diversity, representation, and inclusion in American mainstream culture make clear (think about critiques of the racial distribution of nominees at this year’s Grammys and Oscars, for example, as just one instance of longer term concerns), inclusivity is a tricky subject. Not everyone agrees about what it looks like or how to make it happen. And although it is difficult to start more clearly defining what inclusivity truly is, why it might be desirable, and how it might be achieved, it is an important conversation to have. In the realm of classical music in America, this need is just as strong and carries a great deal of contemporary and historical significance.[1]

Who is meant to participate, who can participate, who ends up participating, and what does their participation mean?

By taking a critical eye to the claims and hidden pitfalls of online classical music projects, I hope to advance a conversation of importance to all music descended from Western European art music traditions—today, in the 21st century, whose music is this? Or, to pose this question less polemically: Who is meant to participate, who can participate, who ends up participating, and what does their participation mean? This issue often comes up in discussions of audience outreach and anxieties about the future of classical music, and is certainly worth further consideration.

I want to be clear that I assume good intentions on the parts of project organizers, even as I critique some of the ways in which these projects are carried out and the ideologies that underlie them. These issues are difficult to navigate from an organizational perspective, and they are ones that I am sensitive to (and vulnerable myself to criticism for) as someone who organizes classical music concerts and who works as an educator in my own community. At the same time, good intentions are usually only the first step toward addressing social issues—it is also necessary to be open to criticism and to make changes.

Let’s begin with a very brief detour into the world of art history and criticism, where participation has—at least over the past twenty years or so—been the topic of some debate.

Curator and art critic Nicolas Bourriaud invented the term “relational aesthetics” in a series of essays later published in a book of that name, in response to a trend he observed in visual and conceptual art of the 1990s. With this term, he enthusiastically described a socially engaged approach to art, attentive to the relationship between itself and its viewers and concerned with creating works that Bourriaud characterizes as “convivial, user-friendly…festive, collective and participatory.” For example:

Rirkrit Tiravanija organizes a dinner in a collector’s home, and leaves him all the ingredients required to make a Thai soup…In a Copenhagen square, Jes Brinch and Henrik Plenge Jacobsen install an upturned bus that causes a rival riot in the city. Christine Hill works as a check-out assistant in a supermarket, organizes a weekly gym workshop in a gallery…Pierre Huyghe summons people to a casting session, makes a TV transmitter available to the public, and puts a photograph of laborers at work on view just a few yards from the building site. (Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 7–8)

As one response to Bourriaud and his supporters, art historian Claire Bishop has claimed in her book Artificial Hells that such a celebration of participation above all other characteristics of art creates two false categories: the passive, encompassing activities more commonly associated with gallery culture such as observing and contemplating; and the active, considered more hands-on, engaging, and inclusive of the audience. Bishop is concerned that this division serves to reinforce deep-seated classist perceptions in the art world, under which the upper class owns (both in a figurative sense, or intellectually, and a quite literal one) the space of the gallery. The middle class, under this model, is allowed the mental leisure and capacity to interpret and consider art, and the lower class is thought capable of only relating to art physically, rather than conceptually or aesthetically.

Class—or at least, access to resources, cultural exposure, and training, in a broad sense—is also at the root of assumptions about who belongs in the cultural sphere of Western classical music, as well as its various new music offshoots. For classical music in America today, obsessively concerned with its own seemingly dwindling capacity to speak to contemporary society, it comes perhaps as no surprise that a participatory message would be appealing. In the past eight years or so, orchestras and ensembles across the US have experimented with audience engagement over Twitter and other social media, including by encouraging audience members to live-tweet performances from inside concert halls or interact before and after concerts using particular hashtags or prompts. The Philadelphia Orchestra has developed its own app that allows audience members to follow live program notes on their phones during performances, originally pairing the service with shorter concerts at a reduced ticket price. Some have gone further still: in 2013, the Houston Symphony and local classical station KUHA sponsored an “air-conducting” contest in which participants uploaded videos of themselves conducting along to recordings of classical compositions. The winner of the competition (eventually announced as seven-year-old Jonathan Okensiuk, who had already achieved viral video fame at the age of three for a video of him conducting along to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) was given the opportunity to lead the symphony in a live concert rendition of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Online projects open up new forms of musical participation to people who would normally take part only as audience members.

Although the social and economic issues vary by region and nation, orchestras and organizations outside of the US have also experimented with online projects that open up new forms of musical participation to people who would normally take part only as audience members. In addition to the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin remix competitions mentioned above, projects like the Tweetfonie (2014, Anhaltische Philharmonic Orchestra Dessau) and the World Online Orchestra / Open Orchestra (2013–, Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra) have allowed participants to experiment with manipulating musical materials themselves. Additionally, a number of standalone projects have explicitly aimed for international reach, even as much of their user base has eventually come from the US and Europe. These include Whitacre’s Virtual Choir (2009–2013) and the YouTube Symphony Orchestra (2009/2011).

The use of internet platforms as content generators for musical projects indisputably removes a number of restrictions to participation. Most obviously, physical distance becomes irrelevant: anyone who has technological access can participate. This raises the issue, then, of who does have access. To prepare for, record, and upload a video requires internet access in order to read the instructions, watch a conducting video, view a score or hear a recording (unless these are available to a participant offline), and eventually upload the finished recording. Even with rapidly advancing global internet connectivity, this ability cannot be universally assumed. Some countries have much wider internet availability and usage than others, and this can vary significantly depending on regional infrastructure.

And access depends on more than the ability to get online. Participants also need recording equipment that will capture audio and (usually) video to the standards of the project organizers, as well as the ability to use this equipment without disrupting or being disrupted by others and with a minimum of background noise. At an even more basic level, they have to have heard about the project in the first place, either online through a website, social network, or email list, or through an offline network (for example, as a participant in a traditional community music ensemble). They must be technologically fluent enough to go through the process of creating a video and uploading it, or they must know someone else who can assist them.

Beyond the issue of access is that of representation and inclusion. Western classical music has its own particular set of aesthetic values—simply put, it’s supposed to sound good. A particular set of musical skills is highly valued within the classical world—technical ability, intonation, and tone among them. With the exception of art music contexts that consciously reject these ideas (for example, the Portsmouth Sinfonia, whose members played instruments on which they were untrained to the best of their abilities and whose recordings now live on in viral internet infamy as “orchestra fails”), these values are generally held by classical music performers and ensembles and are required for a musical project to be commercially viable under that genre. Most of the organizations and individuals that host online classical participatory projects therefore have a great deal at stake in presenting something that fits into these aesthetics, because they participate in a system that values this type of skill both intellectually and financially.

Perhaps as a way of compensating for anxieties about not being able to offer the same standard of musical skill as a professional ensemble, online musical projects often justify their value by presenting themselves as performing a type of social work, first and foremost by claiming to increase or broaden participation in classical music traditions. The most common way of providing evidence of increased participation is by emphasizing participants’ geographic locations. This is often done implicitly in smaller projects, especially through reference in publicity materials to participants from the most unusual (or, less charitably, “exotic”) locales. In some of the largest online projects, on the other hand, geographic distribution has been more thoroughly documented and presented. Both the YouTube Symphony Orchestra and Whitacre’s Virtual Choir have emphasized the geographic distribution of their participants, albeit with some distortion. For the 2011 YTSO, ten of the live orchestra’s participants were interviewed in professionally produced “Meet the Orchestra” videos; out of ten videos, two of the members profiled were from the United States.[2] But 42 of the 101 total participants in the orchestra had their home country listed by the ensemble as the US—proportionally, twice as many as were profiled in the video series. Whitacre has emphasized details about geographic diversity for nearly all of his Virtual Choir projects. His 2011 video for Sleep, for example, opens by stating that more than 2000 performances have been submitted from 58 countries, and the names of several of these countries feature heavily in the video’s graphics. The first visible country name is Kazakhstan (0:17, 1 participant), and the names of Croatia (0:51, 1 participant), Sri Lanka (2:32 and 2:51, 3 participants), and Costa Rica (2:40, 1 participant) are prominently visible alongside countries with far more participants, such as the US, the UK, and Canada.[3] The graphics obscure the fact that 1149 videos—more than half—were submitted from the United States alone, and that 80% of the videos come from the five countries with the most submissions (US, UK, Canada, Germany, and Australia).

In other cases, organizers have emphasized aspects of participants’ identity such as physical (dis)ability—for example when Whitacre shared in an article on the Huffington Post that the Virtual Choir had allowed a legally blind participant to sing in a choir for the first time because he had never before been able to see a conductor. The very young and the very old also tend to be singled out as exceptional. The emphasis on youth in particular is striking, with younger participants often presented prominently as if to assuage common fears about aging classical music audiences. For example, a post published on the Houston Symphony blog by associate conductor Robert Franz praises seven-year-old air-conducting contest winner Jonathan Okseniuk as a modern-day (child prodigy) Mozart. Franz expresses shock about Okseniuk’s familiarity with the piece that he conducted prior to the performance (Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever”) the fact that he “not only imitated what he saw and heard, but he internalized it and understood it.” The post’s representation of Okseniuk’s conducting performance hinges entirely on presenting his musical capacity in the context of his age as particularly exceptional. It’s striking to imagine that there are very few circumstances in which it would not seem entirely offensive to make this comment about a person of any other age. But age ranges are useful for demonstrating the broadness of project boundaries, as in the current description of the Sleep Virtual Choir, which claims to include people from “all walks of life, including 9 year olds to senior citizens.”

As demonstrated in all of these cases, the desire to justify online projects through their social functions often results in seeking out “unexpected” project participants, leading to the creation publicity materials that reduce participants’ identities to the ways in which they lie outside of an imagined, presumed audience for classical music. David Lang once said in an interview that he saw his piano competition as “the ability for me to date more people.” When Lang points out that he’s going to make new friends, as when he claims in his announcement video that participation “might be a great opportunity for you to get your music seen” by his panel of expert judges (Andrew Zolinsky, Lisa Moore, Jeremy Denk, and Vicky Chow), he points out not only the insularity of his own existing music community, but a preexisting conception about who doesn’t already belong. In the case of Lang’s competition, this imagined group of people wants to belong, knows most if not all of his judges’ names, and is skilled but not particularly well connected. In other cases, the presumed Other seems to have even less exposure to the cultural and social worlds of classical music—it has to be brought to them, and who better to do it than the organizers of an online project? In all of the above cases, the implication is that online projects do important work by bringing classical music to people who haven’t gotten to experience it previously. But in all of the above cases, the oversights about the real requirements for participation and the casual assumptions made about participants arguably distract from actually carrying out the work that is claimed to be done—that is, from finding creative ways to engage new audiences in a thoughtful and responsible way.

What does this all mean for the future of participatory projects within the new music community? Does it mean that we write them off as failures of past project organizers, or that we abandon participatory models because they are necessarily flawed?

I hope not. I hope it means that composers, performers, and the teams they work with to realize participatory projects will think carefully about who they’re working to include (and who they’re not working to include)—and, importantly, that this will be reflected responsibly in the claims they make about their projects. There is often a fine line between using participatory ideals to help provide community cohesion and painting one’s project as inclusive in order to garner prestige and support while casually allowing the sociopolitical dynamics typically at play in determining cultural participation to continue as usual—but better defining that line is an important task.

Joanna Helms

Joanna Helms

Joanna Helms is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the University of North Carolina. Her research interests generally center around issues of dissemination, participation, and collaboration in sound and music technologies. She is currently beginning a dissertation on early electronic music and sound art at the Studio di Fonologia, a former research studio associated with Italian state radio and television network Rai.

1. The performance and values of classical music in the US have long been associated with uplift narratives and the American (European-centered) cultural elite. This can be seen in diverse instances throughout the nation’s history, from the establishment of singing schools in New England to teach the right kinds of both musical and social values, to twentieth-century classical radio programming like Walter Damrosch’s Music Appreciation Hour (1928–42), which aimed to educate its listening audiences (especially children) in “good music,” thereby elevating their cultural taste.

2. These videos (titled “Meet [orchestra member’s name]”) are still featured on the YouTube Symphony’s page and can be viewed at this link. I am grateful to Sarah Carsman for sharing her research on the YTSO (in which she points out this and several other marketing strategies) with me.

3. Statistics about participants are taken from http://ericwhitacre.com/the-virtual-choir/history/vc2-sleep.

This One Goes Out To the One I Love


Thanks to services like Facebook and Spotify, you can’t throw a rock these days without hitting a piece of social media revealing the preferred playlists and listening proclivities of family, friends, and associates stretching across several degrees of separation. And it turns out that most people mostly like pop music. But your personal feed might be a bit different. For fans of new music, social listening can be a bit frustrating. When was the last time Spotify told you someone was listening to Charles Ives or John Cage? What about less famous, living composers?

Now it’s our turn to grab the bullhorn by the “on” switch and give a shout out for the adventurous music we wouldn’t want to live without. Why do you love new music? What piece of music has inspired you the most? Why does the world need contemporary music? Pull out your smartphone, fire up your webcam, or turn on your video recorder and start counting. Then upload your video and we’ll add it our list, giving the internet every reason to keep listening.

Blogging MIDEM 2012: Cannes We Keep It Going?


I’ve been a bit distracted by what has been happening in the outside world.

There’s lots to report on from my trips to Paris and Nice. I’ve been so busy, I apparently didn’t even notice an earthquake in Italy whose tremors were felt throughout southern France. But that will have to wait for a later date, as I am now in Cannes in the midst of the hurly-burly that is MIDEM. When I attended this mega music trade show for the first time last year and kept telling veteran attendees how amazed I was by the breadth and depth of it all, most of them sighed and bemoaned that what I was experiencing paled in comparison with what MIDEM used to be. It’s now a year later, and I’ve become one of those veteran attendees. I was told that a lot of people might not arrive yesterday when it all began, but it’s now the beginning of the second day and it still seems much quieter than last year.

But while there are fewer exhibitioners and fewer attendees overall, there are still so many sessions and other activities that it’s nearly impossible to soak it all in. Soak is perhaps an apt metaphor—it was raining when I arrived yesterday and never completely let up, although once at the Palais des Conference I was pretty much indoors until I ventured out on the streets of Cannes to have dinner and attend one of the myriad MIDEM showcase performances happening in local venues.

New Crowd at MIDEM

Among the attendees of MIDEM 2012 some musicians are clearly visible.

One thing that is significantly different about MIDEM this year is that there is now a lower artist rate for attending, so there are more individual musicians and bands here than before. It’s a welcome demographic shift which, as a result, has attracted a new kind of exhibitor, like the company Tonara which has developed software that enables your tablet to become an interactive digital sheet music reader that can follow you as you perform a score that is loaded on it, eliminating things like page turns (not even a pedal is needed). It can presumably understand when you are making a mistake, but they have yet to figure out how to receive input from percussion instruments or even from an accordion, and all the music that is available for it is standard notated public domain music. They’ve yet to negotiate deals with living composers and publishers of works still protected by copyright. It would be interesting to see if they could ever get this program to work with a John Cage score.

Another shift is that there is far more of an emphasis on live performances. MIDEM has created its own three-day music festival which takes place on three consecutive nights but, as before, there are many off-shoot showcase concerts in local venues presented by various exhibitors based in countries around the world. Of course, there are still tons of sessions. The first one I attended yesterday was a talk about using social media to promote music given by a fellow New Yorker, Ariel Hyatt of Cyber PR. I learned some useful statistics like 71% of all companies now have a Facebook presence and 59% are on Twitter, yet Twitter and Facebook combined only account for 3% of the revenue artists accrue from the promotion of their music online. Emailing newsletters directly to fans still yields the greatest draw: 30%. I also learned that the person who writes Britney Spears’s tweets is a friend of Ariel’s named Cassie. So much for the transparency of the new media paradigms.

YouTube Panel at MIDEM

There were a lot of references to 50s television in the YouTube panel at MIDEM. Well, like one of the classic TV shows from that era, The Outer Limits, YouTube now controls the horizontal and the vertical.

Then I attended a session sponsored by YouTube, which this year has an even bigger presence at MIDEM than last year. Patrick Walker, who is YouTube’s senior director of music for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, gave a very slick presentation overall although there was something somehow ironic in his not being able to get a YouTube video to load after several attempts. To this day, every time I see a presentation involving technology there’s always some kind of glitch. Yet in a world where Google (which owns YouTube) has greater annual profits than the four top record companies combined, a very successful technology company that seems to have a virtual monopoly on several key aspects of web browsing has become the music industry’s new gatekeeper. Some more stats: YouTube has 4 billion views per day, and 800 million unique users per month; of those, 500 million views are on mobile devices. (That number tripled in 2011.) San Francisco-based Chris LaRoca, YouTube’s project manager for music, talked about how individual artists and record labels could track their content on YouTube via their custom designed app Audio ID and Content ID, which should enable them to actually receive payment from the usage of their intellectual property. I’m curious to learn more about how this works in real life.

Sake Party

The various drinking parties at exhibitions at MIDEM bring people with all different agendas together.

After that it was free sake time at the Japan exhibition booth. Even with fewer attendees, the parties still go on. The last of the sessions I attended yesterday was a panel of intellectual property lawyers talking about termination rights. There is currently legislation under consideration in the United States that will revert the rights on sound recordings from the record labels to the recording artists who made the recording, effective January 1, 2013, for recordings released in 1978. However, it has yet to be determined who all the rights holders are: the producer of a recording in many cases has as much of a claim to ownership as the principal performer, and then there are sidemen who are not always identified who can be entitled to up to 20% of the revenue. Since the rule will only apply to the United States, it is possible that many recordings will be controlled by different stakeholders in the USA and abroad. Such a potential licensing quagmire should prove an even greater challenge in a world which the internet has been making into more and more of a single territory, but that wasn’t discussed.

I ended the evening by attending part of a showcase presented by Jamendo, a web business offering totally free legal downloads from artists from all over the world by circumventing one of the key licensing protocols: none of the groups whose music is featured there are allowed to belong to a performing right’s society. The band I heard was a Swedish indie rock group named Emerald Park, who were somewhat reminiscent of Athens, Georgia, bands. While a violinist conjured the folk incursions of R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, a backing female singer added a B52 Kate Pierson touch to the vocals, although Emerald Park’s singer was not quite Michael Stipe or Fred Schneider. Everyone there seemed to be having a great time, but after hearing four of their songs in a very loud and extremely crowded club where beers were 8 euros each, it was time to finally check into my hotel and call it a night.

Emerald Park

The Swedish band Emerald Park was the headliner at Jamendo’s Showcase of bands unrepresented by performing rights societies.

More about today’s activities later. Now it’s time to head back to a session.

Using YouTube to Find a Pianist

David Lang

David Lang. Photo © Peter Serling, 2009

[Ed. Note: On November 15, composer David Lang launched a rather unusual piano competition that was specifically designed to take advantage the broad connectivity the internet offers. Through the services of the publisher who distributes his music, G. Schirmer, Lang made available, without charge, a downloadable score for his solo piano composition wed. Pianists were instructed to learn the piece and post their performances of it to YouTube until December 31, 2011, tagging their videos with the phrase “David Lang Piano Competition 2011,” to ensure their performances could be easily found. In the beginning of the new year, a group of pianists—including Andrew Zolinsky, who recorded the piece on the Cantaloupe CD this was written by hand—will judge all of the submissions and the winner they select will be flown from wherever in the world he or she resides to New York City to perform wed, as well as to premiere (alongside Andrew Zolinsky) a brand new Lang piano 4-hand piece at Le Poisson Rouge on May 6, 2012. (The winner will also be put up for two nights in a hotel and receive a small honorarium.) With only a week left to enter the competition, we thought we’d check in with David Lang to find out how things are going.—FJO/MS]

The competition has been going very well so far. We have had a few hundred pianists from around the world download the music, and we expect that many of them will post videos of them playing it. I have been really grateful that most of the people I have heard from have been amused by it. It is hard to tell in advance sometimes if something new will turn out to be a good idea or a bad one, which might be a good reason to do it by itself.

One little change happened in the middle that I thought was interesting. Since I will bring the winner to New York, I had originally opened the competition only to people in countries from which you could get a visa to come to the United States. After some blog postings and some emails from disappointed Iranian musicians, I decided to open it up to everyone in the world, and we will deal with the visa things when we have to. It was great to be reminded that even simple things we do here may have deeper political meanings, and that music’s goal should be to connect people and not divide them. And it was particularly amazing to discover—duh!—that the internet works, and messages like this one get read and felt all around the world.

The really exciting thing about this competition to me is thinking that I am going to find out about and meet a bunch of new and interesting musicians. I like musicians. I have a lot of friends who are musicians, and I know and like a lot of musicians already. But I have room to know and like many more!

When I started working on the CD [this was written by hand] I was thinking about how piano music is different from other music. I love big, lush orchestral pieces, but I don’t have an orchestra in my apartment. I do have a piano, though, and I know I am not alone. And I have to say, I really like the CD and I think Andrew plays beautifully, in a very plainspoken manner. I thought the competition might help people find this CD and like it.

You can look and listen to all of the submissions that have been posted so far at
this page. Here is one of them…