Whose Classical Music? Assumptions and Representation in Online Participatory Projects
Online projects are meant to open up new forms of musical participation to people who would normally take part only as audience members. But they also bring up important issues regarding access, representation, and inclusion. Who ends up participating, and what does their participation mean?
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.
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.”
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. 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. 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 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.