Lexus’ Cheap Shot at Classical Music

A Lexus in the junkyardAdvertising is about illusion. It manipulates the most irrational recesses of our minds, circumventing thoughtfulness and judgment. Facts and reason are no match for advertising, which plays on emotion, desire and the ephemeral. Madison Avenue can cleverly make any product, person, or idea seem desirable or undesirable, and its reach extends into mainstream news and political campaigns. Are we citizens or brand consumers?

In a new Lexus ad, classical music becomes a symbol for everything which is old, stuffy, boring, and uncool. The ad doesn’t portray “real” classical music, but its image, or signifier. Interestingly, all of the music heard in the ad sounds like virtual orchestra technology. It’s digitally manipulated to sound annoyingly out of tune, whiny and grating. Both the “classical” music and the synthesized drums which conclude the commercial are sterile and soulless.

It’s possible to view the ad as a good natured spoof on the multitude of cliched car commercials which use classical music in an equally stereotypical way, appealing to an image of class, age, and affluence. But even taking satire into account, disturbingly divisive messages remain: “This music is boring and annoying.” “Classical music is for old people. Rock music is for young people.”

Of course, the term “classical music” itself can be viewed as an offensively arbitrary marketing label. When we say “classical,” we’re really talking about all enduring music. Bach, Bartok and The Beatles all fit that description.

Divisiveness is at the heart of corporate advertising. The indoctrination of children from an early age into mass consumerism has been well-documented. As standardized testing has pushed the arts to the periphery of the school day, corporate media has subtly told children what is “cool” and what isn’t. All of this is enough to make you wonder if corporate culture is subconsciously afraid of the arts. Perhaps the ultimate reality embodied in the arts is enough to shatter illusion and remind us that we’re more than brain dead consumers.

This clever remake was made in response to the original ad.

The Lexus ad uses the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21. Here is the real thing, played by Murray Perahia. The serene opening of Mozart’s Andante (14:01) is deceiving. It lulls us into complacency. But keep listening and you’ll hear a subtle turn towards something darker with the hint of melancholy around 14:45. Amazingly, we slip back into the atmosphere of the opening as if nothing happened, but the seed of that moment of dissonance has been planted and returns throughout the movement. Listen to all of the surprising turns Mozart’s music has in store for us:

  1. Allegro maestoso (0:00)
  2. Andante (14:01)
  3. Allegro vivace assai (21:00)

Night Traffic

rainy night traffic

There is a significant update to Monday’s post regarding the Hartford Wagner Festival’s plans to use a “virtual orchestra” in performances of the Ring Cycle. On Monday afternoon the Festival announced that performances would be postponed due to the controversy, which resulted in resignations of key members of the company. Although it was not mentioned in the released statement, an apparent lack of financial support may also have played a role. A Kickstarter campaign, initiated on May 30 with the fundraising goal of $25,000, has only resulted in a single $50.00 pledge. To get a sense of the “virtual orchestra,” listen to this sampled version of Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings and then compare it with the real thing.

While the “virtual orchestra” has met with resistance in the opera pit, computer processed sounds have led to a rich array of new colors and exciting compositional possibilities for contemporary composers. From amplified rock music to the faint hum of our lights and appliances, the sounds of electricity are all around us. These sounds shape our sensibilities in the way bird songs and bubbling brooks influenced Haydn or Schubert. In pop songs and avant-garde computer compositions, the recording has become elevated to a work of art in its own right. There are obvious drawbacks to the fixed and unchanging nature of a recording, as opposed to the spontaneity of acoustic performance. But acoustic and electric sounds will continue to blend in interesting new ways. In the twenty-first century, complex musical technology ranges from the violin to the computer.

Paul Lansky’s Night Traffic (1990) uses the processed, recorded sounds of cars passing in the night on a four lane highway in New Jersey. For me, the piece hints at an atmosphere of lonely isolation and the dehumanizing nature of modern technology. You may come away with a completely different feeling. As you listen, consider the sense of motion and edgy, metallic tonal colors. Read about the background of the piece here. Lansky offers this description of Night Traffic:

There is a kind of randomness, violence, and rhythmic intensity (and great Doppler shifts!) which draw upon and excite all sorts of musical perceptions.

Find on iTunes

Retiring last month, Paul Lansky was a longtime member of Princeton University’s composition faculty. Recently, his music has shifted from computers, which he has described as “a kind of aural camera in the world”, to acoustic instruments. His 1973 tape piece, mild und leiseinspired by Wagner’s Tristan chordwas quoted in the Radiohead song, Idioteque.

Virtual Wagner: Worth the Price of Admission?

violin playing robotA firestorm of controversy has erupted surrounding plans by the Hartford Wagner Festival to perform Wagner’s Ring Cycle with a digital “virtual orchestra.” The festival’s founder, Charles M. Goldstein, has entered sampled sounds of orchestral instruments into a musical software program, which will be played using 24 speakers in the pit. The sounds were provided by a company called the Vienna Symphonic Library. The first opera of the cycle, Das Rheingold, is scheduled for August. In 2004 the Opera Company of Brooklyn attempted a similar performance with Mozart’s Magic Flute, but was forced to cancel amid protest. In response to criticism, Hartford Wagner Festival, which should not be confused with Hartford Opera Theater, put out this statement.

If the production goes on as planned, Hartford audiences will pay around $100.00 a ticket for a less-than-live experience. With so many excellent, well mixed recordings available, featuring experienced singers as opposed to this production’s young cast, it’s hard to understand why patrons wouldn’t instead opt for their home entertainment system. Why get in your car and pay for parking when you can listen to recorded music through speakers in the comfort of your own home?

Of course, a recording is no replacement for a real live performance. We continue to value live performances because of the power, presence and immediacy of the sound and the unpredictable excitement of (in the case of Wagner) a hundred or more musicians spontaneously reacting to each other and to the moment. Each performance is a unique event, which will never occur exactly the same way again. Live performance isn’t possible without the human element. The way the horn player shapes and colors a musical line feeds the drama onstage and influences and inspires the singers who, in turn, inspire the orchestra.

A Wagner Festival without an orchestra is all the more ironic because Wagner wrote “symphonic” operas, rooted in orchestral color. In his essays, Wagner described his philosophy of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art”, -a blending of many art forms into one. This seems far removed from the kind of bizarre operatic karaoke dreamed up in Hartford. Goldstein points out that smaller companies often put on these operas using two pianos in the pit. That approach might work if you’re presenting The Fantasticks, but in the case of Wagner, if you aren’t prepared to invest in a real, live orchestra, why bother?

It’s hard to imagine the Hartford performances being anything but cold, dead and soulless. Even if audience members delude themselves into thinking they can’t tell the difference between a virtual string section and a real one, they will still feel the difference on a subconscious level. In the end, music is about feeling rather than analyzing. Let’s hope there are no young people in the audience looking for their first taste of opera. At a time when we should be celebrating and promoting the excitement of live performance, the Hartford Wagner Festival is shamefully and fraudulently devaluing a great art form.

Join the Facebook group, Musicians Against Hartford Wagner Festival here.

Contact the Hartford Wagner Festival directly here.

UPDATE: June 16, 2:00 pm ET. The Hartford Wagner Festival has just released a statement announcing that it is postponing the Das Rheingold performance.

Becoming one with E-flat major

The expansive opening of Das Rheingold starts with a deep rumble and slowly develops on a single E-flat major chord, hinting at the epic proportions of what is to come. One of opera’s most dramatic preludes, this is music which forces us to confront the power of color and pure sound, with all of the rich overtones which can only be created by an orchestra. Here is a Bayreuth performance conducted by Pierre Boulez:

Cheapening Broadway

Times Square 1-2

Ticket prices and the profits generated by Broadway shows continue to soar but how does the experience compare with what audiences were getting fifty years ago? This question came to mind after a recent conversation I had with a student, following her attendance of Troika Entertainment’s touring production of West Side Story.

Initially excited to see a live performance of one of her favorite shows, my student was quickly distracted and disheartened by the empty, thin sound of the production’s greatly reduced pit orchestra which consisted of one violin, one cello, two reeds, trumpet, trombone, bass, percussion, drums and two ADM/piano players. The production’s playbill credits Leonard Bernstein, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal with the orchestrations, even though the majority of their lush, intricately layered string and wind parts ended up on the cutting room floor.

West Side Story begins and ends with the orchestra, from the Prologue which immediately gives us a sense of the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks on the rough and tumble streets of New York, to the emotionally conflicted final notes. The score is symphonic, with motivic threads (like the use of the tritone) running throughout. In West Side Story we are constantly pulled between two opposing realities: the ugliest, darkest impulses of humanity and the transcendent nature of love. Most of the time it’s the music coming out of the pit which brings the drama of this duality to life. Would The Rumble be quite as terrifying without Bernstein’s orchestra music? Listen to a few excerpts from the original Broadway cast recording and notice how often the orchestra tells us exactly what the characters are feeling: Tonight, Somewhere, Something’s Coming.

In 2010 Paul Woodiel, a violinist and friend of Leonard Bernstein wrote an excellent Op-Ed in the New York Times called Gee Officer Krupke, I Need Those Violins, which lamented the unprecedented reduction of live musicians on Broadway and the resulting degradation of the product. Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Arts wrote another thought-provoking piece called Why We Use the Full Orchestra. This article sheds additional light on the replacement of live musicians with synthesizers in the theater pit.

Does Broadway deliver the same exciting musical experience it did in the past? Some might correctly argue that the influence of rock music necessitated a more electronic and less acoustic sound on Broadway. Orchestrations should fit the character of the show. A huge pit orchestra isn’t needed for every show. In the 1980’s when orchestras were beginning to shrink, Jonathan Tunick gave Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods a chamber orchestra sound not unlike the witty, dry, neoclassical music of Stravinsky.

But imagine what it was like to buy a ticket in the late 1950’s, walk into the theater and hear the lush, full string sound of the My Fair Lady Overture. The sound of a full orchestra is as relevant today as it was back then. We hear it at the movies, in video games and in the concert hall…just not on Broadway:

Or listen to the spectacular lead trumpet playing in Jule Styne’s Funny Girl Overture. The Virtual Pit Orchestra can’t do this. This overture explodes with an energy and jazzy virtuosity (don’t miss Don’t Rain on My Parade at 2:43) that can only come from real, live professional musicians…in this case, some of the world’s finest. Does today’s Broadway offer anything this exciting, before the curtain even goes up?

Next time you open up your wallet to buy a ticket for a Broadway show ask yourself if you’re getting a full, honest product or a downsized, Disneyfied shadow of what used to be. Ironically, at a time when its profits are up, Broadway may be going artistically bankrupt.