"The Well-Tempered Web."
The New Yorker, October 22, 2007.
In the spring of 2004, I made the questionable decision to start a blog. I reserved a dot-com address, signed up for an Internet-for-dummies service called Typepad, and, to the delight of more than a dozen compulsively Googling insomniacs around the world, began adding dribs and drabs to the graphomaniac ocean of the Web.
Like many people, I started blogging out of an urgent need to procrastinate. Yet a nagging sense of possibility also drew me in. Classical music, my subject, was thriving on the Internet in unexpected ways. Not all blogs, I discovered, were devoted to cataloguing continuity errors in the films of George Lucas; a smattering of musicians, composers, and listeners were writing on music with intelligence and verve, revelling in the chance to express ideas that had no other immediate outlet. Between 1980 and 2000, classical music more or less disappeared from American network television, magazines, and other mainstream media, its products deemed too élitist, effete, or esoteric for the world of pop. On the Internet, no demographically driven executive could suppress, say, a musicology student’s ruminations on György Ligeti’s Requiem on the ground that it had no appeal for twenty-seven-year-old males, even if the blogger in question—Tim Rutherford- Johnson, of The Rambler—was himself twenty-seven.
News bulletins were declaring the classical-record business dead, but I noticed strange spasms of life in the online CD and MP3 emporiums. When Apple started its iTunes music store, in 2003, it featured on its front page performers such as Esa-Pekka Salonen and Anna Netrebko; sales of classical fare jumped significantly as a result. Similar upticks were noted at Amazon and the all-classical site ArkivMusic. The anonymity of Internet browsing has made classical music more accessible to non-fanatics; first-time listeners can read reviews, compare audio samples, and decide on, for example, a Beethoven recording by Wilhelm Furtwängler, all without risking the humiliation of mispronouncing the conductor’s name under the sour gaze of a record clerk. Likewise, first-time concertgoers and operagoers can shop for tickets, study synopses of unfamiliar plots, listen to snippets of unfamiliar music, follow performers’ blogs, and otherwise get their bearings on the lunar tundra of the classical experience.
Chris Bell, the director of worldwide product and music marketing at iTunes, happens to be a classically trained violinist, and he has closely monitored the progress of the classical division. He told me, “An interesting fact I recently uncovered is that, when you look at different genres in terms of sharing and cross-pollination, there’s more dabbling going on than you might expect. We sell almost as much hiphop to classical buyers as we do jazz. We’ve made iTunes a safe place to try classical music. It is easy to sample and the buying is low-risk.” Bell talked about the serendipity of listening on the Internet, where someone might come to the site looking for a souvenir of Pavarotti and end up with the Kronos Quartet playing pieces by the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. He declined to discuss over-all sales figures or classical music’s percentage of the total market, but he did say that “classical music overindexes a great deal more over the figures commonly quoted for physical retail”— meaning that the figures are considerably higher than the two- or three-per-cent share to which the genre has generally been consigned.
Classical-music culture on the Internet is expanding at a sometimes alarming pace. When I started my blog, I had links to seven or eight like-minded sites. Now I find myself part of a jabbering community of several hundred blogs, operated by critics, composers, conductors, pianists, double-bassists, oboists (I count five), artistic administrators, and noted mezzo-sopranos (Joyce DiDonato writes under the moniker Yankee Diva). After a first night at the Met, opera bloggers chime in with opinions both expert and eccentric, recalling the days when critics from a dozen dailies, whether Communist or Republican or Greek, lined up to extoll Caruso. Beyond the blogs are the Internet radio stations; streaming broadcasts from opera houses, orchestras, new-music ensembles; and Web sites of individual artists. There is a new awareness of what is happening musically in every part of the world. A listener in Tucson or Tokyo can virtually attend opening night at the Bayreuth Festival and listen the following day to a première by a young British composer at the BBC Proms.
Those who see the dawning of a new golden age should bear in mind the “Snakes on a Plane” rule: things invariably appear more important on the Internet than they are in the real world. Classical music has experienced waves of technological euphoria in the past: the Edison cylinder, radio, the LP, and the CD were all hailed as redeeming godsends for a kind of music that has always struggled to find its place in American culture. At the end of such bouts of giddiness, classical music somehow always winds up back where it started, in a state of perpetual fret. Nevertheless, the classical business is not doing badly at present—in August, the Metropolitan Opera sold more than two million dollars’ worth of tickets in a single day— and the unregulated openness of the Internet seems to have done it many favors. Perhaps no one should be surprised at this turn of events. If, as people say, the Internet is a paradise for geeks, it would logically work to the benefit of one of the most opulently geeky art forms in history.
A tour of music’s new virtual realm might begin at www.schoenberg.at, the Web site of the Arnold Schoenberg Center, in Vienna. In a handsome twist of fate, the most famously difficult composer of the twentieth century is now the most instantly accessible: possibly no modern artist has such a large Web presence. On the site, you can read immaculate digital reproductions of Schoenberg’s correspondence, listen to his complete works on streaming audio, examine his designs for various inventions and gadgets (including a typewriter for musical notation), and follow links to YouTube videos of him playing tennis. Particularly touching are documents of Schoenberg’s California period, from 1934 to 1951. In one letter, the inventor of atonality seeks customer service for his new Ford sedan: “It happened today that the cooling system was without water, so that we saw the steam coming out and when we went to the next garage and he opened, boiling water was in.” Cannily, the Schoenberg Center, with the amiable support of the composer’s American heirs, has treated this monumental legacy as a kind of open source: in an era when estates, record labels, and publishers fight for control of copyright, Schoenberg, love him or hate him, is up for grabs.
Go next to Think Denk, the blog of the pianist Jeremy Denk, a superb musician who writes with arresting sensitivity and wit. The central predicament of Denk’s existence is that he is struggling to master the great works of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries while meandering through a twenty-first-century landscape of airports, Starbucks outlets, and chain hotels. He relishes moments of absurd collision. While he is practicing the finger-busting fugue of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata, his wearied brain discovers that the principal fugue subject matches the theme song of “Three’s Company”: “Come and knock on our door / We’ve been waiting for you. . . .” Denk also reports the well-meaning but deflating things that people say to him at post-concert receptions: “How ever do you fellas get yer fingers to play together?” Far less mundane is his account of what it is like to play the piano part in Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time”:
Somewhere toward the middle of the last movement, I began to feel the words that Messiaen marks in the part, I began to hear them, feel them as a “mantra”: extatique, paradisiaque. And maybe more importantly, I began to have visions while I was playing, snapshots of my own life (such that I had to remind myself to look at the notes, play the notes!): people’s eyes, mostly, expressions of love, moments of total and absolute tenderness. (This is sentimental, too personal: I know. How can you write about this piece without becoming over-emotional?) I felt that same sense of outpouring (“pouring over”) that comes when you just have to touch someone, when what you feel makes you pour out of your own body, when you are briefly no longer yourself—and at that moment I was still playing the chords, still somehow playing the damn piano. And each chord is even more beautiful than the last; they are pulsing, hypnotic, reverberant . . . each chord seemed to pile on something that was already ready to collapse, something too beautiful to be stable . . . and when your own playing boomerangs on you and begins to “move yourself,” to touch you emotionally, you have entered a very dangerous place. Luckily, the piece was almost over. . . . When I got offstage I had to breathe, hold myself in, talk myself down.
This is a voice that, effectively, could never have been heard before the advent of the Internet: sophisticated on the one hand, informal on the other, immediate in impact. Blogs such as this put a human face on an alien culture.
Perhaps the most constructive digitization of classical music is taking place on a Web site called Keeping Score, which is hosted by the San Francisco Symphony. Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco’s music director, has set a new standard for educational programming with a series of behind-the-music radio and television broadcasts. To accompany the TV shows, which delve into canonical works such as Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” Tilson Thomas and the orchestra have set up high-tech pages where listeners can follow the score bar by bar, stop to listen to the conductor’s explanations of the particulars, and see musicians demonstrate how Stravinsky reinvented their instruments. Not since the fifties, when Leonard Bernstein walked across a gigantic blown-up score of Beethoven’s Fifth on the TV show “Omnibus,” has there been such a vividly intelligent introduction to some of the fundamentals of classical music. Tilson Thomas is Bernstein’s most faithful and hopeful follower, and with these programs he is performing radical acts of demystification.
If there is a man behind the curtain of classical music’s online realm, it is Klaus Heymann, the founder of Naxos Records. Heymann is a robust seventy-one-yearold German native who has long been a resident of Hong Kong; his first business venture was a mail-order operation delivering electronic gadgets to American soldiers serving in the Vietnam War. He shifted into the classical-record business in the eighties, purveying obscure repertory on the Marco Polo label; enthusiasts went to him for the symphonies of Havergal Brian and the operas of Franz Schreker. With the invention of the CD, Heymann saw a market for budget recordings of mainstream repertory; he launched Naxos in 1987, recording huge swaths of music, from Adolphe Adam to Zemlinsky. In the early years, he relied on the low-rent services of orchestras from Eastern Europe, and many of his offerings were of middling quality; as Naxos has gathered force, its standards have risen, to the point that its new Brahms cycle features the formidable Marin Alsop conducting the London Philharmonic. In 2006, Heymann said, Naxos had revenues of eighty-two million dollars, and last August was the best-ever month for its U.S. division.
Heymann was among the first people to grasp classical music’s Internet potential. In 1996, he put his entire catalogue online, inviting listeners to listen to any track for free. It took years before technological advances made this service practicable for a wide range of users, and, by extension, profitable. “Honestly, until about two years ago, for me this whole music business was a hobby, an expensive hobby,” Heymann told me. “Only since 2006 or 2007 has there been a piece of return on the investment, through the digital.” Digital sales now account for twenty-five per cent of his revenues, and, because of drastically lower production and distribution costs, he makes much more profit on each sale. Hence the venue for our meeting: a forty-first-floor hotel suite overlooking Central Park.
All the classical labels are eying digital sales as a way to renovate their business. Having wasted much effort in the nineteen- nineties trying to copy the pop paradigm of blockbuster hits—the singular phenomenon of Pavarotti was a will-o’- the-wisp luring them on—the labels now realize that they can make money by selling large numbers of releases in more modest quantities. Chris Anderson, the author of the contrarian business book “The Long Tail,” calls this strategy “selling less of more.” The “long tail” is the almost limitless inventory of CDs, books, movies, and other products that pours forth on sites such as Amazon.com. Some may sell or rent only once a year. Yet, Anderson says, “about a quarter of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 100,000 titles.” Classical music, with its thousand-year back catalogue, has the longest tail of all. In Naxos’s case, thirty to forty per cent of its digital sales in the U.S. come from albums downloaded four times a month or less. Thus, a not insignificant portion of the company’s revenue comes from titles that, by Justin Timberlake standards, don’t exist.
Yet Heymann is skeptical of the longtail hypothesis as a long-term business model. Posting audio files on the Internet still costs money, he says, and if labels, orchestras, and radio stations glut the globe with archives of recorded material “the long tail will bite itself.” He doesn’t think that the CD is obsolete; in classical music, if not in pop, collectors still cherish highquality sound, cover art, program notes, song texts, and other paraphernalia. Ultimately, though, Heymann predicts that many listeners will obtain recorded music by subscribing to a library and searching for the compositions they want. In fact, he already has such a service up and running. For $19.95 a year, you can have access to all the Naxos recordings that are online. The service has eleven thousand users, around half of them under the age of forty.
“This is the most promising model we have seen,” Heymann told me. “Downloads are limited. In the States, sales are not like this anymore”—he made an ascending diagonal with his hand—“but levelling off. In Europe, there is very little traction outside the U.K. Germany is a disaster. So I am looking past downloads to subscriptions.” He spoke about the possibility of selling preprogrammed MP3 players—say, a fifty-dollar unit loaded with fifty hours of Mozart.
With some amusement, Heymann took note of a recent story in the Times Magazine, by Lynn Hirschberg, about the record producer Rick Rubin, who earlier this year became the co-chairman of Columbia Records. In the article, Rubin looked ahead to a time when a listener could forgo the buying of individual CDs or downloads in favor of a subscription to a large-scale online musical library. “You’d pay, say, $19.95 a month,” Rubin told Hirschberg. When pop moguls start taking tips from German classical-music producers, something new is under the sun.
The probable demise of the recording as a physical artifact is a frightening prospect for many people who got to know classical music through the gradual, painstaking acquisition of beloved LPs and CDs. The greatest studio recordings— such as those of Walter Legge, after the Second World War, with the likes of Otto Klemperer, Maria Callas, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf—achieved a state of glowing perfection that no live concert could match. And perhaps that was part of the problem. Concert presenters have long complained that many avid record collectors seldom venture into the concert hall. At the height of the hi-fi era, recordings seemed to become a kind of phantasmagoria, a virtual reality that threatened to replace concert life. James Levine thinks that recordings have played an outsized role in the modern era; they should simply be “souvenirs” of performances, he told me. MP3s and live audio streams, disembodied and often tinny in sound, are very souvenir-like; they don’t pretend to re-create an orchestra in one’s living room, and may actually lead listeners to exercise their imaginations as a way of making up for sonic shortcomings.
To a surprising and encouraging degree, recording in the digital era serves to reinforce live performance rather than supplant it. Some of the best new opera recordings are documents of live performances; thumping stage movement and rustlings from the audience add verisimilitude. Many opera collectors have shifted to DVDs as the preferred means of experiencing the art in absentia; Teresa Stratas singing and acting “Salome” blows away all audio-only competition. At the heart of iTunes’s classical division are its collaborations with the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic; the latter’s Minimalist Jukebox festival in 2006 captured international notice because recordings were available via iTunes almost overnight.
Some recent articles have asked whether the Internet can save classical music. Classical music is, in fact, saving itself; Internet activity is merely the most immediately visible evidence of its refusal to fade away. Younger musicians, in particular, are using every available means to reach a potential public that is far larger than the one that already exists. They are not haunted, as older musicians often are, by nostalgia for a time when Bernstein appeared on the cover of Time and Toscanini was a star of NBC radio. Instead, they see the labyrinth of long-tail culture as an open field of opportunity; they measure success in small leaps.
The Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble, from the farmlands of Allendale, Michigan, provides a case study in how new technology is playing to classical music’s benefit. Last year, part of the group travelled to New York to attend Steve Reich’s seventieth-birthday festival at Carnegie Hall and participate in a workshop. The Grand Valley’s director, Bill Ryan, wrote a firsthand account of the visit for the Web site NewMusicBox, introducing his ensemble to a wider audience. In June, they performed Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” at Bang on a Can’s annual marathon concert in downtown New York; their time slot was five in the morning, but, for reasons that no one could quite understand, some four hundred listeners showed up to hear them play. The ensemble’s recording of “Music for 18” is being released this week on the Innova label, its arrival heralded by a striking video “trailer” on YouTube, which ingeniously contrasts Reich’s hyper-urban music with shots of rolling cornfields. The Michigan musicians play with glistening precision, yet they also bring out the variously jubilant and wistful emotions beneath the surface of Reich’s score.
The result is a vibrant recording that deserves to leap from the new-music ghetto onto the mainstream charts. In these unsettled times, it might have an out-side chance of doing so. After all, for a little while the other day, a surprising name appeared at the top of Amazon. com’s Top MP3 Artists, outperforming even Kanye West: Richard Wagner.