In our ubiquitously amplified, streamed, digitally connected world, the vibrant spaces where classical works are ideally performed are precious remnants of natural acoustics.
Of course, we must be careful that the atmosphere of these experiences does not feel tenuous, as if the audience is entering sacred temples. But even newcomers I’ve taken to a renowned orchestra at Carnegie Hall are often stunned by the shimmering, resonant sound. Today we may miss an opportunity to sell a classical concert as a break from the routine, an invitation to turn off devices, among other things, and sit in silence – listening, sometimes for long periods of time, to works that require our attention, music that can be majestic, mystical, crushing, tender, heartbreaking, frenetic, dizzy or all of the above.
Since the early 20th century, electronic sources have dramatically expanded the range and palette of sounds and colors. Olivier Messiaen, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Osvaldo Golijov and many other composers have created works that imaginatively fold electronic sounds into traditional ensembles – with transfixing results.
Still, I hope that composers and performers will never forego the magic of unamplified sound in natural acoustics. Consider how the Broadway musical changed from the early 1960s, when amplification became commonplace, often to excess. I can only imagine how wonderful it must have been to hear Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers in “Girl Crazy” in a theater without amplification – or John Raitt, who could have been a Verdi baritone, playing Billy’s “Soliloquy” in “Carousel” sang. Those days are over.
During my time reporting in this field, I have been continually impressed by the entrepreneurial energy of artists who – realizing that traditional career paths were limited and large institutions overlooked new generations of creators – set out on their own used to go . They formed collectives and ensembles of composers and artists, such as Bang on a Can, which presents concerts and festivals of experimental music; and the International Contemporary Ensemble, founded by the flautist Claire Chase, who has been a passionate voice calling on young musicians to create their own groups and give concerts anywhere, anyhow.