by Libby Meyer, Senior Lecturer of Music Theory and Composition
“From the days when the mathematical and mechanical were paramount in music, the struggle has been bitter and incessant for the sway of the emotional and the soulful. And now, in this the twentieth century, come these talking and playing machines, and offer again to reduce the expression of music to a mathematical system of megaphones, wheels, cogs, disks, cylinders, and all manner of revolving things, which are as like real art as the marble statue of Eve is like her beautiful, living, breathing daughters.” —John Philip Sousa
John Philip Sousa’s prophetic words were in reaction to a new and “dangerous” technology; the phonograph, soon to be followed by radio and film, then television, magnetic tape, the VCR, DVD players, digital audio workstations, sample libraries, streaming and so on. Of course, many of Sousa’s fears were never realized and, in fact, he would later embrace this new technology. He lived in an age when “live” music was the only way music was experienced. If a person wanted to listen to music they either had to create it themselves or attend a performance. In Sousa’s time there wasn’t “live music,” there was just music.
Technology has permanently and dramatically altered the way music is created, experienced, commodified, and consumed. It allows us to hear music that exposes us to ways of thinking and listening that we would not have encountered without its “manner of revolving things”. It has preserved recordings of extraordinary artists and has helped maintain cultural heritage. What the printing press did for music transmission in the fifteenth century—allowing a composer to introduce their printed music to much larger and future audiences—modern recording and streaming has done for performers and artists around the world: including a potentially infinite audience. Moreover, because of the sophistication of the editing and mixing process, a nearly perfect performance can be preserved in time. Recorded sound allows us to experience Pablo Casals’ Bach Cello Suites, the Beetles’ Abby Road and the Broadway production of the original cast of Hamilton. Contrary to Sousa’s greatest fears, recorded sound has not diminished the musical experience but enhanced it greatly. In the current pandemic, it has provided solace to those in quarantine feeling distressed in these confusing and uncertain times. But at the same time, the pervasive technology and unlimited access to a world of recorded and distant performances has left many of us with unmet expectations and feelings of loss and emptiness.
In 1927, the first commercially successful “talkie,” The Jazz Singer, so transformed the film industry that by 1931 most major Hollywood studios were installing sound stages. Thousands of musicians who had enjoyed over two decades of reliable employment in Nickelodeons and picture palaces were suddenly replaced, seemingly overnight, by recorded sound. Apparently, in this regard, Sousa was right.
Musicians often suffer collateral damage in an industry motivated by making money and little else. These days, we take for granted that film is presented with recorded sound, but imagine watching a “silent” film in the 1920s. The experience of a film would be completely different depending on the music and the musicians performing it. What was gained from recorded sound was a uniform and sanitized product that was the same no matter where it was heard: a “marble statue of Eve”. What was lost was the singular experience of viewing a film combined with living, breathing human beings realizing the score before your eyes and ears, an experience that would be unique for every showing of the film and performance of the score. The modern film soundtrack is an amazing feat of ingenuity. Composers, sound designers and an entire sound team can create a sonic experience that Sousa could only have dreamed of. Yet there is something special about a unique, unrepeatable shared experience performed in real time. Live performances give us “the emotional and the soulful.” They are “Eve’s beautiful, living, breathing daughters.”
The performing arts community has always been concerned that, somehow, we would be replaced by the technology of the day, that live performance would become obsolete and that eventually people would cease to experience live music altogether in favor of remaining alone in their living rooms and listening to recorded music or watching video; that they could be replaced with sampled and synthesized sound. One would think this would be the case, given the seeming ease of recreating music synthetically, the cost and inconvenience of leaving the comfort of our living rooms, and the availability of high quality home sound systems. In reality, the opposite is true, and in light of the current pandemic, audiences and performers are feeling an even greater desire to experience live performances together in shared physical space.
The question now is why? When a seemingly limitless supply of streaming concerts and theater productions, Spotify, and YouTube are available on demand, and with the myriad ways one can access music conveniently, cheaply, and on our own terms, shouldn’t we feel more than satisfied? What is this loss that we are collectively feeling in the face of empty concert halls, opera houses, and theaters?
Anyone who has ever attended a comedy in a crowded theater can attest to the fact that laughter is contagious. So are tears, joy, and many other emotions. Music has the power to connect people, families, communities, and societies. The shared experience of music, comedy, theater, and other forms of art is integral to the way we, together, make sense of the world. Cancelled concerts, plays, and operas are now replaced by virtual concerts, Facebook events, and desperate pleas for emergency funding in a sector that has always been underfunded and undervalued. We have lost shared experience, possibly, in some cases, forever.
Obviously, the pandemic has had immediate and severe effects on the financial health of arts organizations and even more dramatically on individual artists who make their living on live performance in a competitive “kill what you eat” artistic economy. When there is so much carnage and uncertainty, when people are getting sick and are dying, and when there is social unrest, it is easy to understand how the arts could be placed low on the long list of priorities. That the financial toll on the music industry has been catastrophic is undeniable. One needs look no further than Broadway, the Metropolitan Opera, The Chicago Symphony, and countless professional performing arts organizations that have closed their doors since March and plan to remain closed through the end of the year or even longer. Empty concert halls, opera houses, and theater stages are tragic enough, but equally tragic are the silent bandshells, coffee house stages, community music schools, churches, and community choirs; the places where amateur musicians make music together. According to a 2009 study by Chorus America, more than 42 million Americans participate in choirs. More than 1 in 5 households have at least one singing family member, making choral singing the most popular form of participation in the performing arts for both adults and children. Unfortunately, choral singing is especially risky given the ease of transmission of the virus. This is 42 million Americans who cannot actively participate in the arts for the foreseeable future: 42 million Americans denied the cathartic benefit of singing with others. Meanwhile, churches remain eerily devoid of song and coffee house stages are empty.
Recently, members of the Lyric Opera and The Chicago Symphony performed Sousa Marches on front lawns in a Chicago neighborhood. “It felt wonderful to hear music again,” said one attendee. “We have so missed live music. Zoom music and online music doesn’t make it.” Eve’s daughters prevail.
Music connects us in ways that no other human activity can. It is not conducive to social distancing. It requires the exact opposite: social connection that is physical, spiritual and emotional. Creative artists have always adapted to crisis. They have found ways to create in the most challenging of times and will continue to do so in new and engaging ways. But for now, what we have lost is beyond a paycheck or an evening out. We have lost a fundamental expression of connection and community, our innate need to create and experience music together. We’ve lost the sway of the “emotional and the soulful.” We are left with marble statues.