I speak often of the need to build – or rather, rebuild – a participatory culture in classical music. It’s a reflection, or rather a reaction to what I perceive to be the current passive culture of “we play, you listen.” Before Bell, Berliner and Edison started recording sound to wax cylinders or discs, music was something that had to produced live to be enjoyed. Composers frequently made piano reductions or chamber versions of their symphonic music to ensure the greatest number could experience it and enjoy it. Music making as a whole was predominantly an amateur activity, that is to say, something conducted by individuals out of love, as the etymology of the word amateur suggests, and most often in a social setting. People came together to share the experience of making music: in that era, only music surpassed letters (which in turn surpassed kisses) in the mingling of souls.
I’m not going to dwell on the social, industrial and technological changes (I forbear to describe them all as advances) that have brought us to the present. Suffice to say that at some point, music was wrest from the hands of the majority into the care and control of a monopolistic minority. I’m speaking now primarily about classical music, because the situation in terms of popular music has witnessed a remarkable regression. The recording industry as a whole tried and ultimately failed to impose a valuation on digital sound, defeated by the admittedly criminal but also socialist attitude that music should be a public property. As for the participatory element, the rapidity with which Guitar Hero and Rock Band were embraced suggests that the greatest fulfillment found in music is still through the active contribution to the experience, at whatever level is reasonably available. We want to be a part of something greater than ourselves, and these games allow us that chance, even if in illusory or fantasy form. It’s just further proof, if any were needed, that no man is an island.
Guitar Hero and Rock Band place a person in the heart of a musical ensemble for a relatively modest one-time expenditure, and offer a modifiable learning curve (i.e.: the difficulty setting). Consider this in comparison to the cost of a classical instrument plus the years of training it requires to develop proficiency. It’s expensive and time-consuming to become a good musician, which is why classical music has become the domain of the financially advantaged. That being said, I don’t believe for a minute that the relative ease with which you can join the Guitar Hero experience represents a competitive advantage for the game over art. When all is said and done, it’s still just a game, it’s just a fantasy. The real experience of performing in an orchestra or choir, crossing nations or oceans on tour, bonding with friends and colleagues, remains much more accessible than being lead guitarist for an internationally successful rock band. The barriers are primarily financial, and to a lesser extent, attitudinal. El Sistema is a way to reduce, if not eliminate the barriers to these experiences, which at least in my own life are some of the richest and most profound I’ve enjoyed.
I don’t expect people to put down their iPods or game controllers. These are pleasant diversions, ersatz experiences for when we can’t have the real thing. But as the world is starting to realize, the “real thing” isn’t passive and solitary, but active and shared – and much easier to have than before. We’re going to try to make it easier still, so everyone can choose to participate in what is a source of the greatest joy to us Abreu Fellows. Pleasure is none, if not diversified.