Performing Nostalgia On Record: How Virtual Orchestras And YouTube Ensembles Have Problematised Classical Music


The purpose of this article is to discuss how nostalgia for classical music performance traditions has shaped classical recording practice, and also how the use of sound recording technologies is challenging these same nostalgic tendencies. It does so by drawing together key academic literature on classical music recording practice and classical music performance in order to demonstrate their interrelationship. In particular this article looks at how virtuosic live performance is used to reify the tradition of classical music itself, and how this has oriented twentieth century classical sound recording practice around a single aesthetic paradigm, the reproduction of a “concert hall”- like listening experience. An equivalent acoustic construction does not exist in popular music genres, which have adopted variable mix aesthetics in recordings since the 1960s. The article then examines two case studies, and uses them to illustrate the tensions that arise when performance and technology intersect within the classical genres. The case studies are virtual orchestras and YouTube ensembles, each of which problematise traditional notions of classical music performance. Virtual orchestras simulate orchestral timbres in increasingly convincing ways, reducing or removing the need for human players. This threatens the way that classical music institutions have used performance as a means of regulating the tradition via the demonstration of virtuosic human craft. Similarly, YouTube ensembles disregard ideals of elite individual performance and the concert hall environment in favour of mass participation and online access. What these case studies show is that performance virtuosity, as a marker of quality, has been unsettled by the accessibility of orchestral sonorities and the drive towards participatory cultures of classical music.

Musical Performance and the Recorded Concert Hall

The way that classical music negotiates quality on recordings is encumbered by the way that classical music has regulated itself as an elite performance craft tradition over the last four centuries (Klein: 2014, pp.112-125). As such, classical recording quality is primarily concerned with the virtuosic reproduction of repertory works. Classical music aficionados compare recorded performances of repertoire to live performances in order to verify or disprove the virtuosity of an artist, and the tension between these performances creates a site of pleasurable engagement[1]. However, as this article will explore, classical music performance has been profoundly changed and challenged by recording, broadcast, distribution and social media technologies.

Popular and classical music genres apply sound recording and related broadcast and distribution technologies to reflect different relationships between the listener, the performance and the musical work. In popular music, there are few limitations on what constitutes performance, beyond the occurrence of an event that incorporates music. The act of making a recording or listening to a recording can constitute an act of performance according to Katz and Frith. Katz argues that musical performances and musical works ‘are no longer clearly distinct’ because recordings ‘can take on the function and meaning of both’, with recordings being ‘heard as spontaneous interpretive acts, their repetition can transform them into compositions, works that can be analyzed, historicized, canonized, politicized, and problematized’ (Katz: 2004, p.47). In Katz’s configuration there are composer-performer-artists but equally there are listener-performers and listener-composers (2004, p.47). Frith also considers the act of listening to popular music recordings as performance (1996, pp. 203-204). He says that he listens to records with full knowledge that what he hears ‘is something that never existed, that never could exist, as a “performance”’, but ‘nevertheless, it is now happening’, and he thus hears it as a performance. Popular music recordings can be regarded as performances because listeners imagine the sounds as forming a coherent event. An illustration of the salience of this fused concept of recording and performance, to popular music, is given by the figure of the DJ. The last two decades have proven that the DJ is as commercially and culturally influential as any rock or pop star, whose persona, voice and body, Frith considers lies at the heart of the popular music performance experience (1996, pp. 212-213). The DJ is recognised as a legitimate musical performer, even though the DJ’s art is a re-contextualisation of musical threads taken from the recorded archive, and even when the DJ mix is consumed by means of recorded media.

What constitutes “performance” in classical music is more complicated and highly regulated. There is a division between experimental art music performance and performance anchored to the pedagogical traditions of classical music and its repertory. On one hand, composers like John Cage pushed the boundaries of the musical event to be all-inclusive and focused on experiences of listening[2]. On the other hand, the majority of classical music performances are reproductions of works from the historical music canon, where the performance context is highly regulated, right down to the modes of acceptable listening and appropriate behavior when attending a live concert or operatic performance. This article is concerned with the latter. Embedded in the understanding of canonical historical works is a sense of the performance as a living, live event, which reproduces and reaffirms the tradition of classical music itself. Limitations on such aspects as audience behaviors and acceptable performance gestures are a way of fixing the live event into the nostalgic tradition of classical music. They also add an element of ritual and seriousness to the occasion of live performance.

In popular music, performers are not necessarily ‘seeking to realize the “same music”’ in live performance as is represented on the sound recording (Frith: 1996, p.233). Due to the variable relationship between the recording, the live performance, the listener and the experience of listening, there is no conflict when the boundaries between these acts break down. Conversely, in classical music, practitioners are often trying to effect identical musics between live performance and recording, and this in turn, impacts upon the technical and aesthetic application of sound recording technologies. There is less scope for the listener to occupy a different role or location within this paradigm because the markers of quality, the object of listening, and the role of performance is already oriented to and regulated by the concept of Werktreue, or work-fidelity. Werktreue expresses the drive to realise a musical work as it was conceived of by its composer within the musical score (Haynes: 2007, p.89). In a previous paper (Klein: 2014), I have interrogated the relationship between recording fidelity, classical music, and the notion of Werktreue and will refer the reader to that paper for greater explanation. Of relevance to this paper is Linda Goehr’s account of the links between Werktreue and the behavioural patterns that inform classical music’s composition, performance and reception in the present day (2007, p.243, p.285). The drive to realise a work “faithfully” has dictated the cultural construction of classical music over the last two hundred years, and informs all aspects of performance pedagogy. However, it also plays out in the creation of classical music recordings through the consistent representation of a singular aesthetic paradigm: reproducing the sound of a musical work, as it would be heard from a prime listening location in a concert hall. To achieve this aesthetic recording and production techniques must be deceptive enough to become transparent for the listener, maintaining the illusion that the ensemble or artist are performing the work in real time, in a real space, with real instruments. Within this model the classical producer mediates ‘the relationship between the score, the performing artists and the processes and technologies of recording’ (Blake: 2012, pp. 4611-4621).

The concert hall or the opera house are classical music’s most esteemed performance locations and classical music practitioners have fixated on “faithfully” emulating this performance environment on recordings throughout the last century rather than embracing the broader creative compositional palette offered by recording technologies. Scholars such as Symes (2004), Channan (1995), Moorefield (2010) and Blake (2012) have all accounted for this phenomenon in their respective studies of recording practice. Chanan characterises the development of classical music recording in the second half of the twentieth century as being chiefly concerned with ‘a transparent rendition of a natural musical object’, with the skill of the engineer being measured by how effectively they could recreate the perception of a great concert hall performance within ‘less compliant acoustics’ (1995, p.146).

Importantly, scholars like Chanan concur with Frith by arguing that the “concert hall” approach to mixing is wholly irrelevant in pop music ‘because there is no comparable kind of space where music originates’ (1995, p.146). However, the techniques of creating a classical music recording are equally as complex as the creation of popular music recordings in most instances, despite a more prescribed aesthetic orientation. In Australia, I have worked as a sound engineer and producer of classical music recordings for over a decade. Normal practice when producing classical music recordings across this time has been: to record performances with large-scale microphone arrays within desirable acoustic spaces; to edit performances substantially; to overdub errors; to correct tuning; and to process and shape sonic events and environments through the application of equalisation, compression, and time based audio effects. In film soundtrack recordings, a standard workflow encompasses mixing together virtual instrument sounds with recordings of live players to give the impression of larger human ensemble (see: Morgan: 2014). Using these techniques, and many others, classical engineers and producers seek to maintain the appearance of a seamless live performance sonority on the recordings they are crafting. The main difference between popular music production and classical music production then, is that the results are not noticeably audible because the ‘phonographic verisimilitude’ constructed by these technologies is focused on relocating ‘the best seat in the house’ from the concert hall to the domestic environment (Symes: 2004, p.62)[3]. Consequently, Symes argues that a recording is ‘a joint creation between the engineer and the listener’ who allows themself to be ‘tricked into thinking that its musical representation is real’ (2004, p.62).

The circulation of the concert hall aesthetic en masse via communications technology — recordings, ring tones, movie soundtracks, advertisements and other mediums — has strengthened the resolve of the classical music community to differentiate live performance from recorded and technologically mediated consumption. In order to preserve the value of live performances of classical music, classical music practitioners and aficionados often reproduced notions that something essential, the aura, as Walter Benjamin (2005, pp.110, 121) phrased it, is missing on record, and can only be fully realised in the live experience. For example, Philip (2004, p.231) argues that in recordings, musicians’ sounds ‘have been isolated from everything else’, and the sounds that are captured remain ‘limited’. For Philip, recordings generate uncertainty. This uncertainty stems from the frequencies that are lost, decisions made about the relative volume and balance of ensembles, and potential differences between performances in live environments and recording studios, including the influence of an audience on the character of a performance. Consequently, Philip interprets recordings as ‘incomplete’, ‘fixed’, and removed from ‘the element of risk’ (2004, p.231). He writes:

In the early days musicians still had to play continuously for a few minutes, but they were often able to repeat a side again and again, and choose the best take. When tape-recording was introduced the best sections could be edited together. In the concert hall there is one chance only, nothing can be undone, and musicians and audiences have to take what comes and make the best of it (2004, p.231).

Such notions imply that it is the risk-induced adrenalin experienced by both the audience and performer that re-inscribes the aura of a musical work in live events. Grossberg considers that for rock music, the importance of live performance ‘lies precisely in the fact that it is only here that one can see the actual production of the sound, and the emotional work carried in the voice…. The demand for live performance has always expressed the desire for the visual mark [and proof] of authenticity’ (cited in Auslander: 2008, p.90). Writing about classical music, Godlovitch concurs. He defines performances as ‘occasions of musical sound… intentionally brought about by musicians for listeners… conceived formally as instances or tokens of certain universals or kinds; namely, musical works’ (Godlovitch: 1998, p.11). According to Godlovitch, the act of performance is created by ‘causing and expressively shaping ordered pitch and rhythm sequences’ through distinct skills of musical craft (1998, p.53) which are ‘highly structured’ and ‘essentially built upon and employing task-related primary manual skills’ (1998, p.5). In Godlovitch’s model, an emphasis on ‘primary manual skills’ is what generates pleasure and authenticity for player and audience:

The value in and of performance thus depends not only on the music as made, but on the way in which it is made. The requirement and refinement of musical skill is the glue binding musicians to performance communities. A strong kinship is established between performance practice and the craft tradition in their common emphasis upon skill acquisition and training. This concept of performance as craftwork leads to an examination of the professional communities and institutions which promote and regulate the music-making enterprise. Performance communities share much in common with trade and professional guilds which regulate their membership through traditionally established common standards and highly structured hierarchies of accomplishment. Central to the preservation of performance ideals is the perfectionism characteristic of the craft tradition generally. Because the performance community is highly protective of its norms and goals, it tends to react conservatively to any suggestions for change (1998, pp. 4-5).

Godlovitch argues that in classical music, the ‘fully-skilled performance’ institutes value because it provides an objective ‘record of greater mastery’, thereby evidencing virtuosity as legitimately bestowed (1998, p.58). The goal of classical music performance is thus ‘perfectionism’, and according to Godlovitch, this requires that the performance ‘be both flawless and flawlessly given’ (1998, p.58). This aim is rigorously policed by the ‘community of musicians’, who ‘establish membership credentials, regulate standards of proficiency, and ensure consistency in the recognition of differential merit’ to maintain the craft’s ‘skill-centred exclusivity’ (1998, p.61). These standards are upheld by ensuring that exceptional practitioners ‘find and enjoy their properly earned and established rank’ (1998, p.61). Most musicians, and performances will fall short of virtuosity under this regulation where ‘there is never room at any one period for more than a handful of virtuosi who, each generation, define new horizons of skill and thus new objectives for the remaining membership’ (1998, p.77). The gladiatorial nature of the classical music community, then, requires live performance to regulate the authenticity of the player, but not the aura of the musical work, which remains separate and exalted. If the player is able to replicate the aura of a work, to realise its Werktreue, then presumably, their rank and status is raised. Their success or failure in this regard is ultimately a component of the pleasure of live classical music events. Virtuosity is therefore used as a filter of quality, and only the most virtuosic of performers are afforded the opportunity to perform publicly with major ensembles or events, or alternatively to create recordings of repertory works which have significant commercial distribution.

What defines virtuosic performance craft within classical music is increasingly mediated by the archive of canonic classical music recordings. The impact of recording has been the focus of scholarly work by Ashby (2010), Chanan (1995), Day (2000), Katz (2002, 2004) and Philip (2004, 2004a). These scholars have found evidence linking the circulation of sound recordings to changes in classical music performance style or changes in the reception of classical music. Philip considers that Western art music’s most basic trend in the twentieth century was ‘a process of tidying up performance’ as a direct consequence of recording, and also that recording enabled musicians to possess ‘unprecedented level of self-awareness’ (2004, pp.232-233). The availability of classical music recordings has, in Philip’s view, led to ‘a general globalisation of styles, standards and expectations’ within the art form which limits ‘individual imagination’, ‘drives out local traditions’ and risks ‘staleness’ (2004, p.233; p.245). Consequently, virtuosic performance ideals are being driven ever upward, placing pressure on musicians to model themselves against standards, which are being defined and refreshed as the archive of recordings continues to grow, and as recording technologies and techniques improve. While artists and consumers generally understand that sound recordings are carefully constructed assemblages, this has not disrupted classical music’s focus on technical virtuosity. Rather, it has helped refine it by providing a fixed point of comparison between recorded and real-time renditions of a musical work. Where a player can equal or better the listening experience during a live performance, they validate their technical proficiency. Decisions made in the creation of sound recordings, are therefore impacting upon the qualities of performance which are seen as being desirable during live performance.

Disrupting Virtuosity: The Case of Virtual Orchestras

In Godlovitch’s model, virtuosity and the tradition of classical music itself is best displayed and consumed by means of live, manual (specifically human) performances of classical music. Recording technologies disrupt the physicality of the players’ craft, and therefore cannot generate value within the classical music tradition. Godlovitch contends that classical music’s resistance to ‘electronic encroachment is best understood by recognizing that musical instruments are not mere tools for their users’ (1998, p.69). Rather, their value extends beyond sound output ‘in isolation’, and is generated in combination with ‘mastery and a hierarchy of skilled practitioners’ (1998, p.69). Under this paradigm, classical music performance communities ‘value their instruments partly because of the handicaps they impose between players’ with handicaps being deliberately chosen and accepted because ‘instrumental challenges ensure that such hierarchies of skill survive’ (1998, p.69). Human acoustic performance acts both as a nostalgic link to the historical traditions and pedagogies of classical music, but also as a way of resisting the encroachment of modern technology and the circulation of competing contemporary music cultures.

The anxiety over the “craft” tradition of classical music is best articulated by the responses to synthesisers, virtual instruments and virtual orchestra technology in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Composers use these tools to produce sounds, and often, to mimic the sound of acoustic instruments. Synthesisers have been in use in Broadway productions since 1987 when an agreement with Local 802, the musicians union, was reached allowing for their unrestricted use (Local 802 2003). However, as synthesiser and virtual instrument technologies increased in complexity, their application began to create tensions between music creators, music producers and the musicians’ unions. In March 2003, industrial disputes over the use of virtual orchestra technology shut down Broadway productions for four days. Several months later, renown opera singers, Marilyn Horne and Deborah Voig, quit the board of the Opera Company of Brooklyn, a small company for training singers, because the company was going to stage a one-night-only production of Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte (1791) using virtual orchestra accompaniment (McKinley: 2004; Pogrebin: 2003). One of the outcomes of the industrial action was a new agreement specifying the employment of a minimum of 19 to 26 musicians for every Broadway production (Ezard: 2004). Jeffrey Lazarus, CEO of Realtime, a company which makes the virtual orchestra system Sinfonia, said at the time that ‘musicians see us as Frankenstein’ (Variety: 2003). Similarly, when composer David Weinstein premiered his musical The Joys of Sex (2002, 2004)[4] Off Broadway in 2004, he also became embroiled in a dispute with the American Federation of Musicians (McKinley: 2004). Weinstein had composed the score for two acoustic instruments, singers, and the Sinfonia because he felt the Sinfonia was able to create ‘sounds that might be difficult to make with acoustic and even current electronic instruments’ (McKinley: 2004). David Lennon, president of Local 802, the New York branch of the American Federation of Musicians, responded by saying that ‘claiming to have composed for the virtual orchestra is about as valid as claiming to have composed for a tape recorder’’ (cited in McKinley: 2004).

Many art music composers have written works employing the tape recorder, John Cage and Steve Reich being two prominent examples. However, experiments with tape had largely been confined to self-contained musical works. Virtual orchestra technology was being applied to repertory works and newly composed works with the intention of simulating timbres of traditional orchestral instruments. As the technology began to assert itself by the capable production of these timbres, musical institutions such as the American Federation of Musicians perceived a threat to music craft. Although virtual orchestra technology had been used in Broadway performances since the late 1980s, the technology developed rapidly in the early to mid 2000s, and consequently, virtual orchestra systems such as Sinfonia and Most, were being used more frequently. The intent of these systems was to augment smaller ensembles, increasing the overall size of their sound, rather than replacing live instrument ensembles entirely as they did not sound convincing in isolation. In live performances, these kinds of proprietary virtual orchestra systems are operated by a trained technician, usually a keyboard player, who triggers sounds to match the tempo set by the conductor, players or singers. The accompaniment is then played back through a speaker array, laid out to replicate standard orchestral and ensemble arrangements.

At the heart of the hysteria over virtual orchestras in the mid 2000s lay the declining value and role of the musician, the continuation and preservation of musical craft, and the authenticity of live performance. All of these aspects were articulated in a press release from Local 802 which claimed that the goal of virtual orchestras was:

not just to supplement certain phrases, or expand instrumental parts, but to perform the entire score… The descriptions of the VO range from “metallic”, “flat,” “ersatz orchestral sounds,” “mechanical,” “weak sounding,” to “depressingly synthesized”… When cost-cutting devices turn the hard work of composers, lyricists, arrangers, orchestrators, book writers, directors and choreographers into cheap third-rate flops, all are threatened – musicians, actors, stagehands, wardrobe workers – everyone who makes live theatre happen… Understandably, Broadway producers are driven by what they have always been driven by – the need to make a buck at the end of the week. The efforts of Bianchi, Smith, Sommer [heads of the major virtual orchestra companies] and their cohorts to cash in on this conflict is beneath contempt (Local 802 2003).

Godlovitch believes that the synthesiser was ‘conceived as a displacement technology’ (1998, 69), and as the statement from Local 802 indicates above, virtual orchestras have been received as a kind of ‘ultimate’ (Godlovitch: 1998, p.78) manifestation of the synthesiser’s functionality. Godlovitch describes resistance to synthesiser technology as a ‘response to a perceived threat; namely, the debilitating impact of technology on human skill’ (1998, p.69). The craft tradition of classical music is threatened because the synthesiser facilitates playing ‘to the point where the results are dead easy to achieve… It gives anyone with minimal effort and skill the power to create the very results for which the musician has spent years in training’ (1998, 69). Godlovitch percieves that the musician’s skill is cheapened as a consequence, leading to a decline in the value society affords musicians because ‘the skilled musician is thus displaced along with the displacement of the instrument. This threatens redundancy. We have here a familiar instance of the human price of technology’ (1998, p.69).

Similar statements were made about the widespread use of drum machines in popular music of the 1980s. In hindsight, they would be difficult to quantify, especially as the drum machines helped to establish a new kind of musician, the producer-DJ, in electronica and dance genres. In classical music, however, what is at risk is not simply the musician, but the tradition of pedagogy and regulation. Godlovitch considers that resistance to synthesisers ‘from those within entrenched acoustic traditions’ is principally derived from their ‘historical and normative independence’ (1998, p.78). Basically, Godlovitch believes that synthesiser technology lacks ‘the right pedigree’ to fit comfortably into classical music environments because its players have not ‘emerged and evolved within the continuous traditions of the standard Guilds’, and consequently, ‘don’t respect or even address the primary challenges imposed by the Guild’ (1998, 78). Additionally, because synthesisers make it easier to achieve performance outcomes, the classical music guild cannot judge the virtuosity of players effectively because the technology is ‘a new class of instrument’ which potentially defies the usual means of regulating guild entry: ‘if the repertoire cannot exclude the masses, then the instrument is used to do so’ (1998, p.78).

However, synthesisers and virtual instrument technologies were not developed without commercial or artistic imperatives. Composers and musicians of all genres have been readily adopting virtual instrument technologies for use in home studios to realise performance independent of an ensemble of players. Godlovitch notes the hunger for independence that classical music composers have yearned to achieve, citing Edgard Varèse, who, in a lecture in 1939, articulated his frustrations by stating that composers were ‘forced to use, in the realization of our works, instruments that have not changed for two centuries’ and that Varèse personally desired entirely new mediums of expression in the form of ‘a sound-producing machine (not a sound-reproducing one)’ in order that his music ‘reach the listener unadulterated by “interpretation”’(cited in Godlovitch: 1998, p.102).

What Varèse desired was a way of bringing forth the pure work, from notation to the listener, using a method completely predetermined by the composer. This technology is available today through a combination of notation software, virtual instruments and digital audio workstation (DAW) applications. Virtual instrument software plugins, such as East West/Quantum Leap’s Symphonic Orchestra or the Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL), replicate traditional orchestral sounds and can be controlled with sequencing and DAW software either during a composer’s compositional process, or afterwards, so that they can hear what the composition will sound like when “played” by an ensemble. Major collections like the VSL Super Package were created from thousands of audio samples (1,935,716 samples at the time of writing in the extended VSL Super Package[5]) of individual pitches and articulations recorded from human players on real instruments in a highly controlled sonic environment. These samples are packaged together in virtual instrument software, which can be triggered by incoming signals in the standard MIDI protocol common to most digital music software, equipment and instruments. With many virtual instrument collections, it is possible to manipulate the sound in minute detail, changing the length of a sample, the reverberation, or to introduce “human” performance errors such as timing inconsistencies and pitch sliding as found in the “Human Performance Control” of VSL’s Vienna Instruments PRO software. East West/Quantum Leap software such as Hollywood Strings and Hollywood Brass offer samples recorded with five different microphone positions, which can be blended together to suit the aesthetic taste of the user. Composers scoring for film often mock up soundtracks with virtual instruments, and increasingly, similar to live performance virtual orchestra technology, software instruments are either being used to supplement recordings produced with a small ensemble of players, or to replace them entirely.

Quantifying the extent of virtual instrument use in the film and games industries is difficult because few composers or filmmakers want to admit to replacing human orchestral players with virtual instruments. However a recent study of Australian professional screen composers has found that 29% of compositions are realised using only virtual instruments, 55% of compositions are realised using a combination of virtual instruments and recordings of human players, while only 16% of compositions are realised using human performers only (Morgan: 2014). In Morgan’s study, composers talk of adding recordings of human players over the top of virtual instrument arrangements as a way of ‘injecting’ touches of humanity into the music (Morgan: 2014). The use of virtual instruments in screen composition is so commonplace, that virtual instrument companies such as East West proudly advertise which composers use their software on their websites[6]. Instructional courses and books such as Acoustic and Midi Orchestration for the Contemporary Composer (Pejrolo & DeRosa: 2007) and Computer Orchestration Tips & Tricks (Bennett: 2009), guide composers on how to best realise convincing, human-like performances of orchestral sounds within computer sequencing software.

Newer experiments in virtual orchestras for live performance have incorporated virtual instrument software, software sequencers, laptops, and midi keyboards or control devices. Notation software Notion offers a live tempo and dynamics manipulation feature called NTempo that allows a user to modify score playback in real time and capture this information for later playback (PreSonus: 2015). The company which developed Notion, Notion Music Inc., used to specialise in developing scores for live performance, and offered a consultation service called Notion Live, which provided “orchestral enhancement” services for Broadway productions and international music tours (Notion Music: 2011). AVID’s notation software package, Sibelius, similarly offers a tempo manipulation “conducting” functionality for live playback, called Live Tempo (AVID: 2011). The user is able to manipulate the playback tempo by tapping the beat on a midi control device (2011). Finale likewise offers a TempoTap tool for modifying playback from an external device or keyboard. (Finale: 2014). Seemingly, there is enough interest in real-time tempo manipulation that the incorporation of “conducting” functionality has become a standard feature of major notation software platforms.

Other companies have tried to move beyond keyboard/controller-based models of virtual orchestra playback towards physical conducting of virtual instruments as a solo performance medium. The most notable example comes from a company called the Fauxharmonic Orchestra. It has developed a live performance play-back system for orchestral scores, triggered by a conductor holding a Nintento Wii remote in place of a baton, along with a Wii Balance Board to register motion changes in the conductor’s body (Vienna Symphonic Library: 2011). Interaction with these devices permits manipulation of the tempo, loudness, balance, timbre, and brightness of score playback in real time. Founded by conductor and composer, Paul Henry Smith, the Fauxharmonic Orchestra is operated largely by Smith himself. However, it is constructed from readily available music technologies, including a pair of Apple computers, Apple Logic Pro DAW software, Vienna Symphonic Library’s Vienna Instruments VI package, the Nintendo Wii Balance Board and Wii Remote wireless controllers, OSCulator shareware software which ‘translates the gestures made with the Wii controllers into MIDI and application control data’, and a set of Bang & Olufsen speakers (2011). The Fauxharmonic Orchestra promotes its benefits by arguing that the system provides performers with ‘compelling’ live or pre-recorded orchestral accompaniment tailored to their playing, and accessible within small venues (Fauxharmonic Orchestra: 2011).

While Smith is using his system to accompany live performances, it is clear that he is also interested in pushing the boundaries of virtual orchestra performance towards the medium being considered as a legitimate solo instrument in live performance. Smith says that his ‘digital orchestra’ technology ‘gives composers a way to get their music heard in live concert settings when acoustic orchestras simply cannot afford to do so… This technology is best understood as expanding the rainbow of expression, rather than undermining the art of orchestral music’ (Vienna Symphonic Library: 2011).

To demonstrate this, he has conducted several notable performances. In 2008, Smith performed a “shoot out” concert alongside the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra. Smith played Gridley Paige Road (Quayle 2007) using his Fauxharmonic Orchestra, and the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra followed with their own rendition (Smith: 2008). New York Times critic, Steve Smith, reviewed both performances saying:

‘Mr. Smith’s account had a realistic tone and adequate flavor, though no one would mistake the fifelike trill of his virtual concertmaster for the work of a real violinist. The orchestra, conducted by Markand Thakar, had greater warmth and substance, along with tangy nuances (and, yes, occasional blemishes) resulting from 21 individuals working together’ (2008).

Steve Smith concluded his review by reaffirming that the Fauxharmonic Orchestra cannot compete with real musicians, but he believed the technology showed great potential if it were placed in the hands of a ‘sophisticated pop musician like Bjork or Kanye West’ (2008). Undeterred, Paul Henry Smith, in 2009, conducted the world’s first live concert of a Beethoven Symphony performed by a digital orchestra, with the aim of convincing audiences ‘that a live performance of a digital orchestra can be as expressive and moving as a traditional acoustic orchestra’ (2008). Smith intends to perform all nine Beethoven symphonies.

Despite Steve Smith’s desire to place virtual orchestra technology firmly in the hands of popular musicians, these accounts of virtual orchestra technologies reveal a collapsing space between the acoustic/live and the digital/virtual/recorded in classical music. As virtual orchestras simulate orchestral timbres in increasingly convincing ways, they more credibly progress the aesthetic argument for their use, which in turn progresses their functionality as a mechanism for reducing or removing human players in certain contexts. Where virtual orchestras are employed, such as the Fauxharmonic Orchestra, an amalgamation of the roles of composer, sound engineer, conductor and performer is in evidence. This process began in the mid 1980s, and has gained momentum, to the point where the use of virtual orchestra technology is a viable, practical and mainstream option for low budget projects. Live sound production can readily be incorporated into live musical productions, particularly for genres like opera, where the timbral and dramatic priority is the operatic voice[7]. Consequently, virtual orchestras are a displacement technology because they can reduce the need for acoustic instrumental performers. However, what is being displaced is the kinds of skills required for professional music practice: virtuosic instrumental dexterity for technical proficiency in programming and conducting. High levels of interpretive musicianship are still required to achieve successful outcomes in real-time performance. Further, such instruments are also enabling other kinds of creative practice to occur, and in particular, the use of virtual instrument technologies encourages experimentation with creative composition. I have pursued this topic further in a separate paper (see: Klein: 2015).

Inversions: Classical Music & Social Media Performances

Virtuosity dictates that only a select few musicians can become elite, professional performers. The separation of performers from audience and the regulation of audience behavior in concert hall settings during the twentieth century served to reinforce hierarchies of value within classical music cultures. However, social media is providing spaces for performers and audience members to challenge divisive hierarchies and configure new modes of interaction and engagement particularly via the crowd-funding of projects and the production of user-generated performances. In 2011, the biggest classical music event was the Sydney Opera House concert performance by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. Part reality-program, part online meme, and part traditional classical music concert, the event featured 101 players from 33 countries (YouTube Symphony Orchestra: 2011). Auditions were conducted by means of videos posted on the orchestra’s YouTube channel, with final selection for places in the orchestra voted on by YouTube viewers (2011). Members of the orchestra were then flown to Sydney to participate in a week of rehearsals prior to the concert (2011). According to Lesnie, the Sydney concert attracted a total of 33 million viewers, comprised of 11.1 million live streams, an additional 19.1 million streams watched within 24 hours of the concert, and approximately 2.8 million viewers watched on mobile phones (2011). This was not only a significant event for classical music, but also one of the most significant events of the year across all music genres. The performance broke the existing record for the most-watched live music concert online, formerly held by the rock group U2, and also became the biggest-ever YouTube live mobile stream (2011).

Crawford et al note that classical music cultures can be obdurate, overruling attempts by new media to reconfigure existing arrangements (2014, p.11). This appears to be present in the critical reception of the YouTube Symphony orchestra which received lack-luster reviews because it did not satisfy entrenched benchmarks of virtuosity. Guardian reviewer Tom Service savaged the performances as ‘mediocre and pointless… nothing more than a YouTube gimmick’ (2009), while La Times reviewer Marcia Adair characterized it as being ‘like the final showcase after a week of band camp, when all the parents come to collect their children’ (2011). Such reviews seemed to have missed the point and potential of such a project for audience engagement and participation.

Despite a negative reaction from classical music critics, the YouTube Symphony Orchestra project was successful as a social media phenomenon. Its 2008-2011 incarnations inspired imitation projects including The Virtual Choir, founded by composer Eric Whitacre in 2010 (Whitacre: 2011b), and The Virtual Orchestra Project founded by music and media producer, Glen Rhodes (Rhodes: 2011). Both projects required musicians to submit a video of themselves online, playing their parts to a tempo set by a pre-recorded track. Video submissions were then curated and mixed together by the “conductor” before a final version of the performance was released online as a video. Unlike the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, The Virtual Choir and The Virtual Orchestra Project began as independent, crowd-sourced projects without major sponsorship and initiated by a single individual.

In reality, projects like The Virtual Choir were not radical. Whitacre used mainstream technologies and located his undertaking within the world’s largest online video platform; the premise was not unique; and the first three works Whitacre presented on this medium stylistically conformed to the classical a cappella choral genre without any confrontation beyond their medium of performance. This medium, nonetheless, challenges traditional divisions between audience members and classical music performers by utilising YouTube as a replacement for the concert hall environment and allowing YouTube users the opportunity to become both performers and spectators of the work. However this challenge is still deferential to classical music troupes. Whitacre assumes the role of conductor in the “performance” videos, and participant videos are arranged on screen in semicircles or clusters oriented towards his baton. The illusion of the conductor is an affectation, albeit a powerful one, assembled by a team of audio and video producers from participant submissions recorded to a backing track. Whitacre then, acts as an expert curator and assumes authority over the work as conductor/composer which is emblematic of classical music modes of authorial regulation and hierarchy.

The first three versions of The Virtual Choir feature Whitacre’s compositions Lux Aurumque (2000), Sleep (2000), and Water Night (1996) respectively. All were pre-existing notated works which had been performed prior to the commencement of the project in 2009. Participation in The Virtual Choir began modestly, with 185 voices located in 12 countries (EricWhitacresVrtlChr: 2010). The initial video was compiled by volunteer producer, Scott Haines, and includes noticeable acoustic artifacts such as ambient noise, breath sounds, timing errors and sibilance which are smoothed over by the liberal application of a cathedral-style reverb. The project continued to grow; with the second Virtual Choir featured 1752 singers in 58 countries (EricWhitacresVrtlChr: 2011) and the third Virtual Choir received 3,746 videos submissions from 73 countries (EricWhitacresVrtlChr: 2012). Notably the production values improve greatly with each incarnation of The Virtual Choir, and subsequent videos contain less ambient noise and greater mix clarity. While the videos still include performance errors, these errors do not diminish the impact created by combining several thousand voices together in a single mix. The Virtual Choir performs Whitacre’s original compositions exclusively and in 2012 Whitacre won a Grammy award for his album Light & Gold (2010) which included versions of all three Virtual Choir songs (Whitacre: 2014a). Light & Gold topped both the US and UK classical music charts within weeks of its release (2014a)[8].

By 3 August 2014, the Virtual Choir’s YouTube channel, EricWhitacresVrtlChr, had 40,165 subscribers and had received 7,825,386 views (EricWhitacresVrtlChr: 2014). By utilising an online participatory audience, Whitacre demonstrates that classical music practitioners can engage large audiences if they are prepared to reconsider traditional hierarchies, experiment with performer-audience relationships, and relax the boundaries between classical and popular music genres. Whitacre was already an internationally successful artist before launching The Virtual Choir, however his profile has grown substantially since the launch of the project. While most contemporary classical composers struggle for traction, Whitacre has successfully employed social media to circulate his works to a mass international audience of engaged fans.

Few studies have focused on the role of social media to develop classical music audience engagement. A notable contribution in this area was Crawford et al’s study of the UK Symphony Orchestra’s (UKSO) ticket sales-oriented mobile application where the researchers advocated caution when assessing the potential for social-media based interventions for engaging previously unreachable audiences (2014, p.10). They state that networked publics ‘clearly can do things in very particular ways’ but also consider that ‘just because networked publics display particular features, it does not mean that these will be engaged in a way that was desired’ (2014, p.12). Focus groups who had used the UKSO’s app revealed that student users (18-25+ years) found it difficult to explain classical music to people who had not grown up listening to it, leading the researchers to conclude that ‘participation is only for those in the know and even though networked publics have the potential to be read by those new to the culture, classical music culture dominates and audience expansion is perceived to be problematic’ (2014, p.12). Consequently, the app was useful for reaching audiences who were already interested enough in the UKSO that they had downloaded the app to purchase discounted tickets, however it was not considered something that would broker wider engagement from those not already familiar with classical music. Furthermore, Crawford et al study also pointed ‘to the value of listening in social media environments’ and in particular noted the benefit of YouTube for listening to full recordings of classical music pieces (2014, p.10). The participatory nature of YouTube based performances was outside the scope of Crawford et al’s consideration, and notably project’s like Whitacre’s Virtual Choir do not necessarily require a pre-existing knowledge of classical music culture in order to participate. Closer scrutiny of the outcomes of participatory online performance projects is needed in order to understand their benefits to classical music outreach agendas.

Conclusion: Towards Multiple Fidelities and Mediatised Virtuosities

Throughout the last century, the aim of classical music record production has been to depict seamless versions of musical repertoire which sound to the listener like a real-time performance occurring in one of the world’s great concert halls. Consequently, production processes must remain invisible to the listener to be effective. Despite many advancements in recording technologies, this aesthetic goal has remained consistent for repertory recordings, meaning that creative compositional recording aesthetics familiar to popular music audiences have rarely been employed in classical music record production. This is because the function of recordings operates differently between popular and classical music. Katz argues that popular music recordings can take on the function and meaning of both the musical performance and the musical work (2004, p.47). However, for classical music audiences, the musical work is something abstract which virtuosic live performance reifies. Symes argues that a recording is ‘a joint creation between the engineer and the listener’ which allows them to be ‘tricked into thinking that its musical representation is real’ (2004, p.62). This statement implies that classical audiences are aware of the deception, and this awareness is utilised by classical music advocates such as Godlovich to undermine the primacy of recorded performance in favour of live concert hall performance as the site where a musical work can be most authentically realised. In doing so, this reinforces the role of human musicians within classical music’s guild based mode of regulation. While listener-audiences, as consumers of classical music, are important drivers of the economies around classical music, their preferences are filtered through hierarchies of institutions, critics, and artists who utilise traditional modes of regulation as the primary determinate of aesthetic quality and value. Where classical repertory is concerned, the practice of classical music performance has been prioritised in the way that sound recordings are produced. The classical recording industry has assumed that listener values are in line with the values of the classical tradition more broadly, and as such higher fidelity renditions of desirable performance aesthetics, the classical concert hall, have remained a consistent focus of classical music production in the twentieth century[9].

However, the pervasiveness of recordings over the last century meant that recordings became the primary site of listening to classical music works and consequently, recordings helped to define what constitutes technical virtuosity in live classical music performance as scholars like Philip have noted (2004, p.232, p.233, p.245). This was not seen as a problem by classical music aficionados because, for most of the twentieth century, recording culture reinforced live concert performance and spurred on the development of virtuosic craft performance standards.

This article has focused on how two different recording and dissemination technologies are challenging nostalgic notions of performance which have, hitherto, dominated the aesthetic application of recording technologies in the classical repertory genres. Virtual orchestra technologies pose a threat to classical music’s craft tradition by lessening or removing the need for virtuosic human performance in live and recorded contexts though the increasingly sophisticated simulation of orchestral timbres. The Fauxharmonic Orchestra’s live performances of canonical repertoire demonstrates a collapsing space between the acoustic/live and the digital/virtual/recorded in classical music. Godlovitch characterises the synthesiser ‘as a displacement technology’ (1998, p.69) and this anxiety is legitimised by the Fauxharmonic Orchestra’s amalgamation of the roles of composer, sound engineer, conductor and performer. Not surprisingly, resistance to virtual orchestra technology by musicians and music unions is, as Godlovitch describes, a ‘response to a perceived threat’ (1998, p.69). However, arguments which claim these technologies have a ‘debilitating impact’ on ‘human skill’ (1998, p.69) are both value-laden and problematic because they assume that human skills cannot, or should not, evolve with technology. Similarly, these arguments overlook that orchestral instruments are themselves technologies which have been successively refined and expanded. Reviewer Steve Smith’s conclusion that virtual orchestra technology showed great potential if it were placed in the hands of sophisticated pop musicians, but cannot compete with ‘real musicians’ (2008) is illustrative of how historical high/low cultural paradigms maintain currency within classical music communities. Generating anxiety around the encroachment of technology on human performance is an easy way of garnering support for classical music’s claim to elite cultural status at the expense of popular music. Here nostalgia is used to resist the onslaught of disruptive music technologies, and their populist creative potentialities.

Social-media based ensembles utilise mainstream social networks as a means of generating engagement via a combination of participation and spectatorship. Social media content generation challenges the separation between audience members and performers of classical music by foregrounding participation above virtuosity. However, this challenge is still deferential to classical music troupes, with participation being filtered through a range of expert curation and editorial processes. Members of the YouTube Symphony orchestra were selected by video audition before participating in real world performances under the baton of a conductor. Eric Whitacre and his team of audio-visual producers select, edit and process participant submissions, while Whitacre assumes the role of conductor. Further, performances and recordings of these projects are still being reviewed against traditional benchmarks of virtuosity and record sales as if their purpose and function should be considered in the same way as traditional performance outputs. In the case of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra where these benchmarks were not met, the performances were derided as amateur and likened to children and community orchestra projects. Such reviews seemed to have missed the point and potential of such a project for audience engagement and participation, highlighting again how anxious classical music communities can be when traditional functions and modes of regulation are reconfigured across and through technologies.

Auslander contends that live performances have come to emulate mediatized representations. He writes that ‘initially, the mediatized form is modeled on the live form, but it eventually usurps the live form’s position in the cultural economy…’ before stating that finally, ‘the live form then starts to replicate the mediatized form’ (Auslander: 2008, p.183). Arguably, this process of emulation and transformation is occurring in classical music as recorded and social media dominate modes of access and engagement with the art form. The impact on performance styles noted by Katz (2002, 2004), Philip (2004, 2004a) and other scholars evidences this claim, as does Crawford et al’s (2014) early work on social media as a listening and engagement space. However, this process of transformation has not occurred without resistance from classical music advocates and institutions because live performance in the traditional concert hall locale has been unsettled by mediatised performance, placing pressure on the way classical music negotiates quality. Nostalgia is central to these rhetorical struggles against what Godlivitch refers to as ‘electronic encroachment’ (1998, p.69). The traditional function of virtuosic performance, as a reification of the musical work, is increasingly problematic, given that mediatisation filters most contemporary engagements with performance cultures. The concert hall, as a singular aesthetic paradigm pursued in classical recording culture, may be losing its primacy in favour of progressively divergent fidelities, aesthetics and modes of engagement. Performance virtuosity, as a marker of quality, has been unsettled by the accessibility of orchestral sonorities and the drive towards participatory cultures of classical music.


[1] For an in-depth analysis of classical music recording listening experiences see: (Day: 2000, pp.199-256).

[2] The most notable example is 4’33” (1952), which is a scored work of musical rests in three movements for any combination of instruments. Listeners sit in a concert hall or other performance environment, and the musicians remain silent for the duration of the work, four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The work provides a framework for listening to ambient noise, but also challenges the audience to perceive of all sounds as music when these sounds are given a listening structure. Cage, and other experimental art music composers, for example Terry Riley, David Tudor and Steve Reich, all worked to expand the barriers of performance as a listening experience made up of textures, ambiences, absurdities, repetitions, irregularities and extensions of the known into the unknown. John Cage, following on from experiments by Paul Hindemith and Ernst Toch, even integrated variable speed phonographs and records into the composition and performance of his Imaginary Landscape series of works (1939-1952), decades before records were used as compositional sources in popular music genres. Hindemith and Toch composed a short collection of work on gramophone machines for the Neue Musik festival of contemporary music held in Berlin in 1930 (Holmes: 2008, p.43). Hindemith named his two works Trickaufnahmen (1930), ‘trick recordings’, while Toch titled his three pieces Gesprochene Musik (1930), ‘spoken music’ (2008, p.44). According to Holmes, the works experimented with variable speed playback to generate pitch shifting and rhythmic effects (2008, p.44).

[3] The influence of the “best seat in the house” rhetoric has been both pervasive and commercially persuasive, as evidenced by its use in advertising materials for the sale of home sound systems from the 1920s to the present day. See: (Symes: 2004, p.73).

[4] The work was originally performed at the 2002 New York International Fringe Festival and was scored for three acoustic instruments and vocalists, but Weinstein modified the score to incorporate the Sinfonia and removed one of the acoustic instruments for the 2004 season at the Variety Arts Theatre in New York. See: (McKinley: p.2004).

[5] For more information see the description of the Vienna Super Package on their website:!Demos

[6] At the time of writing, East West had a “Featured Composers” box on the front page of their website, which included testimonials about their products by composers Thomas Newman, James Newton Howard, David Newman John Powell, J.J. Abrams, Brian Tyler, Steve Jablonsky, Chris Beck, Joel Goldsmith, Jeff Beal, Paul Wickens, René Dupéré, David Kahne, Herbie Hancock, Salo Loyo, Teddy Riley, Rod Abernethy and Danny Elfman (East West: 2011).

[7] Many major performance institutions, such as the Metropolitan Opera, the San Francisco Opera and the Houston Grand Opera, already employ a variety of “sound enhancement” amplification technologies (Tommasini: 2006). While initially met with resistance, these technologies have quickly been accepted by audiences and critics who ‘have mostly stopped mentioning it’ (2006). Seemingly, live sound enhancement technologies have become transparent enough to be acceptable.

[8] In the fourth incarnation of The Virtual Choir, Fly To Paradise (2013), Whitacre moved the project off YouTube to a newly built personal website, and deviated from the conventional reproduction of classical SATB a cappella singing by including a beat-driven electronica accompaniment produced by Guy Sigsworth. The audio production is markedly different, containing Auto-Tune-style effects on the soloists’ voices and obvious spatial and dynamic mix movement where the choral voices sometimes become obscured or overwhelmed by the electronic accompaniment. The video is oriented around soloists and an animated, anime-style heroine. While Whitacre still appears as conductor, Fly To Paradise is not attempting to emulate a traditional concert hall style choral performance but rather a narrative music video where all the participants are residents of an animated city the heroine explores. Fly To Paradise ended up incorporating 8,409 videos posted by 5,905 singers located in 101 different countries (Whitacre: 2014b) and the production was funded by 1,900 Kickstarter backers who pledged more than US$122,000 (Whitacre: 2014c). The previous success of The Virtual Choir methodology, arguably enabled Whitacre to make a stylistic departure towards popular music, moving the project onto his personal website and consolidating the project within his personal brand.

[9] Morton provides an account of the close relationship between advancements in high-fidelity recording technologies and classical music in his book Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America (1999). The ‘unassailable social good’ of disseminating classical music to mass audiences was used to promote successive advancements in recording technologies (Morton: 1999: pp. 611-617). See: (Morton: 1999, pp. 187-637).


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