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The Daily Telegraph: `Click here for the future of music`
I have seen the future, and it is ready to work. Three months ago at a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, I was introduced to something called Mastervision, which connects schools and libraries with sources of performance and instruction. Imagine linking up live to a Pinchas Sukerman violin recital in Toronto, or to a voice masterclass with Marilyn Horne in New York. Not as passive spectators, mind, but as interactive participants – with the chance of talking to Zukerman after his concert and getting Miss Horne to correct your persistent middle-range wobble. The system got up-and-running in Charleston, West Virginia, which has cabled up its campuses in a drive to raise teaching standards; various other cities are looking into it. Closed-circuit musical communication is a commercial idea that originated with Zukerman, who envisaged reaching smaller towns that cannot afford star performers. The potential applications, however, are limitless. For it is not just artists and audiences who can now connect without touching. A theatre director and design team can create a production across continents without ever having to fly. A conductor can rehearse a Ring with soloists, chorus and orchestra in 10 different cities, flying in the night before his dress rehearsal. The savings in time, stress, hotel bills, broken marriages and public funding would be immense – no, will be immense, for this is, as Wagner would have been the first to recognise, a giant step towards the music of the future, and the future is already upon us. Electronic delivery is being searchingly examined at every go-ahead arts organisation, many of which have set up video links and production companies in readiness for tomorrow. Such preparations, though, are mere sling-shots beside the explosion that will take place in the performing arts next Monday on the Internet.

A company called Global Music Network, an Anglo-US joint venture, is starting up a daily menu of live and as-live musical performances delivered piping-hot to your home computer – and completely free of charge. The network is the brainchild of two British musicians, the conductor David Atherton and pianist Peter Donohoe, and a Californian businessman, Michael Lubin. They have raised more than £1 million over there and £625,000 over here, and from next week are promising to deliver an ever-changing array of music from the world’s great festivals and concert halls. “We want,” says Atherton, “to make high-quality music available to as many people as cheaply as possible.” Cheap means free. You can watch and listen to a piece of music as often as you like on GMN. You only have to pay if you want to keep a record of the performance. This can either be down-loaded from cyberspace, rather slowly at present, or mail ordered from GMN. The company is confident enough of the calibre of its artists and the power of its sales techniques to dispense with petty swiping of credit-cards for the privilege of listening to music. Remarkably, the Musicians Union in Britain and others elsewhere have waived rule-book restraints on unpaid use of their members’ work. Even more exceptionally, some record labels have allowed their closely guarded exclusive artists to appear in recordable performances on GMN. Both sectors seem to believe that cyber-sampling will attract new concert-goers and CD buyers. For anyone who wants to mix and match, record labels have allowed GMN to issue custom-made CDs of favourite tracks drawn from a participating artists ‘commercial discography`. In addition to live music, the GMN site will carry interviews with artists and feedback options for fans to communicate with musicians. An introductory CD-ROM will be pasted onto next week’s BBC Music magazine. Any playbill is only as gripping as the acts it proclaims. GMN’s pioneer corps are mostly British Artists. Atherton, founder of the London Sinfonietta, and Donohoe, a winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition, are joined by the violinist Tasmin Little and others, yet to be announced, in what Lubin describes as “a family of respected musicians”. But the real coup is Russian. Valery Gergiev, the white-hot chief of St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre and much else besides, has agreed to go on-line with his own Kirov Opera and with Philharmonia concerts from London. Next summer, highlights of his White Nights Festival will be brought to your home, technology permitting, without anyone levying a TV licence fee or satellite rental. Gergiev’s role as principal guest conductor with New York’s Metropolitan Opera puts the new medium within reach of the summits of high performance. The Russian baritone Sergei Leiferkus, is another early recruit, and more artists and venues are being signed up each week by Paul Findlay, former head of the Royal Opera and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, who is vice-president of GMN. Whether the company can make a killing in the classical field is open to question, but GMN has shopping, travel and other channels to balance its books. The network is running some way ahead of its technical means providing perfect digital sound in somewhat juddery vision, though this should be adjusted within months. Whatever the outcome, next Monday will mark a historic turning point in the distribution and reception of music, a point from which there will be no return. The way is now open to direct communication between artists and audience, without the meddling of middlemen and broadcast media. Both Mastervision and GMN have arisen from artistic imagination rather than commercial opportunity. That augurs well for the musical future. So does the prospect that whatever you want to hear and see, whether from the Met, the Berlin Philharmonic or the Bolshoi, may soon be at your fingertips without costing as much as a mineral water at the new Covent Garden. Where that leaves our artistic establishment is mired in myopia. The Arts Council, which harangues its clients with the buzz word “access”, has given them no guidance on going online. The ROH is not fully wired for the next technology and has fluffed the union agreements that should have allowed it to go live. British arts , under New Labour, are lagging well behind the times.

The greatest setback, though, will affect public broadcasters such as the BBC, which have progressively withdrawn from the televising live performance of the lively arts. Although we are about to receive the usual Christmas stocking of opera and ballet, and while the BBC2 Controller Mark Thompson has achieved a modest increase in programming, the minority channel’s musical output stands at barely half its 1985-86 level of 142 hours per year. Followers of music have long since learned not to look for it on BBC television. With the coming of direct Internet access to live performance they may soon conclude that they have no need for television at all.

Global Music Network can be visited from Monday, at www.gmn.com.

Norman Lebrecht




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