YouTube Symphony: The Latest Thing to Do About Classical Music

You may have heard of something called the YouTube Symphony briefly discussed on TV news, but if you aren’t into online video, social media, etc. you may not know what exactly it is. Luckily, one of your crack Holde Kunst bloggers (hint: it’s not John) works in the website and search engine industry and keeps pretty good track of Google (YouTube’s parent company) and its plans for world domination and, now, online classical music hegemony.

First, a little about YouTube…

YouTube is a website that hosts and distributes videos. Individuals and companies upload videos they’ve created (or saved off the VCR, or whatever). Web users can watch these videos free on YouTube.com — a particularly buzz-worthy classical example is Renee Fleming’s Proms performance of Korngold’s aria “Ich ging zu Ihm.” Webmasters can also embed videos on their own websites, like I’ve done below — click the Play button to hear composer Tan Dun introduce the YouTube Symphony project.

YouTube videos may be used for entertainment, promotion, or collaboration — remember the YouTube debate during the primary elections, when anyone could submit a video asking the candidates a question?

What’s the YouTube Symphony?

Here’s a brief introduction from some young musicians and composer Tan Dan:

The YouTube Symphony will realize a work by Tan Dun, in two ways:

  • An online video mashup — a complete performance spliced together from video auditions submitted by musicians. (Mashup is jargon for mixing various elements together into a single, new piece of content.)
  • A live performance in Carnegie Hall with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the winners of the video audition.

To audition, a musician must choose an instrument, download the sheet music, practice, and make two videos and upload those videos to YouTube. A panel of judges will select the videos to be used in the mashup — and select the performers who will appear in the Carnegie Hall performance.

The most interesting component is the video-assisted audition preparation. After downloading the sheet music, auditioners can practice along with a video of Tan Dun conducting — with or without sound.

(That’s the audition excerpt for string players and harpists.)

Greg Sandow, the composer and commentator who’s become something of a “future of classical music” expert, had this to say:

Two guys at Google came up with the idea (Google owns YouTube), and pitched it to the rest of the company. The rest of the company liked it, so Google went ahead, and found classical music partners to join in the fun.

In other words, the sole reason for the project was that people at Google loved the idea. And that, if you ask me, is how change is coming to classical music. Not because anyone (least of all me) figures out what classical music needs, and then goes out and does exactly that. No, we’re making progress because people all over the map are getting ideas of their own, and putting them in action. That’s what’s transforming classical music world (slowly at first, but I’m sure we’ll see it pick up speed). It’s also how we find out what works.

So this YouTube thing, big as it is, is at bottom just another one of those ideas. And the ideas succeed because somebody loves them.

Greg doesn’t happen to mention this fact, but Google is famous in the tech world for encouraging its employees to devote 20% of their time to “pet projects” outside their official job responsibilities. Not that I’ve called anyone at Google to find out, but this is likely one of many such off-job-description ideas that’s hit the big time. Gmail and those ads you see on this page are two more Google products that began as 20% projects, but that’s not the entire point. Innovation requires an atmosphere as free as possible from self-censorship, free from tailoring your effort and passion down to conventional expectations. We don’t always know what will work until we work with it.

Greg Sandow has extensively discussed the isolation of classical music from contemporary society and it’s easy to see why YouTube Symphony does his heart good whether it turns out to be a gimicky mess or not. Conventional wisdom simply laments that classical music (especially the “new” kind) is doomed to die out with the YouTube generation’s grandparents, confident that nothing can be done about it. The YouTube Symphony gleefully ignores this received wisdom to make music instead.