The “future of music” is a beleaguered term. In recent years you would most likely find it lurking within much new music editorial, alongside a picture of the latest hyperbole-pumped group, destined for the predictable slump out of favour in six months time. It is as if music’s future is pinned on short term hopes instead of long term solutions.
What might happen to music, how we might make, listen, and distribute it in the years to come, is not usually deemed a topic worthy of public discussion. Saturday’s TEDx (the grassroots little brother of the philanthropic behemoth TED) conference at Snape Maltings in Suffolk, looked to approach the problem afresh.
Though it was an event that looked to compel the audience to ruminate on the possibilities of tomorrow, there were links to local past. Thomas Dolby, the LA-based, one-time synthpop star and digital music entrepreneur who chaired the day’s proceedings, told of how his great, great grandfather Newson Garrett had built the Maltings at Snape in which the conference was taking place: later, his grandmother had been an assistant of Benjamin Britten’s during the Aldeburgh Festival’s first years. The parents of William Orbit, the English producer who was here interviewed by Dolby, retired to the Suffolk coastal town, and attended Britten’s early concerts.
The conference’s blue-sky, Silicon Valley-inspired evangelism jarred with the earthy, autumnal Suffolk setting, yet there was a common thread that connected the event with the Aldeburgh Festival project, begun by Britten and Peter Pears in 1948, which resulted in the creation of a permanent venue at the disused maltings in 1967 and the evolution of Aldeburgh Music. Britten’s ideal was one of breaking down boundaries, eschewing the exclusivity of some avant-garde practice and moving away from the structures within classical music that deter people from exploring the more disciplined yet rewarding aspects of it.
It is a tradition carried on by Aldeburgh’s Faster Than Sound team, who helped run the day, and a viewpoint most forcibly expressed by the Anglo-American conductor and infectious speaker, Benjamin Zander, who almost provoked an ovation with his pre-recorded speech that argued that classical music should be for everyone. One requirement of TEDx is that films of past TED lectures are shown. In an earlier film, a familiarly twitchy David Byrne discussed architecture’s role in music making, taking in CBGB, Carnegie Hall and the iPod.
There was a lot of rhetoric about bringing people together to form a big, unified conversation, yet often the speakers were so narrowly stuck to promoting their own projects that they they resembled Gold Rush-era salespeople, there to ensure that their work be considered part of this unknown future. The composer/professor/inventor Tod Machover, introduced us to various fruits of his 25 years at the forward thinking MIT Media Lab in Boston, such as his hyperinstruments like the hyperbow (played by cellist Peter Gregson ahead of this weekend’s Spheres and Splinters performance) and his robotic opera Death And The Powers, talking at a slamming pace. A besuited Martyn Ware rifled through the huge amount of impressive projects he has been working on, such as Breathing Trees, before an audacious – and quite funny – plug to come and see his reformed group, Heaven 17.
It was the young British loose cannons that distinguished TEDx from the slicker TED events. Sarah Nicolls showed off a deconstructed piano that she had made, complete with bicycle wheel, external strings and reverse keyboard. Tim Exile and Imogen Heap flew the flag for scatty English oratory as they paced the stage befuddledly during their respective talks, the former blowing more traditional minds with his inventions such as The Mouth, the latter explaining in great, meandering detail her internet-savvy approach, from auditioning session musicians online from a pool of fans, to getting her Twitter followers to write the press release for her last album.
Though there was plenty to chew over after the conference had finished, it was not quite the march forward into brave new territory that some might have expected. Many innovations smacked of the opportunism that we are fed daily: you couldn’t help but be slightly disappointed that Ware was showing off the work that he had produced for the soft drink company, Fanta.
But that is the reality today – and what have creators of challenging music such as Ware always been but wheeler-dealers and hustlers? To bestow upon music a sense of dignified permanence is to fabricate its position. At the start of the day, over creeping, ambient noise, the opening speaker David Toop ambled through such territory elegantly, summing up the problem one faces when approaching a discussion of this kind. “Objects, images and writings can be preserved for centuries, for millennia, giving us a visible and tactile connection to the physical continuity of history,” he said, revisiting his recently published book, Sinister Resonance. “Sounds, on the other hand, fade into air – ghosts to haunt tangible reality.”