Rage Against the Machine

To all those who took the time to comment on my little Game of Thrones essays this spring, I thank you.  I regret to have had to stop making them public after the first few dozen, since some commenters who disagreed with me also seemed to have a serious problem with the fact that I am female  – which is, of course, irrelevant to the matter.  In the spirit of parity, I chose to stop publishing them all – even the non-misogynistic intelligent ones.  But moving on…..


 Virtually parallel to the HBO debacle is one from the wireless HiFi company Sonos. They decided to buy a $4 million Superbowl commercial in 2014, representing in color how your house can have all different sorts of music wafting through it.  They hired the hirsute hip-hop honcho Rick Rubin to create a 30-second spot featuring classical (in blue) hip-hop (red) and a bit of jazzmenco guitar (green).  Visually, and editing-wise, the commercial is quite beautiful.

 However, according to their information, the ‘classical’ and guitar bits were played by Rick Rubin. By that, they mean that Mr. Rubin composed a sort of generic baroque-sounding two-line melody for strings (‘celli’ doubled by ‘bass’ pizzicato), and played it on his computer using computer-generated sounds. He then, apparently, played some real guitar for the green bit, and the hip-hop spot was by the group N.A.S.A.

It would have been an infinitesimal piece of $4 million to hire – oh, maybe eight string players, and have the classical factor expressed as it should be. But once again, corporate greed (or maybe just stupidity) trounced any kind of musical humanity.

This was a SOUND company’s representation of classical music to 111 million viewers. No wonder so many folks think it’s lame. Sounding like that, it totally is.

 Hartford Wagner Project.

This is, understandably, causing a kerfuffle, and made the front page of the New York Times on June 12th (below the fold, but still!) There appears to be a guy named Charles Goldstein who has spent 15 years of his life using the Vienna Sample Library to create a version of the orchestral parts of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Although one could make some ‘goblet half full’ arguments (‘He loves the music so much he transcribed all the scores! How diligent!’) the music world has begun to rumble.

(Meanwhile, here is a video of my iggy singing some Wagner. You’re welcome. )



Mr. Goldstein’s idea is to bring down the considerable cost of a Wagner production by using a sampled orchestra and real singers so the Ring can play in, somewhat randomly, the lovely Hartford, Connecticut. His argument goes thus: Is it not better to stage a Ring Cycle with sampled orchestra than no Ring Cycle at all?

 It’s a difficult question at first glance.  I’m all for bringing particular kinds of music to places which heretofore didn’t have it.  I’m also a big fan of ingenuity and new ideas. However, here are some reasons the music world is shuddering.

 # 1:  Richard Wagner spent his life conceiving and creating an orchestral language that became so influential he got his own adjective. Wagnerian means romantic, chromatic, leitmotif-driven, turbulent, passionate – in other words, violently alive.  Though he was himself often chased by creditors, there is no way he would approve of this treatment of his massive orchestrations and unique orchestra in public to save money.

# 2:  Mr. Goldstein continually misrepresents his ‘orchestra’ as actually being the Vienna Phil, as opposed to what it really is – members of the Vienna Phil recording each note of a scale in various different articulations, and then putting those sounds into a digital library that one can purchase, then do with what one likes. Kind of like a GPS voice – or, Chef after Isaac Hayes left South Park.

Obviously, the technology is here to stay, and no one faults composers for using it to give an idea of what their larger-scale works will eventually sound like – for that, it’s a godsend. Here, though, the fact is that Mr. Goldstein bought this library and spent ages sticking loads of notes together to make a version of Wagner’s Ring for folks to sing on top of in public. It’s Karaoke Wagner. Minus the alcohol.

 # 3: Though supposedly this is to bring Wagner to the people, he is charging $100 a ticket for each opera. That seems to most musicians to be bringing Wagner to the people who have the means to drive a few hours to the Met where they can hear it for real.  So the altruism is questionable. 

# 4:  Mr. Goldstein says, verbatim: “This project of presenting “Das Rheingold” was originally conceived to use a digital orchestra and was never intended to use a live orchestra. There was never an opportunity for instrumentalists to be involved in the first place and consequently there is no loss of work for them.”

Well, that is a logical axiom. You can’t lose what never was. But music is not calculus, and the emotional reaction of musicians is reasonable given the impassioned nature of the operas, the time in which they were written, the intent of the composer, and the unsubstantiated (yet believable) reports that Mr. Goldstein is a very wealthy man – therefore, why does he choose not to employ real musicians? The whole smacks of a sorry vanity project which does a disservice to, above all, Wagner. 

 That being said, I don’t think any musician would have batted an eyelash had Mr. Goldberg written an opera expressly for his ‘samplestra’. In fact, that would be seen as cutting-edge and applauded. I do hope he puts what must be, by now, a mastery of VSL to more innovative use next time.

 Game of Thrones Postscript:

 Folks have been telling me that they think Season 4’s cello solo in the opening is a slightly better than the previous seasons. Well, if they improved it, great, but I am somehow past caring. It was cute that they did a NY Phil version, conducted by Ramin himself, a few weeks after the beheadings hit the fan – it was so much better! They use that one, then, I’ll start watching again.

One of these days, I’d love to publish a few of the more hilarious comments, but for the moment I can’t be bothered to wade through all that offal. Trolls, indeed.



5 thoughts on “Rage Against the Machine

  1. ” That being said, I don’t think any musician would have batted an eyelash had Mr. Goldberg written an opera expressly for his ‘samplestra’. In fact, that would be seen as cutting-edge and applauded. I do hope he puts what must be, by now, a mastery of VSL to more innovative use next time.” Well, maybe some of us would have rolled our eyes, but overall this is SO very true, Laura. Thanks for taking the time to pen your thoughts!

  2. What if he said “arranged for Samplestra?” There is a certain amount of artistic effort in creating the arrangement. It won’t replace live orchestra and probably won’t be a viable alternative for a long time. It will certainly sound terrible. I think we should take it for what it is – a poor, artificial, virtually lifeless alternative to a great work of living art. Just as Music Minus One hasn’t taken over live performance, neither will this.

  3. Reblogged this on Roedeo Productions and commented:
    The ever-interesting Lara St. John on Wagner and Madison Avenue’s idea of what constitutes “classical” music. Okay, I admit I ranted to her about it, but i’m grateful to her for the research and the writing. C’mon Rick Rubin, you can do better than that!

  4. Pingback: Rage Against the Machine | RoeDeo - music, media & random musings

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