Classical music for digital worlds: a second age of enlightenment

by Crispin Woodhead, CEO of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment


The current crisis has flickered in peculiar ways. Not so long ago there was a spasm of anxiety that the choruses of Last Night of the Proms are leading us all astray. Such fretting springs neither from the original context and intention of Rule Britannia nor a judgement on the irreverent silliness of good-natured promenaders who hoot, honk and whistle their way through the annual finale. Much more likely, it’s an incontinent flinching at the nasty incongruities in society between have and have-not, included and excluded, loved and unloved.

It’s a wincing off-the-rails discombobulation brought on by our altered state that muddles the apparently normal with the suddenly appalling.

Some years ago, when working as a teacher, a wise old colleague took pity on me in the tangle of the teenage classroom and said, ‘you know the trick is not to try to get them to understand you, it’s for you to understand them!’

It’s that paradigm shift in perspective, to try to look differently, to see out, rather than in. As a little daily reminder, we wear masks chiefly in the hope of protecting others. It’s a modest gesture of collective altruism. It may perhaps mean more in symbol than in practice, but it’s valuable all the same because it’s a redirection of attention to the love of one’s neighbour.

The impact of the pandemic is undeniably fearful for the arts. The hopeless chasm between cost and income yawns wider than ever and inevitably there is a terrified yelp from all those who might fall in. Yet oddly enough, the most optimistic and cheerful of my colleagues are those who are shoulder to the wheel in social intent. Rather than looking at their own undeniable needs, they are holding their hands out to others. My feet might ache, but you, my friend, are about to collapse.

I sometimes wonder what Handel, Bach or Haydn might say about the pickle we are in. Previous generations can’t be said to have had it easy. The Black Death, the Thirty Years War, the French Revolution and Napoleon are just a few of the mild inconveniences, besides famine, infant mortality and terrifying dentistry. Yet the works produced have radiated ineffable hope ever since. How much richer we are for that! How many sparkling gifts have escaped the grim depths of adversity from the Nelson Mass to the Leningrad Symphony and the Quartet for the End of Time.

The fluff of tradition and habit may have been flummoxed by a rude gust of virus, but not everything has been dislodged. Great art isn’t necessarily beautiful, easy, useful or convenient but it is indispensable to the complete life and our need for it is unchanging. It is a common necessity that unites us. We should never call artistic experience a luxury , although it certainly often feels that way thanks to the quality and dedication of the great talent we have around us.

So what do great artists do that is so important? They look up and out and that is what helps the rest of us do the same. That lifting of perspective gives well-being, self-respect, purpose, aspiration, attainment and connection to others.

For the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, that looking up and out is a renewed mission, a fresh chapter of Enlightenment, at our new home, a comprehensive in Camden, Acland Burghley School. It’s a living laboratory where we can experiment and explore. It’s a place where we can test new formulae of creative thinking: how the study of waves for GCSE physics can connect the sound, light and a remixed experience of the orchestra, how tree roots communicate, how birds and bats can be pollinators, how plants call out to each other in jasmonic screams in a constant natural orchestration around us that resonates astonishingly with our own human expression.

It’s also an opportunity to go further with the seismic strategic shift, compelled by Covid, to make digital our servant and not our master. Enough with the free-casting, pittance-paying servitude. It’s time for a new digital deal with a more enlightened cyber-patron!

So what does that mean for those on stage? It means an opening up of optimistic opportunism, of courageously failing forwards, of embracing the novel, not as replacement or reaction but as positive enrichment.

Ask any hardened gamer what hits the spot and invariably the answer rests on an unchanged inner logic –‘it’s the gameplay’, they will tell you. Sure enough, 4k ray-tracing at 60fps sounds impressive but those bells and whistles can’t rescue a dud from failure. For the arts, this inner logic is the capacity for artistic experience to excite latent questions within, to sharpen the air in our lungs.

Our best habits are timeless and relate to our need for story, for stimulation and for connection with others as with ourselves. If we hold onto that ancient golden thread of common sense, then the magic toolbox of VR, AR and enchanted algorithms is much more appealing. We apply those modern miracles when they are called for by our inner logic and not simply because they are available.

At the OAE, we have learned that sassy films on YouTube bring millions of North American teenagers into the fabulous world of the Froberger suite, that Augmented Reality is a provable concept for real time enhancement of the concert experience, that you really can put a rising star baritone in an acrylic sphere and fill it with water (see OAE meets Radiohead on YouTube) and that a smart-headed-data-driven-beta-minimum-viable digital platform (also known as OAE Player) can confirm an ambitious business plan for a full-scale feature-rich Netflix-style experience imminently to appear.

It’s a new dawn, a brilliant new reality where the value of digital art is the value of independent financial resilience and the value of our three essential pillars: artistry, integrity and adventure.