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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

How YouTube shrank the classical world

By Norman Lebrecht / June 25, 2008

If you need to know the results of Bulgarian Idol, I may be able to help. Ever since I got hooked on YouTube at the start of the year, I have become a repository of musical trivia and, at the same time, an explorer of new routes of research.

It’s not where you’d expect to find high art and critical information. YouTube was founded in February 2005 to help people upload their home vids. At the last count, two months ago, it had 83.4 million contributions and 3 billion views a month.

It is fair to say that all human life can be found on YouTube, from home movies of ugly pets to giggly Japanese girls, from soft-porn to adversarial accounts of divorces in progress. A mountain of movie clips on the Google-owned site is being contested in the US courts by the Hollywood giant Viacom, which claims its copyrights are being violated to the value of one billion dollars and wants to impose restraints.

Actually, much of the stuff on YouTube seems to be put there promotionally by the entertainment industry itself, alongside the latest dour message from Mr Brown of Downing Street and Madame Sarkozy’s current photoshoot. The viral marketing on Youtube could scare a timid soul back to the dark ages, but my search has centred on the remoter fringes of musical creation and what I have found is a wealth of cultural experience unavailable anywhere else within reach.

It began with an urgent need to hear a chanson about a chapeau by George Brassens, for the purpose of period colour in something that I was writing. There is no reason you should have heard of Brassens. He was a militant poet who mocked the bourgeoisie in lyrics that resist translation. On YouTube, I found him uploaded in several versions with rough English subtitles appended by amateur enthusiasts. Who could ask for anything more?

Brassens led me by phonetic association to Jacques Brel singing Ne Me Quitte Pas, which he does with the authentic throat catch on the ‘Q’. Unmatchable. Brel reminded me of his dear friend, Barbara. Half of Paris turned out at Barbara’s funeral in November 1997, honouring a local heroine who touched as many hearts as Piaf with a music that was as autobiographical as Mahler’s.

Scarred by the German occupation and an early life on the streets, Barbara flickered to world attention with Göttingen, the 1960 story of a German love affair. But she refused to sing in other languages. The French chanson, an insular art that falls midway between Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel and Radiohead’s latest, is a world unto itself, unobtainable outside France - until YouTube came along.

There is a cover of Göttingen performed on YouTube by Carla Bruni, the latest aspirant to chanteuse status. All winks and smiles, hoarse of voice and short of breath, she misses the essential pessimistic tristesse of the genre, the sense that we might as well accept the world as it is, for it will never get any better.

Memories of Barbara took me to Georges Moustaki, her last best friend, whose anthem Ma Liberté is crooned by almost as many amateurs on YouTube as Frank Sinatra’s My Way. That’s what YouTube does best. It promotes cultural transference and creates micro-communities in the most unexpected places.

A search for the Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer flung up one of her rustic songs at Bulgarian Idol, a Balkan version of the ITV format with flexi-rules that get changed between rounds. Shemer’s The Eucalyptus Grove, a Zionist love song, is belted out by Preslava Peicheva – bookmark her now – a blonde with big vibrato and no comprehension of the Hebrew words she is singing. Preslava got voted off, apparently, for following up Eucalyptus with a folktune representing the Roma minority, eternally unpopular in Bulgaria.

I discovered you can waste an awful lot of time on YouTube and become an expert in useless information. In the process, however, you are participating in a 21st century form of musical assimilation, a creative pursuit that is rooted both in Freud’s method of free association and in the random sampling that John Cage, Witold Lutoslawski and Steve Reich foretold as the basis for a new musical civilisation.

Even as you read this, composers are searching YouTube for ideas. ‘Throughout its history classical music has been really quick to adopt the latest technology,’ says John Schaefer, who has covered the sampling scene on his New York radio show. It is only a matter of time before a symphony is composed out of YouTube.

The site was never meant for classical users and its rules prevent the appreciation of large works. A symphony has to be broken into chunks of less than ten minutes long, and, while grand maestros conducting the finale of Beethoven’s ninth proliferate, these are of no interest to serious listeners – especially at low internet audio quality.

Search beyond the obvious, though, and you will be astonished. There is an April 1942 clip of Wilhelm Furtwängler performing the Ninth before a huge swastika and a front row of Nazi bigwigs, the conductor reaching down at the end to shake the hand of Joseph Goebbels, who produced the film.

There is extraordinary footage from 1934 of Dmitri Shostakovich playing the piano in Leningrad, in his own concerto. You can even see a silent clip of Maurice Ravel, unbelievably elegant at the keyboard.

Who puts these things on YouTube, and why? Is it fans looking for soulmates, or music historians out to settle a score? Whatever the source, one click of a mouse allows any viewer to cut to the heart of music history without having to get access to a film can from an institutional librarian. You have only to see the Furtwängler concert to know how irredeemably compromised he was by Nazi associations.

And there are other classical uses. Some weeks ago, before meeting the formidable mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbender, I checked YouTube for her recital clips and found more than I bargained for. There, in a 1938 suit sharp as Rhineland mustard, is her father Willi-Domgraf-Fassbender, Germany’s foremost baritone. He sings the Figaro aria from Rossini’s Barber of Seville, happy as a schoolboy on a fire engine and with a pronounced wink in his eye. Willi was Brigitte’s only teacher and, seeing him on my screen, I learned all I needed to know about her formative influences.

It has reached the point where I would no more embark on musical research without YouTube than I would leave the house without shoes. I am hooked on its odd contents and unforeseeable connections. It functions for me like one of those fashion cut-out stores where, amid racks of things you never thought of wanting, you can pick up an ex-display designer jacket for next to nothing, and never mind the tear in the lapel.

I would be bereft if Viacom succeeded in slimming or shutting YouTube down. Artists are not much bothered by its minor copyright infringements, as they were by file-swap sites, and Hollywood gets more promotion from it than violation. As an educational tool and creative resource, it has untold value. I have broken my initial dependency on YouTube and no longer log in every day. But where else can I find French chanson? Or Greek dirges? Or the string quartets of Alexander von Zemlinsky. What's more, I'm seeing Candide at ENO tonight: I had better check its Paris pre-run on YouTube. Music has been totally transformed by this minor web miracle.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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