Monteverdi still scoring the hits

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
Nick Mailer tunes in to a wide range of musical offerings

There is a deep-rooted fear of technology in much of the musical universe. The young do not, in general, share in these audio-Luddite prejudices, and are quite prepared to mix and match technologies and instruments.

This air of happy experimentation and pragmatic acceptance of new technologies is not a novelty.J S Bach, who complained about not being able to transcribe his improvisations quickly enough, was the first to push the newly-tempered keyboard instruments to their limits, and would no doubt have revelled in a multi-track musical instrument digital interface (MIDI) set-up.

Now, a new force is making itself evident: the communications revolution. As the Net grows, so does its usefulness as a clearing house for musical information and communication. The results of a simple keyword search can be used to complement the traditional information and CD-Rom resources which many music departments have integrated into their curriculum.

As an experiment, I typed "Monteverdi" into the Lycos Search Form ( In the first 10 "hits", I received a potted history of the composer, a repertoire list, an article from an on-line dictionary of Opera and David Gordon's biography.

Curious, I clicked the link (http:www.voicenet.comvoicenethomepagesdgordonindex.html) and a few seconds later all was revealed. Gordon is a tenor who maintains his own home page. He has performed Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers, hence the hit.

Here lies the true power of the Internet. Included in David Gordon's home page is his electronic mail (e-mail) address. That little inclusion transports us beyond the realm of the CD-Rom. A project on Early Renaissance composition can now include pupil-driven interviews and first-hand testimony from a genuine performer of such music.

Such querying or commenting would not be an intrusion. Mr Gordon's Web page is explicit on that account: "send me e-mail and let me know you were here". I did just that, and the next morning received an enthusiastic three-page reply.

He confirms that since going on-line several years ago, he has received many questions from learners. These students do not necessarily know him, but come upon his Web pages via a similarly serendipitous route to mine.

"This pleases me," he says, "because I'm as much a teacher and coach as practising singer." He claims that, for the last two years, about one third of the participants in a musical master class he runs learned about the event from the Internet.

A full range of cultural manifestations becomes possible through the inexpensive communication the Net allows. Such interaction is an everyday event in the Usenet newsgroups. These forums, full of much puerile trivia, also contain genuine threads of gold. There are a surprising number of practising musicians and musicologists on-line andconversing. Three Newsgroup examples illustrate the rangeof interests:, and

The Oasis newsgroup had an interesting discussion on why Oasis and Blur would be popular in the United States - cultural theory discussed not by Derrida, but by people truly immersed in that culture. The Shostakovich newsgroup was so fascinating I was almost tempted to listen to that challenging composer's music. Almost.

One student wished to know why the Eighth Symphony's opening was so similar to the Fifth, and received several learned responses. The guitar newsgroup had much on performance and technical issues, all backed by a superb FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) compilation, which seems to have grown into a veritable encyclopaedia of the classical guitar. However, unlike most encyclopaedias, the contributors are a mouse-click away from further elucidation.

Such a buzzing, friendly and co-operative environment can lend palpable inspiration to even the most jaded pupil at the back of the music appreciation class.

During my time on-line, I have become an amateur music scholar just by auditing these forums and, occasionally, commenting. I researched, for example, alternative completions to Mozart's Requiem through Socratic discussion and joint investigation, and so took in and appreciated much more than if I had been forced to read an obscure chapter in a dusty textbook from a university's unbeckoning basement.

As bandwidths expand and compression technologies improve, audio facilities on the Internet are becoming more common. With the availability of tools like RealAudio (, it is now possible to receive and transmit live or recorded audio.

At the moment, with a 28.8K modem, you can expect, at best, mono-FM quality sound. As ISDN and other equivalently zippy technologies become the norm, the capabilities for high-quality audio communication will be such that voice lessons, perhaps even musical performances, will not be beyond the realm of possibility.

A significant number of schools now have MIDI experience, with sequencers and compatible synthesisers now very affordable. In a sense, MIDI is more educationally valuable than the real-time audio technologies. The musical data can be manipulated in any manner of variations and, importantly, uses up far less bandwidth than an actual digital recording.

It is notable how many amateur musicians have put together quality sequences and have made them available for downloading. The small files can be transferred in a manner of seconds, and played back though a sound card or connected synthesiser.

The Classical MIDI Connection archive is a worthy example (http:www.prs.netmidi.html). I downloaded Liszt's Sonata in B minor in under 40 seconds (with a 14.4K modem), plus some Bach pieces. To watch the musical notation of the Art of Fugue scroll by as the notes play is an education in itself. Classical music removed from the ego of the performer becomes far less intimidating to a beginner, and can lead to unique appreciation of later live performances.

There are many opportunities for pupils to post their own MIDI compositions to the Net, where they can receive a global hearing and criticism. For those not yet able to compose from scratch, several packages are available which can help with intelligent accompaniment.

One such example is Jammer Pro (from SoundTrek), which I recommend highly. Its Web site ( runs on-line competitions for original accompaniment styles, allowing a fledgling music student a first opportunity to contribute something of musical value to the world at large - a great boost to confidence. There are several musicians' co-operatives where composers are invited to send in their MIDI work for the whole world to hear, review and add to. This is an enticement to creativity beyond even pride of position in the school concert.

A truly exciting development is global collaborative composition, where musicians from pupils to professional soloists display their art through MIDI. Sequences can be sent to a participating school anywhere in the world very easily.

What's more, although finite transmission speeds make a fully collaborative live MIDI unlikely, it is still possible for one individual to transmit a live keyboard performance as MIDI over the Internet, in real time, to another, anywhere on the planet. If this sequence is, for example, a theme, the tune bounced back from its pupil-recipient might be a variation.

Such a project has been attempted successfully through the World Band project (http:co-nect.bbn.comWorldBandPagesWorldBand.html). Schools from several continents collaborate on several compositions while learning music theory. Pupils from different sites may share their favourite music and, in the case of participants from musically strong ethnic backgrounds or geographic locations, may expose others to their sounds.

Of course, no one is arguing that music rooms should throw out their glockenspiels and tam-tams - there is an important atavistic pleasure in performing music live with traditional instruments. Nevertheless, it is no hyperbole to claim that the on-line music students, of whatever age or ability, can receive the broadest, deepest and most satisfying musical education any such learner has ever had - and all for the price of local phone calls.

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