Silence for a Day

From the mall to the car, music is always in our ears. Opera singer Thomas Hampson discusses the impact that technology has on song.
  • Transcript


Question: How does technology today affect the interaction between musician and audience?

Thomas Hampson: A couple of years ago, 2006, there was a very profound book that came out called, "The Long Tail," which essentially among many other facts and theories in the book said, "The world we now live in is providing access points for people to create their own market, or their own boutique." And I think this is the profound paradigm shift in especially classical music because classical music has always been preoccupied with identifying a particular quadrant of the public that will buy, or be interested in this recording or this performance. When in fact, now a world of podcasts and video podcasts, and let's not forget that in 2007, the word podcast was invented and accepted into the Webster Dictionary, or something like that. It's an extraordinary fact.

So we have the ability through the digital media, which is exploding every week into a different form and getting more ubiquitous, more simple. Both for people producing or for better expression perhaps, making permanent that which they do and those people accessing that and choosing to have that. It is extraordinary the kind of research they are doing and finding, not just in iTunes, but in all sorts of fields of how people access music, what kind of cross genre access people are building for themselves. And you would be surprised how many people that are very passionate about classical music are deeply involved in Hip Hop. You would think Jazz would be the natural associative, but it's extraordinary what kind of crossed-genre associations we are finding in digital media. And even as I'm talking about it, I find myself speaking very much more about how people are accessing that which, what I do, rather than me being preoccupied trying to market something that I do to them.

So I think this shift has been very fundamental and very profound and probably very positive. It has been very difficult for the classical music industry and that seems to make sense to me because we spend so much time identifying in the classical music world, identifying not just the best, the most complete and articulate way that music can say what it has to say. And that, by definition is somehow antagonistic to the ambiguousness of the media world that we are building. We are just at the beginning of this confrontation and I think we'll find a way to meliorate those issues. But I think it's a very interesting conflict.

Question: How do you experience music?

Thomas Hampson: That's a very important question. Most people probably ingest their music as a background. In America, I know -- and that was one of the geniuses of Apple and i-Tunes and Steve Jobs specifically. This astounding fact that most Americans, I think ,something like 40% of all music listening is done in the car. Boom! What an idea!.

Me personally, I enjoy background radio of various genres, I am an audio file so I have a very serious sound system in a room where I do like to go and close the doors and just enjoy that moment either because it's technical proficiency as an electronic medium, or because it's a spectacular performance. Being a classical musician I'm fascinated with how my colleagues, not just singers, but every musician finds ways to express something else or something new or the same ol', same ol' in classical music. I'm always in dialogue with other musicians at least orally, if I can't be with them and a lot of dead musicians as well. I've learned a lot from dead people on recordings.

Question: Are there days you yearn for silence?

Thomas Hampson: We've become in society now so focused on that which we do, which is our life that we make in our professional, or profession, or how we pay for our random -- the working side, and then there's the other side. Our lives have become sort of three pieces. There's the grind, there’s the period of non-grinding, and then there's the period of sleep. And we're in continual negotiation for those pieces of pie. What become problematic is that non-working time is now a time that is either a baseball game or the museum, or a concert, or a film, or a movie, or TV, or family, or vacation... you see?

Whereas, work has solidified into some sort of, "Well that's what I do to make this part of my life possible." And I think this is a very, very dangerous schizophrenia that we need to treat. To me, that's one of the great areas that arts and humanities and liberal arts education ameliorate. It ingratiates that the working and the non-working time has a common third ground in there that is teaching one or the other, that is amusing one or the other, I think one of the great things behind game theory, or game development, especially in education now, apropos, digital and new media, is finding a better, easier, more intuitive way to learn that takes that away from the drudge and the structured work part and puts it into the reflective, "I'm alive, I'm a human being, I'm not working right now," part. And I think that I would like to see music and arts and humanities become more able to even the color spectrum of the fan of activities. If that's really successful, is there a time where you just don't have any of that anymore? Maybe not. But your balance and your choices will be more healthy and more interesting.

Is there a time when I just turn it off? Yes. There is a time when there's no music, although there is rhythm. I find that on the golf course, although sometimes the rhythm that I need in my swing, as a musician, I find it in another melody, but I'm really stretching right now. There is a time when there's just quiet. You might be interested to know that it is very difficult for musicians to read books with music in the background. We don't do that so much. I shouldn't speak for everybody, but it is very difficult for me to do that. So, I tend to separate my activities.

It’s very complex. I probably should -- it would be an interested dialogue with someone why that is. Because some music certainly is not important, and maybe there is a certain,” I could turn on the radio." But then it's distracting and it's just another noise element, which I don't particularly want. When I hear music I want to engage in it. Even if I engage in it very quickly and turn it off in my mind. If I'm in an elevator, clearly I don't want to be dealing with that, even if it's Mozart. In fact, especially if it's Mozart. I don't think Mozart belongs in an elevator.

I would like to see us return to a deeper profound relationship experience in the concert hall than just, "I think I'll go look at that." And I think that's part of the digital world I was speaking of earlier that I like very much. We are building such wonderful access points that people have a deeper relationship to the music that is being played in the opera and in the concert halls and in the recitals, or the opera. Going to something because it's an amazing event, and something you've never heard before is part of it. And I don't take that away from anybody. But there are many more rivers underneath that, or wells underneath that river that you're participating in, it's like going to the museum and seeing wonderful pictures that are startling and beautiful and renaissance painting as an extraordinary world and you never need to know anything about it and you can go and gawk in wonder. And a sense of wonder is the most important part of all of it.

But then, if you actually do take on of those little hearing things, or you do know something about the iconography of color, or the iconography of posture of simply the iconography of the storytelling applied in renaissance painting, then all of a sudden you have a completely different world that is ingratiating your imagination. It is making you a richer person and you are participating in a much longer dialogue with historical perspective that enlightens your next steps in today's world. It's exactly the same thing in classical music, precisely the same thing.

Recorded on October 28, 2009