When Richard Slaney fixed wires and video cameras to Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Finnish orchestral conductor and composer, he felt in turn, privileged and a bit silly. It was a big ask, he says “to request someone to pretend to play Mars from [Gustav] Holst’s The Planets while I fiddle around with cables and boxes, and then get them to do it all again”.
Mr Salonen, he explains, has been remarkably game. “In an orchestra, the conductor is God, lots of them would not be interested in us trying things out on them. But Esa-Pekka wants to see how technology can influence music.”
Mr Slaney reflects that his role as head of digital at the London-based Philharmonia Orchestra is “a silly job that no one else in the world seems to do”. Nonetheless, the unassuming 30-year-old, clad in jeans and trainers, appears to be rather happy tinkering with his experiments – part of his job overseeing the orchestra’s digital programme, pioneering innovation in classical music through such activities as the first orchestral webcast and interactive video installations.
Wiring Mr Salonen, the orchestra’s principal conductor, is part of a project that will be installed at the Science Museum in London in May and which will allow visitors to pretend to conduct the musicians.
Mr Slaney’s work has also involved attaching a video camera to a violinist’s forehead and another to the end of a trombone: “Whenever he pulls the slide you get a close-up of his face, you can really see the concentration though it is difficult for him to play.”
Patience is key with a project like this he says. “It was in planning for 12 months, took four days to rig and then we had eight hours to capture the performance you need to be extremely calm under pressure.”
The fresh-faced Mr Slaney sees his remit as “basically taking something that’s old – an orchestra – and trying to present it in a different way to generate a new income stream and wider audiences”.
In part, this is an economic necessity. “Arts funding is only going to get smaller, so we have to look at different ways [to make money].” At the same time CD sales are diminishing, placing increased emphasis on the value of live performances. He hopes digital installations and webcasts (pictured) will tantalise and coax new audiences into buying tickets at concert halls.
The Philharmonia, which started in 1945 as a recording orchestra after the introduction of LPs, should, says Mr Slaney, be at the forefront of digital innovation “given its history of working with technology”.
“I am finding ways to communicate what the orchestra does to a different audience. Orchestras seem like stuffy old boring things. Actually, there are lots of young players interested in presenting the music in a different way.”
Financial imperative also helps coax players into experimenting with new formats – as freelancers, they do not get paid unless they are performing.
Taking classical music out of concert halls and putting them into a gallery or museum space can spark fresh interest. “In a concert you can’t ask a question while it’s going on, you can’t have a coffee while you’re listening. It’s frustrating if you are 27 and not used to it.”
When he thinks of new listeners he pictures his friends, who are happier chatting about art at Tate Modern than tackling the fustier subject of orchestras. “People seem less worried today about having opinions on modern art than classical music.”
He believes his task may be easier than 20 years ago, in that people are less snobby about genres of music they like. “The joy of such things as Spotify means you have much more chance to try things out.”
However, the flipside of a magpie approach to music encouraged by such applications, he says, is that “people don’t have the same concentration to listen to a symphony that is an hour long. If you sit in a concert, you do need to focus, you can’t look at your mobile and read the paper at the same time.”
Even video games, he thinks can help generate new classical music fans. Recently he made a documentary of the Philharmonia playing the soundtrack for the Harry Potter video games. “Video games are replacing film work. The budgets and effort put into these games is [immense]. You get huge orchestras 100 players. They really go for it.”
As a music graduate from King’s College, London, who went into IT, he is well-placed to straddle the worlds of geek and classical. Half of his six-person team come from a technology background, the other half from music. While he plays the viola, he never saw his future as a performer. “Playing the viola was a practical decision at the age of 14,” he explains. “There weren’t many viola players at school, so I was offered lessons transferring from the violin to the viola so I could bolster the section in the school orchestra. There were never enough viola players, so I got into orchestras and got to go on tour. It’s an instrument that is part of the team rather than as a soloist.”
Now he satisfies his creative urges by melding music and technology. “I make musical decisions every day about how something sounds and should be presented.”
One aspect of his job, however, makes him both uneasy and proud – the strange demands he makes on the various performers. “Musicians have a hard job and I make it more difficult. We push them to do weird things.”
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