TIDAL 10 – Classical: Einaudi & the Digital Decade

Will the pianist-composer permanently transform the way we listen to classical music?


This article is part of the TIDAL 10, our end-of-decade essay series. For more essays covering a striking range of music, visit Read.Tidal.com. – Ed.

Deep beneath 7th Avenue, a walk down the hallway connecting Penn Station to the MTA will take you past a set of brightly colored ads attesting to technology’s triumph in uniting millions of music listeners through streaming apps.

But in stepping off the subway at Lincoln Center, one sees larger-than-life posters of classical artists who continually fail to sell out houses. Such advertisements are conspicuous in their faithfulness to the art and craft of live classical performance, and seemingly indifferent to the digital revolution that places listeners outside of the concert hall and plugs them into their electronic devices. While many classical artists have tried to catch on, none have ridden the wave so well as pianist-composer Ludovico Einaudi, who in the last 10 years has changed the game not for classical music itself, but for the consumer base.

To give an idea of the level of his popularity, in TIDAL’s global classical rankings at press time, Einaudi sits in second place, bested only by an introductory classical-piano playlist. That’s 11 positions ahead of Mozart and nine in front of Bach, the two classical composers generally considered the most recorded in history.

An essential part of Einaudi’s success has been in his appeal to the modern digital sensibility, often manifest in a ravenous hunger for new output. Over the course of seven months in 2019, the composer released seven albums in a series called “Seven Days Walking,” narrating the experience of seeing the same landscape seven days in a row. Granted, having listened to all the albums, the music is largely interchangeable. Einaudi’s seamless fusion of pop, jazz, African rhythms and classical self-consciously resigns any semblance of specificity, bartering in an ability to tap into a myriad of sensibilities all at once. Thus Einaudi’s music is perfect for playlist listening, as one need not scroll through an app to find their favorite song, but can count on getting exactly what they want with a single click.

As expected, classical music’s cognoscenti have been quick to deride his music, judging it only in terms of its political capital in live performance. Reviewing the first in a series of seven sold-out concerts at the Barbican in London, critic Philip Clark drew a line from Einaudi’s prominence to the “relentlessly acclamatory optimism of powerful people for whom detail is a mere inconvenience,” going on to compare him directly to Boris Johnson (yes, the review was for The Guardian).

One might be tempted to cite a certain hypocrisy in such views, as Bach was known for composing a cantata a week at the height of his career in Leipzig, and between 1977 and 2003,  Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote a seven-opera cycle, “Licht,” based on the days of the week. In both cases, yes, there is a vast output of material, but also a level of detail that is not appropriately consumable with an iPhone and a set of earbuds. In terms of mere physics, the dynamic range of Bach’s music, particularly if working with period instruments, is meant to be heard live, in a resonant room or church. Our eyes too can be drawn to architecture, to the exotic appearance of extinct and resurrected instruments, and to the minute gestures of hands and arms which would be of no avail on larger, more modern instruments.

Similarly, Stockhausen’s music necessitates the impositions of silence on the audience to create a dramatic, immersive live experience. Noise-cancelling headphones can do a great deal, but there’s nothing like listening to the silence not only in the music, but from the hundreds of audience members holding their breath, almost daring one another to blink or cough first. In this regard, Einaudi’s music is peculiar in its democratic impulse, made possible by digital platforms that designate the listening experience the property of the listener rather than of the composer (Einaudi’s royalty contracts aside).

Indeed, Einaudi’s consistency in musical style is exemplary of the decade’s increasing conversion to digital consumption. For while his music seemingly falls flat in live performance with critics, it is perfectly suited to passive listening in an era focused on multitasking. A telling anecdote is an ongoing phenomenon at Einaudi’s live concerts, in which listeners leave halfway through performances out of frustration — not with Einaudi but with the quasi-religious concert experience of being forced to sit silently and listen to one music, one person, one set of sounds. In a social-media age where reactionary feedback is the norm, such focused listening can apparently be too much to bear.

It can be argued that judging the quality of work by Einaudi and others like him — composer-artists such as Max Richter, Ólafur Arnalds, Yiruma, Nils Frahm, Hauschka and Joep Beving — remains difficult. Prior to the last 10 years, it had been thought inconceivable that classical music could forgo its demand for the undivided attention of the listener. Furthermore, we have no evidence of the transferability of listenership between Einaudi and a composer like Bach or Stockhausen. Are Einaudi’s listeners Bach fans too? Or are they new to the idea of classical music, enticed by an ease of consumption typified by digital platforms?

As for the next 10 years, Einaudi’s popularity will be of most interest for the effect it has upon classical music as an industry. After all, when we think of classical music, we still picture ourselves sitting in concert halls and opera houses, not confined to listening exclusively via headphones or hi-fi systems. Will classical music change? Or has Einaudi been inadvertently anointed with the task of ushering in a truly new genre altogether?

Parker Ramsay is a classical musician based in Manhattan. He also writes for VAN Magazine (Berlin) and maintains a blog, Harping On: Thoughts From a Recovering Organist. He holds degrees from Cambridge University and the Juilliard School.

Photo credit: Brill/ullstein bild via Getty Images.


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