The Future of Classical Music Is … Instagram?

We classical musicians have changed a lot about our concerts. More and more, we’re playing in nontraditional venues, we’re relaxing show etiquette, we’re developing programs that interact with audience members or respond to their needs.

Classical Revolution Baltimore recently announced a show entitled “Classical Music For People With Short Attention Spans,” meant to accommodate, rather than correct, wayward listeners by presenting highlights of favorite pieces in under five minutes each. The most recent Lowlands Festival in the Netherlands featured the premiere of the Smartphone Orchestra, in which cell phones were neither silenced nor tucked into the darkness, but rather incorporated into the fabric of the performance. 

Can we go further? As a composer, I’m of the opinion that classical music’s longevity depends on our community embracing new music, and not just new presentation formats, as its lifeblood. But what if the traditional ways of creating music are themselves outdated? 

I’ve been thinking about content as the engine behind transforming listening experiences ever since I came across Ray Lustig’s composagram project. These are typically 15-second musical moments set to video and published on Instagram. Lustig developed the project as a “low-stakes creative exercise,” but what sets this project apart is both its integration with technology and the cumulative effect of the pieces.

Lustig started out as a microbiologist, and when I met with him, he told me that what he’s carried over from the sciences is a love of systems. He particularly enjoys writing canons for their built-in set of limitations. So, in the spirit of this approach, Lustig established his own set of rules when developing the composagrams project. Briefly:

  1. Each composagram can last no longer than 15 seconds. (Initially, this rule was dictated by Instagram’s video time limit, but Lustig has stuck with the parameter even after the app’s cutoff extended to one minute – more on that later.)
  2. No recorded improvisations, in that this seems “both too easy and too hard.”
  3. At the same time, Lustig likes the idea of “not having a fixed score.” Instead, the audio can come from disparate sources, like a “collage … of fixed fragments.”
  4. However: no fake instruments. 
  5. Electronic music is to be used sparingly. And, of course:
  6. Each composagram must have a moving visual element. Lustig eschews depicting faces, opting rather for abstract images or landscapes.

From there, he was off. Since his first post in August 2015, he has produced dozens of these vignettes. It’s astonishing how distinct many of them are from one another. In one, a short phrase played by harp and a struck singing bowl fades into a discordant train whistle. Visually, we see much of the same: an image that looks like a bell overlaid by a black-and-white scene shot from behind the window of a moving train. In another, a passage of Renaissance-sounding music – with choir drone, harpsichord, and imitative strings – plays over an animation of geometric shapes that feel as if they’re cycling through oblique religious symbols.

A post shared by Ray Lustig (@raylustig) on

On the surface, Lustig’s composagrams are fun exercises that nod to several modern concerns in composing. Timelessly, they’re a great way to combat writer’s block, while stockpiling material that could be used in later pieces. They incorporate video, which audiences have increasingly come to expect from newly released music. The online platform allows composers all over the world to connect with each other; many other creators, whether they know Lustig or not, have taken up the #composagram challenge. Relatedly, the exercise can act to uninitiated artists as a primer on self-promotion and online PR work. 

A post shared by Ray Lustig (@raylustig) on

All of these elements combine to form the groundwork for what you could call a movement, something that Lustig has embraced when assigning the exercise to his students at Juilliard School’s evening division. In his words, they’re “trying to create the sense that this is a collective of artists working together on one project.” But what I find to be the most compelling force behind that movement is its emphasis on brevity. And it’s when you combine that brevity with all of the other social and technological aspects of the project that it seems that Lustig has developed an entirely new to way to listen – or maybe, more accurately – to process music.

Most other creators under the #composagram hashtag have embraced Instagram’s one-minute cutoff, but there’s a reason why Lustig chose to keep his own to 15 seconds. In his words, that’s more than enough time “to make a beautiful, single affect.” At the same time, it forces good quality: urging creators to finesse one idea, or one transition from some kind of music into another. In teaching his students, Lustig reflects that “people got the notion that you can have a really boring 15 seconds of music, that 11 seconds into it you’re waiting for it to end.”

And of course people understand that these days. Composagrams perfectly accommodate the rate at which we process information online – which is, in a word, fast – and the expectation to have our interest piqued immediately. While many content producers try to attract difficult-to-please consumers by making their creations incredibly arresting – thereby luring audiences in further – composagrams are not interested in holding your attention. By the time you’ve decided whether or not you’re interested in them, they’re already done. 

When you stack all of these 15-second-long composagrams on top of each other – when you make the act of listening to them such a low-stakes activity – you essentially trick yourself into becoming a highly attentive audience member.

So here’s where the fun part comes in. Composagrams turn the dreaded “scroll” through social media into something substantive. When you stack all of these 15-second-long composagrams on top of each other – when you make the act of listening to them such a low-stakes activity – you essentially trick yourself into becoming a highly attentive audience member. Now, I can only authoritatively speak to my own experience (so I would invite readers to spend some time browsing through #composagrams, particularly the shorter ones, and share their impressions), but I notice a peculiar feeling after listening to each one: It doesn’t feel like enough. So I let it replay, and replay and replay. Each time, I try to pick up on elements that I hadn’t noticed before. Regarding the previously mentioned examples: how the train whistle is actually playing from the very beginning of the excerpt; whether those imitative strings are actually landing a semitone apart, or if they’re just in very close canon. When I feel as if I’ve worked through the puzzle of one vignette, I move onto another. The first time I did this, 20 minutes passed without my noticing. Maybe I should be ashamed to confess this, but I can’t remember the last time I did nothing but sit and listen to a recorded piece of music for 20 minutes, with absolutely no other distractions, for pure recreation. 

I don’t think that purists should start wailing about classical music going the way of the tweet – that we’ve lost our capacity for extended listening, that long-form pieces are a thing of the past. If anything, composagrams suggest that we are primed for a deeper, more involved kind of listening experience than ever before. Maybe it’s because they force you to listen down, rather than across; maybe it’s because they encourage (or at least create the illusion of) your own agency. Whatever the reason, I think we could all take a leaf from Björk’s book, embracing the evolution of both our art and our world as something we should not be afraid of, even if that means changing the very way we think – and not just about music, but anything. Isn’t that, after all, the whole point of art? 

Elizabeth Nonemaker

Elizabeth Nonemaker is a composer and arts journalist. She co-launched the arts publication Ampersand, and has worked for Children’s Radio Foundation and KPCC’s “The Frame.” …more 

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