Friday, April 17, 2009

YouTube: No Way to Listen to a Concert

I had an ulterior motive behind wanting to watch the entire Carnegie Hall concert given by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra: Two of the works on the program were "previews," in a sense, of the concerts that Michael Tilson Thomas will be conducting with the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall on May 20, 22, 23. One of these amounted to a "sneak peek" at an excerpt from Mason Bates' "The B-Sides," which will be receiving its world premiere at these concerts. The other was to hear Yuja Wang play the second movement of Sergei Prokofiev's Opus 16, his second piano concerto in G minor, which she would be playing entirely at these same concerts. So, when Alex Ross posted the links to the videos of the two portions of the concert on his The Rest is Noise blog, I felt obliged to view at least this material before writing any sort of preview piece for my gig; and, if I was going to watch those portions, why not watch the whole thing?

Why not, indeed? Well, it turns out that there is one perfectly good reason. YouTube technology was designed for the brief snippets that users are expected to upload, which usually do not last more than five minutes. At least that was the case before YouTube recently introduced full-length movies and television programs. Now my guess is that, even with this increase in both volume and duration of content, the snippets will probably continue to do well enough. So, for example, I had no problem watching the "Global Mash Up" of Tan Dun's first (of how many?) "Internet Symphony" (without which I might not have had as interesting a Chutzpah of the Week award). On the other hand the first half of the "concert video" from Carnegie Hall had a duration of 59:32, which is to say longer than the actual content of an hour-long television episode; and the second half ran 1:25:30, which puts it in the league of many feature films.

So what happens when YouTube tries to stream this kind of content to a home in San Francisco with a DSL modem? The answer is simple enough: It isn't pretty! To be more blunt, it no longer counts as music. You cannot listen to Brahms with frequent (almost periodic) interruptions for the player to catch up with the streamer. To paraphrase that old religious saying: the content is so large, and my buffer is so small! Efforts to pause and even back up a bit to give the buffer room for growth were to no avail. Now it would not surprise me if John Cage would have been pleased to hear a performance of his music interrupted by such silences determined entirely by chance, but I wonder how Bates would feel about large portions of cyberspace getting their first taste of his music in this manner!

To relate this to a more satisfying recent experience, the YouTube viewing environment is not the Digital Concert Hall created for the Berliner Philharmoniker. Most important is that the Digital Concert Hall allows you to select the quality of the signal you are receiving. Low quality works just fine for home use; and, if the image lacks the sharpness of full high-definition resolution (which I found very impressive when I had the bandwidth to receive it), at least the music is never interrupted. (Well … hardly ever, in the words of W. S. Gilbert!) YouTube tried to finesse the quality-of-service problem by keeping the durations (and usually the quality of the video signal) down. However, on the basis of the experiences I just had with the YouTube Symphony Orchestra content, I would say that none of the selections are likely to survive intact for most of the folks trying to watch the stuff.

So it turns out that, at least in the current technology domain, my fear of short-attention-span concerts may be even greater than I had anticipated. Even the festivity of the Carnegie Hall occasion itself, regardless of the music performances, could not be held up adequately by the existing YouTube platform. Put another way, what worked at least passably for the auditioning process turned out to be counterproductive for those who crossed the bridge from auditioning to performing. So, for better or worse, it seems that we have learned at least one thing from the YouTube Symphony Orchestra experiment; and I suspect that this lesson will be of great interest to folks like Marshall Marcus over at the Southbank Centre. Whether or not the lesson registers over in the YouTube division of Google will probably depend on whether viewers interested in seeing the pilot episode of Charlie's Angels (currently one of the "Spotlight Videos") have a similar experience to which they react in a similar way!

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