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Connected Studio: innovation in Classical Music

Steve Bowbrick

Head of Interactive, Radio 3

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Last week about 100 people gathered at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff to start to come up with new ways to present classical music at the BBC. It was all part of the 'Connected Studio' scheme, in which creative people - from inside the BBC and from outside - are invited to bid for some money to create really innovative applications for BBC content. There's a live blog about it here and consultant Simon Hopkins has written a very comprehensive round-up of the session in Cardiff here.

I kicked off the day with a presentation to the assembled creatives - there were engineers, designers, journalists, producers, artists, musicians and entrepreneurs, all sorts. It was about the history of innovation in classical music. My case was that classical music is not an innovation backwater or a passive customer for innovation but, in truth, the main source of innovation in media, entertainment and broadcasting over the last 150 or more years. I gave five examples:

Enrico Caruso

1. The first public radio transmission of any kind - on 13 January 1910 - was a live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

The great Enrico Caruso sang the role Of Canio in Leoncavallo's 'Pagliacci'. Nobody owned a radio at the time, of course, so receivers were set up on ships in New York harbour, in hotels and public places in Manhattan. It was a sensation in the popular media of the time and, of course, paved the way for music radio as we now understand it.

2. Caruso's recording of an aria from the same role, six years earlier, became what is widely-thought to have been the world's first million-selling record.

The first superstar of the recorded era was a classical artist. Caruso's breakthrough was the beginning of a hundred-year golden age for recorded music which some think may be coming to an end now.

3. From the BBC's own innovation timeline. Our first outside broadcast, when the organisation was only a few months old, right at the beginning of 1923.

It wasn't a coronation or a sporting event but one act from Mozart's 'The Magic Flute', performed by the British National Opera Company, live from Covent Garden.

4. 31 October 1953, the first full-length colour television programme in the world, was - you guessed it - a one-hour excerpt from a production of Bizet's Carmen with the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini.

It's fascinating that the great conductor and his pioneering broadcast orchestra were seen on television in colour before any of the big stars of the day.

5. Here's my absolute favourite.

It's a remarkable subscription service that delivered live classical music, from a choice of major venues in Paris, including the Opéra de Paris and several theatres, direct to the home.

Customers - including one Marcel Proust in his Boulevard Hausmann apartment - chose their venue for the evening and sat back to listen in their living rooms, on custom-designed stereo kit. The service was called Théâtrophone. We're in Paris in 1881, over thirty years before the BBC existed (this itself came four years after the first ever transmission of music by telephone, in Switzerland, which was - of coruse - an opera performance). This highly-immersive Victorian cyberspace was built on the first of the really big wired networks - the public telephone system and, in many ways, prefigured the on-demand world of online radio today (more about Théâtrophone and other remarkable services, including Budapest's remarkable Telefon Hírmondó, in this blog post.

I've got dozens more examples - I could have brought you stereo radio in Berlin the 30s, movies with synch sound in the 1890s, cinema simulcasts in the twenties, nineteenth century audio relays to City squares, all driven by the peculiar economics and the hunger for new audiences in classical music.

To finish: in 1865 when Wagner, for the first time, in his new opera house in Bayreuth, put the orchestra out of sight, in a pit in front of the stage, he was doing what all these other innovators had done. He was removing barriers, bringing his audience closer to the music, to the compelling experiences and vivid stories that it offers.

What all of these innovations have in common is a real impatience with the limitations of the old ways of making classical music available and a real sense of the urgency of doing so.

With the latest Connected Studio we want to renew this sense of urgency and put classical music right back at the centre of innovation.

Steve Bowbrick is Editor of Digital, BBC Radio 3

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