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Using Computers To Connect With Classical Music


David Gelernter is well-known in the tech world as a computer pioneer and Internet visionary. More importantly, he's a Beethoven freak like me. So I was excited to read his impassioned proposal in the Wall Street Journal to use computers and the Internet to connect people with the joy and insight this kind of music can inspire. I sat down him this week and asked him to start off by explaining for the unconvinced why you need to know who Beethoven is.

DAVID GELERNTER: Because your life is going to be vastly poorer without knowing this. There - if you care about what the best and the deepest, the most beautiful, the most moving thoughts that have ever been expressed by the human species, then you must care about Beethoven. You have no choice.

RATH: You point out how the online music universe already has the virtual infrastructure to help solve the Beethoven problem, to teach people about it. But you say that Spotify and iTunes hate classical music. Could you explain what you're talking about?

GELERNTER: Well, that's certainly the impression I get. They haven't put 30 seconds into understanding what distinguishes classical music from pop music. A piece of classical music is generally not a single song, but is generally a sequence of several pieces or movements. And of course, I need to know who's performing the music and what kind of circumstances the recording was made in. Is it a live performance? Is it a studio performance - basic data of this sort, which classical music lovers need.

RATH: So David, you're a computer science professor. Can you paint me a picture of what this ideal world would be in terms of kids or adults being able to get access to be educated in the way that you're envisioning?

GELERNTER: First off, I'd like there to be lots of little packages of music that are suitable for first graders, second graders. I want to be able to say here is 10 minutes of music and I will require you to sit down tonight and listen to it five times - that's homework - and I'm going to look at your phone and find out whether you really did it or not. So when I say Mozart, when I say Beethoven, instead of drawing a total blank, will give you a chance to be enchanted and entranced.

RATH: Do you think there's any problem with classical music in America in terms of reaching out more to its audience? I mean, you talk about wanting to know more about the performers. It's more likely you'll see, like, a picture of a landscape or something on the, you know, cover of a symphony than actually see the people who are playing the music.

GELERNTER: The cult of personality is useful. We should allow it to go a little bit further, because to be a great classical musician takes a very unusual person. But it's not enough. We also need the music in our ears and it used to be part of the background in the United States not that long ago, if you listen to Bugs Bunny cartoons of the 1940s.


MEL BLANC: (As Elmer Fudd) (Singing) Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit...

(As Bugs Bunny) Kill the rabbit?

GELERNTER: (Laughter) You're not going to learn Wagner from these cartoons, but you're going to be - you're going to get some idea of what classical music is about so that it doesn't - it's not a completely alien world.

RATH: So David, do you want to send us off with some homework? Do you have an assignment, maybe a happy piece of music to take us out on?

GELERNTER: A happy piece of music - Beethoven's "Eighth Symphony In F Major."


GELERNTER: It's gripping. It is mesmerizing. It makes you happy. So why not give it a try?

RATH: Awesome. It makes me happy. David Gelernter's forthcoming book is called "Tides Of Mind." He's a computer science professor at Yale. David, thank you.

GELERNTER: Thank you.