Can Apple’s latest ad reach the classical audiences of tomorrow?

Martin Cullingford Fri 20th June 2014

It may be about selling iPads, but putting Salonen centre stage is a big boost for classical music too, says Martin Cullingford

Apple's latest ad focuses on composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen

Apple's latest ad focuses on composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen

The Apple ad first aired during the final for Britain’s Got Talent. Were this an ad for, say, the latest release of the iPhone, this wouldn’t be quite so noteworthy. But this was different: a minute-long montage of Esa-Pekka Salonen in various stages of contemplating, composing and conducting his Violin Concerto (and, for good measure, having a shave) – a vivid burst of classical music at its most contemporary. There’s a glimpse of Leila Josefowicz tearing into her violin with astonishing physicality. The whole pulses with a driven rhythmic intensity. Salonen’s piece is not an easy listen: a fascinating, thrilling listen maybe - but a Mozart adagio it isn’t.

The film (you can watch it here) is ostensibly advertising the iPad Air, the latest incarnation of Apple’s tablet. But like many modern ad campaigns, the product itself is somewhat secondary to the space around it: the notion of creativity, cultural engagement, lifestyle and emotional interaction that the company wants to be perceived as being part of. It’s one strand of a wider Apple campaign pivoted around the slogan ‘What will your verse be?’. Not being entirely sure what the phrase meant or how it related to Salonen’s music I looked it up, to discover it's drawn from the 1990 film Dead Poets Society, coming at the end of a speech imploring people to contribute something creative, urgent and important to literature (and, it follows, the world around them). So far, so much stylish mood marketing.

But there’s something worth cheering here. We’re all aware of the difficulty classical music faces in engaging young audiences – a demographic which will happily explore visual art or literature at its most challenging but so often stops short of stepping into a concert hall; the teenagers and 20-somethings whose preconceptions about music have already hardened under peer pressure and prejudices. This is the very demographic with which Apple has an astonishingly powerful resonance (witness the emotive highs a new product release generates, when a gadget is elevated to celebrity status). But with this new ad campaign, that very brand is not just meeting this group halfway with condescending ‘crossover’. It’s giving them Salonen and Josefowicz. These artists, Apple is saying, are creativity at the cutting edge. They might even be cool. And if you’re creative and cool, so the logic runs, they should be part of your world too. 

Meeting the artist: Salonen at the Berlin Apple store

Apple’s Berlin store is housed in a former cinema, an imposing hybrid of neoclassicism and early-20th century solidity. The ground floor will feel familiar to anyone who has visited Apple’s flagship stores in other cities: a vast space filled with long bench-like tables bearing the many variations of computers, tablets and phones bearing the ‘i’ prefix, peopled by a buzz of on-trend youth and brightly T-shirted staff. Upstairs, however, Apple has turned one of the cinema auditoria into a performance venue. More used to welcoming pop bands or singer-songwriters, on Wednesday evening the stage hosted (just about) the Philharmonia Orchestra, which Salonen conducted in music by Sibelius, Lutosławski and himself, the performance preceded by a talk and Q&A, part of a 'Meet the Artist' series.

Earlier that afternoon I had asked Salonen whether he felt this campaign suggests Apple knows something we don’t about the resonance and reach of contemporary classical music (after all, I doubt Apple does anything without serious research), or whether it’s actually a piece of courageous advocacy. He jokingly recalled that his daughter, more involved with heavy metal and noise music than the orchestral world, thought her Dad being in such a campaign might damage her street cred. She needn’t have worried. Salonen had made sure the concert footage featured in the ad used what he describes as a contemporary visual vocabulary. 

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Leila Josefowicz and the Philharmonia at Berlin's Apple Store

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Leila Josefowicz and the Philharmonia at Berlin's Apple Store

Salonen has been a long-standing enthusiast for using technology in presenting music. As a young composer back when computers were in their infancy, he and Magnus Lindberg tried to code a composition into a mainframe computer, the kind that resembled a number of fridges tied together but probably boasted the kind of processing power now found in a wristwatch. They used punch cards, he recalled - and then gave a rather amusing impression of the octave-leaping results of his attempted but failed fugue. More recently, he created Re-Rite, an immersive installation based around Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in which visitors can gain an understanding of what it’s like to be inside an orchestra, immersed in such a score. 

There was also a collaboration with video artist Bill Viola in performances of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. And, more recently still, he helped develop an app called Orchestra with app-makers Touch Press. Users can explore movements of eight different works (including Salonen’s Violin Concerto), watching as the score (full or curated) flows along, or choosing from a number of films focusing on the conductor, soloist, or orchestral musicians. There’s also the diagrammatic ‘beatmap’ of the orchestra familiar to users of other Touch Press music apps, optional commentaries during the performances themselves, and a wealth of further information and films about orchestral instruments starring the Philharmonia players. The result is as enjoyable as it is educational. 

Reaching out: Esa-Pekka Salonen at the pre-performance talk

Reaching out: Esa-Pekka Salonen at the pre-performance talk

The Orchestra app is just part of the Salonen ‘story’ that Apple is telling with its campaign. Another is that Salonen uses technology in his wider work, whether jotting down ideas or using notation software. I asked him to expand on how such technology really impacts in his work. He recalled how, back in 1981, he nearly lost the manuscript of his Saxophone Concerto having left it in a Milan café, a danger that modern cloud storage evidently avoids. But he also described composing software as being ‘like a partner’ in the process. ‘One of the most difficult elements of composing music is the timing’, he said, keeping a sense of the work amid ‘the intense process of manual labour’. As an example, he cited a complex tutti passage, an eight-second phrase that might take two weeks to write. It's very difficult, he said, to keep the flow of time in your head. Software enables a composer to step back from the piece and get some distance, to zoom in and out of the process. The danger for composers to watch for, he warned, is when the software starts informing a composer’s decisions, not just helping them to write them down.

Channelling the message

That evening, the pre-performance talk was light-hearted and warm, the performance powerful, Leila Josefowicz phenomenal, her athletic response to Salonen’s score surely convincing anyone in the audience new to orchestral music just how thrilling it can be. Afterwards, people were invited to have a play on the Orchestra app, and as they left were given vouchers to download it for free. Meanwhile, Salonen himself sat down to take part in a Twitter chat.

There are many organisations and people out there working tirelessly and imaginatively to reach new audiences. But most initiatives come from within the classical music world itself. Apple’s ad, however, comes from outside, placing a composer among travel writers, mountaineers and medical pioneers - other stars of the ‘What will your verse be?' campaign - as a model user of its products, and then placing those ads in wide-reaching, prime-time, mainstream broadcasting slots, channelling the message that classical is contemporary straight to the very people we so desperately want it to reach. And if it helps Apple sell a few hundred-thousand extra iPads too, well, then everyone’s a winner. 

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014