Tuesday 26 November 2013

Effectiveness Case Study: Primavera

This is the fourth post in my attempt to hierarchize media uses according to a utilitarian rubric. My first two posts dealt with James Cameron’s Avatar, Marcel Duchamp’s The Fountain, and Homer’s The Odyssey. In this post, I examine composer Ludovico Einaudi’s Primavera.

Primavera is a piece of contemporary classical music. At first glance, one might expect an abstract work of music to score similarly to conceptual artworks, such as The Fountain. But I submit that Primavera has more relevant similarities with Avatar than it does with Duchamp’s piece.

An important point to note – for those unfamiliar with the music – is that the piece contains no lyrics or concrete suggestion as to its meaning. It thus primarily structures an emotional experience, as opposed to The Fountain, which structures an intellectual experience.

Strength of Impact:
  1. How many people does the project reach?
  2. How significantly does it impact the people it reaches?
  3. How likely are the people it impacts to spread this impact?
  4. How long lasting is its impact?
  5. How grave was the issue pre-impact? 
My answers:
  1. High
  2. Low
  3. Low
  4. Low
  5. Low

Primavera scores identical SoI ratings to Avatar. With over 5 million YouTube views, it’s hard not to score Primavera a “High” in response to SoI-1. We should also remember that the piece was released on the successful Divenire album, and that Einaudi has toured around the UK performing the album. Thus while Einaudi is far from a household name, his music has reached mass audiences.

Primavera, like Avatar, has a powerful emotional impact on listeners, but this impact is not long lasting or spreadable. Personalities are not altered, beliefs are not changed, and political, philosophical, religious, and moral stances are completely unaffected by listening to an individual piece of contemporary classical music, even if the piece is listened to multiple times. The lack of a narrative component or of any concrete meaning limits the piece’s potential to impact beliefs or behaviour.
Unlike The Fountain, which entirely lacks aesthetic appeal yet provokes a range of intellectual reactions in viewers about the nature of art, Primavera is

The existence of a mass of musical content very likely has noticeable effects on society, and it could be argued that music like Einaudi’s is preferable to many other kinds of music, but it is difficult to argue that a particular piece of abstract music is, on its own, doing much beyond providing beautiful 7-minute emotional experiences. Beautiful 7-minute experiences are nice in their own right, but they don’t compare with other effective altruist efforts. If that is the best media content can do, then there is no basis for prioritizing media over other causes such as global poverty and catastrophic risk reduction.

As usual, SoI-5 receives a “Low” for appealing to those with enough money and comfort to sit back and listen to contemporary classical music.

Quality of Impact:
  1. How much does it increase the accuracy of people's models of reality?
  2. How much does it improve people's quality of life?
  3. How much more likely does it make people to act altruistically toward others?
My answers:
  1. 0
  2. +1
  3. 0


Primavera receives pretty standard QoI ratings for a conventional work of art. As an abstract piece of music, it has virtually no way of impacting models of reality or of influencing behaviour. It might be argued that listening to beautiful music puts one in a better disposition and makes one more likely to behave nicely to others. Although this may be true, I don’t know of any evidence suggesting that this effect lasts more than a few minutes after the end of the piece of music.

As per usual, Primavera receives a +1 for QoI-2 because beautiful 7-minute experiences are A Good Thing, they just aren’t a regular life-saving or torture-preventing thing. Their impact is limited to making neutral first worlders feel happy for a few minutes or making depressed first worlders feel neutral for a few minutes. I think works like this have every right to exist and I’m grateful that they do, but they do not belong at the top of effective altruist priority lists.

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