Imogen Cooper’s recital earlier this week has prompted me to dig something out of the archives from 1997. It was based on an interview with Imogen and written up as one of those thought-provoking ‘interludes’ for the program book, although the presenting organisation didn’t end up publishing it – I may write about that some other time.
The piece is showing its age, both in style and content. Its subject – the use of the ‘keyboard cam’ in selected SSO piano recitals – turned out to be short-lived, perhaps because more often than not the pianists in the series didn’t agree to its use. (One response: “I would resist such a thing until my feet were in the grave.”) But the general theme – music presentation, extra-musical additions to concerts, communication – lives on.
Last year  Jon Kimura Parker gave a piano recital here in the Sydney Town Hall. If you were there you would have noticed a large screen above the stage and a tiny video camera focused on the piano keyboard. Regardless of your seat, you would have been treated to an ‘A-reserve’ view of Kimura Parker’s hands, courtesy of ‘keyboard cam’.
We’ve been accustomed to surtitles at the opera for a while now. Patrons of Opera in the Park are no strangers to the use of large screens. And, as was pointed out in the daily press a few weeks after Kimura Parker’s recital, sports and pop concert audiences now take videos and big screens for granted.
Did we like it? One listener thanked the Sydney Symphony for ‘de-fossilising the piano recital’. She will be disappointed, but not petrified, to find no screen this evening [a recital by Imogen Cooper]. The same listener guessed – probably rightly – that ‘most of the audience at piano recitals are piano students and lapsed pianists’ who ‘want to see The Hands’. (You can recognise them: they all sit on the left-hand side of the hall.)
A screen might allow those students and lapsed pianists to observe the minutiae of a performer’s technique – if such things are to be gleaned from a split-second glimpse. But a screen could also be a distraction; the sight of disembodied hands carrying out their pianistic wizardry might just tear us away from the performer, even the performance.
‘It’s difficult for me to imagine,’ says this evening’s soloist Imogen Cooper, ‘quite what one gathers from being able to see a pianist’s hands. I imagine there may be some very good amateur pianists who want to suss out a few fingerings and things like that.’
‘Or maybe it’s part of the body language.’ she says, ‘But to me the carriage of the shoulders, the head, and the expression on the face – which you can see just as well from the other side of the hall – speaks just as much.’
Certainly all of us, as listeners, hear with our eyes as well as out ears. And from the early 19th century – when pianists such as Liszt turned the piano side on to the audience and seating began to be set out in rows facing the stage – pianists have been using body language to help listeners understand the message of the music. But early recitals were often sprinkled with chamber music and vocal items; concerts nowadays are increasingly more specialised, our programs more focused. ‘When there is only the pianist for the whole evening,’ says Cooper, ‘the visual aspect does in fact matter a great deal. But I think the artist should be able to carry that themselves. I don’t think projecting the hands on a screen actually helps that.’
Even so, giant screens seem to be moving from the stadium to the concert hall. ‘Dare I say,’ ventures Cooper, ‘it’s this slightly American concept that one medium is never enough. You have to have two at the same time and, if possible, three. And if there could have been flashing lights too, no doubt that will come up one of these days.’
Perhaps it’s a symptom of the multimedia age; perhaps it’s more basic than that. ‘It’s as if,’ says Cooper, ‘we haven’t got the concentration span – which I suppose for some people is true – to focus on one thing without being amused by something else at the same time. Probably the youngest generation coming up, for the most part, don’t have a very good attention span and have not had a very good introduction to classical music. They are simply bored if they have to sit and listen to something.’
But let’s return to Kimura Parker. He had performed with a keyboard cam in concerts elsewhere and he took the time to explain his thoughts on the new gadgetry. He also took the time to introduce the music he played. The question could be asked: which was it that really helped us to listen more carefully? The keyboard cam? Or the spoken introductions?
For Cooper communication wins out over gadgetry every time. ‘Not only are you introducing the works from your own experience,’ says Cooper, ‘but anybody in the audience can see that you’re not only a wonderful disembodied being that can play, but that you can talk and laugh, and in some ways you use the same language as them – literally.’