Recently I heard that journalist @harryfiddler was writing a piece on use of visuals in (classical) concerts. She was given a teeny, tiny 1000 words in which to explore the subject – barely enough to scratch the surface, which is why I wholeheartedly approve of her cunning plan to post a series of follow-up pieces, with quotes from the cutting room floor. Well worth reading.
As for me, I could write tens of thousands of words on this theme, but I’ll try to keep it under 1500…
First, all live concerts are “visual” regardless of what the presenter might do or not do. (You may read that again.)
Indeed, many concert conventions are, in a perverse way, visually driven. Musicians wear black (and modern pianos are black), for example, in order to create a uniform, non-distracting impression so listeners can more easily focus their attention on the sounds. Not that there still isn’t a great deal to watch!
And there are musical works that are intrinsically visual: in Golijov’s Last Round two string quartets (or multiples thereof) stand either side of a double bass, their flying bows creating a visual tango to match the musical one. In Brahms’s Fourth Symphony I always pray the conductor will request that first and second violins sit either side of the podium so we can really see and hear the musical dialectic of the first movement.
But then there’s the matter of concert presentation style, and visually speaking, this tends to go one of three ways:
1. Nothing but the Music.
This approach is low-key and unobtrusive. It avoids, at all costs, distracting the listener from listening. This is the norm: ‘quiet’ or quietly glamorous clothing; unadorned stages (or discreetly decorated); subtle, practical lighting; offering optional visual aids such as program books, which can be read or ignored at will.
It’s a long-standing approach, which relates, I think, to the parallels between concerts and religious practice. Although, if you read about concerts in previous centuries you realise just how much the conventions have changed over time and with them our ideas of what constitutes a distraction.
Radio broadcasts and audio recordings have cemented this approach as the status quo, and shaped the expectations many music-lovers bring to concerts.
2. Music Plus.
Taking existing music and adding a visual element with a view to enhancing the listener’s experience. I think of the marvellous interpretations of music in Disney’s Fantasia, or the photography by Icelandic musician and photographer Helga Kvam that accompanied Schubert’s Winterreise in the 2010 Sydney Festival. I only found out after the recital that Kvam is a musician, but it was evident through the way she’d struck the right balance of capturing and interpreting a mood, without turning the music into a mere accompaniment for a slide show. (The pacing of the images to the music was spot on as well.) Or, if I can brag about my own orchestra, the powerful combination of Herbert Ponting’s photographs from the Scott Antarctic expedition with Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia antartica – itself based on a film score.
This approach probably seems like a new phenomenon, but it isn’t really. The pantomimed presentations of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony in the 19th century are evidence that people have been music-plussing for a long time, often to ghastly effect.
What is new, though, is video, and one nice result of this technology has been the ability to project enlarged detail from the performing ensemble in real time. Especially in a big hall, this brings you closer to the action, and in the hands of a musical and smart director the video can help you to listen more intently, by linking musical colours and voices to the instruments from which they come. We do listen with our eyes to a certain extent.
3. More than Music.
Creative works that engage multiple senses, usually through the blending of multiple performing disciplines. In other words, works that are conceived from the outset to integrate film, visual imagery, movement, costuming, drama or staging with the music. At their most successful, works such as these lose something if heard via radio broadcast or an audio recording – much like listening to a film soundtrack without its film.
This too might seem to be a fairly new phenomenon: examples include Ross Edwards’ oboe concerto for Diana Doherty, in which choreography for the soloist plays an integral part (although the concerto can also be performed ‘straight’ if the oboist chooses). But in fact this sort of thing isn’t all that new either: Scriabin and his perfume and colour organs spring to mind. Silent movies with specially composed scores sit at this end of the spectrum. I’d even count the tradition of incidental music in this category. (Looking at you, Mendelssohn.)
Speaking of Mendelssohn, readers of this blog will know that one of the concert highlights for me in recent years was the presentation in Sydney of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Shakespeare’s play and Mendelssohn’s music. This production had some technical challenges, it’s true, but the thing I loved about it was the way it brought together theatre and music and the way it communicated – joyfully and fearlessly – that a live concert can be about “putting on a show” and not always some figmentary idea of “pure music”.
A lot of what is done when presenters aim to devise more visually interesting concerts falls into the category of Music Plus. The more interesting or successful projects might head in the direction of More than Music. (While some of the most thrilling concerts remain Nothing but the Music.)
But it doesn’t hurt, to ponder the intrinsically visual side of classical concerts. Doing that leads to matters such as:
- what we wear and how we wear it (a ten-thousand word topic in itself);
- basic stagecraft, i.e. how musicians move and engage with the audience (and that’s before we even get to the matter of talking from the stage);
- how the stage is ‘dressed’ and lit;
- whether musicians sit or stand;
- the placement of instruments (once, the idea of a solo pianist sitting in profile to the audience was a radical thing); and
- the effect film, television and theatre technology has on audience expectations for a concert’s production values.
Some of these points may seem mundane or unbelievably subtle, but their effect can be huge. They play a fundamental and non-optional part in the presentation of any program.
I believe that many attempts to impose visual elements on top of live performances (most of the Music Plus stuff, in other words) are really just a reflection of an underlying appreciation that concerts should be intrinsically showmanlike.
(Yes, I think live concerts should, at some level, be ‘shows’ – entertainments. Bite me, as they say.)
But really, all ‘being showmanlike’ means is catering properly to the eyes as well as the ears. We are human beings, not disembodied ears-and-brains.
My guess is that concert presenters will continue to explore visual enhancements for concerts. Some of it will be gimmicky or inartistic, some of it will be unhelpful, some of it will drive the audience nuts with distraction. And some of it will work like a dream. The better examples of Music Plus and More than Music will survive to give continued pleasure. But I also believe (ok, fervently hope) that along the way we will stumble on the solutions that will make all concerts more visually exciting and stimulating to attend (assuming top-notch performances and programming as a constant, of course).
One thing I haven’t touched on in this piece is the use of visual elements not so much to enhance the music itself as to help the audience navigate the music in some way. This practice veers away from the idea of concerts as entertainments and introduces an overtly educational aspect. In any case, it’s yet another ten-thousand-word topic. Another time.