Our 22 year old daughter recently bought a flat screen 22 inch TV with built-in DVD player and digital decoder. She is delighted with it. Despite being an accomplished piano and classical guitar player, she doesn't seem to have noticed that the sound coming from the two small speakers in the plastic cabinet is dire. I asked recently, does the sound matter anymore? It appears that it does for this over-40, but not for the young generation - just listen to the poor quality of the in-ear phones that come with a £110 iPod. There is a clear age split; youngsters are more visual than aural, while older people are the opposite. This is nothing new. Back in the 1960s and 70s, when I was the age of our children, visual experiences were as important as the music. My header image is one of the classic LP covers of that era. Below is the sleeve for Decca's 1975 Xenakis disc, from the label's in-house designer Bill Picknell who also worked with the Rolling Stones.
The visual experience did not just come from album sleeves. Would I have grown to love classical music without Christopher Nupen's Jacqueline du Pré portrait, Ken Russel's Elgar film, and Lucino Visconti's Death in Venice, which is seen below?
In the 60s there were light shows at rock concerts, psychedelic posters for gigs, and a riot of typographic experimentation in underground magazines. There was art from rock stars, and even customised cars. Seen below is Janis Joplin's Porsche - I wonder how many LA Phil subscribers decorate their Toyota Priuses?
In the age of downloads and miniaturiation classical music has lost its visual impact. Is that why we have also lost the connection with younger audiences? Is the success of world and early music not just due to its rhythmic links with rock, but also because it offers visual entertainment with its exotic performers and their novel instruments. What visual entertainment is their for young eyes in the Rite of Spring, other than this superb 1973 CBS album cover designed by Richard Hess?
This is going to be one of those maddening posts that asks questions without providing answers. But, shouldn't we be making classical music more visual to attract younger audiences? Alexander Scriabin pioneered musical notation for light and color. His 1909 symphonic poem 'Prometheus: the Poem of Fire' is notated for the Luxe, a custom designed light projector which Scriabin himself controlled from a colour keyboard. This was built in Russia by physicist Alexander Moser, and the performances of Prometheus in Moscow and in New York were the first ever concerts with light shows. More than half a century later light shows became an integral part of rock concerts, below is Bill Haim’s Liquid Light Show.
The problem is how to add the visual appeal, as exemplified by the Deutshe Gramophon LP sleeve of Stockhausen's Sirius below, without turning the concert into a circus. Binning the tuxedos is not the answer. 'Hedgehog' complained here recently about the London Symphony Orchestra's experimental use of video in its concerts. But video projection of the organist at the St Remy Organ Festival in France worked for me. Surtitles are established in the opera house. Would back projection of close-ups of players mixed with abstract images by a top-flight light designer attract younger concert goers without alienating the rest of the audience? I'm not sure. Comments, as always, very welcome.
* The non-classical images (1,3 & 5) are from "Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era" which was at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2007.
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