See the music

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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La Cowntessa said…
I guess a good example of a recent sort of this is Richard Einhorn's oratorio written for Dreyer's The Passion of St. Joan of Arc. In performances (in which Anonymous 4 has performed), the movie is shown on a back screen, while the symphony, chorus and soloists performed.

From what I understand, all the performances of this were completely sold out, and it was a very popular concert for several years. I would have loved to see it myself.
Pliable said…
Email received:

I too decry the poor quality of sound these days, and the inability, even the disinterest, in the listening public to demand better sound.

They are dazzled by gizmos, surround sound, etc., and therefore don't realize the QUALITY of such product has diminished greatly. How, then, do we expect them to appreciate delicate sounds such as the tremolos of the strings in Pini di Roma, or the wonderful whispers emanating from Stockhausen's DG recording of Stimmung, or the intimacy of the clavichord. At the other end, how can they properly feel the bass drum in La Valse, or the menacing double-basses in Elektra if they are only used to the boom-boom of distorted speakers playing equally-distorted-in-recording house-music.

I still enjoy "wowing" friends and relatives who have surround sound systems (bought from Wal-Mart or Future Shop so you can well anticipate the quality) with my simple and quite inexpensive, but still higher-end, PSB speakers, Bryston amp and pre-amp and a simple, 20 year old Rotel CD player.

David Cavlovic
Unknown said…
This is a very clever post Pliable, and you've hooked me as a new reader.
I'm 23--so this question as you might suspect has occurred to me on several occasions, though I've never written it out as succinctly as you do here.

Why not take classical music to the visual? As a filmmaker friend once explained to me (while we were watching another student's project, in which tchaikovsky's romeo and juliet was the soundtrack to a series of related but aleatory visual scenes): "The film is explaining how the music works".

I thought this was a brilliant comment. I've just seen a video by Ake Falck of Alexis Weissenberg performing Stravinsky's Petrouchka. The camera moves and dives into the piano, the lights shift, it's like adult fantasia. What the visual does here is drastically enhance an already breathtaking piano performance. In that same vein, fantasia, and for that matter (though more simplistically) Looney Tunes en'light'ened classical music for several generations of children who wouldn't otherwise touch the stuff. Lastly, I recently saw a recording of the Yo La Tengo / Underwater films of Painlevé performance that happened last year at Lincoln Center. Amazing, and the same affect. Rather than simply providing a soundtrack for the visual happenings, what a successful "combine" does is inform both: the visual is certainly enhanced, but it's fascinating to hear how the music changes, becomes fuller, saturates, is too informed.

Synesthesia shouldn't be withheld as a lofty gift of a few crazies (Scriabin and many other artists desire to assume proprietary rights on the syndrome). We all have it--you can't separate dance from music or vice versa. Orchestra directors should consider this as they try to find a middle ground between programming more of the same into each season, and resorting to playing concerts of XBox 360 tunes to sell houses.
Anonymous said…
A couple of months ago I went to the movie theater (a big new one with super sound systems) to see the HDTV film of the Metropolitan Opera's production of Berlioz' La damnation de Faust. The sound was often -- let's say compromised. The balance seemed off, and a grinding scratch was frequently audible. I don't know whether this was a problem with the recording or the replaying, but an opera movie really ought to take its sound seriously. On another point you make, this production made great use of elaborate projection systems. During the great aria for the betrayed heroine, the singer's face was projected, vast, behind her, in real time, surrounded by flickering flames. Well, ALMOST in real time; the inevitable (apparently) fraction-of-a-second lag made Susan Graham (whose singing was absolutely ravishing) seem to be lip-synching herself. It was horribly distracting and suggested that the director, Robert Lepage, didn't actually trust the music and the singer.

So for me this represented a failure both of recorded music quality and of live performance enhancement with projections. (Elsewhere in the performance the projections were more effective.)
Trevor Burrows said…
Not to reduce your excellent post to just one image... but thanks for posting that "Rite of Spring" lp cover. It's fantastic!!!
Keith said…
Could your daughter's mind be adding the overtones and harmonics that the small speakers on her television cannot reproduce? There is evidence that 'categorical perception' of both pitch and rhythm develops with early musical training. 'categorical perception' means that your daughter may hear a ring tone on a phone playing a cadence or theme, and then simply recognise the cadence as a gestalt, perhaps being able later to 'hear' the theme on her piano.

Have a look at Sloboda's The Musical Mind. Just throwing an idea into the mix!
teledyn said…
imho, we don't need more graphic design, and we don't need more bass enhancers or laser shows or featured soloists with blue hair and piercings.

Today's young are a networked-people, they know the score, to pardon the pun, and they think they've heard every variation (to pardon another) but seriously, what means something to them is not adherence to Edwardian fashion and cold sober rituals of existentialism, what they want is connection. Not connection to the dots on the page, not to the composer, not to the days of yore encoded in some work, they want to connect with YOU, with all of you, with the third violinist, with the person in Seat 12B, they want to feel they are part of something that includes them, and they want to be not a consumer, not a patron, not a pretend patron, not a poser, they want to be one of the in-crowd when they get included.

I think far too much of the 'classical' work does exactly the opposite, and it wasn't always this way, this is a new twist in the telling of musical stories through orchestrated ensemble work. (I blame Leopold Stokowski for the Hollywood glam-rock remaking of classical music) So much of the show ritual and image peddling on even the CD covers is saying you're not educated enough, not rich enough, not highly born enough to buy this CD, and that just doesn't wash with the modern audience. Their favourite singer is an ex-stripper, and they know that, but they love Gaga anyway and celebrate her burlesqueness because that's who she is and that's fine with them.

Give them Evelyn Glennie and they're all over it, because they identify with her, she's like 'regular' people and she welcomes them by being just like them, earnest but vulnerable, human. I think the success of El Sistema is largely because people identify with the kids, and the kids can identify with everyone involved, and it becomes a social, societal, tribal thing, a place to belong, to be included.

So, speaking of questions without offering answers, how do we do that? How do we make classical music more like a Jamaican jump-up? ;) I think we can all agree that we play the music well enough, our chops are up to speed, so what's left? Attitude, perhaps, for one, but also maybe we need to look at the ritual execution of the work too, at the pre-game and post-game social process, which is precisely what the more ecologically-valid Internet-era citizen composers/ensembles are doing :)

We need to dismantle the super-star mindset, the stellar trained seals are amazing to watch, yes, but television tells us there is a better trained seal over in Korea, so what? The kids know the score, they see viral videos every day, twenty times a day. What they don't see is a Welcome sign and I think that's where we should learn most from El Sistema, that it isn't about improving the salesmanship of the players, it is about the whole network of being-included that begins in youth and runs right up to the National Orchestra, part of the fabric of the society, not an exclusive club, but just regular everyday this is what we do mindset, and really, who cares if Beethoven is played absolutely 'correctly'? -- it is played most 'correctly' when it serves its anthropological destiny, and that can happen with an orchestra entirely of first year players! We've been worshiping the wrong stuff pursuing only the tonality and precision of the execution, we've neglected the human dimension, the social dimension which is the foundation of all the world's musics. If we rekindle that, I think we'll be amazed at how much all our hard-practiced pony-tricks will suddenly amaze people :)
teledyn said…
case in point: Canadian National Youth Orchestra staged a flash mob -- notice what they choose to do (dance) and further, notice the tune they chose to play (Brazil!)

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