Classical music's new audience is multi-sensory

In India the Sanskrit word sangita now means music; but it originally meant drama and dance as well as music, and all three performing arts are closely associated. But Western art music is viewed primarily as an aural artform with only very limited exploitation of the the visual element. Which means that, to date, the kinesthetic component - gestures, body movements, and positioning - has been ignored. Which is a mistake, because music is a complex blend of the aural, visual and kinesthetic, as my header image shows. It was taken by me on Sunday during the 91 year old Marshall Allen's impressively engaging set with his Magic Science Quartet on the Barbican's Freestage. Marshall Allen, who is a disciple of Sun Ra, was performing in the Barbican's 'Transcender' weekend. The centrepiece of this was a concert by the celebrated Pakistani Sufi musicians Sain Zahoor and Faiz Ali Faiz; an event which, incidentally, sold out months in advance.

Readers will know I have championed the introduction of kinetic art into concert performances, and the good news is that the kafi and qawwali of the two Sufi master musicians was accompanied by a light installation created by British Pakistani artist Zarah Hussain. The not-so-good news is that Zarah Hussain's computer generated fractals left me distinctly underwhelmed: at the best they added very little to the music, and at the worst were a distraction. Norman Perryman's work combining kinetic art and music has featured On An Overgrown Path several times, and Norman is adamant that visuals must be an integral part of the performance. But Zarah Hussain's geometric patterns were not synchronised to the frenetic Sufi music, which meant they were no more than asynchronous digital wallpaper. And things were not helped by the doggedly binary hi-res computer graphics being at variance with the deliciously analogue sound of the Sufi musicians.

In the West the ear gave way to the eye as the most important receptor of information at the time of the Renaissance, when the printing press and perspective painting were developed. In a paper titled Acoustic Space - Explorations in Communication Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan explained that most of our thinking is done in terms of visual models, even when using an auditory one might prove more efficient. Since that paper was published in 1970, the swing from the auditory to the visual has been accelerated by the universal adoption of graphic interfaces for computers and smartphones. Yet the classical music industry has defied this trend by adopting sound-only music streaming as its promotional platform of choice. But wiser heads enthusiastically embraced the visual and the kinesthetic in the past: Scriabin famously experimented with synaesthetic effects - follow this link for stunning visuals accompanying his music - while La Monte Young's partner Marian Zazeela added movement to his early forays in minimalism using mobiles and lights. (It is surely not a coincidence that La Monte Young studied Indian vocal music with Pandit Pran Nath). Balletic antics on the podium are frowned on by the purists, but Leonard Bernstein's kinesthetic excesses undoubtedly enhanced his audience appeal.

Considerable credit goes to the Barbican for taking art music into the multi-sensory realm. Sain Zahoor and Faiz Ali Faiz were quite superb, but I'm afraid Zarah Hussain's installation rather missed the mark. Sorry if that sounds harsh; but the flawed application of kinetic art weakens the case for what I still believe can be a valuable tool in reaching classical music's new multi-sensory audience.

Our Barbican tickets were bought at the box office. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Unknown said…
The problem is that the educated listener has a lot going through their heads while listening and the visual detracts from that part of the music experience in Western art music.

Opppositionally, the uneducated listener has nothing going through their heads while listening and expects to be "entertained", often with visual input.

Whether the chicken came before the egg or vice versa, I believe that the music lost out on the amount of listener attention it could expect to keep once it became an accompaniment to the mass, opera, oratorio, whatever.

For me as an educated listener, I can't do both. I like being able to listen unobstructed by other stimuli. When I buy a ticket to attend a performance I go for the show, and because I make sure that I'm a prepared listener I can split my attention, but in retrospect always realize that the visual took over and the music lost out.
Pliable said…
An interesting view. But how, if this is the case, how can the enduring popularity of opera and ballet be explained? And how can the buoyancy in the classical DVD market be explained? - classical DVD sales account for around 15% of the total classical market.

And I am not sure if the division of the audience for classical music into 'educated' and 'uneducated' is a wise one. Shouldn't we be talking about new and established audiences? Adding visuals can provide an entry point for new audiences. But, in my experience, they can also enhance the music for long established audiences. I went to the Pierre-Laurent Aimard/Norman Perryman Aldeburgh Festival concert in 2012 with an open mind, and came away convinced that - if done correctly - visuals can, in some circumstances, be an effective integral part of a performance.
Unknown said…
When I say "educated" I mean the musically educated. Not the generic, say, college educated.

Clearly the enduring popularity of opera and ballet are a prime example of my final comment - that going for the show shortchanges the musical end and shifts the attention to the show.

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