Behind The Screen


We’re accustomed to thinking about the ‘acoustic’ of an orchestral performance space. But part of the enjoyment of live music is what you see too. The sight of massed musicians on a stage has a big impact. Watching them perform helps you understand how the music is being made, and a conductor’s gestures can help the audience to interpret the composition.

But in recent months, three concerts I’ve attended have brought up the issue extra of visual elements in orchestral concerts. Visually enhancing classical music is nothing new of course – Disney’s Fantasia added animations to symphonic favourites way back in 1940. But how does this idea work in a live setting?

In September, at the Southbank Centre, Thomas Adès conducted the LPO in his own work In Seven Days, for piano and orchestra. It was a new piece to me, but one I very much enjoyed. Reading the programme notes, I discovered that it was originally composed to be performed with a video art display – one designed by ‘Adès’s marital partner at the time, Tal Rosner’. All this considered, it was certainly intriguing to discover that on this occasion, the video would be omitted. 

Raised eyebrows aside, I certainly wouldn’t have known anything was missing. What I heard hardly sounded incomplete. 

In Seven Days is a compelling and at times very busy piece, with a piano part spinning out seemingly endless lines. The title refers to the Creation, and the music incorporates fractals – mathematical structures found in nature that repeat themselves at different scales (think of a fern leaf).

The music gathers into a grand and impressive sweep, with some suitably archaic and awe-struck moods. I particularly enjoyed Adès’ grave harmonic sequences, teasing the ear with fragments of tonality – at one point I got an uncanny illusion of woodwind passages from the first movement of Brahms’ 4th symphony. I also thought of the Great West Window at Winchester Cathedral, smashed up in the English Civil War and pieced back together into a jumbled mosaic of stained glass, unrecognisable but weirdly familiar at the same time.

The next evening, I was back in the same part of London to experience the reverse of what I’d just heard – pure music with projections added in. It was a free concert in St. John’s church Waterloo, given by the Southbank Sinfonia. But no stained glass would dazzle us here – we started at 9pm to bring on true cinematic darkness. The musicians used iPads to read their music. But I could only partly make them out, as a large screen stood between them and the audience, like a wall.

For Copland’s Quiet City, prominent soloists were back-lit as a silhouette onto the screen. Then at a bright key-change, we suddenly saw a shot of tree branches waving in the breeze. Next up was Dani Howard’s more minimalist piece Silver Falls, where we saw fragments of faces, with a more silvery colour scheme to match. Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was the main work of the programme, and we were treated to colourful spinning buttons and cakes. Pictures of faces of some of the orchestral members were projected later on, giving a more personal touch to proceedings.

One can hardly complain about experimentation in a free concert – you can only say well done for trying something different, and thank you for great music making. Nonetheless, the colours I was most impressed by were not those of the projections, but rather Ravel’s lush score, which was far more substantial than I remembered, and fantastically played.

Admittedly, it was quite pleasant to hear music in an atmospheric gloom. But truthfully, had the projections not been there, I would have enjoyed it just as much.

If I was unconvinced about visual displays after that, the feeling was hammered home in October, when I went to the Barbican to hear the London Contemporary Orchestra perform John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean. It’s a work I love. I’ve written about twice (here and here). So I was excited to be hearing it live for the first time. I knew there would be projections too, but I wasn’t bothered about that, and I didn’t suppose they would present any problems.

As at St. John’s church, the orchestra were sat behind a large screen, with only some of the players partly visible. But once the music started, my heart sank. From where I was sitting, the sound seemed to be coming from the stacks of speakers to the left of the stage. With the orchestra square in the centre, the effect was disconcerting. At least at the Southbank Sinfonia concert I could hear the placement of the players in the church, even if I couldn’t see them all. Not so now.

I assume the speakers were there to compensate for any loss of sound produced by the screen. But what did we gain from this? The visuals were a kind of colour-wash of oceanic blues and greens, but their motion was fairly minimal. Just seeing the orchestra in full would have been a much more dynamic sight – and would have allowed me to better appreciate the orchestration of this fascinating score. Instead, the amplification obliterated my ability to catch the direction of different sounds. What I could make out of the orchestra might as well have been a projection too – a depressing realisation.

Had I sat more towards the centre of the hall, perhaps the sound would have been more comfortably balanced. And admittedly, in the great swelling climaxes, the force of the music overcame the disorientation, allowing me to enjoy it more. But classical music is about quiet delicacy too. Become Ocean has wonderful seething troughs between its foaming peaks, which I had hoped to really languish in.

The obvious question is raised: why did anybody think such a bland visual display was worth fundamentally altering of the dynamics of the concert experience? Is Luther Adams’ prize-winning composition insufficiently evocative on its own? Why sever that direct human connection across a physical space – not just during the performance, but after it, when the orchestra stand to take their applause?

To be clear, the London Contemporary Orchestra are a great ensemble, and I look forward to hearing them again soon. I’m definitely in favour of experimentation and collaboration. But on this occasion, I left the Barbican feeling as though I’d been to a cinema screening with Become Ocean as a soundtrack, all for the sake of visuals devoid of any real interest. I was annoyed, and disappointed. I felt I still hadn’t truly heard the piece ‘live’. 

If these few concerts have taught me anything, it’s that if you’re going to add visual effects to instrumental music, they need to have an intricacy and craftsmanship to match the score. Disney’s Fantasia works so well because of the many hours (and dollars) put into making really imaginative visual storytelling. The same is true of The Snowman, which I wrote about last year. Of course, most ensembles won’t have resources to create their own live displays this calibre. But equally, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to put a gimmicky bauble centre stage that can’t match the sophistication of the music.

I’ve also learned that it’s worth retaining sight of the musicians – seeing them is an important part of the orchestral concert experience. On YouTube, a video shows how In Seven Days was originally performed. The video art was relayed on large monitors behind the orchestra – complementing rather than obscuring the players.

At the same time, the success of that Adès concert shows how orchestral music, even when removed from its original visual context, can still work thrillingly. After all, nobody complains when ballet scores like The Rite Of Spring are performed without the choreography. If a score has enough of its own storytelling, the experience of seeing people committed to the act of realising it will still move us. The stained-glass windows and rolling waves are still there, even if they are not lit up on a giant screen. They are real enough, and powerful enough, in the mind’s eye.

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