Over the last 2 months, I’ve had some specific conversations about the various ways we – myself, my musician friends and colleagues, and music organizations all across America – attempt to grow a broader interest and audience for classical music and opera.
There are many divergent perspectives on this issue, but one trend that has caused some controversy is the use of visual projection during music performances and as an educational tool. The thinking behind this, it seems, is that musicians and music educators can relate to children who are growing up in the age of the all-powerful iPhone by enticing them with screen images. This should, in theory, spark further interest and a desire to explore the world of classical music.
Though I am a supporter of multimedia artistic creation (having performed in numerous multimedia new operas), I have a deep, visceral reaction to this line of thinking. And, more importantly, the conflicting messages it sends to listeners.
One of the joys of music is that it isn’t chained down by the necessity of screen projection and visual accompaniment. Music is truly a gift to our minds and ears, freeing us from so many mundane distractions: flashing billboard ads, internet ads, TV commercials. We can close our eyes and listen to something unique, something special that exists within a specific space in a specific time with a specific set of tones.
So WHY then are we constantly trying to dress it up? Allow me to cite two fascinating examples.
A few years ago I attended an educational outreach concert at Carnegie Hall. The concert was part of the Weill Music Institute’s Link up series, a special music ed program designed for 3-5 graders . This particular concert was called “The Orchestra Rocks!.
The music on the program was quite good -Holst’s The Planets, a fantastic percussion excerpt from a Shostakovich opera called The Nose ( at that time it was running at the Met) as well as a piece for laptop and orchestra by Mason Bates. As soon as I walked into Stern auditorium, I saw the massive screen hanging from the ceiling. I thought to myself ” Oh no, projection……. Well, maybe it won’t be a distraction -I’m sure it adds a necessary component that ultimately enhances the experience of the music for the kids. Keep an open mind, Celine ! “
But, my gut reaction proved to be right. In the end, all I noticed during the concert was the way the kids ignored the orchestra and stared at the projection screen. Even when the host was speaking, the kids mostly pointed up at the screen, talked amongst themselves, or played with iPods. A few different videos were played, one of which was so over-stimulating that I actually got dizzy listening to the music and watching the rave-like, neon radio wave image repetitively crossing the screen. When it finally ended, I felt like I could have thrown up. I couldn’t help but notice that EVERY time a new image popped on the screen, their attention was immediately pulled from the playing of the orchestra to the visual picture. In fact, when the orchestra started playing The Planets – accompanied by the obligatory images of outer space – some kids yelled “STAR WARS!!! YEEEEEES!”
The piece with the least stimulating visual projection was the Shostakovich; It was certainly the best fit of music vs. visual image as it let the genius of Shostakovich’s percussion writing shine through. It got the least applause or attention.
I left disheartened. For me, the concert was subliminally reinforcing the idea that music isn’t enough; that it is background, meant to go with something else. I think the goal of this Link up concert is to convey how rhythm in music is really cool, and how rhythm can make the orchestra rock- but that point may be falling on uninterested ears. In a world full of constant visual stimulation, how could they NOT be immediately pulled to the visual over the audio?
The idea that music must support SOMETHING is creeping into our general mindset. Whenever I ask students about what kind of music they listen to, or what types of music they’ve heard, the typical answer is from television commercials, viral YouTube clips, or movies – NEVER from having heard an actual piece of music on its own. Ever. We are constantly bombarded with technology and screens, iPads and laptops, TV’s in restaurants, bars and stores…. it’s becoming an epidemic. Or, maybe it’s not becoming – it already is an epidemic in full force.
That said…..Is music enough? Can music stand on its own, or is it doomed to fall into the category of “sub” ?
Not if the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela continues to exist.
For those who haven’t heard of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra , it’s part of a nationwide classical music program in Venezuela called El Sistema, founded by Jose Antonio Abreu. El Sistema supports underprivileged youth in Venezuela by providing music lessons and enrolling them in orchestras – a grand total of 102 so far. Their philosophy is that music is a right rather than a privilege. Simon Bolivar is the most prestigious of all the orchestras, with players ranging from age 18-28.
I arrived just before the concert was slated to begin, and hurriedly made my way to my seat. Thus began my reversal of the doomsday prophecy for classical music.
The level of energy in that hall was immediately palpable. As soon as they began to play the hall fell SILENT. Their playing was full of vibrancy and passion, with careful attention to subtle details that often are overlooked; details such as string bowing of an entire section (each player exactly identical, a feat that even major orchestras don’t tend to stick to these days) and volume shifts of dramatic intensity and control.
There were no projections. No screens. Everyone in the audience was listening. And responding. People began to move to the beat of the music; shyness gave way to raucous fun. As the concert went on, the audience became more and more enamored with the orchestra; each new piece brought about a larger wave of yells and wild applause. Now, I should say that the music they played certainly added to the sense of fun; many of the pieces (mostly by obscure hispanic composers) were fast, rhythmic, and loud, full of big solos for brass and percussion. But this orchestra isn’t a one trick pony; A performance of Nimrod from the Enigma Variations by Elgar was sublime, full of expressivity and depth of emotion not often afforded to this great piece. It actually brought me to tears (me, and a person sitting a few boxes over from us).
The piece that followed, Leonard Bernstein’s “Mambo” from West Side Story, was even more incredible to witness; members of the orchestra standing up and dancing in their spots, bass players spinning their instruments, people dancing in the aisles…..and that’s not all: at the end of the concert the players of the orchestra took off their jackets (bearing the colors of the Venezuelan flag) and threw them out into the audience, causing an hysteric mob – à la a Justin Bieber concert -to run towards the stage in an attempt to catch one.
Did I miss something? This is a CLASSICAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA ! Playing CLASSICAL MUSIC! Perhaps the type of music the orchestra played best exemplified their strengths, or maybe it simply hit the hearts of the audience in a more direct way. But I doubt it; It was clear to all present that the commitment, the passion, and the ability to put the quality of music making above all else- this was the true reason that the audience loved the concert so much.
Which leads me to my ultimate point ( after a LONG entry, for which I beg your forgiveness if you’ve patiently read this far)…..
If the music making is good enough, classical music will connect and resonate with listeners. In this day and age, it’s extremely hard to trust that the music, if in the hands of the right player or singer, will speak on its own. It’s also extremely hard not to give into the idea that preserving classical music means folding media-driven trends into classical music concerts. But the Simon Bolivar Orchestra proved to me that music can still be enough; and, more importantly, that we should give it a fighting chance.