A few weeks ago, I attended a late evening performance of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s Rites at the Royal Festival Hall – a virtual 3D one-woman ballet choreographed to The Rite of Spring. It was a perfect day for it too – that hot stormy Saturday towards the end of April – and I enjoyed it tremendously. The production, envisaged by digital artist/choreographer Klaus Obermaier, involved a live projection of dancer Julia Mach’s writhings within an onstage black cage, blown up on a massive 3D screen and enclosed by a virtual landscape of matrices which were manipulated in real-time by the music itself (along the lines of Windows Media Player visualisations, perhaps). The result was something like watching a nightmarish, Stravinsky-induced hallucination in a gigantic thought-bubble, floating above the head of the tortured subject. The nature of the hallucination altered with each movement of the ballet, beginning – in a nod towards the ballet’s original scenario – with the dancer drawing a ring of glowing, rotating runes. Particularly effective later sections showed her arms growing like tentacles and, through a horizontal mirror effect, birthing a herd of eerie limb-monsters which instantly recalled The Rite of Spring’s ‘unofficial’ alternate scenario, articulating dinosaurs in Fantasia.
While the technology was extraordinary, the production could be seen as simply constituting a new staging of what was always intended as a dance work. In the manner of any choreography, the movements and visuals placed their own interpretative framework on the music, though in this case, the massive size of the dancer’s image, looming into the RFH, meant that musical gestures could be explicated by the subtlest movements of her fingers, head and feet. Only the final ‘Sacrificial Dance’ fell a bit flat; this climactic section called for a really bold gesture, but the disintegration of the dancer into flying, falling particles on a kind of cyber racecourse, while certainly visually complex, was hardly powerful in terms of its actual choreography. It was the wrong point in the piece to completely subordinate the presence of the dancer to the spectacle of technology, especially since the human dancer remained visible onstage throughout, and to be honest at such moments her physical presence was a welcome distraction.
Otherwise, Rites was exciting and invigorating. However, this particular technological set-up will not be endlessly reusable. I think it is as counter-productive to ask whether this approach to choreography can become common-place as it is to complain that such massive, innovative technological products somehow ‘detracts’ (or ‘distracts’) from ‘the music itself’. The manner of the 3D visuals, aligning each movement to a different mind-bending ‘trick’, had something of a ‘technological showcase’ feeling about it, the kind that might make critics label it as a ‘gimmick’ or the concert as a ‘vehicle’ in some kind of negative sense, but I would argue that Rites was as much a performance of technology as it was a performance of music. I would agree with Tod Machover, the composer-engineer behind such hi-tech operas as Death and the Powers and Brain Opera, that classical music has long fallen behind when it comes to making use of the kind of multi-media technology which is now available, and a lot of this has to do with those familiar fears from the musical community of ‘devaluing’. In Rites, it wasn’t only the music that made use of the technology (which is the way that concert audiences invariably view these things) but in just the same way, the technology made use of the music. The Rite of Spring was the perfect piece to show off this extraordinary production approach, and I think that much of the large and very heterogenous audience (it wasn’t full but it was busy, and there was another performance earlier the same evening) viewed it in much the same way. The general public, after all, love technology as an art-form, and Rites – a professionally performed and choreographed work – was a refreshing alternative to getting your 3D spectaculars from badly scripted and acted straight-to-IMAX movies. Or flight simulators.
A few further thoughts about the concert:
- The short length of the concert – about 45 minutes – was perfect for those people curious for a new 3D fix but potentially wary of attending a huge concert at the RFH. However, many kudoses to the CBSO for programming the Rite along with two other audaciously modern and fantastically-played pieces: Varèse’s Tunings and Ligeti’s Lontano. Both are examples of potentially ‘difficult-sounding’ works which are nevertheless within the conceptual grasp of an uninitiated audience, and the free hand-out ‘programme’ did a good job of introducing them. The Ligeti in particular was unsettlingly beautiful. It might’ve been nice to add some kind of visual element to these as well though. I always kinda feel that it’s a pity when you go to see a familiar piece produced in a refreshingly innovative way, and then it’s presented as the ‘special one-off’ along with some other pieces that are done ‘normally’, the way they’re ‘supposed to be’.
- Going to the Southbank recently has got me thinking about the kind of approaches a big, government-subsidised, mainstream institution can do towards reforming the art music climate. We’ve emphasised, in the manifesto, our belief that in order for classical music to completely shed its assumptions, connotations and stigmas, it needs to be completely regrown at a comfortable distance from all the big institutions which, quite understandably, cannot afford to make such great changes. In fact, it is with the understanding that these institutions will not change – that they will continue to put emphasis on canonical works performed regularly and traditionally – that we’ve advocated taking an extremely oppositional approach for any new music culture. We don’t need to find a new home for these much-loved canonical pieces, or rehabilitate them (yet), because we can trust that they’re still being performed to death by the big institutions. We can concentrate on new current music, and making this new current music feel as relevant to society as possible. And it is, of course, true that the institutions cannot afford to change too much. They have a core audience – the biggest audience for classical music, who are prepared to pay the most – this being older, middle-class people who appreciate perceived prestige and enjoy hearing the same ‘great’ works performed again and again in the way that they’ve come to expect. They rely on this audience’s familiarity with certain names – of composers, pieces and performers – to get them coming back and paying money, often a great deal of money, for the privilege of experiencing these big names themselves. They have big spaces to fill, massive orchestras to find audiences for, and a very unfavourable economic climate to achieve all this in. Obviously they have no real option but to continue to take the tried-and-tested routes.
However, this struggle to make ends meet from season to season has to be combined with a way to ensure some kind of renewable audience in the future. The Southbank have recently followed the Barbican’s approach, rebranding themselves as a kind of massive multi-arts complex, subsuming all the individual venues into one big culturally-relativist programme. This is being maintained in parallel with a retained ‘classical music’ brand, while at the same time there are the various institution- or ensemble-linked special festivals or seasons, in particular the Ether festival, which have their own special slants and might include music from different genres, or events from different disciplines. So, as it stands, the same concert might be advertised and branded in three or four different ways, included in several different brochures and described differently in each. Rites is a case in point, included in the classical music brochure for its big name connotations, in the multi-arts monthly brochure as an ‘event’ spectacular, and in the Ether festival brochure as an inter-disciplinary experiment.
This is a good system for maximising the audience for any particular event, and it allows the Southbank centre to put on potentially ‘risky’, innovative ventures and not need to market them in the same way to both its existing, initiated audience, and a potential, uninitiated new audience. However, it also shows the extent to which such potentially exciting, positive new directions for classical concerts, programmed by the mainstream institutions, cannot be relied on to reform classical music to the extent that it needs, and I believe it deserves, to become as culturally-relevant an artform as pop music or other non-musical disciplines. The Ether festival, supposedly ‘the Southbank’s annual music festival of innovation, art, technology and cross-arts experimentation’, could be seen as a simple vehicle for advertising all the concerts which could appeal as ‘non-traditional’, all at once. By additionally featuring pop and electronica concerts, it also markets these ‘non-traditional’ classical concerts to the important prospective audience of young experimental pop fans. However, it could also be viewed as the ghettoisation of all kinds of innovation within what is suggested as the ‘necessary context’ of an experimental festival, a move which seems to say that pieces in the ‘normal’ programme cannot, or should not, be presented in a way that is non-traditional, or that it is ‘right’ to expect that if a concert is not presented as part of such a festival, it will always be presented in a certain ‘conventional’ way. This might be the opposite to how the festival programme was actually constructed, but it is certainly one of its connotative effects.
Looking at the Southbank’s branding in this way could suggest some cynicism on their part. At any rate, at least one branch of its marketing strategy – the one claiming to represent ‘classical music’ – is predictably prescriptive (the brochure opens: ‘The test of great music is its capacity for endless re-interpretation and discovery’- standard (implied?: ‘within the same restrictive performance conventions’)). While there is a variety of different branding strategies at work within this brochure itself, much of the arbitrary status quo (greatness, masterpieces, genius, etc.) must go unchallenged. However this is to be expected, of course of course, and such initiatives as the very cheap student tickets for some concerts, the free Philharmonia Orchestra: Music Of Today concerts, Oliver Coates’s Harmonic Series, and the certified-not-awful brochure design scheme, all suggest that the Southbank is doing what it can. And from the atmosphere in the RFH foyer, which has become quite the social nexus, it’s working.
The Southbank Centre’s website —-> is HERE
And the website for ARS Electronica, who developed Rites, is HERE