When symphonies add images and themes to their concerts, does it enhance or detract from their music? | Music Essay | Indy Week

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When symphonies add images and themes to their concerts, does it enhance or detract from their music?


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Even the most mundane experiences now come in multimedia form: You can catch the news on the tiny screen built into the gas pump or the back of a cab. You can snicker at snippets of SpongeBob SquarePants through the back window of the minivan stopped ahead at the traffic light. You can barely find a seat in a restaurant that doesn't afford a view of at least one flat-panel's torrent of ESPN. It's as if American culture lives in constant fear that someone, somewhere, sometime might be bored.

Boredom, of course, has tremendous value: It can motivate children to forge their own pathways to self-reliance and creativity, and it can provide a much-needed mental break from modernity's 140-characters-a-moment pace. Activating the engagement of the reader, a long book seems to leave more information on a brain than a small, ever-changing screen.

By definition, classical music might seem sequestered from the trends and whims of modern technology—orchestral musicians playing centuries-old music on antique instruments uploading video blogs about their performances seems humorously anachronistic, right? In recent years, though, the classical realm has worked to reach new audiences by integrating video and still projections into the concert experience—depending on your perspective, a simple gimmick or a smart concession for new audiences.

This week, fresh off presenting Gustav Holst's suite The Planets beneath high-definition projections of NASA footage and computer simulations, the North Carolina Symphony presents Explorations: Freedom, a program that includes a photochoreographic performance by James Westwater and a live reading by David Hartman to Aaron Copland's moving piece "Lincoln Portrait."

Explorations: Freedom commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation with an all-American lineup of composers. In addition to Roy Harris' folk classic "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," the Symphony will play Charles Ives' Symphony No. 2 and John Adams' recent "The Wound-Dresser." But Westwater's photochoreographic piece "The Eternal Struggle" is the real draw: As projectors shine large-format Civil War and Civil Rights photographs upon a 440-square-foot, three-panel, panoramic screen, Hartman—from 1975 to 1987, Good Morning America's first host—will narrate Copland's introductions and Lincoln's legendary words atop the music, just as Copland scored it.

"I listen intently to the piece of music, making notes," explains Westwater. "What is happening musically, and what is happening to me emotionally as I listen to the music?"

Westwater began creating photo essays to accompany live music 40 years ago. He assembled images from the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society and what was then the Institute for Polar Studies to accompany Ralph Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia antartica (Symphony No. 7), an update of a score Williams wrote for the 1948 adventure documentary Scott of the Antarctic.

While a composer's film score is often secondary to the imagery and action, made only after the film is all but complete, Westwater works in the opposite direction—music, then visuals. He doesn't produce a secondary work so much as a parallel piece; taken together, the sounds and the visuals render a third, magnified art experience.

The creative process itself fuels that synergy, Westwater says: "I am visually oriented, so I create what is in effect a visual graph of the music through time. It looks like a seismograph—there is a continuous line from the first note to the last note. The line goes up or down depending on dynamic range or energy."

The graph bears a theoretical resemblance to visual scores by avant-garde composers John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Only 50 years ago, they were considered radicals for using sound envelopes and frequency graphs to describe their innovative music. Westwater then makes notations on his graph about what imagery would be most appropriate to display along with which musical passage.

Although "The Eternal Struggle" uses archival images, Westwater usually produces the visuals himself. For a work called "A Love for the Land," he followed a farming family for almost a year, photographing their life and livelihood before projecting the stills alongside Copland's Appalachian Spring. At one point in the music, Westwater had the distinct image of a family saying grace at a harvest meal. Later, someone pointed out that Copland had written the orchestral instruction "like a prayer" at that exact point in his own score.

These deliberate hybrids aren't the only such intersections of classical music and cutting-edge multimedia: Video is increasingly finding its way onto opera stages. In the North Carolina Opera's 2011 semi-staging of Faust, extreme close-ups of eyeballs twitched around the set. The surtitles were integrated into these images rather than set apart, above the action. But Timothy Myers, artistic director and principal conductor for the N.C. Opera, offers a caveat of imagery's determinism in a symphonic setting.

"It could be more like a film or an opera, when the visual element ends up having a strong voice. Maybe that's not always the best thing," Myers says. "I think it would be a real shame to hear a performance of Mahler's Fifth that would have any visual elements outside of seeing the conductor and the players in performance of that music."

It's a balance, then, between activity and stasis. When young families have kids, orchestral music easily falls from the cultural rotation, often replaced by the Frisbee- and chicken nugget-friendly concert on the lawn, where youngsters can sprint around barefoot before crashing on the picnic blanket. Now ponder the stress of taking a squirmy primary school child to a two-hour symphonic program in a concert hall; it's OK if you need to breathe into a paper bag.

But if stunning fly-by views of Mars are projected on a 40-foot screen above the orchestra, and your kid loves to spout facts about the solar system, you might spend the babysitting money on a ticket instead. The Planets: An HD Odyssey, performed in Raleigh in early February, has been a significant hit since the Houston Symphony partnered with David Copp to produce the program years ago. Copp knows how to turn this kind of footage into entertainment; he won the award for Best International Film at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival for his In the Shadow of the Moon, which shares the stories of the surviving Apollo astronauts.

When the North Carolina Symphony announced its presentation of The Planets, Associate Conductor William Henry Curry wondered if attendance would suffer because of the multimedia complement. Since it was a special performance outside of the symphony's regular season, the season ticketholders couldn't be depended upon to fill the house. But attendance was strong for both nights of the show, a testament to the idea's ability to draw new listeners. Curry agrees it has to be done with care and with an increased awareness of production values.

"It's a thrill to have visual images with the music, but it all depends upon how it's done," he says. "In the case of The Planets, we had a very professional operation that had been doing this for several years, so it was tried and true and tested. And James Westwater has been in this business for decades. The quality will always have to be at the forefront. These can't be any old images—not your daughter's watercolor paintings from the refrigerator door."

For Curry, these visuals are just another step in classical music's learning curve to stay relevant to contemporary culture. Decades ago, he recalls, an outcry from operagoers protested the projection of surtitle translations above the stage. Today, there'd be even more of a stink if those titles vanished.

"We see attendance declining for classical concerts all over the world," Curry reasons. "The question, of course, is how do we adapt? And I think that the visuals are a sophisticated way to go."

Hartman notes that, as a compromise, the Metropolitan Opera put the words of operas in English on the backs of the seats for people to read. Viewing became optional and less obtrusive. "There was a cry from the traditionalists that it violated the music, which I think is nonsense," he says. But the lesson is instructive. "In the case of Copland, as long as the visuals complement the values of the music, then why not?"

Myers shares that same vision, reckoning that, in these days of thinning or absent music education, any inlet into classical music for younger generations has inherent value.

"I don't care how a person arrives at their love and understanding of music. If it comes from loving Renaissance choral music, fine. If it comes from loving the music of John Williams, fine. If it's Marvin Hamlisch, fine," he says. "I can see many avenues in, and multimedia is one of them."

Just so long as they're not bored.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Sound and/or/of vision."


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