Music Australia News

How the visual might be transforming classical music

US organist Cameron Carpenter
Graham Strahle
| November 24, 2015

LA Times music critic Mark Swed has written perceptively on how there seems to be an increasing harnessing and reliance upon visual elements in classical music performance. As an example he cites a performance of Satie’s Vexations at UCLA, during which “listeners spread out mats on the floor of the Ostin Ensemble Room, a modern space with irregularly shaped walls on which were projected ever-changing swirling patterns”.

Swed suggests that transforming classical concerts like this might be deepening already widespread anxieties “that modern digital culture causes the visual element to be predominant”. Nevertheless, he identifies four ways a visual dimension can be utilised to partner the music in order to achieve an ‘augmented reality’. These include using interactive screen images to accompany the performance, and changing the performance space with projections so that the audience perceives the space differently.

A more obvious way that he doesn’t mention is the use of costume, make-up and physical movement by performers, whether to raise entertainment value or achieve similar kinds of ‘augmented reality’. These elements are of course almost universal in contemporary rock and pop, and they occur less frequently in classical world; but where they do appear, the question must be whether these visual add-ons enhance or detract from the performance.

With his rock star looks, the Juilliard School trained organist Cameron Carpenter, who has been performing in Australia recently, attracted predictable media attention. Yet he seems to have delivered the goods where it matters. “So go ahead, marvel at the flashing lights, love the look, but don’t forget to listen,” suggested SMH critic Harriet Cunningham following his Sydney Opera House concert.


  1. Kim

    I recently attended an Olafur Arnalds concert at the Sydney Opera House, featuring visuals commissioned for the performance. It was wonderful; the visuals matched the music and enhanced the experience, making it multi-sensory, and certainly didn’t distract me from listening!

    I think the appropriate visuals, designed to match the music (or vice versa), could be used more, and will appeal to a wider audience.

    In addition, Olafur incorporated live audience input (recorded, looped and effected using an iPad) into his performance. What a great way to engage the audience, whilst demonstrating the benefits of modern technology use in classical music.

  2. Hershel

    Have you ever thought about creating an e-book or guest authoring on other sites?
    I have a blog based on the same topics you discuss and would really like to have
    you share some stories/information. I know my audience would enjoy your work.

    If you’re even remotely interested, feel free to send me an e-mail.
    finance courses, Hershel, like best example!

  3. Theatre Organ Society of Australia Queensland Division Inc.

    The visual elements are very important! Over the last 8 years all of our major shows have featured two projection screens with independent images to provide the audience with a real connection to the console. Pedal Cam along with over head cameras provide the audience with a ‘Birds Eye’ view. This year we have added ‘Piano Cam’ (an addition camera for the acoustic upright player piano that is triggered from the console of the Christie Cinema Pipe Organ). We feature four different video angles and working on a fifth for inside the chambers! Sounds like we have been ahead of the game!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Stay in the loop

Music Australia updates straight to your inbox

Follow Like
Quick Links


  • National clearing house for policy & development

  • Music Journal

    Features articles about the Music Industry Sector

  • Music Talks

    Series of seminars exploring music