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.