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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

Music and vision

We seem to have invented for ourselves a new dilemma. The demand for old music in our concert halls continues undiminished in strength, though the listeners grow older, more tired and, most likely, less perceptive -- for how far away can we be from the conception of a Beethoven symphony and still participate in the fraught and silent passions that drove him? But the players of this old repertoire become jaded, and the concert organisers, aware of the need to supply the old in a new format and brighten the presentation, must invent a new dimension. To attract and excite the young, re-ignite a fatigued market and invigorate the dry academic routine, music has been forced to go visual. Inspired no doubt by the vast retail in pop videos and the impressive technical wizardry put to service in their production, the classics must now have an accompanying optic stimulus.

Experiments linking music and colour have given rise to occasional interest: Louis Castel invented a clavecin oculaire in the 1730s which much interested Telemann, and colour organs appeared in the early 20th century in England and USA. Scryabin wrote a tastiera per luce part into his Prometheus (1910), and soon after, Schoenberg prescribed projected colours in his drama Die glückliche Hand ('The Lucky Hand', or 'The Knack'). But those were challenges to creative thinking produced by the creators.

Now we are asked not only to listen to, but watch re-created 17th- and 18th-century scores enveloped in stage lighting and effects, with teams of actors and acrobats generating the 'value-added' dimension that is, apparently, so much needed for our continued appreciation of the music. Maybe we have arrived at a time when seeing Bach's contrapuntal lines flying around the concert hall, multi-coloured and computer-generated, or witnessing the storm in Beethoven's Pastoral symphony with terrifying lightening and real rain (bring umbrellas and waterproofs) will add just what is required by audiences that prefer creativity to be applied to packaging rather than content. Perhaps a few performances of this kind may make us rather more admiring of Walt Disney's original Fantasia, and the great Stokowski's warm handshake with Mickey Mouse.

But if we cannot listen without also the need to have our eyes entertained, the craft of making pure music must be as near extinction as grammatical language and punctuation in emails and text-messaging.

Copyright © 31 May 2005 Patric Standford, Wakefield, UK




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