Can combining video with musical performance add anything to either medium? Helen Wallace heads to Kings Place in London to find out
We spend our lives looking at screens, so video-free live concert or opera can be a welcome break. Of course, there are exceptions: as far back as 1993, Steve Reich and Beryl Korot’s The Cave integrated video into the musical patterning process of a hard-hitting political opera; more recently, La Fura dels Baus brought a giant sculpture eerily to life with their extraordinarily sophisticated projections in ENO's production of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre. Mostly, though, video is banal, distracting and amateurish, one of a list of ‘extras’ that are supposed to update the classical concert – like jolly coloured shirts and late-night start times – none of which fundamentally change the format.
I was intrigued, then, by the founding in 2007 of Transition Projects by video artist Netia Jones and soprano Claire Booth (pictured left). Their ambition is deadly serious: to explore a new language for live performance. The key for Jones is that there is live interaction between video and performance, elements of ‘spontaneity and flexibility’ that cannot be wrought when all film is pre-recorded. She displayed a variety of approaches in the week of concerts at Kings Place in London from 9-12 December 2009: did they deliver?
That the answer is, broadly, yes is surely down to the profound musicality of Jones herself. She strikes me as the video equivalent of dancer and choreographer Mark Morris, a passionate communicator whose grasp of the inner workings of music can lead to layers of resonance rather than bland depiction.
Some of the ‘transitions’ were subtle: in a programme of Dowland’s lute songs the counter-tenor was transported to an office at night, surrounded by projections of bureaucratic detritus. I felt the choreography of counter-tenor Stephen Wallace’s movement needed more work, but in Couperin’s Leçons de Ténèbres sopranos Claire Booth and Elizabeth Atherton held us spellbound as two mourning widows singing the Lamentations of Jeremiah.
The songs themselves begin with letters of the Hebrew alphabet which are aurally illuminated in the music. These letters, and words, were projected on to screen along with ghostly, instantly-captured gestures of grieving made by the singers. Light was gradually sucked from this monochrome vision, but when the two voices finally come together for the hopeful Part Three, the rich colour of their harmony suddenly saturated the stage.
The most complete act of imagination was Bartók’s Mikrokosmos. Pianist Ryan Wigglesworth played selections from all six books, sharing a stage with a dancer and two back-lit screens. Just as the composer returned to the bare roots of music, so the dancer’s part explored essential human movement: a mirror image followed her silhouetted figure in a simple two-part canon; her cartwheels created a multiple flow of cartwheeling figures in a more complex canon; diminished intervals translated into diminished space, as a menacing black screen descended onto the dancer.
The interaction between live and minutely pre-prepared film was seamlessly designed: in a Children’s Song the dancer stood with lilliputian versions of herself swinging from her hand, crawling up her arm. Wigglesworth played with pungent intensity but could we have done without the beautifully designed action? No, that performance of Mikrokosmos was music made visible, and is now indelibly stamped on my memory.
Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine