Sound engineers have an old adage: “You don’t walk out of a concert humming the lights”. When putting on concerts, there are so many things to think about - how many seats need filling, will there be a piano, what are the acoustics like? With all of these conflicts, rarely do we find the time to worry about how the performers will be lit or even who flicks the the lights on and off, because it doesn’t matter, it’s all about the sound, right?
In their 2012 paper titled “Listeners as spectators? Audio-visual integration improves music performer identification”, Helen Mitchell and Raymond MacDonald concluded the following:
“Listeners take for granted their capacity to distinguish between musical instruments, and their ability to discriminate between performers playing the same instrument by their sound alone.”
The rich history of contemporary chamber music is awash with complex textures and intricate harmonies - but for how much of this history have our eyes betrayed our ears?
I’m currently working on a piece entitled Listeners as Spectators, as part of Ensemble Offspring’s Hatched Academy. The work is an exploration into the importance of sight and colour in music listening. In applying similar methodologies to those in comparison tests conducted by Mitchell and MacDonald, I am augmenting players’ performances with LEDs, sometimes aiding and sometimes hindering the digestion of interwoven textures and motifs in music.
Using light in music is nothing new. Arguably one of the common uses of light and colour in the 20th Century comes in the form of video, pioneered as early as Nam Jun Paik, widely considered to be the founder of video art. In music more specifically, light has found an interesting home within gesture and performance - it is not necessarily about light, and more about the visual experience of the audience. Richard Leppert states:
“Precisely because musical sound is abstract, intangible, and ethereal ... the visual experience of its production is crucial to both musicians and audience alike for locating and communicating the place of music and musical sound within society and culture.”
Leppert isn’t talking about light at all, and yet, this observation is key to the piece I’m working on. It was Ensemble Offspring’s 2012 performance of a Matthew Shlomowitz work Letter Piece 8 at the Vanguard in Sydney that transfixed me with a heavily gestural, visual style of writing. Shlomowitz’s shockingly effective use of gesture and simplicity in motivic material really left its mark on my musical style, and perhaps in a way, I’m aiming to extend to the experience I had sitting in the audience that night.
In a more physical sense, Alexander Schubert’s use of light and data, particularly in his work Sensate Focus, has partly inspired my methodologies of performance and the use of spotlight-like LEDs. But if light in music is nothing new, what am I bringing to the table?
In order to expand on work in this field, I am hoping to bring three new features to this rich compositional tradition. I feel that much of what has already been achieved in this area does not go far enough in terms of three key areas - areas which I am looking to improve on in the following ways:
Creating a work that has a foundation in previously conducted research - in this case, using the idea of audio-visual comparison and integration as a basis for the inner-workings of the piece
Focusing specifically on the tradition of chamber music and the sounds it is associated with, and applying them in unorthodox performance contexts
Taking the idea of association and dissociation to audio-visual extremes
‘Ground up’ software and hardware design that is specifically tailored to this work, using methods that don’t hinder the natural performance of the music itself
Augmentation of the performance, not a technical structure that determines it
No click-track (which often has the tendency to stunt expression and flexibility, both of which I feel are key to the work)
Using new and untested (as of yet!) technology with professionals in Ensemble Offspring who are wonderfully open to new techniques and performance methodologies
Using colour within the performance of the work itself (e.g. the numerous ‘colour scales’ used by countless composers across the 20th Century)
Can provide the bridge between JUST light and JUST motif
Listeners as Spectators was performed by Ensemble Offspring as part of a program of new works on the 27th September, 7pm at the Red Rattler.
Ensemble Offspring's Hatched Academy is generously supported by the APRA AMCOS Music Grants program and Rode Microphones.