As I write this, the Olympic closing ceremonies are concluding. I adore these sorts of grand spectacles, which seem to evoke the spirit of the early Soviet productions that I used to read about in my theater theory classes (and which defied any true visual realization in my youthful imagination). Each Olympic host nation tries to outdo the previous presentations in a sort of creative arms race that has reached recent culminating points in the precision of the Beijing games and in the whimsy of this London edition. I eagerly anticipate watching what the organizers in Rio de Janeiro will unveil in 2016 as I’m sure the show will reach yet another apex of sound and color.
Rock shows have enjoyed an increase in production values that mirror the trends in these athletic ceremonies. Once considered the province of only the most accomplished acts playing the largest stadiums, giant video screens offering closed circuit broadcasts of the on-stage proceedings are now considered de rigueur for most acts. Elaborate multi-million-dollar modular sets provide grandiose backdrops that dwarf the performers and can travel from city to city as part of a world tour. As we buy our tickets, we have come to expect that the arena rock experience will include theatrical staging that will augment the musical performance itself.
These giant productions have led to the new phenomenon that for me greatly detracts from the concert-going experience: that of pre-programming most of the actual music for the show into offstage computers. Of course, live musical acts have long incorporated performers who were hidden from the audience (including most famously Ian Stewart, a keyboardist who was one of the original members of the Rolling Stones and who played with them for decades, but who was relegated to an offstage station for most of that time since their manager Andrew Loog Oldham thought that Stewart didn’t look like a rock star). New technical capabilities allow performers to use computers to standardize the quality of the show as it travels from place to place, adding pre-recorded sound filed into the audio feed so the onstage performers provide a small fraction of the actual concert sound. Sometimes the audience doesn’t notice this enhanced sound as it can blend seamlessly into the onstage proceedings, allowing for a small ensemble to create orchestrated textures and to reproduce the production values associated with their studio albums as they move from venue to venue.
When the ratio between live and pre-programmed music shades towards the latter, I believe that this creates a serious problem. Sometimes the live performance can feel as if a karaoke singer has been pulled out of the local bar and shoved onstage. Even worse is when they are visibly lip synching, or when the onstage musicians play air guitar as they clearly can’t hear themselves over the computerized din surrounding them.
I think an opportunity has arisen for acoustic musicians— especially those who perform chamber music—to fill the void created by the computerization of the pop music spectacle. In unamplified concerts, listeners understand the direct correlation between the physical movements of the people onstage and the sound they hear. They can feel a direct human link to the overall proceedings, without any dilution created by the involvement of disembodied machines. Surely there is an audience that craves the sort of purity of expression that arises from this unadulterated experience.
While I adore a grand spectacle, I also cherish small statements. Both paths can lead towards transcendent experiences, but only if we understand which way is more appropriate for our artistic ideas. When we attempt to create a giant tree from the seeds of small flowers, or vice versa, we lose an opportunity for beauty. I’m eagerly anticipating the Super Bowl halftime show and the next Olympic ceremonies, but in the meantime I also will appreciate the quiet statements from local chamber halls.