Saturday, June 2, 2018

Performance and Media

I'm old-fashioned. As a musician I grew up in an environment where music was basically something that was played and listened to in a single space. The performer(s) and audience were in the same room whether that room was a living room or a giant concert hall. There could be extremes, of course. On one occasion I played in a large arena over an enormous amplification system and I couldn't even see the audience, hidden in the darkness. But I could still sense that they were there.

The normal situation was to be playing in a room where you could see the audience and this was as true of the brief period early in my career when I played bass guitar and electric guitar in a rock band. You always had a sense that there was a feedback between the performer and the audience. You played and there was some sort of audience reaction. This was throughout the performance, not just as signaled by the applause at the end.

But when I started to do recordings, initially for radio broadcast, and then television shows, all that sense of the audience completely disappeared. There was no audience in any discernible way. You were playing for a microphone (or microphones) or a tv camera. There was no feedback from the listeners who were in a myriad of rooms in remote locations. Though at first I found this difficult, I did adapt and came to appreciate that recording and video enabled you to both preserve a performance and to share it with huge multiples of listeners/viewers, far more than was possible in a live performance.

But I still felt that the concert experience was the most authentic one. Being in the same room or space with the performer means that what you are hearing is not mere technological trickery. That used to be the case, but no longer! With present day technology, performers commonly "lip-synch" their part and that opens the door to the whole performance being put together beforehand. As a EDM dj characterized it, you just show up and hit the space bar on your laptop (in music software that is typically the key that starts playing a music file).

I recently became fascinated with a video by Kanye West, the one for his song "Runaway." I think the reason was that the aesthetic he developed in that piece was really suitable for a performance situation where the creators and the audience are completely disassociated by technology. The music video is as much a cinematic vignette as it is a song and it is equally a piece of music theatre comprising three different elements:

  • Kanye West (and Pusha T) in a musical performance: he both plays the piano line that ties the whole song together and gives the vocal performance. The initial ambiance is that of the large, echoing warehouse that the video was shot in, but then comes in to a close-miked ambiance once the dancers arrive
  • As soon as the song begins twenty-six (or seven, there are twenty-seven dancers credited) Russian (I assume they are Russian from the names, though the video was shot in Prague) ballerinas run in and begin dancing. The last third of the song features segments with solo dancers
  • The frame is a dinner party with black couples seated at a long white table strewn with quail eggs and featuring poultry dishes (chicken and one large roast turkey). All the servers, who have carafes of champagne, are white. Kanye enters with his "girlfriend," the phoenix, who fell to earth as a ball of fire and will return to the heavens similarly. After some brief dialogue ("Did you know your girlfriend was a bird?") Kanye gets up and begins the song on a nearby upright piano painted white. At the end of the song the dancers run off whence they came and the dinner party resumes.
The video resolves the "problem" (if it is a problem) of the disassociation of performers and listeners by including listeners in the space of the performance. The musical performance first activates the troop of dancers and that energy spreads out to the people at the dinner party. The only ones present who are not engaged in any way are the servers. There are actually four layers or circles here:
  1. The musical performance shown as Kanye standing at and then on the piano, singing
  2. The dancers, who are reacting to the musical performance
  3. The dinner party guests and the phoenix, listening to and watching the performance
  4. And us, the general public listening audience, watching the whole thing

I guess if I were still pursuing a career as a performer I would be looking for ways to use the video possibilities in the most creative way possible. That certainly seems to be what Kanye has done here. Of course, this means that instead of a budget of a few hundred or few thousand dollars to make a recording (classical music is not very studio intensive to record) you are looking at tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for even the most rudimentary video production. How much did it cost to shoot "Runaway"? First you have to fly all your performers, engineers and technicians to Prague, rent a warehouse (and a lot of hotel rooms), fly in a whole troop of Russian ballerinas along with choreographers, costume and makeup artists, and so on. Pretty big budget, I would guess. Mind you, there is lots of money in hip hop...

But I bet it was a lot of fun.


Will Wilkin said...

Interesting until the drum machine and associated "typical" pop beat music kicked in, then went down the drain when singing about "douche-bags and scum-bags," and the overall singing is not very good even for pop, made worse whenever "rap" came in. Its as if he wants to give a classical or "fine" veneer to vulgar ghetto music. Mundane lyrics when I paid attention to them. This music is not very good. Video? I looked occasionally but I never have been one to watch my music, except live opera, where indeed there is rapport between the artists and audience. Even the piano motif is elementary, ordinary pop at best, and the string quartet, electrified and studio manipulated, is not fine, more like an anti-art statement as would suit Nirvana or the punk rockers rebelling against virtuosity and beauty.

Obviously I have trouble making friends.... I'm stuck in a rut where Corelli trio sonatas block the destructive effects electrical devices are having on our culture and spirit.

Marc said...

Am beginning to wonder if we need to stage an intervention. (Joke, joke.)

A co-worker was trying to explain to me yesterday how ye, Kanye's latest-- he had watched the launch party via his iPhone, or something like that-- is wonderful etc etc. I nodded along but eventually told him that I'm still not convinced that Runaway is a masterpiece, ahem, so I'd better wait a bit before tackling I thought about killing you' and its companion tracks.

Bryan Townsend said...

Don't worry guys, this is the only hip-hop track that interests me, so far at least! Still, better keep an eye on me in case I need an intervention later. Will, I agree with everything you say about Runaway. Judged by normal aesthetic criteria, at least the ones we use in classical music, the piece has all the shortcomings you mention. But I suspect there is a different aesthetic operating here. And given the utterly different technological and cultural context, why wouldn't there be a different aesthetic spectrum? All that I wanted to point out here is that, compared to the usual hip hop song and music video, this is very different and has some interesting creative elements.

David said...

Bryan, if a self administered intervention is prescribed, may I suggest the final movement of Saint-Saens' symphony #3. Just listen and succumb to the walls and waves of sound. The piano runs that follow the introductory organ pedal points always have a cleansing effect for me. I think your readers are a few steps away from going all "Clock-work Orange" on you.

Bryan Townsend said...

Interesting suggestion! I have never really gotten very far into Saint-Saëns, so should give him a try. Maybe I can avoid the fate of Malcolm McDowell.