Image description: A violin resting against a sunlit cupboard
For the past year, like many others, my experience of ‘live’ classical music has been confined to a 11” x 13” laptop screen. Initially, I found the virtual version a pale substitute for the very human experience of hearing an orchestra live, feeling the atmosphere created by hundreds of strangers experiencing the same piece at the same time. However, as the pandemic has gone on, I have found myself redefining the boundaries of ‘liveness,’ and questioning why the idea of live performance is so alluring.
The pandemic has certainly amplified questions of what constitutes a ‘live’ performance, although that is not say that these questions haven’t been bubbling for some time. Indeed the very concept of ‘liveness’ only arose as a result of technological progress that enabled us to be able to capture and store sound, and so the meaning of term has changed as media has developed. While liveness used to indicate a cohabitation of both space and time, it now often requires only one of these dimensions. For example, the term live is used on the radio to distinguish between a live concert and a pre-recorded one.
Perhaps we are attracted to the thrill of live performance; the fact that anything could go wrong, and the knowledge that each performance of a given work is going to be different.
Why do we gravitate toward live performances then, when in the above scenario a listener most likely wouldn’t know the difference unless told? Perhaps we are attracted to the thrill of live performance; the fact that anything could go wrong, and the knowledge that each performance of a given work is going to be different. I know my most memorable live concert was unfortunately defined by a percussionist dropping their cymbal at a particularly inopportune moment. Because classical music is defined by the work rather than the artist, the industries rely on the one-of-a-kind nature of live music to create dynamicity. People don’t tend to go to concerts because of the ‘celebrity’ of the artist, so the allure of hearing something live must be what draws an audience.
In popular music, the line between ‘live’ and ‘not live’ has been blurred for some time. Live concerts are often digitally enhanced. The use of amplification arguably means the listener is hearing the music one step removed from its original source. Vice versa, digitally consumed popular music often carries elements of liveness: artists often perform live on talk shows etc.; and lip-syncing has been used in music videos for decades to create a façade of liveness, even if it was one that is easily cracked. One could go as far as to say that popular music is created primarily to feed a virtual audience rather than a live one.
Popular music then, was quite well prepared for the pandemic. The same cannot be said for classical music. Pre-pandemic, for the most part, classical music was either distinctly ‘live’ or ‘not live’. A concert performance very rarely had any elements of digitally enhanced production. A new CD recording makes no claim to liveness. Although there are examples of live broadcasts of classical music, such as BBC Radio 3’s Wigmore Hall concerts, or the annual Proms, it is not an essential part of the industry.
The pandemic – and the sudden need to recreate liveness at home – has provided a long overdue catalyst for the classical world to catch up. Pre- pandemic, only a small number of the world’s top orchestras had made steps towards creating accessible ways for people to engage with their live performance. The Berlin Philharmonic, for example, record each of their concerts, and release them the following day to a site accessible by monthly subscription. This allows listeners around the world, who perhaps couldn’t afford the hefty ticket prices, to engage with the orchestra on a much deeper level than simply buying their recordings. The immediacy with which the recordings are made available, combined with the fact that the full concert is heard, adds to the feeling of witnessing something live.
While this is definitely a positive step in terms of accessibility, it still leaves a lot to be desired. Not least, it is limited to the most elite companies and comes at a significant price. However, during the pandemic, this is becoming de rigueur, embraced by a broad spectrum of classical ensembles. Some broadcast entire concerts live; others are recorded in one take and then premier them at a specific time; others create video productions akin to short films.
While in the past I used recordings as background music, valuing the sense of event that surrounded a live concert of classical music, I now find that a ‘live’ virtual concert can create the same sense of event for me.
These approaches claim elements of liveness in different ways. The first panders to the thrill of live performance: excitement is created by the fact that we don’t know what’s going to happen, and anything could go wrong. The second, while losing this element, holds on to the communal feeling of liveness that is created by the fact that a global audience experiences the performance simultaneously. While video productions don’t recreate liveness in the same way, adding video and cinematography introduces a new concept of the recording as performance.
The increasing use of live broadcasting in classical music has meant that despite everything, I have ‘attended’ far more performances during the pandemic than I would on an ordinary year. Not only is the live broadcast more affordable, the diversity of performances available mean that I have discovered many ensembles and artists I previously hadn’t heard of.
While in the past I used recordings as background music, valuing the sense of event that surrounded a live concert of classical music, I now find that a ‘live’ virtual concert can create the same sense of event for me. Undistracted, in the comfort of my home, I can fully engage with watching a full performance programme. I think the new genre of ‘virtual live concert’ can only be a positive step for classical music, not least because of the much need accessibility it has brought. I hope it is not forgotten when we can return to the concert halls.
Some free online music recommendations:
1 – Chinike! Orchestra – A Man who Dreamed
3 – SCO – Listen at Lunchtime
Every week for the rest of March the SCO will be revisiting some of the music they recorded last year, with special introductions from orchestra members. They are broadcast every Friday at 1pm, and remain available for a month after. https://www.sco.org.uk/events/listen-at-lunchtime-5
2 – The MET opera – you can get a seven day free trial to watch any of the operas in their archive
Find out what’s available here – https://www.metopera.org/user-information/nightly-met-opera-streams/
3 – The Berlin Philharmonic is currently sharing some of its resources for free
Check out what’s available here – https://www.digitalconcerthall.com/en/playlist/10
Image obtained via Piqsels