Friday, 13 June 2014

Filming classical music - The Voice and The Lens

Today I attended a day-long seminar entitled The Voice and The Lens. Being offered as part of the periphery of the Spitalfields Festival, this series of three illustrated lectures took in all sorts of examples of filming classical music.

We heard from Jonathan Haswell, a freelance director who has overseen recordings and broadcasts for the Proms and the Royal Opera, composer Miguel Mera, who teaches on the subject at City University and Barrie Gavin, who has produced a great deal of work on modern music and worked with the likes of Simon Rattle, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Haswell suggested that bringing live musical performance to a screen is 'simply a different way of experiencing something that is beautiful' and sees his job as 'generating a level of excitement that is different to the live space'. To show this he shared some examples of work, explaining the preparation and technical execution of a performance recorded for the screen - of any size. It was fascinating hearing about how great performers contribute easily to the process by absorbing the suggested requirements of the screen director.

Mera looked back at the canon, playing through extant performances of concerts as well as feature films that use music. Moving on from the pragmatism of making the recording happen he discussed the vernacular of music in a film, touching on the issue of diegesis and looking at some films where music is not only integral (The Man Who Knew Too Much, dir. Hitchcock, 1959) but may also be said to have it's own visual lyricism, interchangeable with the music itself (The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, dir. Leone, 1966).

Barrie Gavin has worked closely with composers and other principal practictioners in producing films about music. He was interested in moving away from the rather more coventional biopic (Mera had already identified the clichés of musicians on screen). Instead, Gavin tried to grasp the identity of his films within their outset and looked to develop the idea of metaphor - 'the problem with the subject is that music is invisible and we deal in creating images'.

An appointment later in the day meant that I was unable to stay for the open discussion on subjects raised. Clearly their were some musicians and filmmakers of note in the audience. I would have liked to have heard opinions on the future of cinema and opera, given that discussions of accessibility at The Royal Opera (as well as other production issues at Glyndebourne and New York's Metropolitan Opera) have thrown a spotlight on the practice. Classic FM put the question fairly succinctly.

These are sociological issues though. Today was about the technicality and grammar of transferring live performance onto a two-dimensional medium (pace 3D broadcasts!) which was satisfying whilst provoking all the right quesitons to get one thinking more clearly about it as an art sui generis. You can see Jonathan Haswell's work when the Royal Opera broadcast Manon Lescaut on 24 June (to which one can compare the cinema relay of ENO's Benvenuto Cellini, to be broadcast on 17 June). I have also written about cinematic relay of opera here.

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