Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Performing Difficult Music

An interesting piece on the modern performance of difficult music in Orpheus Complex's blog, speaking up for performers whose technical accomplishment can often be taken for granted. It's not just recently written music that's the issue either - all manner of classical music written over the past four hundred years has remarkable demands inside it.

A view from the stalls then. Does the audience really want to see the difficulty at the same aesthetic surface of the music? In other words, is the struggle as interesting as the beauty of the music?

The Wagner and Bach that Gavin brings up is really all about the music (in fact the Wagner is less about the music than the drama, burying the technical challenges even deeper). Yet there is music written in order to showcase the technical abilities of the soloist. Certainly the 19th century saw the rise and rise of the tenor voice as a vehicle for courage in the face of perilous (usually meaning high) music. Here is Rolando Villazon (and Mark Elder) talking about the dramatic tenor at the height of the bel canto era in a BBC 4 documentary:

Part of the appeal of this is that the demands made on the singer come in music that is highly melodic and appealing. The height, or tessitura of the music is its own sort of coloratura, the singer's version of the complexity that would have been the great appeal of artists such as Paganini or Liszt, as much a draw for their own variations on simple, familiar music as the music itself.

It's when the music itself begins to become tricky to understand that the issue of difficult music starts to become a clouded. Just to continue the singing line, as it were, for a moment, for me the watershed period is that of the post-2nd Viennese School, where melody is dispersed in the face of new compositional techniques. Nonetheless, a composer like Alban Berg was capable of writing lyric, singable lines into his music (not to mention snatches of melody recognisable as such in the previous century) if only the singers have the technique to make them shine out of the music's aesthetic, let alone technical complexity. This is a reversal of the situation in the 19th century where the audience count on a singer to be subordinate to the music, simply so that it can be understood - once again the technical difficulties become hidden. Modernism follows in the 20th century, where music and the musicians are persistently required to perform music that reflects the constituency of the world.

All this is of considerable interest to me as I prepare to take part in a production of Karlheinz Stockhausen's penultimate opera Mittwoch aus Licht. Completed in 1998 but first conceived back in the mid 1970s, the score - that is to say the written music - is marked in great detail and demands that the singers perform in all sorts of ways that would be considered alien to the normal practise of singing. This 'extended' technique, as it is commonly known, involves all sorts of other vocal noises, as well as isolating elements of the vocal sound which are usually combined in its day-to-day delivery.

All this comes from the sort of work that Stockhausen and others (most notably John Cage in America and Pierre Boulez in France) were doing during a period now referred to as the avant garde (avant garde is of course a term that describes something just ahead of the state of the art at any given moment, although in classical music it has come to refer to a fixed period in the 1950s). It was exploratory as much as designed to achieve premeditated results and extended its reach past the remit of technical musicianship to all sort of other aesthetic and cultural areas. In other words the technical challenges of the music had some passing investment in the culture of apprehending the music. Whether or not it is seen as difficult, it is meant to be noticed by the audience.

However, the cultural experimentation and fermentation of the late 1950s to the mid 1970s, in which much of this music was born is, simply, an anachronism nowadays. In a postmodern world in which we are all, if not enlightened, then part of a culture that recognises that things be accounted for, objectified, I wonder whether or not the abandon and experimentation in which an avant garde audience would be prepared to indulge (in itself, let alone in the performers) simply isn't current. It is going to be very interesting for me as a performer to see how we prepare the music of this extraordinary (and, incidentally, no doubt sincere) piece of music - and also how it is prepared mindful of performing it for a contemporary audience.

Opera Star to Film Star

The news from Cannes yesterday morning was that Michale Haneke's new film Amour has taken the 2012 Palme d'Or, the Oscar of the Croisette. Inamongst all the adulation for another reportedly fine film for the arthouse master director and his cinema-name stars one might note the second high profile film appearance of an accomplished performer on the international opera stage.

William Shimell is rather more buried in the ensemble in Amour than in his breakout appearance in Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy opposite Juliette Binoche (right). However it is clear that his profile of tall, lean good looks - imagine a slimmer, silver-foxier version of Sex In The City and The Good Wife actor Chris North - allied to a speaking voice that bears witness to his stage profession has captured the imagination of the more respected directors working in Europe today.

Shimell is still working as an opera singer, with his last major role in London around the time of the release of Certified Copy two years ago, as De Brétigny in Massanet's Manon (right, photo intermezzo.typed.com). The only comparable singer-to-screen-star transition is in the Sokurov film Aleksandra (2007), a big-hearted but bleak meditation on the Chechen conflict with the legendary Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya in the title role. Even the use of Sir Thomas Allen in Stephen Frears' wartime caper Mrs Henderson Presents (2005) was little more than a cameo in the character of a singer. This Washington Post article is an interesting overview of the phenomenon and has an interview with Shimell to coincide with Certified Copy's release.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Die Walküre, Fulham Opera

As hot on the heels of their Rheingold as a such a company can make it, here is the second instalment of the Fulham Opera Ring Cycle. Die Walküre is the high water-mark of Wagner's first compositional maturity and so demands equal respect towards both music and drama. Fulham Opera necessarily have their own compromises to make irrespective of the material - music director Ben Woodward is the orchestra at the piano and the space is a working church dominated by an immovable stone altar in the middle of the stage. The glass-half-full upshot is that both music and drama, having the same privations, are indeed accorded mutual respect.

Once again the altar has been easily absorbed into the production, this time by Fiona Williams, which continues the contemporary American themes and styling. The above view shows the altar in the centre of the staging area and also the projected surtitles, a welcome addition for Rheingold (though not offered for the Il Trittico productions*). Once again Ben Woodward's piano reduction is heroic not only for the stamina required for a one-man-band but also for the faithfulness towards thematic highlighting and general voice-leading. Certainly, the heft of the orchestra cannot be recreated but the other end of the dynamic spectrum is also tricky to replicate, the telescoping effect of individual instruments pulling an audience into tiny intimate cracks in the drama.

What Woodward and his cast did manage were moments of lieder-like clarity. As one tends to be familiar with orchestral performances and recordings, the experience of the more tender passages is akin to listening to a series of songs by Hugo Wolf. Instrumental in that effect was the fine German singing from the two principals of this leg of the tetralogy, Ian Wilson-Pope's Wotan and Zoe South's Brünnhilde. Clear German and their clear understanding of the German allied to a dynamic range beyond that which the piano offered focused the performance. Nordic hammer-blows were available when necessary, and with some control. The dangerous corner of Brünnhilde's commitment to save Siegmund, a top A# on a closed vowel that's also the crucial major third of a new statement of F# major, was a thrillingly executed moment of epiphany and joy - a genuine highlight.

The rest of the cast brought the usual palette of different, sizeable voices to the performance: Jon Morrell's classic Siegmund was clearest and strongest in alt, with Laura Hudson's absorbingly committed Seglinde acted through the voice but still adhering to the score. Oliver Hunt's lean, present bass was a fresh-lumber Hunding to match his logger's shirt with Elizabeth Russo's Fricka every inch the fabulous alimony-drain the conceit demanded. I was particularly impressed, if not surprised, by the casting of the Valkyries themselves. An ensemble of fine individual voices truly justifying the collective undertone of the opera's title, it speaks well for the company's culture that they can secure professionals of the same calibre as the principals - and then count on them to help out in the menial front of house duties that make the theatrical experience go smoothly.

It will be interesting to see how the basic conceit that has moved west from oil fields to Hollywood matures in the final two operas. There's pragmatism at work in adhering to the ongoing scheme and reasonably so. However casting has proved very sure thusfar and it's clear that there is a strong pool of singers prepared to take on the challenge of Wagner's cycle with solid technique, musicianship and commitment to the drama.

* Director Ben Woodward has asserted that surtitles were given for Suor Angelica, the Il Trittico production given in Italian

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Working With Great Musicians

This week I have been involved in performances of Shostakovich's 13th Symphony, Babi Yar, a terrific, robust, heart-rending and occasionally comic piece reflecting the social climate of 1960s Russia. On this occasion I have been working with Philharmonia Voices, providing the chorus of low men's voices that the piece demands and working alongside the phenomenal Philharmonia Orchestra and their Conductor Laureate Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Working with musicians of Ashkenazy's stature is a considerable perk of my job. One of the indisputably great pianists of the twentieth century, Ashkenazy was also caught up in the difficulties of living and working in cold war Soviet Russia. During rehearsals he told us that he was 'almost' at the first performance of this overtly anti-establishment symphony and that, when he did get to hear the second performance of the piece in 1962, they had 'changed the words'. These words (we are giving the original version) include unvarnished descriptions of people queuing for food in the cold, something that he told us he had seen.

The early 1960s must have been a decisive period for Ashkenazy, who married, shared first prize in the International Tchaikovsky Competition and then finally left Russia. The music cannot fail to carry indelible and highly emotional associations for the artist, for the man. I wondered as I was singing in the first of two performances at the Brighton Festival (notable in itself, as this year's Festival, curated by Vanessa Redgrave, is a celebration grouped loosely around art 'that speaks for those who do not or who cannot speak for themselves') whether the audience could still find something recognisable in it, let alone useful or comforting. It occurred to me that the piece was fulfilling its purpose rather like a record of what had happened, that the music and its text carries - largely through its own emotional weight - some authentic snapshot of the time.

This is the value of having a great musician directing. Not only that the audience get an aesthetic experience of the highest order. Not only that the younger musicians involved have direct experience of elite and obscure technical tid bits in the process. Even more than that, what becomes available is a window to the crucible whence the music comes, its genesis, its importance. On this occasion we have had a double gift of that authenticity in both artist and man - and, crucially, via the professionalism of the former and the selflessness of the latter. The message is there to be heard but only via the humility of great musicianship is the music is able to do the speaking.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Opera On Film: The Florentine Connection

It's like some sort of algorithm. There I was, doing the accounts in front on BBC2's Maestro At The Opera last night and less than five minutes in the two contestants ('Maths' and 'Dancer') got whisked off to Florence.

I imagine that this is largely because Florence happens to be the location for that soporific 'opera' montage in Ridley Scott's Hannibal, where slo-mo and Patrick Cassidy's nuclear strength earworm Vide Cor Meum come together to pervert an entire generation's idea of what an opera is:

Hey, maybe the meandering musak is what drives Hannibal himself over the edge. But then Florence is all a bit mixed up: Maths and Dancer found themselves in an Italian operatic conservatoire being taught by a couple of British conducting experts. It's like Merchant Ivory had produced the show.

Perhaps the real reason why any of this ties together comes from about 33 seconds into the clip from Hannibal, above. Who is the opera star performing in Ridley Scott's be-toga'd montage? None other than Danielle de Niese, one of the judges from the TV show and the woman referred to by the New York Times as 'the world's coolest soprano'. Clunky TV or contrived cinema notwithstanding then, it seems that Florence really is the go to home for opera glamour old and new.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Opera - The Sell

The five 'myths' in a recently produced WNO video infomercial - that opera is overpriced, dress-prescriptive, overlong, incomprehensible, and irrelevant - are issues seen as sufficiently entrenched and widespread that Opera Holland Park's Michael Volpe has also revisited them in a blog for the Huffington Post UK. These are 'myths' perceived from the outside rather than formed inside the theatre, suggesting the barrier to enagagment with opera is based on some idea of eligibility or entitlement - wealth, style, social mobility. A barrier that is about being there rather than what opera actually is.

There have been two revolutions in the fortunes of opera in the past quarter century. The first was in 1990, when an operatic aria was used to underscore the BBC's coverage of the world cup in Italy. The Damascene revelation of Pavarotti, Puccini and Paul Gascoigne was that the emotional core of the opera could escape its obscurity and pertain to something commonly recognisable.

The second, most recent revolution has come as a climax to the increasing convenience, quality and ubiquity of audio-visual technology. The immediacy and reliability of digital streaming has really gripped the art form, as it preserves a semblance of the frisson of being live, especially in the cinema.

A quick look at these two events may be instructive as to the current perception and future promotion of opera.

Given that the glass partition of awareness between opera and the popular market was broken in 1990, twenty years ago, it seems remarkable that opera is not more popular, not more a natural part of the common cultural diet. Clearly the 'myths' of perception have persevered.

Selling opera as a product is tricky. A drama that aggregates over long periods, a half hour act, say, means that conventional, shop-window extracts in picture or sound may just seem rather random. At the Italia '90 revelation, even the inherent beauty of Luciano Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma was presented on the back of an aggregated emotional narrative, the football matches leading up to and during the World Cup.

Divorced from the narrative drama of a sporting tournament, opera required other narratives to support its shop-window-sized arias. The Three Tenors, the first global act, had novelty but one forgets they also had Jose Carreras' leukaemia recovery, for which charitable benefit the initial concert was convened. So the narrative transferred from the song to the singer, from the 'opera' to the 'artist'.

Since then, familiar names performing operatically - i.e. either performing operatic arias or singing in a manner recognisable as classical singing - have always had some sort of interesting personal narrative. Lesley Garrett, Russell Watson, Alfie Boe and Paul Potts are seen as working class-made-good, dare I say it, Northern (i.e. non-cosmopolitan) types. Andrea Bocelli is blind. Finally, the perennial poster girl for popular operatics Katherine Jenkins was and is simply a beautiful woman, beautifully marketed. Belated attempts to build a back-story of Welsh parochial beginnings, struggles with drugs and familial bereavement have proved unnecessary in the long run, as the brand has taken.

The point in digesting and reproducing this history is that the trajectory of marketing opera almost immediately separated itself from the opera. The aria may be a poetic gem representing the opera aphoristically but it is formally separate from the drama. As is often the case this reduction has continued over time to the point where the content of opera has evaporated. Opera is now identified by a sound, a manner of singing. Its substance has been replaced by associated symbols, a sparkling, desirable periphery. The packaging is more desirable than the gift.

This is astonishing for a long-form art form, that something so large and rich should be rendered so small and simple. Opera requires an investment of time, a commitment. Commitment is a difficult thing to market.

This is where the WNO infomercial at the top of this post becomes rather fascinating. Listen to it again and note how often Tim Rhys Evans compares the experience to the cinema.
Expensive? '...some tickets are cheaper than a trip to the cinema'
Overlong? 'Well, it's a bit like films to be honest...'
Incomprehensible? '... you'll get surtitles, a bit like a foreign language film'
The invocation of the cinema experience is a useful one (primarily, of course, as cinema-going is as popular as opera-going is not). Not just similar, the experiences are actually so close they begin to overlap. Of course, cinema, a multi-disciplinary art form, is a natural aesthetic sibling to opera. Using the former to further disseminate the latter, recording operatic performance for reproduction in a cinema theatre (or on television), is not a new idea. Yet with the live relay comes an even closer eliding of the experiences, to an authentic operatic experience within the cinema auditorium - the second of the two identifiable operatic revolutions.

The key to this is the experience 'as live'. An audience in a cinema, aware that the performance is occurring in real time, albeit remotely, can commit to following the performance as an authentic experience, knowing that anything could happen. The physicality between performers and audience is impossible across the screen. However the audience must surrender to the infinite possibilities of the outcome of the performance, held to the narrative by that tension. Furthermore, this surrendering extends to being in tension with others in the room, all having the same real-time experience.

The advantage that the cinema has here is that it negates the idea of prescriptions of behvaiour or expectation. All the perceived nonsense about eligibility for attending an opera performance is correctly identified by Michael Volpe as coming from popular marketing, maintaining exclusivity and benightedness to create and control demand. Rather than purchasing a product to satisfy identifiable expectation, the dynamic is reversed. The screening demands that the the consumer respond to the performance. At a stroke all prescriptions of behaviour in an opera theatre are dispelled: if the audience is responding to the performance then they cannot be responding to the behaviour of others around them. Something even more wonderful also happens. The individual gets immersed in the collective, becomes part of the audience. This is as cathartic - and unique - an experience as any other the theatre has to offer.

What this deduction infers is that opera is not a product to be bought but a relationship with which to be engaged: being there emerging from what opera can offer, not what it is dictated by being there. Volpe's piece is accurate in suggesting that the best marketing tool for opera is education. Even better than cinema, this is because the nature of opera is discursive - it presents itself in live performance to involve its audience in collective, heightened, aesthetic argument.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Opera in the Cinema - more debate

photo: intermezzo.typepad.com
There has been a minor flare-up in the ongoing appraisal of opera being streamed live in cinemas, with ENO's artistic director John Berry trying to maintain his company's focus on in-house production in the face of some big numbers from other institutions (New York's Metropolitan Opera relays to cinema account for eight figure income bumps), the increasing popularity of Glyndebourne's web-streaming pioneering and the Royal Opera's perennial Big Screen events (not to mention their own inroads into cinema relays).

The argument seems to revolve about prioritising and protecting the live event weighed against the outreach and access afforded by the cinema experience.

In respect of the aesthetic, my own experience has been largely positive. When I saw the Royal Opera Macbeth last year, I appreciated the opportunity to see the production close-up and to have an experience (relayed live, with an audience in a darkened auditorium) akin to that of being in the opera theatre.

Naturally, I missed the physical connection with the performers (although that's not a privation in the other direction, i.e. the performers do have a live audience to whom they are performing) and one is also aware of having one's attention drawn in the direction of the relay director, rather than that of the stage show director.

As for the access and outreach issue, I regularly attend opera productions in and around London, so this event as an advertisement for the artform is not relevant to me (preaching to the converted, if you like). I was attending largely to assess the experience of opera in this relay form.

It so happened that on this occasion I spotted someone in the cinema audience related to one of the performers who lives quite close to me and the cinema we both found ourselves. This seems to me to suggest that a cinema relay provides convenience for those who are interested in seeing the production for whatever reason but are prevented by distance or timing.

At £25 for a ticket, the cost issue is a complicated issue, if not an outright red herring. You know you will get a good view in the cinema for this premium and this 'premium' is also the bottom end of what one would pay for the live experience. It's still not the live experience though. Central to the functioning aesthetic of opera is the physicality of live singing and no mediated access will succeed in replicating that.

In short, the cinema relay provides yet another facet to the way in which one can discuss opera circumstantially, yet it still remains outside the experience and so a tool for experiencing it rather than a representative substitute.

Audience Conduct and Photography

Following a spat between a critic and a celebrity at a performance of an opera at the Barbican Theatre this week, the Guardian opened up a conversation about conduct at performance events. It's a wide-ranging debate, taking in both pop gigs and stand-up comedy, as well as opera, theatre and concerts. Consequently there's a wide range of opinion: discussing the appropriateness of throwing drinks during an opera is the most extreme example of how this particular discussion doesn't always meet in the middle. Perhaps.

My attitude is fairly simple: that one should expect an audience to pay attention to the show and behave accordingly.

This formulation contains a number of things, namely
  • 'one' means performers, other audience members and the house administration alike. When the lights go down everyone is equally responsibile for the show
  • 'behave accordingly' means behave appropriately. This means (risking the tautology) watch and listen to the show. If one is doing this, then there leaves little room for unwrapping sweets, clearing one's throat, using a phone to record or snap clips of the show, rustling excessive jewellery or talking
  • 'should expect'. Anyone who tells an audience how to behave in a show is negating the show
The whole issue came about as someone is alleged to have been taking photos with a flash during the show. Clearly, doing this is wrong for three clear reasons: the individual has to disengage from the show to fiddle with the camera; the flash can be disruptive to others in the audience and the performers; taking a photo infringes on the artist's rights.

However, some audience members take photos after the performance during curtain calls. Equally, those associated with the performance in some way are (increasingly) taking photos during rehearsals immediately prior to performance in order to promote the show. Both actions look to preserve a souvenir of the performance without disrupting the performance itself. I see no issue with this.

This is still a grey area - English National Opera staff come down heavily on curtain call photography, though it seems less of a problem at the Royal Opera or the main concert halls (Southbank concert halls, Barbican, Royal Albert Hall). The fact is that the photography is not interfering with the performance itself. It's also unlikely to give away plot details (i.e. constitute a 'spoiler') given that theatre performances are often advertised with a number of production photographs anyway. It's also the case that performers are quietly grateful for some sort of media record of their participation, especially one that can be referred to indirectly, i.e. via a web link.

Behaviour whether it be a old issue of not talking or a new one of not Tweeting all rests on the same issue. Live performance works because of the direct connection between the performer and the audience. Anything that mediates that, let alone breaks it, whether introduced by production or audience interrupts that direct link and devalues the performance as a direct result*.

*Hence the Proms-broadcast picture at the top of this piece and, presumably, the starting point for John Berry's recent involvement with the discussion about cinema streaming ENO productions, though that's a separate issue really.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Stalker - Curzon Renoir, A Nos Amours

Finally, a proper screening, a proper print. Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 visionary cinematic poem Stalker will never go away, but the inexorable stride of digital projection means that a 35mm copy is surprisingly rare. As author Geoff Dyer, introducing the film, noted, there is no longer a celluloid copy of Stalker to be found anywhere in North America.

I had tried to prepare a companion for viewing this film with expectation-dampening talk of its slow speed. Dyer did the same in his talk, with an anecdote about an early screening in which authoritarian pleading for a shorter prologue resulted in Tarkovsky's vow to make the opening even longer. Certainly with its 142 shots stretched beyond 2 1/2 hours, Stalker has the potential to feel very long.

What I wasn't expecting then was the speed at which the film rushed out at me. One of the many themes of the film is that of tension, tension between desire and fulfillment. The literal tension that Tarkovsky opens with is that of a surreal thriller, a car chase across an industrial complex. It's a temperamentally frenzied start to a film of deep breath.

I felt that I was watching an allegorical film about the artist in society. For all that the Stalker himself leads, he is nonetheless bringing up the rear, just as his name actually suggests. Invariably it's the creative figure, the Writer who goes ahead, followed at a distance by the analyst-interpreter-teacher Professor with the Stalker close behind. The sense of threat presented by the Zone, the goal of their expedition, is largely in the report of the superstitious Stalker, who is also an allegorical figure for the religious zealot. The power in the small group shifts slowly but fluidly between the men during the film, a triangle of delicate political equanimity.

The photography is good, as far as one can see from the print but the shot composition is truly lovely. The industry and monochrome-colour tension brought to mind Antonioni's first significant colour film, The Red Desert, in which a mother and her husband's colleagues and friends behave listlessly in a Lilliputian industrial complex where single blocks of colour are the rule and strange electro-acoustic sounds underpin the dialogue.

The sound design for Stalker is just as worrisome with plenty of industrial  crackling and, most notably, reverberant sounds clearly evoking an enclosed space as the backdrop to the stretch of the expedition in the open air. Such incongruity foreshadows the rain that falls in the Room, making a clear case for the entire environment being a construct of someone's imagination.

The evening's screening was hosted by Curzon Cinemas at their Renoir theatre. It was organised by A Nos Amours, a group advocating important cinema - their undertaking is an important one (and would benefit from a more composed introduction. I had no idea who the speakers were until I read up about the organisation after the show).

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Self-Promotion: A New Pact for New Media

I've just been reading a blog post by a colleague concerning the BBC's new Saturday night talent show The Voice. Singer-blogger Heather Cairncross is a well-respected, multi-genre performer locked in a light-hearted battle with her sister (who runs a web-based business for people looking to make the most from web-based promotion) about whether she should appear on the show.

The issue of exposure for those who already work in a market is representative of all the hazardous issues surrounding success in the industry. An area of less interest to the public concerns those who work in singing who don't work as solo artists. Naturally the very title of the talent show suggests a single artist. However, the work that many of us do involves singing as part of a group of singers, from a handful of colleagues to over a hundred. Indeed, I know Heather Cairncross from the few times our paths cross working for ensembles*.

Here's the tricky situation that those who work in ensemble singing discover early on. How do you publicise and promote yourself in your line of work? The common vernacular for the singing voice is one that refers to something 'special' or 'unique', meaning something solitary. The talent show under discussion partly takes its title from the glib reference to someone having 'a voice', meaning what they have to sing and how they sing it stands out. Employability in an ensemble situation is predicated on being able to do the opposite, to blend in.

Professional ensemble singing engagement involves a music director, usually in tandem with a 'fixer', or technical professional, auditioning individuals to assess the quality of their singing (their voice and how they use it) and their musicality - not to mention their professional attitude - before inviting them to work as one of their ensemble. A high profile, or professional representation is irrelevant and arguably inappropriate.

With most ensemble contracts being short-term (from hours to a couple of months at most) classical singers also need to have a wide portfolio, including solo work. For the artist promoting themselves as both a striking soloist and team-player ensemble singer is an ongoing balancing act - but a necessary one for both kinds of employers, industry director-fixer and solo concert promoter alike.

So this is a difficult area. It's made a lot harder by the existentially neither-fish-nor-fowl positioning of the artist. It's possible to commit to traditional promtional paraphernalia - headshots, recordings - and sticking it all on a website. This is self-evidently distinct from the experience of the artist in a live performance (and also risks alienating those who would employ someone with a lower profile) but at least it gives an impression.

For the workaday ensemble musician there's no issue of excessive profile. Rather the issue becomes one of having no profile at all. Beside the notoriously unreliable chatter of peer opinion the very existence of musicians is contingent on the work itself.

New Media

Classical, acoustic performing is necessarily an ephemeral art. It's mutually enjoyed by performer and audience alike as it's immediate - literally un-media-ted by audio-visual technology. Consequently there is usually no record of a performance. In fact, the traditional record of a performance having taken place at all comes by testimonial, a review, although the anonymity (not to say parochialism) of classical concerts outside obvious cultural centres mean that published reviews are rare.

The exponential advances in technology and the Noughties social networking explosion go some way to mitigating against this problem. Today an artist can make a high quality stereo recording with a discreet, mobile phone-sized device. Video recording is becoming more common. And the ubiquity of audio-visual hardware on mobile phones themselves means that, invariably, a member of the public may have captured an artist's work. All this media is increasingly being uploaded to the internet, if only for storage or archiving rather than actively sharing.

As for reception and appraisal, the testimonial of an artist's work, no-one needs an audio-visual record to publish their reaction to a concert. Blogging has reduced itself to its critical mass through the micro-blogging service Twitter (indeed, many blogger-reviewers use Twitter as a trailer function for their long-form Blog texts).

For an artist minded to use this available media, either sharing informal pictures, mp3 tracks or video, or reproducing an anonymous review of a concert may not be sufficient to launch and support a serious solo career. However it is sufficient to build a reputation at the social level - Facebook is a particularly useful tool for the tightly woven, not to say insular world of classical musicians - that gives a CV substance where it might otherwise run the risk of being somewhat apocryphal. That unreliable peer chatter now has a context.

A New Pact

The one unmentioned issue here is the sensitive one concerning copyright. By this I mean discussion about both capturing an artist's work and, a wider point, whether a necessarily ephemeral, acoustic art can bear digital recording and dissemination.

My view, always contingent on the state of the technology, is similarly twofold: that the ubiquity of devices and platforms for its dissemination makes it difficult to resist; and, consequently, that that ubiquity changes the manner in which people talk to and about one another, increasingly incorporating digital media as part of the vernacular.

Live performance is precious, unique, and should be protected. The law dictates that recorded performances are the property of the artist and this should be respected (in particular, artists should be able to rehearse without having to worry that errors, experimentation or necessarily half-formed performing is being captured). However, the embattled rigour with which performers go about defence of this right labours in the face not only of the overwhelming ease of recording and the common informality of its exchange but also the usefulness for the artists themselves.

My professional website is peppered with useful pictures, sound and video clips found freely across the internet which give a much more substantial example of the sort of work that I do. Very little of it actually reproduces my voice itself, in isolation. I can pick and choose what I show. Most of the material is of such little interest to anyone that it might as well not be there at all - like I mentioned, it has likely been uploaded for storage or archive rather than active sharing.

I'm not advocating the blanket acceptance of recording. Artists should always be consulted about the capture of their work and image, not only as a legal necessity but also as a courtesy. What artists would do well to recognise is the changing attitude not only of the audience but also of the public. A talent show like The Voice may seem irrelevant artistically or professionally but it does provide clues as to the sea change in both the market and the way art is discussed: the audience for digital media is vast but the content is as disposable as the conversation that surrounds it. The artist remains distinct and intact.

*Part of the reason Heather Cairncross and her sister have this dialogue about appearing on The Voice is because Heather is also a successful, solo jazz artist. This is a subject for a separate blog post but worth noting here - along with a link to hear her jazz & pop performances.