March 24th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Media ensure a comfy rise for Bill Shorten

CANBERRA OBSERVED Can Liberals' broad church survive schism?

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Middle-East time bomb: youth unemployment

ENVIRONMENT Europe's freeze further proof of global warming!

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cashless debit card records positive results

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Liberals' Tasmanian victory: the implications

OPINION The height of absurdity: education as business

ECONOMICS AND CHINA Eyes averted from the dragon in the marketplace

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM The state attacking the Church: lessons from history

FAMILY POLITICS A Trojan horse for monitoring children

NORTH AMERICA The cultural and political mosaic that is Canada

CINEMA Mary Magdalene on film: a new interpretation

MUSIC Audio-visual: or, how to watch your music

CINEMA The Adventures of Tintin: A light amid the bleakness

BOOK REVIEW Taking arms against the gender fluid fad

BOOK REVIEW Narrative history from a great writer



INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Sexual exploitation at Oxfam symptom of culture of death

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Audio-visual: or, how to watch your music

by David James

News Weekly, March 24, 2018

Peruvian writer, novelist and politician Mario Vargas Llosa commented in his essay Why Literature that audio-visual media cannot replace literature in “this task of teaching human beings to use with assurance and with skill the extraordinarily rich possibilities that language encompasses”.

He opined that audio-visual media tend to relegate words to a subordinate level behind images, which he described as its “primordial language”. Language in this media is constrained to its “oral expression, to its indispensable minimum, far from its written dimension. To define a film or a television program as ‘literary’ is an elegant way of saying that it is boring.”

The increasing dominance of the audio-visual screen, which is surely reaching plague proportions, has also undermined the purely musical perfor­mance; it is not just literature, the high-level use of language, that is a casualty. Music has also suffered.

Watching instrumentalists perform has rarely been visually compelling. They necessarily remain in a fairly fixed position because of the need to observe the physical constraints of their instruments. A composer might be able to engage in some extravagant gestures, but the string, wind or brass sections will remain fixed. Singers are able to provide some expressive gestures and perhaps dance moves, but the bassist and drummer will remain mostly fixed.

The need to create visual effects to accompany a musical performance is not new. Pianist Franz Liszt sent audiences into a frenzy – dubbed “Lisztomania” – as much for his physicality as for his musicality. One of the reasons for the initial popularity of rock music in the 1960s was the look of the performers. It is no accident that bands like the Rolling Stones, The Who and Queen came out of art school. David Bowie’s training in art and design was evident and central to his appeal. Just as well, really, because otherwise people might have noticed what an awful singer he was.

The use of design and art ideas certainly revolutionised musical performance. Mick Jagger’s costumes and gyrations or David Bowie’s memorable characters and images have become seminal touchstones of modern culture. That jazz did not go in that direction has probably contributed to its decline. Miles Davis’ shift from elegant suits to colourful, multi-coloured costumes is one of the few exceptions, but that was in part because he had an interest in painting and African-inspired imagery.

What is increasingly happening is that music, like the literary word, is being pushed into the background, becoming subordinate. This is very evident in pop music concerts, most of which are all about high-tech spectacle rather than music. Parts of the music are often pre-recorded, and what is done live is usually technologically enhanced. Many (alleged) singers are aided by tuning technology to ensure that their pitch does not stray.

There are, of course, exceptions, such as the remarkably complete Ed Sheeran, who manages to produce a facsimile of a full band solo, with some excellent rhythm guitar playing. But for the most part, live performance in popular music is pure spectacle, justified by the lighting shows and visual effects rather than the music.

A similar dynamic is behind the popularity of musicals, whose appeal mainly comes from the physical gestures, dance choreography, costumes and lighting. Calling them “musicals” is usually something of a misnomer, even when they use familiar songs.

There is another aspect of digital technology that has undermined the purely musical performance: the massive oversupply of recorded music. As I write this, I am listening to music. Everywhere I go, I hear music in the background. There is nothing rare about it any more.

So, when musicians play live, the listening audience is inevitably jaded, having been fed music constantly. They will probably listen to music travelling to the concert and travelling home after it. That is a difficult thing to compete with. Small wonder that performers are turning to the visual as a way to generate interest.

Even orchestras are going in that direction, with innovations such as having black and white films played with the performance, or using close-up camera shots of the instrumentalists to give the audience a new, more intimate visual experience.

The era of the purely musical performance, whose effectiveness was dependent on people not hearing music most of the time, is probably on the way out. There will always be a place for it, just as there will always be some who prefer literary language. But it will become a rarefied taste.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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