What you see is what you hear
My esteemed NEPR colleague Susan Kaplan would not consider herself a classical music aficionado. That's OK; there are, as you know, lots of classical music non-aficionados out there, who nonetheless lead rich and happy lives, even becoming productive members of society.
But one day a few years back, Susan came at me all excited about a classical concert she had just attended. Really, she was walking on air. What was the concert? Beethoven's Ninth? A star soloist? Hardly. It was chamber music. Chamber music! If there's one little corner of the already rarefied classical world that should have an "Aficionados Only!" warning posted, it's chamber music. Especially the string quartet. Can't get rarer and more aficionado-ish than the string quartet. In fact, our Susan had attended a concert by the Emerson Quartet, including their performance of the String Quartet in G minor by the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg — a fabulous piece, but not exactly a chart-topper, even in quartet circles.
But she went gaga over it! And what struck me about her description was how visual it was. Susan didn't just hear the music, she saw it — the intensity, the interplay, the drama of the music as it unfolded. The players didn't just sit there. They moved, and the music moved with them. Of course, the Emersons are incapable of making unbeautiful sounds. But without the visual element, much of the dynamism of the music might have gone unnoticed. Here's part of the Grieg played by the Orlando Quartet. Though I might wish that they, like many quartets, got their heads out of their music stands a little more, I think you'll get an idea of what thrilled Susan that one afternoon.
So, is this fixation on the visual element in music just a symptom of our TV-addicted age? Or is there something intrinsic about the way we "see" music as well as hear it? A partial answer was provided today in Shankar Vedantam's Morning Edition report on a study by psychologist and one-time piano prodigy Chia-Jung Tsay published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. To summarize briefly,
...(Tsay) showed amateur and professional musicians clips from classical-music competitions. She asked her volunteers to guess the winners, but there was a twist. Different volunteers were given different kinds of clips: silent videos, audio recordings or videos with sound. In other words, some volunteers could only hear the music. Some could see the musicians and hear the music. And some could only see the musicians — they heard nothing.
Incredibly, the volunteers were better able to identify the winners when they couldn't hear the music at all, compared with when they could only hear the music. In fact, it was even worse than that: When the volunteers could see the musicians and hear the music, they became less accurate in picking the winners compared with when they could only see the performers. The music was actually a distraction.
Huh! And it wasn't just about the musicians' looks, either.
"I wouldn't necessarily say that this is indicative of superficial judgment," Tsay says. "There is something about visual information that is better able to convey cues such as passion or involvement or creativity. These elements are very much a part of high-quality performance."
You bet they are. And considering that our ability to hear music without seeing it is only a century old, barely a blip in human history, it strikes me that the importance of the visual element of music, far from being a modern phenomenon, is as old as music itself. Classical music, typically, has long had a conflicted attitude about its visual element, as it's had about anything that smacks of show business. Look like you're enjoying yourself on stage and critics will be all over you with accusations of playing to the crowd and putting yourself ahead of the music. Assume a posture of rapt absorption in the music, and you will be praised by the same critics for your serious artistry and featly to the composer. Of course, the latter is every bit as much a practiced stance as the former, as revealed in an anecdote about sainted British pianist Dame Myra Hess. To paraphrase, a page-turner once noticed the penciled notation "l.u." at several points in a score, and asked Dame Myra what they meant. "Look up," was the answer, meaning they marked the sublime moments Dame Myra emphasized by casting her eyes heavenwards.
But here as eleswhere in classicaldom, there's change in the air— change for the better, as far as I'm concerned. The younger generation of peformers, it has been my impression, not only recognizes but embraces the visual component of their artistry. Cannily, NPR illustrates the web page for Vedantam's report with an action shot (see above) of the veritable poster pianist for musicians who like to be seen as well as heard, Lang Lang. Known for both his high-octane, freewheeling virtuosity and highly emotive stage manner, Lang Lang annoys some ("As a trained serious classical pianist for most of my life, I find this behavior very annoying and distracting," wrote one recent Tanglewood audience member in a letter to the Berkshire Eagle), but delights others, mainly of a younger generation. Like, for instance, my pre-teen daughter, who greeted his opening flourish in Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1 at Tanglewood about ten years ago with a smile I'll never forget. Would she have been as captivated by someone who just sat there and played, however well? No way. Rock on, Lang Lang! And don't let 'em tell you not to.