Image, music, ambiguity

Rachel Campbell

While the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) functions primarily as a traditional concert ensemble, it also presents performances that explore the possibilities of placing a live orchestra in a multimedia context. Luminous was an instance of the orchestra collaborating with significant Australian artists: in this case photographer Bill Henson, sound sculptor Paul Healy and singer Paul Capsis. The ACO performed works beneath a screen onto which Henson’s photographs were projected. Paul Healy’s contributions were heard, while the staging was set, between the live music performances.

Although multimedia extensions of classical concert performances are not unheard of (including perfume occasionally wafting through auditoriums in 19th century song recitals!), they are still rare. While some contemporary composers conceive collaborative works with installation components–some of ELISION Ensemble’s performances are excellent examples–there are an increasing number of live performances by orchestras and ensembles providing music to film.

In Luminous most of the music and all of the photographs were conceived separately and later combined for the performance, an approach that resulted in both strengths and weaknesses. Imaginative presentation of a rich body of musical works in conjunction with other artforms may enhance the experience of both. There were moments in Luminous in which this was certainly the case.

Bill Henson’s photographs of adolescents–portraits capturing the sense of transition inherent in teenage life–have been described as “darkly glowing.” These, as well as his pictures of lonely, derelict urban landscapes, were presented on a screen in images which panned across and zoomed in and out of the original photographs. This sense of movement proved effective in its relationship with the music. It was not, however, a significant factor in the most powerful moments of the concert, when the combination of photographic subjects and music worked to suggest something more than the sum of the parts.

One of the many things music can do is suggest the progression of private thought and emotion. There were points in Luminous when this power of suggestion, combined with stills of adolescent faces and bodies captured in particularly expressive moments, produced a hauntingly evocative result. It was also a wonderfully subtle effect, as Henson’s work is often ambiguous: his images don’t tell a story so much as quietly suggest one. And the temptation to simply provide a blatantly emotional ‘soundtrack’ was generally avoided.

The main weakness in Luminous stemmed from the problem of pacing the images against musical works which, intended to be experienced only aurally, have an emotional structure dependent on the return of elements, their transformation, and the introduction of contrast. This was not such a problem early in the program with the Schnittke Trio-Sonata and music by the film composer Gabriel Yared. But in the second half, during the violin concerto by Peteris Vasks and Good Night from On an Overgrown Path by Janácek, there was a definite sense of disjunction between the play of images and the development of the music. There was also a problem generally in matching the images with fast music: images ceased entirely in the solo cadenzas of the Vasks, and then resumed whenever the music slowed.

Individual moments in Luminous were more effective than the concert as a whole. Highlights for the audience included Paul Capsis’ singing and Tognetti’s performance of the Vasks, as well as the opportunity to see Henson’s work. Other aspects did not cohere as one might have wished: none of the music matched the darkness of Henson’s photos for example (I don’t find George Crumb and Schnittke quite as shockingly sombre). And while Healy’s electronic compositions seemed to embody this character effectively, placing them around the live performances made them seem extraneous. That said, one can’t expect an ambitious attempt at such a combination of media to be without flaws.

Australian Chamber Orchestra, Luminous, artistic director Richard Tognetti, vocals Paul Capsis, photographer Bill Henson, sound sculptor Paul Healy, City Recital Hall, Melbourne, April 10-1

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 48

© Rachel Campbell; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2005