Multi-media – the way of the future?

By Barry Kempton

Tomorrow evening, our 2013-14 concert season ends with a Schubert Club Mix series performance.  In partnership with the SPCO’s Liquid Music and American Composers Forum, we present ETHEL, one of America’s most creative string quartets.  They are creative in many ways including the music they choose to play, the new works they commission and the extraordinary list of artists they collaborate with.  The quartet is also remarkable for the way they present their concerts.  Their style is as engaging as the very best traditional quartets, but in terms of dress and stage presence, they are far from traditional.  The program they are bringing to the Twin Cities is called Documerica and features photography commissioned in the 1970s by the US Environmental Projection Agency to document the state of the environment and its impact on society.

Though I haven’t seen it yet, my guess is that the visual projections will not only be fascinating, but they will also complement the music wonderfully.  Or maybe it’s actually the music which will complement the projections.  Either way, it’s certain that the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts.

Though live music is ostensibly all about sound (i.e. what we hear), live concerts are also about what we see.  There’s little need for debate about the inclusion of projected photography in a performance which is conceived as a multi-media project from the outset.  The inclusion of visual media in other performances is a little more contentious – at least in our classical music world.  Those who attended the piano recital by Valentina Lisitsa in March at the Ordway will remember that we put up a big screen behind her and projected close-up video of the keyboard and pianist’s hands.  We invited (and still welcome) feedback because it was (at least for us) fairly experimental.  Pop and rock concerts in large scale arenas feature big screen close-ups of artists all the time – but classical music venues are invariably smaller and video screens and projection equipment are expensive.  The feedback we got regarding the video close-ups of Valentina’s hands at the keyboard were overwhelmingly enthusiastic.  But it’s only fair to mention too that a small minority of the audience found the video distracting.  One comment described it as “exhausting.”

As we look to the future, we will consider a similar video projection approach for some piano recitals.  Next season, we’ll likely include the close-up video in one of the two piano recitals, but not in other recitals.  We’ll continue to ask audiences for their comments.  Multi-media (as I predict we’ll see tomorrow) can be thrilling and enhance the experience.  But it isn’t appropriate in all situations.

There are just a few tickets available for ETHEL tomorrow at Aria.  Call the box office soon if you don’t yet have tickets.  It’s not at all certain that we’ll have tickets for sale at the door.  651-292-3268 or