Video saved the classical stars – how YouTube is transforming classical music

Anderson and RoeFri 11th October 2013

YouTube is changing classical music for the better, say pioneering piano duo Anderson and Roe

On a chilly April night, we found ourselves on the shore of a secluded California beach. We weren’t there to contemplate the stars above or to take a leisurely stroll; we were knee-deep in the frigid waters of the Pacific Ocean, bashing out chords in jagged rhythms upon an exquisite vintage organ originating from 1878 (which we had dragged into the waters with us). Not only were we giving an alfresco maritime performance in the pitch dark of night, we were sans garments … and every moment of this wild spectacle was being captured on film. It should be noted that this was no high-budget shoot; our modest ‘crew’ consisted of a camera operator and three friends who served as makeshift assistants, wielding flashlights, throwing us a towel in between harried takes, and eventually plunging into the crashing waves with us as we proceeded to submerge the instrument deeper into the ocean, risking camera lenses, mobile phones, and any semblance of safety in the process.

If all of this sounds crazy—it was. In fact, we were nearly conquered by Nature’s unfathomable power when a massive wave thrust the organ directly into Greg’s foot, ripping off his large toenail and causing him to nearly pass out from the pain. Not only were we fighting the elements, but also our fears, common sense, and limits of body and will.

Why would we put ourselves in such a situation? And how has such a scenario become almost ‘typical’ for the two of us?

To put it simply, we are utterly passionate about making music videos, and in creating these videos the music always serves as our guide: whatever the music inherently requires, we must heed the call. The composition that pushed us to such dangerous heights is (appropriately) Igor Stravinsky’s eternally radical Rite of Spring, which celebrates its centennial this year.

In today’s complex, fast-paced, multitasking culture, how does one translate Stravinsky’s masterwork in all its visceral splendour? Naturally, the classical music scene has been rife with performances all over the globe in homage to the piece’s centenary, but we wanted to take a unique approach beyond the concert stage. The Rite’s elemental power, symbolic richness, and perennial relevancy struck us as remarkably cinematic, and we were thus inspired to rework the piece for a new medium: the big screen. To that end, we let our imaginations go haywire in an effort to realise the feverish imagery the music evokes. This project sparked within us an obsessive devotion every step of the way, from extensive brainstorming sessions on tour to sleepless nights in the editing room. For the sake of the film we not only drowned the aforementioned organ in the Pacific; we also traversed the desert clad in tribal masks and heavy robes, hurled buckets of paint at each other, covered our hands with crawling millipedes, and literally played with fire. We went to these extreme lengths because there was ultimately no other option: we had to stay true to the raw immediacy and archetypal vision of this Everest of compositions.

If the Rite represents the apex of our video output (so far) in terms of scale and ambition, the fundamental spirit of exploration was there from the very start of our celluloid endeavours. In the early days of the YouTube juggernaut, we decided to make our own music videos, inspired by the worlds of film, visual art, and yes, pop music. Our childhoods coincided with the glory days of MTV (before the onslaught of reality TV shows), when music videos by Michael Jackson and Madonna would be newsworthy, zeitgeist-encapsulating events. Our first trilogy of videos, filmed in a single weekend with a basic camcorder, was posted in early 2007. When these videos attracted a response transcending our expectations, YouTube’s brave new world appeared to offer us an exciting forum for dissemination and experimentation. From that point onward we’ve continued to create videos of music ranging from Vivaldi to ‘Viva la Vida.’ Despite limited resources, we are committed to transmitting the spirit of the music from the score to the screen. A couple examples: our take on Schubert’s terrifying lied Der Erlkönig is a miniature horror film in which we are devoured by a monstrous instrument, while our Mozart Sonata video visually recreates the lively two-piano dialogue.

Believe it or not, ‘classical’ music—with its drama and substance, colour and resonance—provides tremendous fodder for cinematic interpretation. If the songs of Lady Gaga can engender music videos filled with outrageously creative tableaux, just imagine what the variegated music of the classical idiom could inspire. And while the concert hall offers an ambiance and acoustics conducive to focused listening experiences, YouTube is considerably less ideal. With pop-up ads, an onslaught of user comments, and unpredictable audio quality, not to mention the quotidian commotion of modern life, classical music served online takes a special approach. Just as we cater our live performances to each particular venue, we design our music videos to thrive on the YouTube platform within its bustling graphic environment, so that the music leaps to new and energising visual life.

Ultimately, we want to share the music we love with new audiences, audiences who otherwise might not listen to Brahms or Boulez. A single click could be an entry point to a transporting and even transformative soundverse. To that end, making these music videos has become much more than a hobby; it is an essential part of our creative existence and personal mission.

The mad genius of Stavinsky’s Rite has compelled us to sacrifice our comfort zone—conceptually, physically, emotionally—awakening us to startling levels of audacity and awareness. Given the seemingly endless list of potent and awe-inspiring music yet to tackle, it’s safe to say we won’t be playing it safe.

Watch the trailer to Anderson & Roe’s music film, The Rite of Spring:

Watch ‘The Sacrificial Dance’ from The Rite of Spring, featuring the sacrificial destruction of a 135-year-old organ.

Watch ‘Der Erlkönig,’ filmed at the Steinway Piano Factory in Queens, New York City

Anderson and Roe

Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe are revolutionizing the piano duo experience for the 21st century. Together they have appeared on NPR and MTV, recorded Billboard chart-topping albums, toured worldwide as recitalists and orchestral soloists, and released Emmy-nominated, self-produced music videos viewed by millions.

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