The house lights dim, the stage lights flare up. As the performer graces the stage, the audience offer their hands in applause before quietening down in anticipation of what they are about to experience.
The keyword here is experience. Classical music has a wonderful ability to evoke. From a lone swaying boat on rolling ocean waves in Ravel’s Une Barque sur l’Ocean, to the earthy, raw, pagan rituals of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, it is possible to experience anything and everything through classical music; it is a genre built on evocation and imagination.
Yet, the extent of classical music’s powers of evocation is often determined by the listener’s level of awareness of the composition’s historical context. For example, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier - albeit with all its brilliance and character - may make less of an emotional impact on first-time listeners without the aid of additional prior knowledge about the composer and the piece. On learning that Beethoven had composed it after becoming profoundly deaf, on realising that the sonata would become one of the most important pieces of piano literature, and on knowing that the sonata was composed in response to the receipt of the Broadwood piano from London which had a broader compass than German pianos (and also that Beethoven had finished composing much of the piece before the piano had arrived in Vienna), the piece begins to adopt far greater meaning or, at the very least, challenges the listener to rise to new levels of engagement with the work itself.
Traditionally, such information may be provided in the form of programme notes; perhaps a more savvy performer may give a charming spoken introduction to the piece before performing.
This has concerned me for a while; I am unsure which other genres of music require such extensive contextualising in order to be (fully) enjoyed.
For those new in exploring classical music, the thought of having to sit still through a 45-minute major work may be intimidating enough, but tell them that they will also need to read up on the extensive facts to be able to truly enjoy those 45 minutes, and they may be forgiven for choosing to head to the pub instead. Surely there must be a way for classical music performance to take the lead from theatre and cinema, and allow the audience to experience the story as it unfolds itself onstage!
I first started experimenting with integrating sound design with classical repertoire in 2013. The experimentation began intuitively out of a deep desire to be able to capture and recreate specific moments from life to share with my audience.
Very naturally, I turned to experimenting with captured sound. In my mind, integrating sounds from the real world with classical repertoire seemed poetic – much like a duet between the reality and imagination. I would walk the streets with a recorder, listen back to hours of field recordings, then carefully edit and reconstruct the sounds to form a designed cinematic soundscape to be set to just the right piece of classical repertoire.
Yet the more I experimented, the more I became attuned to the musicality of captured sound, its effect on triggering people’s memory and emotive associations, and also its potential to provide an interactive layer of texture, counter-melody, and harmony against the written classical repertoire.
Soon, it became evident that listening to Catalan composer Federico Mompou’s Cancion y Danzas in a silent concert hall and hearing it against the soundscape of Barcelona provide two drastically different experiences. The latter transports the audience directly into Mompou’s native Barcelona - allowing a glimpse into the local culture through the sounds of passersby conversing in Spanish and Catalan, and the sounds of the Spanish guitar in midst of blaring radio and TV echoing out of the flats into the narrow alleyways. It gives Mompou’s Cancion y Danzas an immediate sense of relevance and relatability without changing the composition itself and, perhaps unexpectedly for a set of works composed between 1921 and 1979, also creates a sense of the work as being alive and of today’s time.
Likewise, a calming sonic layer of soft ocean waves and seagulls preceding the aforementioned Une Barque sur l’Ocean immediately gives the listeners the context and allows them to tap into their own personal memories of the seaside. Is the listener’s memory of the seaside a fond one? Or are they memories of time spent with a loved one who is no longer with them? I don’t know, and it is good that I don’t, because the connection that the listener forms with the music is now theirs, and theirs only.
I am now five years into performing classical music with sound design. In these five years, I notice myself transitioning from the mentality of a pianist into that of a storyteller. I began adapting improvisation to guide the audience through ‘scene’ changes, while experimenting with extended techniques on the piano to mimic instruments of cultural reference that I can use to allow for on-stage interaction with the soundscapes. To create a more immersive experience, certain scenes are further complemented through lighting design and scent design, allowing the audiences to engage their olfactory memory in addition to echoic memory.
To my delight, I have noticed that programme booklets with extensive facts and figures about composers and compositions have become redundant for my shows. The integration of sound design and music provide enough context to allow the audiences to be engaged through their own imagination and emotive association, and to form their own story as the performance goes along. There is no fear of losing the historical significance and context of the compositions either. If the audience connects with the music and the experience, they will inevitably seek to increase their understanding of the composers and the composition afterwards.