Music

Here's one they played earlier: Pre-recorded orchestras spell trouble for live performance

The Northern Ballet's upcoming tour of Romeo & Juliet will use pre-recorded performances from the Northern Ballet Sinfonia

Max Richter performs his reimagining of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with violinist Daniel Hope, Berlin, 2014. Image: © Erik Weiss / DG

‘That was without microphones?’ a friend asked in amazement during the interval of a recent concert, expressing incredulity that the singers were unamplified. It sometimes surprises people that opera, like most (but not all) classical music is performed acoustically. It’s one of several identifiable features and the reason why concert halls and opera houses are carefully designed to ensure acoustics are appropriate for the genre. Sitting in on a dress rehearsal can be illuminating: soloists will often perform at ‘half volume’ to save resources for the actual performance. Conductors and orchestras dedicate their lives to listening to balance and responding accordingly, taking into account the intricacies of the venue. So when an ensemble opts for electronic assistance, it’s often as a last resort.

When Aldeburgh Festival put on a production of Britten’s Peter Grimes on the real-life beach where the plot is based, the orchestra had to be pre-recorded in order to be heard above crashing seas and crunching pebbles. The singers, too, wore headsets, as did the soloists in ENO’s pandemic performances of La bohème, where singing was broadcast live through car radios. And at Latitude Festival, superstar pianist Lang Lang needed a little help from microphones to ensure those gathered at the banks of the floating stage could hear Liszt and Beethoven.

But using recorded music in concert halls to replace a live orchestra is a different matter. That’s what’s happening at Northern Ballet, where the Northern Ballet Sinfonia is being asked to record soundtracks. The 28-strong ensemble will give a reduced number of live performances, with gaps filled by their recordings.

At present, the orchestra is set to play for part of the tour of Romeo & Juliet (opening at Leeds Grand Theatre 8 March) with recorded music in the pipeline for later in the year. Listings for performances in Southampton, Canterbury and Newcastle sport a new circular icon with the advisory note ‘Recorded Music’.

The development has rung alarm bells across the industry, and a petition to Arts Council England and other bodies has attracted nearly 15,000 signatures. The Musicians’ Union warns: “Unlike other Northern Ballet workers, the [Sinfonia] musicians are on freelance contracts and only get paid for the work they do. Some of our members at Northern Ballet are already relying on food banks to survive.”

Of course, there can be valid artistic reasons for using electronics. Steve Reich’s tape pieces like Different Trains – where a string quartet plays alongside looped recordings – and Max Richter‘s Four Seasons Recomposed, electro-acoustic remixes of Vivaldi’s work, relies on collaboration and interplay between instrumentalist and pre-recorded sound. Anna Clyne is currently developing an ‘augmented’ orchestra, where real-time digital creations enhance the instrumentation. The critical difference is that the technology becomes part of the ensemble, rather than replacing it.

There’s something dystopian about suggesting performers could be recreated via AI, but as holograms are increasingly used as part of ‘immersive’ shows (Elvis Evolution premieres in London in November; the success of ABBA Voyage continues), the jibe that the Northern Ballet might as well do away with the dancers as well seems all-too possible.

Listen to…

Many of the pianist-composers who can be heard on burgeoning online playlists create work that focuses on the softer sounds of the piano, with a blurred timbre achieved by wedging material between the hammers to dampen the action. While this technique has long been used in contemporary music (most famously by John Cage), it was Nils Frahm who brought it to pop-electronic worlds with 2011 album Felt. Having worked on larger canvases in recent years, Frahm returns to solo piano in his latest album Day, released 1 March. The pianist tours the UK this summer, beginning at Brighton’s Dome (30 June) and finishing with six gigs at the Barbican in London (11-14 July).

Claire Jackson is a writer and editor.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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