While some aesthetes may claim a great chef or a master perfumer is an artist comparable to a painter or a poet, what most people acknowledge as art is primarily a visual phenomenon. The one notable exception to this rule has always been music, which is crafted to engage the ear. But sensory exclusivities are now breaking down throughout the arts. Four years ago the Guggenheim Museum presented a “scent opera,” in which audiences sat in chairs fitted with specially designed “scent microphones” in order to—literally—smell the story, and last November the Museum of Arts and Design mounted a scent exhibition. A month earlier, the School of Visual Arts hosted an interdisciplinary conference on cooking.
As for music, it, too, is undergoing a process of redefinition that no longer limits its input to the aural. Of course, music has been presented alongside theater and dance since time immemorial, and with film since the genre’s inception. But it’s usually relatively easy to parse the musical from the “extra-musical,” and most often each is created by different artists working within their chosen fields: a composer writes the music, a choreographer shapes the dance, etc.
However, in some recent pieces, the so-called extra-musical elements are an integral part of the composer’s original conception. Heiner Goebbels’s Stifters Dinge, for example, employs an imposing array of mechanical musical instruments as the characters in a plotless music drama, and New York: A City Symphony completely interweaves the orchestra’s live playing with film, both created by composer Troy Herion.
There is a new generation of music that needs to be seen as well as heard. One of the most stunning examples of a composition crafted equally for eyes and ears is Dutch composer Michel van der Aa’s 30-minute cello concerto Up-close (2010), which received the 2013 Grawemeyer Award and has its U.S. premiere during the White Light Festival (October 28). In addition to live music, Up-close features a film (directed by van der Aa) and electronic soundtrack, both manipulated from a laptop using a proprietary software program, doubleAplayer, specially designed in 2009 with the help of composer Johan van Kreij to facilitate the performance of van der Aa’s electro-acoustic music. There are also props, which the cellist maneuvers during the piece, and her musical journey—and movements around the stage (all meticulously worked out in the score)—are directly mirrored in the peregrinations of the protagonist on the screen, a similarly dressed elderly woman.
The program’s three shorter van der Aa solo works employ similar techniques: Transit (2007) gives the pianist explicit staging instructions and has a parallel video projection, while for the highly theatrical Memo (2003), a violinist records himself with a small cassette machine and then plays along with it. Oog for cello and tape (1995) does not contain any visual elements per se, but rather plays with people’s perceptions: it is often difficult to tell which sounds are live and which are pre-recorded.
Visual stimuli play an equally important role in the music of Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas, but in the exact opposite way. Whereas the sonic elements in van der Aa’s music are enhanced by additional elements, Haas’s eerie aural landscapes filled with alternately tuned intervals are made even more otherworldly by sight deprivation: several of his works employ a range of lighting—including total darkness.
Haas’s first work to incorporate passages performed in the dark was his contribution to Wölfli Szenen, a 1981 chamber opera inspired by the early 20th-century outsider artist Adolf Wölfli, comprising sections by four composers. Haas’s hour-long piece for chamber orchestra in vain (2000) further refines this idea, alternating sections performed in regular lighting with others performed in darkness—specified in the score—to complete great dramatic effect.
Haas has taken this idea to its ultimate conclusion in his third string quartet, In iij. Noct. (2001). (The JACK Quartet, a staunch advocate for this piece, performs it on November 19.) Playing in complete darkness, the musicians (unable to see each other or their scores) are required to sit as far apart from each other as possible. Aside from the knowledge that the dark can be somewhat unsettling for audiences, the work poses unique challenges for its interpreters.
Since the members of the quartet cannot read music during the performance, the score is simply a set of instructions, and many specifics are left for the performers to decide. Haas describes a total of 18 situations in the score, each initiated by the players, who communicate solely through the sounds they make on their instruments. Depending on how they respond to each other sonically, a particular process is either developed further, or the players proceed to the next situation. The duration is also variable; it must last a minimum of 35 minutes, but it can be much longer.
While contemporary composers like van der Aa and Haas have broadened their music’s range by incorporating visual elements, interpreters of centuries-old works are also beginning to explore the ways additional stimuli can expand the interpretative palette.
New York audiences first heard soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci in a 1999 Metropolitan Museum of Art program of four Italian early Baroque laments composed a generation after Don Carlo Gesualdo: Chi non mi conosce dirà by Pietro Antonio Giramo (fl. 1619–c. 1630); Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and the famous Lamento d’Arianna: Lasciatemi morire by Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643); and Lagrime mie, a che vi trattenete by Barbara Strozzi (1619–77). But when Antonacci returns to New York to perform these works in Era la Notte (November 13–14), additional elements will be added to the mix: lighting design by Dominique Bruguière, sets by Cécile Degos, and costumes by Christian Lacroix. This cross between a vocal recital and opera is the brainchild of director Juliette Deschamps, who has fashioned a story of an emotional journey from crazed love to abandonment, a longing for death, and ultimately transcendence.
Presenting the four laments together in this way draws deeper parallels between them, and even takes a few liberties. For example, Tancredi e Clorinda, originally scored for two singers and a narrator, is performed as a solo. Additionally, instrumental works by Biagio Marini (1597–1665) create a seamless musical flow before, between, and after the laments.
Whether or not these composers would have approved of their music being repurposed this way no one can know. Not many details about Marini or Giramo survive—even the latter’s exact years of birth and death remain a mystery. Monteverdi, of course, composed the earliest operas that remain a vital part of today’s repertoire, and as a man of the theater he no doubt would have been intrigued by the possibilities. Strozzi, the most successful woman composer of the 17th century, was extraordinarily entrepreneurial, so probably would have relished any opportunity for her work to reach audiences in a new way.
Whether it is a vital component of a groundbreaking new piece or a stylish realization that adds fresh interpretative dimensions to much older material, musical presentations are no longer just about listening. Of course, paying complete attention can sometimes be hard enough, so requiring an audience to do more than that in order to fully appreciate an experience can be a tall order. Admittedly it is probably not too difficult to be able to simultaneously enjoy Antonacci’s performance of Italian Baroque laments while delighting in the visual spectacle Deschamps has created around it. Similarly, van der Aa’s recasting of a cello concerto as a work that is a dialogue between soloist and ensemble—as well as between what we see and what we hear—should enable audiences to focus on details that might have been missed had the concert been exclusively an auditory experience.
On the other hand, the negation of sight for Haas’s In iij. Noct. creates an environment of enforced defenselessness, which can be emotionally disturbing. That vulnerability is a fundamental part of the experience, as it was for John La Bouchardière’s recent production of Lera Auerbach’s opera The Blind, throughout which audience members were required to wear blindfolds. But in The Blind, the blindfolds enable the audience to more clearly identify and empathize with the blind characters, and they are given additional olfactory and tactile stimuli, so that even though their vision has been taken away, their other senses are fully engaged. There are no additional sensory stimuli in Haas’s quartet; still, by having the music performed in the dark, listening will presumably be far more focused.
The inclusion of extrasensory components, or purposely restricting specific senses, results in a much more immersive experience than the typical proscenium concert presentation, during which performers don’t ask us to deliberately engage our other senses. All of these multisensory events ultimately make us more aware of the particular place and time we are inhabiting, and how we’re interacting with and responding to everything around us. This is undoubtedly why such performances have become more commonplace.
This season’s White Light Festival presentations should whet our appetites for further audacious multisensory immersions. Ensemble musikFabrik’s recent presentation of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Michaels Reise um die Erde in Avery Fisher Hall made something that could have been completely off-putting into total fun: audiences, who were instructed to wear blue to the performance (and most did), were treated to a sensory overload that included projections, frankincense wafting down the aisles, and the principal soloist literally hovering above the stage in a mechanical arm. What could possibly be next? Composer Ben Houge, for one, has been collaborating on “food operas” with Chef Jason Bond of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, restaurant Bondir. My bet is that audiences are going to devour all of these with relish—and leave hungry for more.
ASCAP Award–winning composer and music journalist Frank J. Oteri is the composer advocate at New Music USA and the senior editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org.