Friday 5 February 2016

Classical Music Hyper Production and Practice-As-Research Conference

The Konvalia Quartet playing on electric string instruments
The Konvalia Quartet playing on electric string instruments
On Sunday 31 January 2016 I took part in the Classical Music Hyper Production and Practice-As-Research Conference organised by the London College of Music at the University of West London. The first event was a pair of performances by the Konvalia Quartet (Dorottya Szabados-Drótos (violin I), Agata Kubiak (violin II), Marietta Szalóki (viola) and Andrea Derdak (cello)) of Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8. Following lunch I took part in a panel discussion with Andrew Blake (Winchester University), Todd Landor (Musical Concepts and Alto Distribution) chaired by Simon Zagorski-Thomas on how the sound of the production affects the commercial prospects of a classical recording (a video of which is on Vimeo).

The first Shostakovich performance explored the interesting sonic world created when 20 guitar pedals are plugged into electric string instruments, with processing by Simon Zagorski-Thomas and Andrew Bourbon from the London College of Music. The second was an acoustic performance devised and directed by John Landor (music director of the London Musical Arts Orchestra) and Susan Kempster in collaboration with the Konvalia Quartet using an approach called Music In Motion. "This open performance space allows the musicians to move to interact more closely with each other. They can embody the music more fully with their presence which enables more effective communication of the content and meaning of the music".

The electric performance of  Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8 was very much a work in progress and there had been some technical problems with the guitar pedals in the run through earlier that morning. It effectively adds a further to performers to the mix with another layer of sonic projection as the sounds from the electric instruments are filtered through the electronic effects produced live by Simon Zagorski-Thomas and Andrew Bourbon. At best it brought out the colours of the orchestration analogous to an electronic re-orchestration of the music. Not everything was successful and it is an approach which probably needs more work. It also needs some adjustment from the performers as the sound they make is not entirely under their control and sometimes an instrument you expected to hear was not the dominant one in the mix, which must have made the coordination of the players a challenge. And it is a tribute to their abilities and professionalism that the whole performance was at such a high level.

The second performance of the same work was more traditional in that the players were using their normal acoustic instruments. But the music was played from memory, and the performers moved around. Not all the time, but as the music suggested it so that their physical positions embodied the structure of the music at the time, with the first violin coming forward as a soloist, or all the upper strings retiring to the back to leave the cellist alone. It was a fascinating and absorbing approach which rather than adding another layer to the music, as the electronic one did, made the structure of Shostakovich's piece more apparent and more expressive. I particularly like the moments when the fourth wall was broken, such as the first violinist coming through to wander round the audience for one of her solos.  Over and above the movement, the performance had the advantage of a directness brought about by the lack of clutter music stands, and it would be interesting to hear other groups performing from memory, even if they hardly movement.

After lunch was our lively discussion which started out looking at whether the novel modes of recording techniques being explored at the London College of Music could feature in commercially produced recordings, and this gradually shaded into a discussion of the wider issues of classical music today. You can see a video of the discussion on Vimeo. The final panel of the day was on the nature and characteristics of Practice As Research outputs chaired by Simon Zagorski-Thomas with Simon Ellis (Dance – Coventry University), Kristen Kreider (Poetry – Royal Holloway College), Ian Pace (Music – City University).

You can find links to all the videos of the conference discussions on the conference website.

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