Sunday 16 January 2011

Virtual or reality

In the past week I have sung at six choral services at Lichfield Cathedral and listened to a newly released CD on which I am singing as part of Birmingham Cathedral Choir. Every second of the CD was recorded at least twice and edited to produce the final product which can be listened to repeatedly, but the services took place at their allotted time and all that is left is an ephemeral memory of the occasions.

While the ultimately polished performance on the CD is an important artefact in its own right, the transitory nature of a live performance must be accorded greater respect. Turning up to a cathedral, concert hall, or theatre to see and hear a group of individuals performing for the assembled audience – be it four people at a weekday Evensong or thousands at the Albert Hall – where everything is happening at just the moment is a potentially electrifying experience for both the performers and audience.

Over the past few years, an industry whereby concert performances are recorded and CDs of the event burnt and sold to the audience as they leave has developed. While this must prove a profitable scheme for the performers, how many of the CD’s listeners will be disappointed when they attempt to relive the experience of the live concert in the comfort of their own home? The National Theatre and Metropolitan Opera have recently broadcast their performances to cinemas throughout the country so people can enjoy the experience of going to the theatre or opera more cheaply and conveniently, but how can this detached presentation of the performance offer the ‘cinema’ audiences the excitement of seeing the real performance?

When teaching drama texts, I often think how useful it would be to have a recording of a staged performance of the play (rather than television or cinematic adaptations) so the text can be shown as it is meant to be seen rather than just being read in the classroom, but these are few and far between. Ultimately, I believe this is probably a good thing; although useful, they would deprive people of the experience of seeing a live performance. If a recording of each of the RSC’s performances of Shakespeare’s 37 plays was available to watch, why would they ever have to stage another play when a DVD could simply be shown for the audience’s delectation?

While a planned, edited and published recording provides a valuable historic record of artistic performances, there is an immediacy missing in a live performance mediated through screen or amplifier. In a world where is it easy to access recordings of nearly anything through the internet – think live events, mobile phones and YouTube – the combined human effort that goes into a live performance must not be overlooked. The experience of seeing or hearing a performance live provides something infinitely more valuable for an individual’s understanding and appreciation of the world and the capabilities of people around them and must not be underestimated in our ‘on demand’ age.

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