Invisible Musicians

Posted on December 22, 2011 at 10:00 am by
in Being a Professional, Technology
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At the end of this blog is a letter to the editor that was published in the December 13 Louisville 
Courier-Journal. In it the writer laments the absence of an orchestra at this year’s Nutcracker performance. The tone of her letter is typical of what I had read in the past when ballets have opted to use recorded music instead of live. The experience just isn’t the same.

Coincidentally, during the same time period I was playing the national touring company production of the Broadway show, Billy Elliot. The basic instrumentation (not accounting for doubles) was conductor/keys 1, keys 2, guitar, bass, drums, horn, trumpet, reed 1 and reed 2.  In this particular production only the conductor/keys 1, keys 2, guitar and bass were in the pit. The four “horns” were in a separate, very large, room behind the pit. Our space was delineated by curtains on pipes. We had our “clubhouse.”

Our Clubhouse

The drum set was also in this large room but he had a special little glass “house” which was about 20 feet from us. We all had our personal video monitors, which broadcast the conductor, and a mixing board that we configured in any way we wanted.

It seems that this set-up was chosen to better control the sound.  The instruments that were in the pit we all electronic, and their sound went directly into the house sound system. Therefore no sound actually emanated from the pit. As they explained to us, if the acoustic instruments were in the pit, they would be mic’d, but some acoustic sound would naturally be present. The overall sound experience for the audience wouldn’t be as good, since the sound engineer would not be able to totally control the mix. The orchestra or parts of it in a remote location is an option that has been used for several years now by Broadway shows.

Sorry for the long-winded set-up just to get to the point of this blog.  .  .  and it’s not even going to be about electronics taking over the music world.

My point is that the four “horns” didn’t feel part of a performance. Don’t get me wrong. I was happy to have the gig, and the four of us in our little clubhouse did form a bond over the two weeks. We had a good time and played well, but even though the pay was very good, it was somehow unsatisfying. We were literally “phoning our parts in.” We came to the theatre in street clothes. Sat down, did our thing and went home. It was like a recording session, but with no second takes. During the bows the conductor would motion to the four players in the pit. We wondered if the audience asked themselves, “where are the drums?” What concerned me was that the audience didn’t see half of the pit band, and had no inkling that we were even there.

I began to think that by playing our parts in a remote location, our importance to the overall show experience was devalued. The sounds that came from our instruments were anonymous. For all the audience knew, we could have been a recording.

My Musical World for Two Weeks

Then I read the letter to the editor that is at the end of this post.

In a way, what we were doing is a step in a progression to using total pre-recorded music. A musical experience is always better in a live situation. I don’t think any of us has given our favorite CD a round of applause upon its completion. The feelings the writer to the Louisville newspaper expressed, were similar to what we felt. Live is definitely better.

The following letter is from a reader and was published in the Louisville
Courier-Journal on December 13, 2011.

 A Tradition Muted



What a very sad Christmas story tonight. Like so many years prior, my family
was very excited to attend the preview performance of “The Nutcracker”
Friday evening. The energy and richness of years past was replaced by a more
hollow experience.

Gone is the pre-curtain excitement and anticipation that mounts as the
musicians tune their instruments. Gone are the shadows of light and movement
as the musicians lead the way for the dancers. Gone are the lingering notes
that transition one scene to the other with the tenderness of a conductor’s
lead.

I had no idea how much the emptiness of the orchestra pit would impact the
experience, especially from the balcony. I was so distracted by the vacant
lifelessness of the pit, like a toothless mouth, the transitions of music to
OFF, the frequent speaker feedback which plagued the second half of the show
(my heart breaks for these technicians trying to replicate an orchestra). I
felt so sad for these dancers who have invested their bodies, souls and
lifetime of work into the thrill of performing live, and they now dance to
canned music with feedback (hopefully resolved after the preview).

Should we prepare for an eventual recording of the dancers on stage, too, as
the quality of the ballet experience becomes additional carnage? We could
run a “Nutcracker” recording from years past and save the trouble of
performing it live. Is anyone going to take the lead and figure out how to
undo this orchestra train wreck?

This was my first experience of the great loss for our city and of all of
the artists, technicians and patrons enduring the consequences. Bah, humbug!

KRISTIN CRINOT

Louisville

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