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Christmas in 3-D

Allen posted this as an Announcement, but he brings up an interesting point that might be worth discussion.  He wrote:  "In the performing arts we've always been 3-D, in the literal sense. Your depth perception knows that some performers are closer, and others farther away. Yet in some ways we still have a little catching up to do. Movies have surround-sound and the 3-D effects cause the action to seem "in your face." As an audience member you feel like you're part of the action, not just observing it from a distance. Choral concerts, on the other hand, still tend to be performed from one spot, with predictable stopping points and a clear boundary between performers and audience.  Not this concert. We're going to be a little more "in your face" this Christmas. There will be surround sound. We'll be breaking the "fourth wall" and singing right in your laps. We'll fill the hall with music, and every song will be different. Sink into your chair and enjoy a total immersion experience this Christmas, as the music comes to you."
 
Now I realize that this is promotional copy, but it's still an interesting question.  On one side, we tend to obsess about riser placement, sightlines, and focused rather than difuse sound.  On the other, I'm sure many of us have experimented with using the space within a hall (or a church if appropriate) in new and different ways.  Still, surround sound presents practical difficulties for both a conductor and choristers, not the least of which being the time lag imposed by the speed of sound.
 
In a way we are at the mercy of our chosen venues.  If it is an auditorium or a theater with a proscenium we're stuck with it.  And yes, that particular design is INTENDED to separate the performers from the listeners.
 
Back in the '60s and '70s there were a lot of early music ensembles that were pushing the accepted limits both in terms of concert dress and in terms of venue and setup within a venue.  A number managed to find locations that allowed either in-the-round or at least thrust staging, and found it quite successful.  (Going back, I'm quite sure, to the concerts led first by Telemann and later by Bach at Zimmerman's Coffee House in Leipzig!!)  And in the late '60s I both attended theater productions given in the round and participated in concerts done in the round, with an entertainment ensemble whose show was definitely designed for a proscenium theater or a night club stage.  The first problem is one of lighting design, and the second is one of whom to face and when. 
 
There's quite a nice little Shakespearean theater in Staunton, Virginia (who knew?!!!) that combines a deep thrust stage, audience seating on 3 sides on 2 levels, and even has a balcony on the back of the stage that can be utilized.  But it's quite small, and once you start adding more and more seats it's awfully hard to strike a balance between seating capacity and decent acoustics.  Some churches or chapels lend themselves nicely to that; others do not.  When my ensemble did the 12th century "Play of Herod" in a very large Presbyterian church we did use the enire hall including the choirloft in the back, but it drove our recording technicians nuts and they could not get a decent recording (not an unimportant matter nowadays).  And a lot of us both in early music and (obviously) in entertainment still tend to reject 19th century dinner clothing as the only possible concert dress.
 
And since St. Mark's in Venice is usually thought of as the ideal situation for antiphonal music, I'll just pass on a comment from a friend from grad school.  He took his high school choir to Venice and somehow got permission to sing in St. Mark's, and wrote back that Gabrielli WILL not and CAN not ever sound quite right in ANY other building, since it was written for that church and took full advantage of its acoustics.
 
So I applaud your thinking, Allen, and I hope you'll let us know how it works out in practice.
 
All the best,
John
 
on November 22, 2011 10:14pm
It's been a PR challenge within the group, too. It's way outside their comfort zone. Here's an excerpt of an email I got from a singer:
When we sing in long strung-out lines, we can't hear each other, can't see you, don't stay together, don't stay on pitch, and generally sound bad.
 
... We are singers.  Older singers.  That's our strength. We're not the June Taylor Dancers.
 
I am your biggest fan, but innovation is not more important that quality.  We'll end up doing both badly.
 
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