Classical Pantomime

Classical Pantomime

Notions of what’s authentic in music have changed in recent years, and it’s difficult, maybe impossible, to pinpoint when exactly this shift occurred.

Written By

Isaac Schankler

Following up on last week, I want to talk a little bit more about musical authenticity and how notions of what’s authentic in music have changed in recent years. For starters, let’s look at this video of an “acoustic” performance by Marina and the Diamonds, and think about what the word “acoustic” means in this context:

The video begins with the keyboardist playing a digital autoharp, before switching to a digital piano. The guitarist faithfully strums his acoustic guitar through most of the song, but it’s often so low in the mix as to be nearly inaudible. While the overall scene duplicates the setup of a band playing together in a room, there’s little to no room sound; the reverb on the singer’s voice is artificial. And on the chorus there’s a mysterious, invisible shaker played by an offscreen ghost.

In other words, there’s not much that’s acoustic (i.e. non-electronic) about how the sound was produced in this video. Instead, the term is used as a kind of skeuomorphic analogy for sounds that have an acoustic origin. I’m not pointing this out to deride or condemn the methods here. In fact, I think it’s interesting how there’s no attempt to disguise the fact that the scenario is in some way contrived. (Also, it sounds great.) This represents a significant change from a time when acoustic music was largely seen as real and genuine, and electronic music was often felt to be trickery and artifice.

This transition isn’t limited to the pop music world either. At Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, Anthony McGill, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, and Gabriela Montero pantomimed a performance of John Williams’ “Air and Simple Gifts.” This was regarded as a purely practical decision—the weather was too cold and the risk of broken strings was too great. Caroline Florman, a spokesperson for the event, said that “the fact they were forced to perform to tape because of the weather did not seem relevant.” There are plenty of other notable examples too, like Luciano Pavarotti lip synching at the opening ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympics. (The Olympics, in general, seems like an epicenter for this kind of thing.) The number of people who are bothered by this behavior seems to dwindle further and further.

Contrast this to the 1983 premiere of Frank Zappa’s “While You Were Art” by the California EAR Unit, when the ensemble, led by percussionist Art Jarvinen, pretended to perform while a cassette of synthesized instruments played back through loudspeakers. This caused a major scandal in the new music scene at the time, in part because no one in the audience was aware of the deception. In Zappa’s mind, this confirmed the phoniness of the classical music establishment, but it’s hard to imagine anyone making that point with this kind of performance now. (It’s also hard to imagine everyone being fooled by it.)
It’s difficult, maybe impossible, to pinpoint when exactly this attitude changed. But now we’re seeing an increase in canny, self-aware pantomime, like William Brittelle’s manic stage performances. Here the gap between sound and performance becomes a realm of possibility. Composers and performers are just beginning to explore this kind of territory, and it’ll be interesting to see where it leads.