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The Infinite Space

March 2, 2011

Music is an infinite space without limits and boundaries.

— 21st century classical pianist Lola Astanova

Why don’t we make music videos for classical solo piano repertoire?

I’ve always wondered.

Musicians have long acknowledged that images and music together have a certain power. After all, we have film music as a good example. The mainstream pop/rock industry has utilized this to its full extent: it seems that every day, a new music video is coming out, with innovative themes, filming, and more. These videos range from the rather simple to the artistically symbolic to the really weird.

It’s become unthinkable for a mainstream pop musician NOT to have a music video. With a good music video, one can get a bad product some press. With a good music video, one can give an already excellent product more exposure. Music videos tend to be attention grabbing. Producers go all out to get the desired reaction: shock, peace, amusement, horror, or even confusion. Some of these music videos draw their viewers in through images that the song evokes. Regina Spektor’s music video “Fidelity” translates the concept of falling in love fully to the image of a man with no body. Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” features an unfortunate teal bathing suit with sleeves. Britney Spear’s “Toxic” involves inappropriately sexy stewardesses who peel of men’s faces and drive motorcycles.

shook it up

After watching the video, the viewers are entertained, or inspired, or at least pushed to think about what the musician meant to say, if there was something the musician wanted to say.

However, compared to this innovative-ness in music videos, the classical music industry is far behind the times. I have recently heard of classical pianists who have begun to experience with this medium. However, there’s not much I can say about them. Most of our “music videos” (at least for pianists) consist of shots of musicians playing the piano in huge concert halls. A series of Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman‘s videos (dating from probably the 1980s) involves shots of a huge, sparkling chandelier hanging from the top of the concert hall where he performs Schubert and Chopin, emphasizing the typical lavishness people associate with going to the concert. A quick search on Youtube turns up fan-designed videos where Moonlight Sonata plays as background to a set of Beethoven pictures, or calm slide shows of the moon on water and wolves (yeah, I really don’t know).

Recently, a colleague of mine and I discussed a grant idea we could collaborate on. Greatly interested by these very same concepts that music videos followed, he would take pictures, and then project the visual imagery on a screen to accompany a live piano performance. By having the idea of combining visual imagery with live piano playing, my photographer friend and colleague Eric Sung was on the right track. However, I propose that we go a step further.

By this idea of a music video, I don’t mean shots of musicians playing piano in a concert hall. Or a slideshow of birds and trees and flowers accompanied by a piano track. What about taking an idea, a concept, an interpretation, and running with it?

For example, fellow pianist Lola Astanova recently released a music video of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op.3 No.2. Titled Midnight Dream, the 10 minute video’s frighteningly dramatic images pull the watcher in from the very beginning, ala Hitchock style.

As one can see in the Youtube comments, much speculation went on about what exactly Astanova meant to say.

From the highest ranked comment:

A caveman-grammar version of my interpretation to fit the character limit:

Shoved on the piano = beginning of Lola’s career
Tears off “pretty pink dress” = she rejects traditional clothing
Begins Rachmaninov’s “Moscow Bells” prelude = first performance in trendy/hip clothes in Russia
Rips off tape; powerful octave-chords (does that term exist?) at climax of piece = open rebellion in classical music world
Taken away from piano and thrown out = not taken seriously; cannot perform
Just a guess


Ultimately, Astanova left the video up for interpretation, without commenting much on it except to say on her blog, “This is not a Hollywood project, but rather a deeply personal story with layers of meaning that, I hope, insightful viewers will catch and appreciate.”

But I think it is clear that she did have something to say, and there might be a slight sense of bitterness about the classical music world there somewhere. I think Astanova does kind of thinks of herself as something of a rebel, describing herself as hardly the stereotypical musician. She has something of a “sexy” image (even though she thinks otherwise) though I have to say that I’m not really sure that that is anything new, and that I think it’s easier for girls than guys to pull it off. She likes pop. She hates chiffon gowns (hm… some insight into the music video, perhaps) and refuses to be anything other than what she is.

Here’s the link to an interview she had with Gail Parenteau, where she explains her thoughts about the direction of the musical industry and what she thinks is the solution.

In my opinion, the industry needs to loosen up quite a bit. Traditional classical managers need to take a step back and allow the artists to breathe and take chances. They should also come to terms with the fact that the world today is a very different place than it was 50 and even 10 years ago. That’s first… Classical music is not a museum piece, but a performing art that lives only through the artist and the audience. So each concert must be a love affair, not a funeral.

Toward the end of the article, she says something that I agree with wholeheartedly.

Classical music is about basic human feelings, emotions, concerns and worries that are experienced by all people every day. So to say that classical music can only be enjoyed by the “select few” is complete nonsense.

I do admire the concept behind her video and her interview, and agree with her assessment about the industry. I think she may be right: that much of what we do has become stale, boring. While the pop industry has grown in leaps and bounds, the classical music industry has stagnated. Our slowness to embrace the technology doesn’t help that much, either. Pop musicians tweet daily (both “I had a sandwich for lunch” as well as “profound thoughts about life“) as a way to connect to fans. They’ve got Youtube accounts, blogs, and extremely welcoming and interactive websites. A WSJ article commented on the fact that such these methods of promotion were “new” behavior for classical musicians. Astanova also embraces technology in her promotion of herself and her music: she tweets, blogs (Blog name: “Only Words to Play With…”), and has a Youtube channel she regularly updates. (It’s kind of funny to watch her perform, and I don’t mean about the whole sexy image she presents, but she’s a very flashy performer).

In many ways, we are stuck in the past, with our shots of musicians wearing tails in lavish concert hall settings. People tend to think that classical music is the music of a different generation, that it is the music of the past, which certainly should not be true. There is a certain truth in what she is saying. There might be something overly formal about our treatment of classical music.

No wonder people are not drawn into this.

And though we can look at our “music videos” and appreciate them for what they are, we have to admit that maybe they are a bit stale. Who would want to see yet another film of a pianist sitting in a concert hall playing the piano when they could be watching something more engaging? I’m not saying that musicians should pull a Lady Gaga (that might blur the line between doing things simply for the reaction rather than out of any integrity in art). What about taking an idea from the piece itself? Creativity shouldn’t be limited.

what are you DOING??

Often times, pop songs tell a story, or are meant to spread a certain idea or to evoke a certain emotion through their lyrics. Music videos can be a useful  vehicle–or I would argue even essential–to take this idea even further and drive the point home through the use of images.

Our music can communicate ideas, even without words. And the execution of the video doesn’t have to take away from the intellectual nature of classical. It could make somebody think.

This is why I admire groups like Community MusicWorks. They don’t bring the people to the music, they bring the music to the people. What about their concerts held on the side of the road? Music is no longer restricted to the simple recording, or the live performance video, or the huge concert hall with its well-dressed attendees, good as these are. Classical music is not for the old or the well-educated, it’s timeless. It’s something that everyone can appreciate, be drawn into.

People like these are willing to accept that the performance of classical music is evolving as the world is evolving, and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it’s good to ask “what if,” you know? Sometimes it’s good to challenge conventions.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 4, 2011 5:21 am

    Nowadays, people are afraid of silence, afraid to be alone with their thoughts. And need noise. They go home, turn on the TV at full volume, don´t even watch it, just the background noise to feel they are not alone. If there is silence, people needs noise around. The louder the better. Just a few takes the time to sit and just listen to music. Generally, it´s a background sound while doing something else. So clasical music, a type of music you take the time to enjoy, it´s enjoyed by a small group, the group that is not afraid of silence. That´s my personal interpretation. And that video is amazing.

  2. March 4, 2011 9:53 pm

    Really great video.

    I’ve never even thought of this concept before – but what the hell don’t classical musicians make film clips? They have at their hands the most epic of emotional material, the sky is the limit for their film clips.

    For instance, I am a lifelong fan of Fantasia. It certainly shows that music and image are so well suited together.

  3. March 5, 2011 11:48 am

    Great post…fascinating video. Where I find a certain problem is that we are a visually-oriented society and music already suffers because of this. Classical music asks people to listen at a different level than a vast majority (not ALL) of popular music. So, attaching it to a visual art form has the drawback of pulling the brain away from auditory input. While I like the general idea of classical music videos, I’d hate to get to the place where we feel this music cannot stand alone.
    The ARTS channel (on PBS usually very late or some other cable channels) is essentially MTV for classical music…I’ve seen some very interesting footage and videos on there.

    • March 5, 2011 12:22 pm

      Glad you enjoyed the post, and thank you for the insightful reply. Hope all is well with you. We miss you down here!

      Sang Woo

  4. Astrid Desmonda permalink
    March 9, 2011 2:14 am

    She’s amazing! This’ completely inspirational. Thank you for sharing. I’ve always enjoyed it. 🙂

  5. March 14, 2011 12:20 pm

    I’ve always thought of movies as the videos for modern day classical music. We don’t look at composers of classical music in the same way now, however, many of the greatest movie scores are what I would consider modern classics. Currently, I am really enjoying the work of Michael Giacchino (composed Lost’s score). His compositions are amazing!

  6. April 10, 2011 9:37 am

    As Astrid said before, she’s definitely inspirational. She’s original, unique and has a very distinctive taste in music. The video is really good and a pretty good idea to show our society classical music is actually enjoyable. I love it 🙂

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