Monday, May 19, 2014

Something Thoughtful

 Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


            Let’s imagine you are one of those people who attend rock concerts.
Let’s imagine that you are a typical rock-concert attender – not one of the very tiny minority close to the stage, who can see the performers sweat and watch their disdainful faces, de rigueur when rockers want to look hip. No. You’re one of the vast majority so far from the stage that, with your unaided eyes, all you can see are tiny figures in the distance, hopping around and mainly obscured by the people in front of you. Face it. They could be anyone.
But you’re really at the rock concert, aren’t you?
Except that all you can hear of the performance is what is artificially amplified (and distorted) by the sound system.
The promoters might help you out, however. They might put up huge television screens so that you can see the performers in close-up.
Except that now you are both hearing the music through an artificial medium and seeing the performance through an artificial medium.
So are you really at a live event at all?
Be honest now. How authentic, how “live”, is your experience when you are not hearing with your own ears and not seeing with your own eyes?
In reality, if you want to enjoy your favourite band under such conditions, you might as well be at home watching a rock-video or listening to some download of their music. That would be no less “live” than you arena experience.
I know I could, at this point, wander off into considerations of the psychopathology of rock-concert-attending crowds, who are there as much for the ritualistic experience of being there, and being part of a like-minded crowd, as they are there for the sake of listening to music. But that would take me off my subject somewhat. What really interests me is the fact that, as soon as television cameras and sound-systems are introduced into a “live” event, they compromise and alter its “live” status.
Let me walk away from rock concerts to another sort of event.
On Good Friday this year, my wife and I were in the north of England being hosted by our son and his family. Two of his daughters – our grand-daughters – were singing in a large choir that was part of the Great North Passion, a kind of populist version of the Passion of Christ being acted out in South Shields, for live BBC television transmission. For the event, shipping containers had been arranged in a field roughly in the form of a cross, to hold the crowd that would attend the event.
The Great North Passion is of course related to the Christian festival, but it strives to be as inclusive as possible. Different communities around the north of England contribute different reflections for each station, the official commentary goes out of its way to note that the value of compassion is honoured in all the world’s great religions, and while the performances contained some traditional hymns and choral work, they were outnumbered by the pop, rock and blues performances. This was for prime-time, populist TV, after all.
So how did I react to this event?
I couldn’t stifle some incidental reflections on how the very idea of the Stations of the Cross – traditionally a very Catholic devotion – would once have been scorned in non-Catholic England; but in an age when public expressions of Christianity are hard to come by, it is grabbed at enthusiastically for community performance.
Of course I found myself in the middle of a big crowd, not able to go up to each station, when bits of the action and business were being acted out. So I spent much time milling about, seeing only other people doing exactly the same thing. I managed to take a couple of blurred, long-distance shots of my grand-daughters performing in the choir with its distinctive purple garb. I was impressed by the capable performance poet Katie Fox – a blonde-headed, buxom woman – who had trained a large group of teenagers to perform a vigorous poem about the value of kindness. For me this was the highlight of the whole event, and I rushed up to snap the group once their performance was over and while they were being congratulated by His Worship the Mayor.
But all the time I was aware that this “live” performance, the performance for which a couple of thousand of us had come to stand among the cruciform shipping containers, was essentially a performance for the television-watching audience at home, who would be getting a better view of each episode in the unfolding action, and of each musical group, than we in the live crowd were getting.
And indeed there were big monitors set up so that we could see the blues-singer and the hymn-singer and the performance poet’s troupe and the clog–dancing lads from the mill (yes, they were part of it) all in close-up. And we wouldn’t have to be bothered looking at the real people with our own eyes, in the distance, tiny and obscured over the heads of the crowd.
So put television cameras at a live event and it ceases to be a live event. It becomes the adjunct to a broadcast.
In this media age, to be really there means to be looking at a TV screen.

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