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Camilla Tassi

The musician-designer, reclaiming a lost layer with classical repertoire

The truth is, we are not German Lutherans in the 1700s… What are we missing when listening to Bach?


Carissimi’s “Jepthe” was first performed in the S.S. Crocifisso oratory in Rome. It is no surprise that Carissimi took into account both the acoustics and visual setting of the venue in formulating his music - walls surrounded by frescos depicting Biblical narratives as one listened to his non-staged narrative. In a sense, the hall itself is its set and affects both the performer and audience member. Unfortunately, in the field of 'historical performance practice', attention is played to articulation, material of the instruments of the period etc., in a sense, the sonic experience and conventions... but the other senses are abandoned, particularly the visual. What are we doing when we're presenting "Jepthe" in a concert hall setting, musicians dressed in their all-black concert wear, the event formalized and secularized?

As Bettina Varwig mentions in her paper on re-contextualizing and staging Bach’s Passions ("Beware the Lamb"), by nature of our performing this work in a different venue, time period, and in a language that is not commonly spoken today, we lose various layers of connection and accessibility to music from this period. There is a large danger in this - we are merely replicating classical music and passing it down, treating it as a museum piece and not questioning it and its role in today's society. How often is language a barrier for those first approaching classical music? How often is it tough for those who did not grow up with the music to encounter it and build a relationship? As anyone who has sung in a large choir will tell you, too often with Latin choral works do performers 1. not know what they are singing about or 2. take the text for granted/don't engage with it.


In implementing visuals for a musical performance, the impulse is to use design as setting or for the visual content to be a direct response to text primarily. In concert and operatic settings, designers are primarily trained in text and in theater, not in music. In universities and institutions, design areas and degrees (light, costume, set, and projection) are hosted in theater departments/schools. In a sense, design is a form of composition itself – a contrapuntal layer added to the textual source. Here, classical music needs to learn from theater. I blame classical music departments for not having an avenue for design, for keeping performers separate from these disciplines.  The dream? A program where students can train specifically to be designers of MUSIC, where it can be dedicated as an exploration. A design concentration option within Music. Music being at the center of it, and not a side piece.


What if we took key areas, density, timbre, and orchestration as focus points instead of text? Beyond rhythm and dynamics? We see an exploration of visual material in this direction in the areas of experimental music, particularly electronic music. Audiovisual synthesizers alter visual content using a set number of parameters – we see live interaction between audio and video [an example being Alexander Dupuis’ interactive video systems, such as in the piece 'Ramus']. Yet, the implementation currently does not lend itself to the production/narrative application – in a sense, it lives in a world separate to that of theater and opera – to the collaborative design model where director, set designer, lighting designer, and costume designer will come into conversation and work together towards the creation of the production itself, even before the performers are introduced. Presently, the same designers trained in theater are becoming designers also for opera, for musicals, etc. In an interview I held with projection designer Brittany Merenda, she explained how she had started working in the context of opera in the past four years. Working in opera is something she refers as ‘a very different world [she] is still getting used to’. That being said, she is brilliant and so are today's designers working in opera/music... But they are learning to work with music by virtue of doing gigs, the issue is that the academic world doesn't have a space specifically dedicated to it. We do not teach plays and operas to the same performers, we need to also give the opportunity for those wanting to research and explore design for music to delve in it - whether it be musicians training in design or designers training in music. Musician designers can be trained to also confront the different genres of presentation outside of the traditionally theatrical (opera):

-    the recital (solo or chamber, varied genres and styles/languages)

-    the oratorio (non-staged but large and unifying narrative)

-    choral (potentially similar to the recital setting, with lots of smaller narratives in one performance)

-    installation (sound art, often absence of language, focus on materials..)        

I'd like to see people who are extremely passionate about oratorio designing for it. Or meet others who love and live classical music.. and designing for it is their focus, not just a side bit. I wish to see audiovisual performances of oratorio and opera that truly amaze - now, the gap between opera and theater's attention to design, space, etc. is immense. 60 years ago singers did not have to act (think of the famous 'park and bark operatic singers'), yet now they do. I think contextualization and design are on their way. Music, particularly classical, in both the professional and academic context, needs to explore this interaction as a means of providing accessibility for the missing layers (our detached relationship from a composition's language, original visual and acoustical venue, time period, social situation etc.) and to allow for a further exploration of the repertoire and not exclusive replication of it in performance.

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