21st Century Consort: H2O

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The H2O program performance at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden scheduled for March 14 would have captivated audience members. It would have started with piercing notes of a cello bow traversing metal and a soft, oscillating metallic drumming. Then, four percussionists would have stepped in front of large, clear glass bowls on pedestals, lit from the bottom, using the sounds of water as an instrument for the first piece, Tan Dun’s “Water Music.” In subsequent pieces, a harp, vocalist, and more traditional percussion instruments would have played new music compositions reflecting the museum’s Pat Steir: Color Wheel exhibit.

The 21st Century Consort ensemble (who have played at the museum since they were the 20th Century Consort) had spent months preparing and the week before rehearsing at the Hirshhorn’s Ring Auditorium. They’d brought in their instruments, including the harp, drum sets, marimbas, and timpani drums, and the water bowls and stands that percussionist Lee Hinkle had to specially source for the performance. When the news started coming of other canceled events in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak, and the likelihood that this performance wouldn’t happen increased, the ensemble felt like it was too much to let go of so quickly. They almost immediately had an answer. While many music events are turning to live streaming, the Consort, together with filmmaker H. Paul Moon, created a concert film that goes beyond the live music performance, which premiered on Saturday, March 21 at 6 p.m. on YouTube, and also lives on Vimeo.

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With the cancelation imminent, artistic director of the ensemble Christopher Kendall contacted Moon and asked, “whether we could get creative and let the music play on in a cinematic format,” says Moon. The filmmaker and ensemble were lucky to have a well-established relationship. Moon started as a fan of the Consort, he says, and then began collaborating with them on projects. Last fall, they worked to produce The Passion of Scrooge, a film adaptation of Jon Deak’s opera based on A Christmas Carol. The Consort also provided music for Moon’s feature-length documentary Samuel Barber: Absolute Beauty, about the composer’s music and life. 

Moon describes himself as “dedicated to documentary and concert films, especially on contemporary music,” and jumped at the chance to help the ensemble. He felt that streaming would not do the concert proper justice, instead, a concert film could bring it to life in a whole new way. A concert film would mean recording the live performance and then allowing Moon to edit the footage together. The result is a visually striking experience for the viewer.

In preparing for filming, Moon familiarized himself with the pieces so he knew where to focus his attention, he says. He set up his four cameras, organizing them “in a way that honored the composer’s original high points in the scores.” He also places cameras and films in a way that allows the viewer to see musicians in a way that would never be possible in a live performance. 

In the last piece of the program “Circles” by Luciano Berio, Hinkle and fellow percussionist Paul Keesling are completely surrounded by their instruments, hidden away from view in a normal concert setting. The shots that Moon includes allows us to see how truly acrobatic the musicians have to be as they dance and spin to hit the right instrument at the right time in the piece. Although Hinkle felt that being recorded during a live performance made him a little nervous, realizing that any mistakes would be indelibly captured on digital film, he thinks these new angles are going to be a wonderful experience for audiences. In “Circles,” “there’s this explosion of percussion and we’re supposed to play everything randomly and we’re supposed to go in a circle,” he says, and “that’s something on video, you’ll be able to see up close and personal,” unlike during a live performance. Moon’s film also lets audiences see the instruments up close. Hinkle says that audiences often ask which instrument made which sound, and now they’ll be able to see for themselves, and even rewind and watch it again.

Much of the viewing experience is made because of Moon’s precise editing. Passionate about concert films, Moon says, “music is often neglected when you watch concert films, in terms of sensitively and carefully choosing angles [and] cutting rhythms that compliment the music, and that value significantly increases the experience of watching concert films.” The film doesn’t just put the audience onstage, it allows us to follow each sound, each solo, each important point in the composition without having to turn our heads. 

Music on film or on a recording will always be different than live music. 

“After you accept the fact that there’s nothing like hearing music and sound art in an actual acoustic space with your own ears, there are some benefits to recorded sound, the sound field becomes expanded when captured up close,” Moon says. 

For example, as Hinkle and his percussionists lift their hands from the water, we see their hands and the water dripping off and the reflection of the water on the ceiling, and we hear the delicate sounds of droplets hitting water in the glass bowls. Moon says that in the Ring Auditorium, those drops “don’t punctuate the music space as much as they can,” but on a recording, they do. 

Hinkle is also excited by the fact that this film may reach wider audiences than the performance would have. A filmed concert can increase accessibility to music, especially for those who may not have been able to attend the concert even without a pandemic. 

Moon admits that “this was a sort of remarkable production,” because they were able to produce an hour-long film from the live performance in a week, to which Hinkle adds, “none of this could have happened without Paul having worked with the consort for so long.” However, with live performances canceled, Moon thinks more performers should consider films rather than live-streaming. He believes that it can be a better viewing experience and that films can have a longer life. “I haven’t seen that emerge during this pandemic, but it seems like a hopeful possibility for musicians to deal with situations like this,” he says.

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