‘Swan Fake’

Audiences lose when Matthew Bourne's 'Swan Lake' uses canned music

Volume CX, No. 12December, 2010

Marshall Coid

Violist Richard Brice protesting the use of canned music outside of Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake.” Photo: Walter Karling

I recently attended a performance of Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake.” I assumed that this revival would offer another chance to hear one of my favorite scores live, which I missed when it was presented on Broadway. I have played this glorious music at ABT and have heard it many times at the New York City Ballet and elsewhere over the years.

The tickets were purchased without knowing that there would be no live orchestra, only a recording. There was a singular – and I believe intentional – lack of truthful advertising which made no mention of the substitution of recorded music anywhere.

It was disheartening to see an interesting and unusual choreographer/director’s vision cheapened by the use of canned music as part of his production.

What was lost?

As one enters the hall one would normally be greeted by the sound of expectant audience chatter mixed with the sounds of the musicians warming up and grabbing a few last moments of practice. The energy and excitement generated by the musicians’ presence increases as more players enter and join the accumulating sound. Familiar strains build up the audience anticipation. Indeed most ballet aficionados listen to the music and watch the stage with equal intensity.

In the case of this “Swan Lake” there was only audience noise, which persisted well into the beginning of the performance.

Missing was the hush that comes over the audience when the oboist sounds the A to tune the orchestra.

Missing was the ritual applause as the orchestra stands and the conductor enters. For us, we had only a P.A. system to stare at.

Now let me address the impact of Tchaikovsky’s score presented via a recording.

The taped music sounded uniform and artificial. It was excessively edited and tweaked with bizarre and unnatural balances that at times crushed the instrumental resonance and color.

The poorly calculated spaces between numbers invariably led to the opening sections of subsequent music being clapped over with large chunks of the score unheard as a result.

The whole performance took on an oddly detached quality.

At times the volume was horribly distorted and the ending bludgeoned the ear in a cheap attempt to create ultimate dramatic power that for me achieved the exact opposite.

The lack of any give-and-take between musicians, conductor and dancers led, inevitably, to an antiseptic perfectionism.

God forbid the dancers should have to be flexible, in-the-moment and responsive to the nuances of renowned New York classical musicians.

This represents the antithesis of what I consider the best dance/music aesthetic as embodied by Mark Morris, Erick Hawkins and similar dance visionaries.

I worked with Erick Hawkins intimately as his violin soloist for many years and was inspired by his extraordinary choreography which was fueled by his musical reverence. He would never perform without live musicians for any reason!

The Erick Hawkins experience of dancer and musician learning to become one was an influential joy in my career.

If a smaller struggling dance company can afford to use live music so can Mr. Bourne and his wrong-headed producers.

I would gladly pay more to hear a live orchestra.

I suspect, however, that I would only be asked to pay more if the producers could pocket the extra dollars.

The lame excuse that an orchestra is costly reflects the producer’s greed and utter disrespect for musicians and audience alike.

This sadly leads me to conclude that the powers behind Mr. Bourne’s “Swan Lake” represent the artistic equivalent of Wall Street’s worst predators.

What message is to be gleaned from this? The only “music” credits in the program were for sound equipment, sound operator, and production sound. Nowhere was there a conductor or orchestra credit. Even the famous violin, cello and harp solos received no credit.

Is the music that subservient to the dance and the choreographer’s vision?

Is the musician’s contribution of less significance than a mere button pusher or knob turner?

This brings to mind Local 802’s fight against the virtual orchestra machine in recent years. Is music and instrumental performance somehow an inferior art form? Are we not all fellow artists and part of a large and inspired community?

Mr. Bourne spoke proudly about how his production influences young audience members to become dancers.

Should he also be proud that he is indoctrinating them into believing that it is acceptable to dance to canned music at any professional level.

What of the young future musicians in attendance?

As a young violin student I attended my first opera (“Amahl”) and began attending the New York City Ballet with my mother. The thrilling sound of the live orchestras for those performances contributed directly to my pursuing a musical career.

I cannot help but wonder where I would be today if there had only been music played by tapes, amplifiers and speakers?