Scarpia: When the music serves the camera: Anthony Payne doubts that TV can do music justice

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In a memorable television film made some 30 years ago, Michael Tippett was given an opportunity to direct the filming of a performance of his Concerto for Double String Orchestra. In it, the composer made a bold attempt to tackle some of the problems presented by music on television, feeling that very little work in the field up to that time had done the subject justice.

Despite the increasing amount of music we get on television these days, whether operatic, orchestral or chamber, the problems remain. The smooth professionalism that can be relied upon to bring us, say, a relay from the Proms, may yield acceptable television, but it rarely does justice to the essential musical vision. A colourful job of reporting is achieved, but the music serves the camera, not vice versa.

Even 30 years ago, Tippett could see the problem clearly, and he encouraged his cameras to trace the structure of the music, not merely draw attention to visual aspects of the performance. I remember the camera travelling in a great arc across the expanse of the orchestra at one point, in response to the arching phrase being played. A far more probing use of the medium, this, than the irritating highlighting of whatever instruments happen to be dominating the texture, which too often does duty for a genuinely creative musical response on the film-maker's part.

Two films shown on BBC2 on Sunday as part of the 'Festival of Britten' focused these problems in a particularly instructive way, since the first represented Britten's attempt to tailor an opera to the specific requirements of television, while the second represented the latest thinking about live broadcasting of a musical event. Composing Owen Wingrave in 1970, Britten could not draw on the technology available today, yet it is interesting that he still seemed to take a cautious view of his task. There was little that seemed uniquely televisual, and one wondered whether he had been composing with a shrewd eye for future theatrical performance, or whether he was taking precautions against television's propensity for reducing all music to the status of background support for visual images. Probably a little of both.

Knowing the circumstances of the commission, one can find dramatic procedures that are suited to television: the cross-cutting, for instance, between Owen, musing in the park of his ancestral home, his aunt and her friend conversing in the house and the passing guardsman visible to all three. Yet, to the innocent eye, there is little that could not be construed as the lively response of a musically aware director to what is essentially a stage work. Britten is known, in fact, to have suspected that his opera would only be fully realised in the theatre: an odd confession from such a professional composer faced with a specific television commission. One can only assume that the technology was still at too early a stage to encourage in Britten a truly radical solution to the commission, and it is regrettable that his early death prevented a later one allowing him to capitalise on subsequent technological developments.

He would have been grappling with a medium that has yet to yield a masterpiece. Indeed, it is the very technical brilliance of current television that seems inimical to musical expression. Apt for pop videos where the musical content is mostly too poverty-stricken to warrant care, it yields serious musical productions that seem to cater for musical illiterates with a minuscule attention span - no musical point allowed to pass without dazzling visual explanation.

The second of Sunday's films, a live relay of War Requiem from the Albert Hall, was just the sort of programme that often succumbs to unmusical treatment, and there were the obligatory close-ups of singers under strain and of 'relevant' instrumentalists, all of which proved distracting. At the same time, there was sensitive work in line with Tippett's 30-year-old dicta, including an impressive use of an overhead camera at apocalyptic moments, which made emotional and structural points. The trouble is, we came back to earth with a bump after such moments to close- ups of a beautiful chorister or an immaculate instrumentalist.

Perhaps television is basically an unmusical medium, and there is no such thing as an ideal music broadcast. If so, a compromise must be struck including less fancy camerawork, and a trust that the viewer has a purely musical interest in what is being televised. He does not need constant visual distractions, be they either merely decorative or musically explanatory.