PJ Harvey could revolutionise the way we watch great artists

Audiences too rarely get the chance to see the creative process in action

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The Independent Online

It’s not at all surprising that PJ Harvey’s offer to allow fans to witness her recording her new album in a glass box at London’s Somerset House quickly resulted in tickets for the event selling out. The musician, who has twice won the Mercury Prize, will be joined in the box by her band, producers and engineers. The box will have one-way glazing so they will have no idea when people are watching.

 “I want Recording in Progress to operate as if we're an exhibition in a gallery,” she said. “I hope people will see the attention and the labour and the care that goes into making a recording. I hope people will see the interactions between everyone involved.” 

Fans quickly realised that she was offering something far more precious than a live gig. She was offering the opportunity to witness the creative process. And that is something that we the audience are all too rarely allowed to see. That’s a pity, because watching an artist in the act of creating a work is always likely to be memorable.

Certainly, for me, the most exciting ‘performance’ I saw in recent months was in a studio space at the Royal Opera House where I watched the Royal Opera's music director Sir Antonio Pappano put a young singer through his paces and make an aria from Verdi’s Rigoletto come to life through constant suggesting, encouraging, cajoling, explaining, interpreting and reprimanding.

What people at the top of the performing arts don’t realise is that audiences love to see, not just the culmination of the creative process, but that process developing. I would certainly pay good money to see rehearsals. Not the dress rehearsals and previews at theatres and opera houses that are indeed on offer. By that stage the performance is all but ready. No, I would love to see the very early stages, the interaction between director and cast, between conductor and orchestra, between rock musician and band, between band and producer and engineer.

These are areas of mystery, areas where even the most seasoned culture lovers could gain new insight into an art form and thrill to the experience. What I experienced watching Pappano and his young singer was an unexpected excitement in seeing the process of creation develop. I also felt a part of that development just by being present.

PJ Harvey might just have set a precedent that could revolutionise the whole concept of attending cultural events.


Sir Cameron Mackintosh seems to have found the magic touch for attracting a diverse audience

The need to get more diverse audiences into theatres was the subject of much debate towards the end of last year, with questions being aired about why more British Asians don’t go. Sir Cameron Mackintosh’s revival of Miss Saigon in London’s West End is, I gather, attracting large numbers of Asians, not just from London and other parts of the UK, but actually from Asia. Data from the box office shows that 21% of the audience are from Asian countries, quite apart from any Asian audience based in the UK.  It’s not exactly what anyone had in mind in lamenting the lack of diversity in theatre audiences, but it’s a startling achievement.


The marketing of the American DVD of the film 'Pride' is homophobic

The poster for the British film Pride has a picture of gay activists at the time of the 1980s miners’ strike with a banner saying “Lesbians & Gays Support The Miners.” The same picture on the cover of the American DVD has that banner airbrushed out in true Stalinist style. The synopsis of the film for the DVD also fails to mention the gay element. What had been a reference to the “London-based group of gay and lesbian activists” in Britain became simply “London-based activists”.The film’s director Ben Roberts, himself gay, is sanguine about this. He says: “I’m not surprised that the US distributors have taken a decision to sell more copies by watering down the gay content. I’m not defending it – it’s wrong and outmoded – but I’m not surprised. It’s an unfortunate commercial reality both here and in the US that distributors have to deal with. LGBT material is largely marginalised outside of rare hits like Brokeback Mountain.”

I would be less forgiving. To take out these references on the DVD cover is to remove the core of what the film is about, and is essentially a homophobic act. It’s as reprehensible as cutting scenes from the film itself.