MUSIC VIDEOS

When television and video were new, they were seen as powerful tools for documenting performances of classical music. Now they are commonplace, but less as a service to music lovers.and more as a distracting intrusion. The directors seem not to understand that I am interested in the music and the performers, not in cinematic virtuosity.

Disney's movie Fantasia (1940) was acclaimed as a breakthrough, using cinema to bring a wide audience closer to an appreciation of classical music. I cannot agree. The music was mangled and truncated; and the images were mostly misleading.
     In the Nutcracker Suite, the Chinese dancers became animated mushrooms (one of them re-enacting the role of Dopey in Snow White); the sensuous odalisques in the Arabian Dance became goldfish; and the Russians dancing the trepak became animated flowers.
     The black humor of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, who meddled with the supernatural and suffered the consequences, became a Mickey Mouse cartoon.
     The savage brutality of the primitive Rite of Spring became a National Geographic lesson about evolution.
     Beethoven's idealization of the countryside near Vienna in the Pastoral Symphony became a childish, sanitized version of Greek mythology.
     The Dance of the Hours became a caricature of classical ballet, performed by ostriches, elephants, hippos, and crocodiles.
     The hellish Night on Bald Mountain and the sanctimonious Ave Maria -- strange bedfellows indeed -- were forcibly fused to make a monstrous hybrid.
     The jam session during the intermission undermined the concept of the movie. It seemed to show that even the members of the orchestra found classical music bleak and oppressive, and welcomed the opportunity to play the jazz that they really enjoyed.
     Fantasia taught its audience an infantile version of the meaning of classical music. Like all Disney products, it was an exercise in emasculation and dumbing-down.

Nowadays, the names of the composer, the work, and the performers are almost never shown separately at the beginning of the video. Usually they are flashed on the screen after the music has begun, competing for attention with the opening section of the music and the first view of the performers. Often the font is more decorative than legible, and the text disappears before I can fully scrutinize it.

Too many cameras are deployed, from too many angles. Directors try to focus on the performers carrying the thematic material at each moment, but often the complexity of the music defeats them. Grossly exaggerated closeups sometimes result in freakish shots. Nothing is allowed to remain on the screen for more than ten seconds. The result is dizzying and psychedelic, not conducive to pleasurable listening.

Some directors, when filming the overture to an opera, forgo the very techniques they use for symphonies. Instead of showing the orchestra in action. they go to great lengths to rescue the audience from the tedium of the music. Some make the overture the background music for stylish titles like those for an upscale movie. Others make it the background music for invented action leading up to the first scene. For example, Mozart;s Cosi Fan Tutte begins with a trio, a conversation between the three male characters sitting in a cafe. In one video, during the overture the three men were shown arriving at the cafe, hanging up their coats, sitting down at a table, ordering coffee, and being served. Thus the viewer was not left to suffer through the boring overture.

A shining example of the opposite, is the beginning of Ingmar Bergman's movie of Mozart's Magic Flute. The overture is accompanied by portraits of various people -- white and black, occidental and oriental, male and female, young and old -- all listening spellbound to Mozart's music. Nevertheless, even here, this beautiful sequence is peppered with irrelevant digressions: shots of the exterior and interior of the theater, and portraits of Mozart.

Directors are attracted to anything eye-catching. Consequently, their videos pay too much attention to the body language of performers. From the point of view of musicianship, the less annoying mannerisms the better -- but from the point of view of the video director, such mannerisms are pure gold. He loves pianists who wave their hands in the air and throw their heads back as if in the throes of orgasm. He seeks out instrumentalists who weave and mime as they play, and choristers who make faces as they sing.

On the other hand, a conductor's language is indeed body language. There are some conductors whose body language is wonderfully expressive, and worth watching. As for the other kind:
          Their strange grimaces on the podium
          Suggest bicarbonate of sodium
          May be, perhaps, the proper diet
          To keep their inner fires quiet.
                    People of Note: A Score of Symphony Faces (1940),
                    verses by Laurence McKinney and ink drawings by Gluyas Williams

In real life, it is often fortunate that the conductor's back is to the audience -- but unseemly closeups of him are inflicted upon me by intrusive videos. These reveal beats so imprecise that it is a wonder that the performers follow them -- or beats indicated by jerking the baton upward as if it were a fishing rod. They document conductors who seem to be warding off mosquitos. or washing windows, or grooming horses, or shaking water off their hands.

In today's music videos there are too many irrelevant shots, lingering on the venue, the decor, the ceiling, the audience. Sometimes the roving eye of the camera returns again and again to the sexiest woman or the most peculiar-looking man. Sometimes the titles suddenly reappear, pasted over someone's face, only to disappear again just as suddenly. Perhaps the director finds the music tiresome. Perhaps he agrees with Jimmy Durante, who said: "I hate music, especially when it's played."