Attending a concert and awards’ ceremony staged in Malaysia by one of the international music examination bodies, I was kindly seated in a place of honour right in the front row. All the same, I had difficulty seeing what was happening on stage and heard only intermittent fragments of the music being performed. This was particularly galling since the performers, all of whom had achieved high marks in their music examinations over the previous year, seemed exceptionally talented; not least an extremely capable young harpist who played a piece of Grandjany with immaculate poise and grace.
Music examinations often get criticised for the artificiality of the situation (who ever performs to an audience of just one person who is sitting writing at a desk?) and for allowing students to earn high marks when, throughout their musical education, they might only ever have played 24 pieces (three at each grade). The great thing about these High Achievers’ concerts is that the students perform in front of real audiences and, certainly in the case of this particular event, are encouraged to play music other than that they have learnt for the examination. What was notable here, apart from the quality of the performances, was its slick and well-organised presentation and the professionalism of everybody involved both in performing and in back-stage management.So why was my vantage point so disadvantaged?
My view was continually obstructed by hordes of photographers clambering around in front of the stage, occasionally climbing on to it, and frequently placing themselves directly in front of the performer. This obsession with recording everything on film has long been a south east Asian thing; it is rare indeed for any Chinese, Japanese or Korean person to attend any event or visit any landmark without seeing it largely, if not wholly, though the viewfinder of a camera. This practice has, thanks to the growth of Smartphone cameras, now become truly global. Only the other day, forced to watch the piteous CNN (I stay in a lowly hotel which pipes no other English-language news channel into the guest rooms) I felt a sudden pang of sympathy for the near-imbecilic Richard Quest as he asked a loquacious Asian now resident in California about the importance of Facebook. She threw her head back and launched into a rapid-fire monologue which enthusiastically related how, after work, she could grab a snack, photograph it and share it with her friends. Poor Quest, possibly for the first time ever, was lost for words and could only utter a bleating “Why?” before being silence by a look which eloquently reduced him in his interviewee’s eyes to a sub-species of rodent. I still fail to understand why reality can only be legitimised through the lens of a camera; but there it is, and we have to accept the fact.Even more disturbing at the Malaysia event was the masking of the sound the performers were making not by the extremely irritating clicking of camera shutters (or more particularly the electronically created imitation clicking of false shutters on Smartphones), but by the intrusive presence of microphones. The country boasts few venues suitable for a large-scale musical performance, and these events invariably take place in hotel ballrooms where low ceilings, thick carpets, heavy upholstery and wide, ill-shaped floor spaces conspire to prevent any live sound from carrying. The amplification of any performance is just about essential if, as was the case on this occasion, the audience numbers into the hundreds. However, amplification is one thing; here we had no amplification, rather an electronic screen which largely obscured the sound. We have come to expect the screeching and sudden, ear-splitting feedback when someone waves a live microphone in front of a speaker, but here the destructive force of a poorly managed and misunderstood sound system went one stage further.
Even as one player was performing, a man would march on to the stage, grab a microphone, stick it to a stand, tap it to see if it was working (even utter the invocation, “testing, one, two three” down it) in preparation for the next performance; which was similarly obstructed by the physical moving of microphones and all their paraphernalia. Microphones were stuck in front of piano keyboards (a pointless place to stick a microphone if ever there was one – but Elton John does it, so it must be right!), placed precariously in front of guitars and suspended before a pair of violins. Only the harpist had the courage and strength of personality to wave hers away, much to the obvious disgruntlement of Microphone Man (who at one stage had literally grabbed the microphone from the MC to announce that there was a problem with the clip on microphones some later performers in the show were going to use). With wires strewn around the stage and microphone stands placed in the most physically obstructive positions (I even had to move one myself so that those receiving awards could actually get up on to the stage) the whole stage looked like some giant plate of colourful spaghetti thrown against a wall during a Mafia shoot-out.The troubling thing is that microphones now serve not as an adjunct to a performance but, rather like cameras, to legitimise it. You cannot, it seems, be a proper performer unless there is a microphone very visible to all around. How often do we see modern day pop divas gyrating around almost wholly naked apart from a headset microphone, when we know they are merely miming to a backing track? How often does a singer clasp a hand held microphone to a heart, only to drop it to one side at moments of high emotion and, lo, the sound stays exactly the same? Microphones are not used for amplification, they are used as indicators of professional expertise; and it is a practice I yearn to see ended. What’s the point of an aujdience attending a live performance when its whole object is to be recorded? Young musicians need to learn that a microphone is a piece of funtioning euipment, not a religious icon to be held up and revered above all else.