What appears to be a catering cart is rolled to the front of the room in preparation for the first performance by two student percussionists from Mannes College the New School for Music, which provided the white mice for this experiment. The cart holds overturned metal bowls, unopened bottles of soda and several terra-cotta flowerpots. These are the instruments. The work: “When Music is Missing, Music Sings.”
The performers are dressed in matching black vintage jackets with sleeves shortened to reveal a reflective spandex undergarment — that doesn’t quite manage to reflect much of anything — to which motion sensors are attached.
As the drummers pound, thump and tap the found objects, what looks vaguely like an animated chartreuse and blue angular bird bounces and wiggles — in time to the rhythm — on a screen behind them. Over and over again. The image is reminiscent of a rudimentary video game — Pac-Man circa 1980. “Well, it’s interesting,” murmurs a woman in the audience to her companion. “That’s all I can really say.”
“I thought the graphics were limited,” Alsop says afterward. “If it’s a limited vocabulary, it can get a little redundant.”
Perspiration and inspiration
The men of the BSO traditionally wear white tie and tails, and the women match their formality with anything from black slacks and chiffon blouses to ankle-length gowns. Everyone manages to look unified but wholly uncomfortable and not so very elegant as buttons strain and seams are tested and fabric gets thinner and shinier as the musicians go through their nightly workout.
Indeed, one of the Mannes students noted that clothes are always an element that has to be managed. “I have a tradition before every recital,” says violinist Katherine Liccardo. “I put on my dress and my heels, and stand in my kitchen and go through the performance.”
The physicality of a classical performance is, perhaps, one of the most surprising aspects of a concert — at least to the uninitiated. Anyone who has ever gone to a rock concert is familiar with the ostentatious labor of the performer. The sweat is so extreme that it becomes part of the overall experience as the musicians dab their brow with towels and then fling them into the crowd. Classical musicians aren’t working up that kind of glow, but still, they toil for their audience.
Sweat became a major concern for the Parsons students, who are not fashion-design students, per se, but rather participants in a program called Integrated Design, which means they think about clothing and its practical and social applications, the technology of attire and sustainability within the industry. After they visited the BSO at work, they thought not only about how they could make all that movement easier but also how they could heighten the audience’s connection to the performer.