Capturing the Symphony: The Art of Documenting Live Music

It takes a pair of eyes that understands music to capture the sight of sound. A deep dive into the art of documenting live music.

The final bell chimes, the doors shut. A dignified quietude takes over the concert hall as if not a strand of hair is allowed to move without the orchestra’s permission. Whispers muffled, coughs swallowed, phones and cameras put away. As the first chair leads the tuning note before the conductor arrives, the only sound one can hear apart from the music is that of silence. Not too far away, though, nestles an antithetical world.

A concert of its own unfolds behind the scenes in the control room of the theatre, where the filming crew is perched. The technical directors bawl directions into headsets that connect them to camera operators in the auditorium. Full of frenzy, focus and the occasional hurling of curses, the room is nothing like the one it is capturing. At this concert, the technical directors call the shots. Having a score reader on board is essential too. This relay of an avalanche of information runs faster than time to never miss the right moment. However, if you spend some time there, you see the meditative core underneath the madness. Each angle is calculated and each frame is designed. But what verily guides the camera is the music and the people onstage.

The director will usually spend time with the music in advance, creating a script for all the shots that will be used. This master script can be translated into an individual shot list for each camera operator, which is run through in rehearsal as well.

Alleyah Asgghar, Creative Head: Video at the NCPA, has been working in the shadows, capturing live performances for the bigger picture. The idea is not to convert music into film but to capture nuances that the live audience might miss. “It is important to understand the nature of the music. Everything from the positioning of cameras to the editing depends on that. Sheet music can be simpler that way becauseit’s written and rehearsed. Indian classical music has the artistes improvising heavily, so you have to improvise with them,” says Asgghar.

More recently, the filming team at the NCPA also worked on the documentation of the beloved operetta Die Fledermaus, performed by the Hungarian State Opera, along with the Symphony Orchestra of India, and Tom Stoppard and André Previn’s theatrical spectacle for actors and orchestra, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.

The Jamshed Bhabha Theatre at the NCPA is a proscenium theatre that has presented full-scale orchestras and international productions of operas, ballets and theatre over decades. It has been the home to the SOI across 30 seasons. The broadcast cameras that could go up to eight—a couple of which are positioned on stage—seldom catch your eye but manage to capture the minutest of details. In the last couple of years, a series of changes have been undertaken at the NCPA to aid the process of filming. There are now theatre lights suspended underneath the orchestral shell. The acrylic sheets originally used to augment the quality of the acoustics caused the light to bounce off and thus the switch to electronically assisted acoustics.

We spoke to recording producer and editor Alexander Van Ingen, who takes us through challenges unique to documenting live concerts that have to be tackled in unusual ways. Currently with Six Music Productions, he consults with the NCPA and has been the Executive Producer at Decca Classics and the Chief Executive of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London.

Van Ingen explains that venues that sound good acoustically may not be the best-looking ones, and those which look beautiful may often sound subpar. The right balance can be rare to find. Lights are key to getting good shots and typical stage lighting is often not enough for cameras to work at their best. To make matters more difficult, for orchestral performances, most lighting is overhead to enable players to read their music without shadows and to avoid light piercing into their eyes when they look at the conductor. That would mean that faces are not well-lit. The front row of the orchestra, as seen by the audience, is in deep shadow. Cameras exacerbate this contrast compared to our eyes. It can only really be resolved with good lighting. The Berlin Philharmonic has an array of powerful TV lights on the roof for just this reason.

What makes the arduous undertaking worthwhile is the power to preserve for posterity a fleeting moment of music being made before you. To relive a concert that moved you can be a magical thing. Nothing can truly compare to the collective euphoria of experiencing a symphony or a Shakespeare classic unfold onstage, but the devil is in the detail. A recording allows viewers to witness a show that they never really saw. The little developments onstage— the finger movements and gestures, the crucial looks exchanged between musicians, and most notably, the conductor—are often lost for the majority of the live audience. So arguably, the video experience can only enhance the live experience.

Film has the capacity to blur the lines between the performers and the audience. It invites you in. It is able to hold years of discipline, aspiration and passion that speak of what it is to be a performer. Richard Nowell, owner, RNSS Ltd, sound engineer and technical consultant to the NCPA, is the backbone of the documentation of Western classical music here. Describing a wellshot concert, he says, “If you can watch a production on screen and believe you were there, it’s been successful. If you are looking at anything slightly jarring or that makes you think about the sound, lighting or the edit, if you’re even vaguely aware of it, we have failed.”

Director and producer Robin Lough—known for Legends (2006), La Bohème (2010), and several celebrated National Theatre Live productions— recalls a memorable moment from when he was approached by the Royal Opera House in London to direct their first live-to-cinema project: the opening night of Don Giovanni. The legendary stage and opera director Sir Peter Hall had once told Lough that one should never film an opening night. Neither the players nor the production will have properly settled down, and too many things will be left to chance. This unpredictability, though, has its rewards too.

The final scene of Don Giovanni was a dramatic triumph with flames shooting up from the floor of the stage. “I have never, before or since, seen a singer move with such precision as Simon Keenlyside did that night. Clearly, the prospect of a singed costume was too dreadful to contemplate, and as a result, it was the most perfectly filmed scene in the whole opera. My camera team was ecstatic,” Lough recollects.

While the idea of recording music for enjoyment has been around for many decades, many artistes— orchestras in particular—had historically refused to be involved with filming and streaming for years. This was largely due to issues around contracts and unions. There is now a realisation that the visual product, alongside the audio product, is necessary for regular as well as potential audiences.

Van Ingen believes that filming music directly expands access to music. “The NCPA has, in the SOI, the only professional symphony orchestra in India. It simply isn’t practical for all those in such a large country who might wish to enjoy orchestral music to get to Mumbai. Recordings can be used to spread the work, increasing the likely in-person audience for when the orchestra performs in other cities.”

The pursuit of making this vast archival record of the NCPA—the gold reserve of Fort Knox as Nowell describes it—available for public viewing is in the works. It is an ambition held by Chairman Khushroo N. Suntook and the rest of the team. Today, video content is synonymous with a stronger digital presence. It has become crucial for social media, marketing and promotion. The many lockdowns induced by the pandemic and the limitations on bringing artistes to the stage and being in an enclosed environment have enabled a state of preparedness to go beyond the idea of existing within bricks and mortar.

Lough commends the enterprising work carried out by small, independent companies during the testing times of a global health crisis in the form of broadcast shows and live streaming. It was a vital affirmation that the music was out there. “A musical lifeline, if I may, which could only be achieved through the medium of live, multi-camera filming,” he says.

The conflict between real and reel will keep rearing its head every so often. A live show is a transient experience. The pursuit, however, is to bring music to more people, and in the end, that has to override the ephemeral nature of live performance. Nowell rightly suggests that coming to the theatres can be a long journey for some. “It would be selfish of us not to share it and if we are going to, we must in the best way possible.”

By Aishwarya Bodke. This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the May 2023 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.