In little more than a month, a whole new art form has emerged, the knowing dispersed performance. Like much art, it makes a virtue of its constraints. And it is already possible to see its evolution – in only a few short weeks – into something which transcends its origins.
This post is really all leading up to the final video – that’s the one to watch if you don’t have time and energy for all of them.
On 20 March, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra played an extract from Beethoven’s ninth symphony. Nothing out of the ordinary, it’s what orchestras do. Except that all the players were playing separately at home – and that as of 2 May it had clocked up 2.7 million views on YouTube, which is rather more than the size of an average concert audience.
Others were quick to adopt the same approach and by 15 April, the trend made it to the Guardian, which published a survey of the genre covering eleven orchestras across Europe and North America.
And of course you don’t actually need an orchestra or even other people – a little pizzazz goes a long way. Nor is the approach limited to music – the unlikely subject of a group of graduating medical students separately but collectively reciting the modern hippocratic oath is powerful in its own right, even without reflecting on why they are taking it so much earlier than normal.
But then things start to take a still more interesting turn. Production values go up, and place becomes important again. Magdalen College choir has been singing from the top of the college tower early on May morning for 500 years or so and they sang again this year, blending today’s choir with a recording from 2017, underlining the importance of where it should be done, as well as celebrating this year’s dispersed performance.
Even that, though, is still essentially reassembling the pieces back to how the whole would have been in more normal times. The fact that everybody is physically separated is still more constraint than opportunity.
And then little more than four weeks after the Rotterdam Ode to Joy, we come to the Juilliard School. They have made that leap to finding an opportunity. This is a performance which can only exist because of the way it has needed to be made. The frames of the video windows become boundaries to be played with. Gestures make sense only because the observer is a camera, or many cameras. Fingertips can make dance moves and reach to touch other fingers in distant places. Kitchens and bedrooms can be performance spaces and going into the outside world a liberation.
This is the art of distancing. It did not exist before. It will be fascinating to see whether it continues to exist afterwards.