Yuja Wang performs at David Hockney Bigger & Closer 28.09.23 [2] credit Justin Sutcliffe
On Music

Have I seen the future of music?

On a performance in three dimensions for all five senses

Possibly the last thing I expected to run into in this life was Yuja Wang playing Pierre Boulez at a David Hockney exhibition in a box-room behind London’s Eurostar terminal.

The incongruities are so fantastically disparate they defeat the act of criticism, which is helpful since the organisers made us sign a prior undertaking not to review the event. It was, they said, an experiment by the Chinese-US pianist, her repertoire decisions were spontaneous and the video elements might be controversial.

All of these arguments struck me as perfectly reasonable and I had no problem at all signing-up to the review ban. Up to the midpoint, that is, when I felt that what I was witnessing in the King’s Cross Lightroom might actually be the future of concerts for the rest of the century. And if that were so, I would be professionally obligated to share the event with history (sorry, Yuja).

Here’s how it evolved. Yuja, in London to play at the BBC Proms, went to see the David Hockney retrospective, “Bigger & Closer”, that has been running since February. The artist’s life’s work was presented in immersive form, projected onto walls four storeys high in a claustrophobic, air-conditioned space.

Many of the images were multiplied and the experience was amplified by grainy, sometimes migrainey, video projections. It was all very restless for a visual art show.

Hockney, 86, was always quick to use new gadgets, be they Polaroids, fax machines, videos or iPads, so he had no issues with the immersive presentation, a gimmick that had already been applied in London to Frida Kahlo and Van Gogh.

Yuja Wang cracked the wall that Boulez and his gang banged their heads against

Hockney is not yet quite of Vincent’s stature, but he has been around so long he’s almost pre-Raphaelite and the bare bottoms of his California swimming boys in A Bigger Splash (1973) have a historic innocence to them rather than the shock value once intended.

His three-dimensional green meadows viewed through his Yorkshire windows emit Monet-like bursts of colour and a Chekhov-like suggestion that the tedium of country life is about to be irreparably shattered by some extraneous event. Hockney is a painter who requires no explanation, appealing at once to schoolgirls and art scholars. And neither the artist nor the art ever stands completely still.

Yuja Wang, seeing “Bigger and Closer”, decided that Hockney could be even more effective with music. She drew up a piano playlist to accompany the images, ranging from a Satie Gymnopédie — perfect for poolside — to Nikolai Medtner, Bach, Liszt, Shostakovich at his darkest, the final pages of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony, and Philip Glass. It took under an hour to play.

At £50 a ticket and two recitals a night, the Yuja-Hockney fusion sold out to a crowd drawn from both arts. Concentration was intense and, since no word was printed about the music, each successive piece was greeted with an audible gasp of curiosity, appreciation or perplexity. Some unseen app made leaves grow on springtime Hockney trees in perfect synchrony with Yuja’s Bach.

Every now and then, the art on the walls was dislodged by two-cam video of Yuja’s hands on the keyboards, legs on the pedals. Her presence was projected in this way as part of the artwork but, rather than distracting from Hockney or the music she played, it enhanced them both with further associations.

When playing La Campanella, she reflected Franz Liszt’s aim to ring out the sound of bells on a piano as well as his plan to outface the work’s original composer, the flamboyant Paganini. All great art has diverse precedents and Yuja Wang was playing in several dimensions.

The Boulez Notation that she tossed in was further evidence of her eclecticism. There are only two reasons nowadays to play a knuckle-cracking piano piece from an arid post-war moment of tonal self-denial. One reason would be to impress two academics and a dead cat.

The other is to show, “watch this, that it can be done”. Watching Yuja Wang on high walls playing a Notation, I looked for struggle in her facial expression and saw only pleasure. She was doing it for the sheer hell of it.

That triggered a subversive thought: why can’t all solo recitals be like this? Why won’t Carnegie Hall enhance its pianists with works of Pissaro or Picasso from the Metropolitan Museum?

And why can’t we have live video close-ups of hands, face, hairstyle and legs in the recapitulation section of every over-long sonata?

Think about it. We have reached a point in the performing arts where concerts are half-deserted while art shows sell out years in advance. Fuse them and see what happens.

Concertgoers who prefer their music uncontaminated by other stimuli can continue to attend with devoutly shut eyes. The rest of us can relish the interaction and possibly learn something from it. I may never see Hockney again without thinking of Boulez. Is that such a bad thing?

That this revolution is proposed by Yuja Wang, the hottest current concert pianist, is all the more intriguing. Yuja has not yet earned a reputation as an original thinker or trend-setter, except in her skirt lengths. Wittingly or otherwise, she has just cracked the wall that Boulez and his gang banged their heads against.

Boulez attempted hitching music to a mainframe computer in Répons. Yuja Wang, on a concert grant, harnesses visual technology to play music in three dimensions for all five senses and an undifferentiated audience. If this is the music of the future, I like the sound, the sight and the inclusivity of it.

As Chuck Berry once sang: Roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news

This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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