Interview with Kirk Browning

Interview with Kirk Browning

This interview took place on June 23, 2004
©2005 Robert Willey

Kirk Browning (1921 - ) is one of America’s most prolific and versatile TV directors of performing arts.

RW: How is the score used in planning a production?  How would you direct a video in order to make its structure more understandable?

KB: The whole area is a difficult one to articulate.  The very idea of visualizing music is somewhat an oxymoron.  Music is purely an aural experience.  When you go to a concert you don’t go any visual sense at all, you go to listen.  If you’re going to use television, which is basically a visual medium, you’re distorting the whole process.   You’re trying to convince someone that something you’re watching mean something to something that you’re essentially hearing.

You’ve got to known who you’re designing the program for.  Is it entertainment?  Are you trying to instruct, are you trying to edify, or are you trying to represent an aesthetic? Are you visualizing the music, or visualizing the musical performance?  They arebasically two entirely different approaches.  What I have for the last 25 years at Lincoln Center when I do music, I do it entirely as performance.  I am not visualizing music, I am only visualizing a particular performance of that music.  In turn, I am not visualizing it for the purposes of information, I am not trying to educate the audience, I am trying to entertain the audience, and to get the best response from the average viewer.

The way I’ve been doing it, I use the camera to enable the eye to help the ear hear music better.  From there it is an entirely personal choice.  Someone else might represent the music just as well as I do.  I’m using the camera as the viewer’s eye.  All the choices I make about movement, close-ups, the rhythm of the shots, is an effort to translate what I think the eye would do in a concert hall if it had the opportunity to move.  It’s a great stretch.  When you go to the concert you don’t really use your eye. You can look at the whole orchestra, you can see the conductor a little bit, but you’re not really using your eye.

You have no choice.  You have to use the camera as the eye.  The whole spatial aesthetic has totally changed.  Every choice I make is based on that basic assumption.  The camera is the viewer’s eye as if he were in a position to see the performance in detail, if he were sitting in the middle of the orchestra, or above the orchestra, or from any one of the 8-10 positions where I have cameras.  If the viewer were in that position, what would he be looking at?

The choices I end up with are not really my choices.  They are choices I am assuming an average listener would make.  Maybe it’s some benefit that I’m not a professional musician.  I don’t have an agenda all mapped out about what’s important and what’s not important.  I am simply listening, as I assume the average listener is, and responding to that sound, and thinking about what the orchestra is doing to make that sound.  It’s a subjective judgment, and each person would do it differently.  I’ve been largely identified with a technique that involves quite a lot of movement in the camera, quite a lot of closeup, and quite a lot of what I would called “syncopated” montage.  In other words, not to be always absolutely on the nose, so that every time there’s a flute solo you go to the flute, every time the horn has a solo you go to the horn.  I used to work with Lenny Bernstein, I never did that series of shows that he did, but I knew him.  He would say “Kirk, as far as I’m concerned the only reason to televise music is to represent what’s in the score.”  In other words, if all the violins are playing, be on the violins.  If the flutes are playing, be on the flutes.  He looked at it purely from a didactic approach.  Unfortunately, that approach will work for musicians, but not for a general audience who want to have a different kind of experience.  They want to get inside the music a little bit more, in an individual way.

RW: I bet even for musicians it would get tedious and predictable, to always see the most “important” thing.

KB: You’re absolutely right, in fact, musicians don’t really need it at all.  There are probably musicians who tune in to my show who would be perfectly happy to do nothing but sit on one camera on either the conductor or the whole orchestra.  They know what a flute player looks like when he plays the flute, they don’t need to see it.

RW: What do you mean it’s a “syncopated” montage?

KB: In other words, let’s say you’re on the conductor and now it’s going to be a dialogue between a horn and a flute.  He cues the first,  you go to the to the horn, he cues the flute, you go to the flute.  Now that’s repeated.  I get away from the obvious choice.  I find that if you stay on the conductor when he cues, let some of the phrase still be on the conductor, so you see his cue and the result of the cue on him, then you find a musical place and you go to the instrument.  If that instrumental passage is long and has repetitive material in it, I go back to the conductor.  He now goes from the flute to the horn.  Instead of doing the exact same thing you might start with the horn and then go back to the conductor.

RW: So by “syncopated” you mean that it’s surprising in some way.

KW:  Right.  It’s not being totally predictable.   That’s an area that everybody will feel differently about.  You have to imagine something that is acceptable to the average viewer.  I’m not trying to appeal to someone who knows exactly what I’m up to and is a musician.  It’s a challenge.  I don’t know whether it’s worth the effort that we put in.  There was a time that the very idea of televising a major symphony was an event because so much of the country hadn’t been exposed to that material.  It was in the interest of the people to see what an orchestra did when they were playing.  There were people who were not familiar with the concert experience.  Now we’ve gotten to the point that there’s such an overload of visual experience out there that you wonder if it’s worth it to continue to do it.  I’m getting a little cynical about it in my old age because I’ve done it for so long.  I’ve been doing concert music for 55 years.  It was so simple when I was beginning with Toscanini.  All you did was put one camera on Toscanini and stay there and you had it.  Even today you couldn’t improve much on watching everything through him.

RW: I don’t think that classical music is over-represented today compared with 55 years ago when TV was beginning.

KB: There’s an enormous amount of material available.  If you go to the video libraries you can get a DVD of a Beethoven symphony from practically every orchestra in the world.  The thing that we at Lincoln Center are trying to is to restrict our programming to the kind of event program which is somehow a one time only performance.  For example, Yo Yo Ma used to perform in rather eccentric fashion with friends of his.  There was a sense of him and his friends extemporizing, talking about music, and playing around with it during the performance.  That’s interesting to the audience.  You feel that if you hadn’t been there it’s not going to happen again.  That’s purely from an audience standpoint.  We’re thinking about ratings.  We’re thinking about what we can do so that people won’t get bored and switch off.  For the next broadcast I have Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Dvorak’s New World Symphony.  I’ve done both of those at least three or four times each.  Here I sit thinking, “OK, what in the world can I use as an approach that the audience will say ‘Well, I’ve never seen it done that way!’ ?”

We have Maxim Vengerov playing violin.  He’s very dynamic and interesting to watch.  When you have good players and they have long solos, you can take advantage of that.  There are certain members of the orchestra that are more interesting when they are engaged in playing than others.  You always have the basic information, that the more energy of the music is represented in the camera, the easier it is to evaluate the sound.  String players are better in that way than brass players because the action of the music is represented by what you’re seeing.  Of course, the conductor makes a difference.  Some are enormously communicative, and you use much more conductor than you would with others.  It’s a very challenging area, I’ve done it for so many years.  I wish I had answers.  I simply end up doing what I think will serve the program the best I can, and then hope it’s OK.

RW: Do you consciously plan a variety of zooms, pans, fixed shots, dissolves?  When you have a shot sheet, do you make sure you have a variety of shots to keep it visually interesting?

KB: It’s terribly important to phrase the process, so that you don’t settle into a lot of close-ups, and a lot of the same moves.  To orchestrate it in a way that doesn’t get repetitive, automatic, and predictable.  It’s a very personal choice.  Some people feel that it’s helpful for the listener when you have a dialogue between two instruments that you go back and forth using the same pair of cameras.  The technique is called “Mickey Mouse”.  If you “Mickey Mouse” music you’re representing music in a cartoon fashion. I don’t ever do that.  If there is that kind of dialogue I try to use different cameras when I go from one instrument to the other.   There are no easy answers.

RW: How is the score used?  How is it marked up, and by whom?

KB: I’m a good enough musician that I can read a score.  I can’t sit down and play it at the piano, but I can sit down and pretty much parse it without a musician helping me.  If it’s a brand new piece of music and I don’t have a recording, I would probably need a musician to help me analyze the score and say what’s happening.  But for a piece of music that’s in the repertoire, and where I can listen to a tape while I’m looking at the score, I go through and mark on the score all the camera cuts, when they happen, that’s the first step.  Then I take all that material and put down on blank paper the sequence of shots from 1 to 650, one after another, and from then on when we go into rehearsal I just work with my menu of shots.  I turn the score over to a musical assistant who leads me through the whole thing, so that I don’t have to follow the score as I do the show.  I simply am looking at my camera sequence.  In the early days, and still at the BBC, most of the directors conducted the show off the score itself.  They followed the score and took the cuts from the score.  I found that I was spending so much time looking at the score and not at the camera work that I decided it would free me up if I turned the score over and had someone count me down through the cuts.  That’s the technique I use, and I think it’s pretty much used throughout the business now, it frees up the director a lot.

RW: Mark Schubin told me that it’s the assistant director that talks to the camera people during the show.  What are you doing, are you watching in case something needs to change?

KB: I’m just taking the shots from one to another, making the dissolves.  On my right I have my switcher.  On my left is my assistant director.  To his left is the bar counter, the musician.  I’m on the headset with him.  He’s counting me down to the shots that I have listed in front of me.  I’m just looking at the sheet with 8-10 shots on it, I know what they are because it’s all written down there.  When the music assistant counts me down I simply click my fingers or call out. However I do it, and the switcher makes the moves.

RW: You do that, that’s not the technical director’s job?

KB: The TD actually makes the switch.  I tell him when and how.  If it’s a slow dissolve, I make it a slow dissolve.

RW: You’re talking to him.

KB: I’m talking to him, or I’m gesturing to him.  I’ve with these people for so many years that the show really runs without me.  They know my kind of camera work so well now that once I give them the script they can do it without me.  I’m there, but I don’t really have to be.

RW:  There are no surprises, you don’t notice something going on that you didn’t see in rehearsal and adjust?

KB: I never go off the script.  Maybe’s that a mistake.  There probably are things that are there, but at this point in my career I’d probably get lost.

RW: You can see the feeds from all the different cameras?

KB: Yes.  I use a lot of cameras, because I very often have, in addition to my 5 or 6 big stationary cameras around the orchestra, 4 or 5 small robotic cameras that you put in the middle of the orchestra that can pick up the tale.  There’s no question that there’s a lot happening that would be wonderful to watch that doesn’t get onto the air, but I don’t do these as taped performances, they are live shows.  If I were doing a show for future broadcast and you had the opportunity of taping some of the footage that you’re not actually putting into the mix you could make a brand new show out of it.

RW: The robotic cameras are small and don’t distract the audience?

KB: They don’t distract the audience, and for the most part don’t distract the players.  They’re aware that there’s a little thing there, but they’re as small as a little cell phone.  They pan and zoom, they’re handled by a camera man offstage who has all the monitors for them.  He can usually control 3 or 4 of them.

RW: Can the big cameras move up and down?

KB: No, I don’t use any movement there, the audience in the hall wouldn’t like seeing that.  In Europe they can do that.

RW: My father wrote his dissertation about the broadcasting of classical music on TV fifty years ago.  He included an excerpt from a letter he received from you, then working as director for the musical programs at NBC.  He also quotes Robert Cantrick, who wrote about music, TV,  and aesthetics.  Cantrick wrote about the direct relationship between the apparent distance of the camera from the subject and the resultant emotional objectivity: the farther the camera appears to be from the subject, the greater sense of emotional detachment.  As the camera zooms in there seems to be more emotional involvement.  He then applied this theory to choices of composition in recording classical music: for music of the 19th century he favored close-ups, and more distant views for music of the 18th century.  Can you generalize about translating music to image?  Do you have any rules that you stick to?

KB: The trick is to express the emotion in the music.  This affects the speed of the shots, and the way that they happen.  You might use a zooming in as the music becomes more intense, or you might zoom out.  For a decrescendo you might pull back.  I don’t have any rules.

We did “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian”, a piece of Debussy’s that’s extremely impressionistic.  It involved tonal things that are just so subtle, I thought there’s no way in the world, if we’re absolutely literal and put the camera on the members of the orchestra playing this music, it would be so far from what this music is suggesting.  I used soft wipes and had a color scheme,  I threw a wash of colors over the players to suggest the different moods of the music.  You have to find some way to represent to the eye what the ear is hearing.  Masur absolutely adored it, there were some other viewers who thought it was totally inappropriate.  As I say, another director would have done everything differently, might have done everything out of focus, that would have irritated a lot of people.

RW: Have you had any special challenges doing contemporary music, anything abstract?

KB: We do repertoire with the Philharmonic that is fairly standard.  It’s not often that we do commissioned works.  Partly because, with the general audience we have it’s safer to go with standard repertoire.  When you do the opening night of Philharmonic you’re locked into what they’re going to give you, and they’re not going to do five selections of dissonant music.

RW: If you were going to do something educational, to show different types of musical form, for example the exposition/development/recapitulation in a sonata, what might you do differently?

KB: That’s the kind of thing that Lenny Bernstein did.  I don’t think that I have the credentials to do that.  I wouldn’t do it myself because I’m not a good enough musician.  I’d be perfectly willing to do it for a musician.  For that I suggest you look at Michael Tilson Thomas doing Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony [performed the week before on PBS].  It’s an entirely different approach.  I think he did it very well.  I was a combination of his own point of view about the music, what he’s trying to bring out, and then working with the individual soloists so that they had something to say about how they thought the solos should be played.  It was a very interesting program.  You learned a lot about that piece of music.  He’s interested in carrying on Bernstein’s tradition from the Young People’s Concerts to teach young people about music.

RW: Do you think video direction could be a good assignment for theory students, to analyze a score the way they normally would, and then revisit the work, deciding what to take shots of during a concert?  Universities have used video for a long time to give students feedback from concerts.  Now with the increasing availability of camcorders and desktop video editing systems you can have afford to use more than one camera.  We’ve got more technology now but don't know where to go with it.  Maybe this is an area in which music theorists could get into, being part of a team making multimedia productions.

KB: I absolutely agree.  It’s wonderful.  It’s certainly more stimulating for the kids to think in those terms.

RW: It gets them to apply knowledge in one area to a different area, and provides an urgency that doesn’t normally exist in a traditional theory assignment.  It has to be done b a certain date, because that’s when the concert is going to be performed.  You can’t turn this paper in late.  They attend the concerts and write program notes and concert reviews, giving them a different perspective and way to become involved.