That’s what I thought as I leafed through the annual directory issue of Chamber Music, the publication of Chamber Music America (which of course is the organization that represents chamber music to our nation). This directory issue is essentially a listing — apart from a few how-to guides (about marketing, commissioning new pieces, and the like — of chamber music groups, many of them prominently splashed over glossy pages in ads bought by their managements.
So there they were, ensemble after ensemble, presented in glossy photos (close to 100 of them, more if you count thumbnails that get shoehorned into ads for many groups together) — and about half the photos were bad, some of them truly terrible. Very few served what ought to be their purpose, which of course is to make us want to hear these groups play.
Cases in point (I won’t mention the groups’ names):
Here we have blank glamour. We see some musical instruments; that’s all we have to tell us that these people are musicians, or, really, artists of any kind. What would we expect from the people in this photo, if we didn’t see the violin and the cello? Lessons in sales and marketing? Or hair and makeup?
Nice people. But again, if we couldn’t see their instruments, would we think they had anything artistic to say to us? What in this picture would make us want to hear them play?
Once again, nice people, or so they seem. And there’s something extra that suggests, in ways I can’t define, that they might be interesting or at least lively musicians. But at the same time, there’s something goonish in the shot, something not quite sophisticated, but not unscripted enough to be compelling. The photo is clumsy; that’s a problem. Why is the violin pressing down the piano keys? Is this some new performance technique, something adventurous and avant-garde, qualities not in the least suggested by anything else in the photo? I think it’s simply a mistake, which the group, the photographer, and the group’s management all overlooked. Or, worse, thought was interesting.
The best of these photos, or the least bad, because the people look lively and at least a little individual. But the instruments — and the bows — get in the way. They all but form a barrier between us and these musicians, like some kind of unkempt picket fence. Showing groups with their instruments seems to be an unwritten rule in chamber music photos. But why? If they’re advertised as a string quartet, then we know they play these instruments. What new information do we get from seeing them in a photo? If the instruments enhanced the photo, then, sure, use them, but as this shot illustrates, the instruments more often get in the way. If you’ll scroll down a bit, I’ll show you another group…
…in what’s almost a really good, in some ways quite wonderful photo. (I’ve had to crop it, to eliminate the group’s name, and some other identifying information, so you don’t quite get the full impact. In the Chamber Music directory issue, it takes up a full page; you really notice it.) The musicians look serious, humane, and interesting. I can almost smell the mountain air. I can imagine the quartet playing music with the feeling of the mountains.
But those instruments! Why are we seeing them? Who’d take them outdoors to this mountain setting? Yes, maybe you’d retreat to a mountain cottage for a week of intense rehearsals, but why would you carry your instruments outdoors to a rock? Suppose you dropped them, or banged them against a tree when you lost your footing! The picture, impressive as it otherwise is, makes no sense. Just show me the musicians, with the mountains I trust they really love. But leave the instruments home!
But why are these photos so bad? There’s a method to my snarking here. I don’t just want to