Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Yesterday, as part of the Salon de la musique indépendante de Montreal (SMIM), Philippe Laperrière offered a lecture on the mise-en-scène of a concert. Laperrière has worked with various artists in the Québecois pop scene. It was a refreshing perspective on stage presence in general, as Laperrière emphasized that mise-en-scène is not necessarily about the external elements of set design or lighting, but about the substance of the music. "You don't want to notice the mise-en-scène, you want to walk away saying 'That was a great show.'"

Laperrière chose to define "spectacle" or "show" as a meeting and exchange between the artist and the public. And surprisingly, much of his workflow and his conception of mise-en-scène can apply at all sizes of venues and across a multitude of styles. He was adamant that when he is hired as a metteur-en-scène he brings no preconceptions to the band, and allows the band to create their own ideas. He is merely a facilitator. Often, he works in the same way as a music producer, nurturing the good ideas and an external set of ears to dispel the false good ideas.

What struck me was Laperrière's emphasis on text. He will work one-on-one with the artist for a long period of time just on getting a sense of the lyrics, and the subtexts the artist wishes to convey with those songs. He often gets the artist to sing the songs for him a cappella, and to ensure that the themes are being communicated clearly. When the rehearsals begin with the band, he makes sure the entire band is clear on the themes of each tune. It brought to mind how many times I've been advised to learn the lyrics of standards, and what a musical difference that makes.

While mise-en-scène generally suggests some amount of codifying (a planned, structured setlist that determines much of the additional elements of stage production), Laperrière's comments on the relationship with the audience and pacing apply to all scenarios. "A performance does not rely on the number of people in the room," Laperrière said. You never know who could be among the five people in a club, so it is vital to give 100% of your show. I know I'm often disheartened by an empty club, and while it is depressing playing to a cavernous setting, it's a challenge.

One of his bullet points was "If the crowd is talking, ask yourself about what you're giving as a show," which is a point to which many jazz musicians can relate. Perhaps jazz musicians are fighting an unfair uphill battle about the perceived role that our music serves to the public (thank you Starbucks) that singer-songwriters and pop bands don't necessarily deal with, but it's still something to think about. How can we attempt to musically engage the (sometimes significant amount of) people at a jazz club that have not come there to hear the music, necessarily?

In thinking about mise-en-scène in relationship to improvised music, I believe it's important to have an improvisational approach to mise-en-scène as well. I plan my setlists for Indigone and Bruxo in advance, knowing certain venues, the potential audiences, and if there's another band on the bill, but I will also cut and paste on the fly, reading the crowd. Often, the room will have its own character that will influence the set. My years in radio have definitely shaped how I structure a set in terms of pacing and where and how often I talk. At the crux of what Laperrière is dealing with, I think, is a sensitivity to the content of one's music and an awareness of how to effectively communicate that to an audience visually. It can be small (like not leaving a water bottle at your feet, or the band releasing tension in unison into the verse), but those details leave lasting impressions on an audience.

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