Recently I was talking with a composer friend whose current projects include a new opera. When I asked about instrumentation, cast, etc., he indicated that his plan at the moment was to prepare the piece as a fixed-media four-screen video projection with sound. (I think. I’m sure he’ll correct me if I’m remembering incorrectly.) I’ve been kicking around ideas for my own opera for years, but for an unknown composer in my situation, writing an opera is like laboring over a seven-course meal just in case somebody shows up for dinner uninvited. The thought of working in a fixed-media context, however, makes the proposition a bit more sensible: The effort and cost of “production” is heavily, heavily front-loaded, and once the thing’s done, it can be easily exported just about anywhere given the proper audio and video gear. Electronics could put me within striking distance of my opera.
However, this very fixity might be a double-edged aesthetic sword: One of the things I cherish most about producing scores rather than fixed-media pieces is that they can be interpreted and reinterpreted; the possibilities are potentially infinite. Fixed-media composition does not offer this kind of headroom. On the other hand, that same fixity is awfully appealing in a context where the subtlest nuance of utterance is of vital importance: The inflection of lines in an opera is something that might benefit from extremely fine control, control of the sort that a written score might not be able to offer. And what about the sets and cast? If my dramatic instincts have been as saturated by film (as opposed to theater) as I suspect, maybe I want the characters to look the same every time I see the piece. Video can do that, but it would be impractical with a conventional score.
These approaches are by no means mutually exclusive, of course. I could roll with fixed-media audio in lieu of a pit band and use live singers in front of a video projection, for instance. In any case, the possibilities offered by new media to realize my ambitions have ramifications beyond their possible logistical advantages that must be considered.