With Sky Burial, a radical interpretation of Fauré’s Requiem, performed this month at La Seine Musicale (15 and 16 February) and Hong Kong Arts Festival (23 February), visual artist Mat Collishaw discusses the project and explains how film might enhance classical music
What are you hoping to achieve with your classical music artworks?
I remember watching the Ken Russell documentary about Elgar when I was a child. He had a shot of blinded First World War soldiers coming back from the trenches. There was a line of them with their hands on the shoulder in front of them because they couldn’t see as they walked over bombed terrain. Russell played Elgar over that, which made a huge impression on me. I’d like to do something like that with classical music.
Pop music videos became massive when MTV launched in the 1980s. Suddenly, everybody was watching them and they became a big part of what the music actually was. This has developed even further since then on YouTube and now TikTok. There’s not much like that for classical music online at the moment, but maybe there is a way of presenting it like that.
I understand some of the reluctance. Reading a book is fantastic compared to watching a film because your mind has to do the work and that interactive quality is special. Classical music should have that sacred quality, too – it should evoke things within the listener. They don’t need to be spoon fed.
In the past I tended not to incorporate music in artworks because it can be too manipulative – laying an extra layer of music on top of an artwork can condition people to respond in a certain way. However, when I go to classical concerts, after about ten minutes I’m looking at the cellists’ shoes or the hair of the second flautist. The music is overpowering, but there’s nothing else to look at. Opera has always had this visual element and I would like to create an equivalent for orchestral music. I believe there is a place for it.
What are your hopes for classical music?
Art is there to engage you and make you think and feel things. Classical music, like a lot of art that was made before the 20th century, gets put into the zone of being something that socially sophisticated people do as a recreation and not something that’s alive, revolutionary and life-changing. And yet, classical music has the capacity to move and transform people like no other music.
When you’re in a concert hall with an 80-piece orchestra and a 60-piece choir, it’s so powerful to have those vibrations resonating through you. I hope that if I can create something on top of that, which takes people away from the concert hall, that it can be a powerful artistic tool and might make classical music more accessible to people who wouldn’t normally go.
How did you conceive of Sky Burial?
The choice of Fauré’s Requiem had already been established when I started work, so I was responding to it, trying to create something that was appropriate and fitted seamlessly. The music is very beautiful and ethereal, and it could easily have been a video of clouds and angels, but that would have been superfluous and wouldn’t have engaged people. I wanted to introduce something about the subject of life passing into death that really hit home, using visuals as a contrast to the sublime music. That juxtaposition makes the sublime even more intense. I wanted to take people to a place they might not normally visit when they’re listening to Fauré’s Requiem, and have them think about questions such as life and death, mortality and the cycle of life.
I came up with the Sky Burial idea, based on the Tibetan practice of putting bodies of the dead in a high place where vultures can come down to feed. That was going to be the kernel of the whole video. I wanted to challenge them a little, taking something that’s culturally acceptable in Tibet but a little barbaric in the West, and to refocus to see it in a different way.
I decided to set it in the inner city rather than a rural area so that it would seem shocking and barbaric. Essentially, it’s just a cultural difference: we have our way of disposing of the dead and people in Tibet have theirs. In the final moments, the vultures fly into the sunset. Rather than going up to heaven in the arms of angels, the dead people are going up to heaven in the belly of a vulture. It might seem brutal, but it relates to a narrative about heaven. Interweaved with that, I create a thread of water flowing from the spring and brook at the beginning to streams and rivers and eventually dissipating into the sea and up to the clouds. There’s something ecologically circular about the whole cycle of nature, birth and death. The planet is a living organism.