Two distinct catalysts went into the creation of violinist Tim Fain’s multimedia project, “Portals,” which comes to the Gardner Museum on Thursday. One is his enthusiasm for American composers; the concert includes music by Aaron Jay Kernis, Nico Muhly, William Bolcom, and others, and at its center is a solo violin piece, “Partita,” which Philip Glass wrote for Fain after the latter’s performances in Glass’s song cycle “Book of Longing,” on poems by Leonard Cohen.
The second motivation is more ambiguous: Fain’s fascination with the digital era and its effect on social relations. This is hardly a new theme; we are continually fretting or exulting over the effect that social networking and new communication tools have had on our interpersonal lives. That revolution, though, has left classical music, and especially its concert rituals, largely untouched.
“I have an ongoing fascination with this way we all keep in touch in the digital age — it’s as fascinating as it is terrifying,” Fain said from Grand Forks, N.D., in a recent phone conversation. “So I wanted to bring a performance to people that was not only centered around great music but representative of the age we live in, and pays homage to its possibilities.”
Hence “Portals,” a show in which the only truly live element is Fain’s solo playing. The “accompaniment” consists entirely of prerecorded videos that are projected on a screen in the concert hall. When piano accompaniment is called for, a video of pianist Nicholas Britell appears. He is seen sitting down at his piano, as if he were just dropping in on the proceedings on Skype before his performance. Similarly, when Fain plays Glass’s “Partita,” a video by choreographer Benjamin Millepied plays on the screen. At a number of points throughout the program, the NPR host Fred Child is seen and heard reciting poems by Leonard Cohen. In Muhly’s “Honest Music,” Fain even plays a duet with a film of himself.
Each of these events is a portal, Fain seems to be saying, by which he can interact with his fellow artists, even though his partners are neither bodily present nor carrying out their duties live. As he said in the interview, “This is what I aim to bring into relief, this line between what is flesh and blood and breath and body heat, and what is pixels. How close can we get?”
“Portals” asks deep questions about, and tests the limits of, what we consider a concert experience. Few would disagree that some amount of digital embellishment is unassailable. After all, electronic and electroacoustic works have been a staple of avant-garde concerts for decades. But what about a performance in which everything except one person’s playing was set two years ago, when the piece premiered, and now lives in a Dropbox folder in the Cloud? Is this still a concert?
Or, as Fain put it, “How much digital could I get in there and still have it feel like a live performance?”
You could be forgiven for being skeptical of the extent to which “Portals” really does feel like a live performance. But, Fain said, “I’ve had people say, wow, we totally forgot that the pianist wasn’t actually with you on the stage. And I sort of have to have a chuckle to myself, because it’s amazing that one could get that close to . . . the feeling that this is a richly collaborative performance.”
In fact, one of the surprises for Fain came from the realization of how spontaneous the playing feels, despite the fact that his colleagues’ contributions remain unchanged from performance to performance — hence, the violinist can’t alter the tempos or pacing of some of the pieces as much as in a conventional concert situation.
“I discovered that my sense of what makes a live performance engaging, what makes it exciting by virtue of its being unpredictable, doesn’t have as much to do with timing as I would have suspected,” he said. “The emotional arc might differ greatly from one night to the next. As in any performance, there are moments where things really have to line up exactly. But then there are moments of great freedom and flexibility and space.”
Ultimately, Fain sees “Portals” as a hopeful work. Though he finds himself unnerved by the increasing distance between human beings in the digital age and the resulting danger of alienation, the experience has shown him that a sense of connection, vital to both life and art, can survive and perhaps even thrive in the new era.
“In a way, it was an experiment, because these performers are not there, and there’s something eerie about that. I am locked into this performance. Is it still possible to suspend one’s disbelief and get the impression that they’re alive? And my hope is that there are parts of the program where people may catch themselves forgetting that this isn’t a totally live performance.”David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.