On the Mark: Minimalism in Set Design

Columns On The Mark

photo by Lisa Davidson @ Basement East in Nashville

Recently, I took in and reviewed Colter Wall’s show at the 9:30 Club. Colter’s Western-cum-Canadian songwriting is enjoyable enough, but the presentation of the show made it especially good. Normally, shows at the 9:30 Club—and, to be fair, most venues—involve a fair amount of theatrics in their set design: silkscreens behind the artist or band, mats covering the stage, and colored, flashing lights intended to spice up the festivities. Colter eschewed all this, opting for simple incandescent spotlights, a bare stage, and no backdrop.

When I saw John Prine at DAR Constitution Hall last year, he had very much the same presentation: Prine’s show consisted of four men in matching, tailored suits playing damn fine music. Constitution Hall lends itself to this. The stage is wood, not the bare concrete of the 9:30 Club, and the in-the-round, seated nature of the hall lends itself to a different type of experience. But, despite being in different venues, of different sizes, with different audiences, the two artists made very similar statements with their set designs.

By opting to tone down the stage theatrics, Prine and Wall emphasized not just the music, but the musicianship in their concerts. At Wall’s show at the 9:30 Club, from my perch in the balcony, I could clearly see the musicians’ hands working their instruments. I would not have seen with this level detail and clarity and under different lighting. I could somewhat make this out at Constitution Hall, though I was farther back. Seeing live music is an auditory, visual, and kinetic experience. Being able to hear the music, see it played, and feel the sound waves, all three together, makes for a complete experience that sets live music apart from listening to a recording.

By no means is the sparse aesthetic the one true way to stage a concert. Different types of concerts, with different types of genres and bands, lend themselves to very different design. The elaborately staged Arcade Fire show I saw at Capital One Arena would’ve looked wrong presented in a minimalist fashion. The design has to meet the music and the audience expectations.

Even in huge arena rock shows, space exists for moments of stripped-down, minimal presentation. Recently, I watched a Youtube video of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo from “Eruption.” I have no doubt that an ’80s era Van Halen was absolutely nuts, over-the-top; as well it should be. But when Eddie plays that guitar solo, all the shenanigans, all the craziness stops. It’s just Eddie and his guitar. Anything else would take away from power and majesty of Eddie’s playing, and the folks who planned that concert were smart enough to know that.

One might argue that simply stripping down the presentation is not design, but rather the lack of a design. But when most concerts involved sophisticated design, that becomes the default, and choosing to go a different direction is very much a choice. It’s zigging when everyone else is zagging. To make an analogy, consider Johnny Cash’s American Recordings. Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin made a conscious choice about how to present Cash’s music that involved a simple, direct and minimal presentation that rebelled from the day’s trends. Choosing to strip down set design and focus the audience’s attention on music and musicianship is the same kind of choice.

Leave a Reply!