MELISSA BLOCK, host:

We're going to come down out of the cloud for this next story, back to Earth to live music. Advances in technology are changing the concert experience, as NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports.

BILAL QURESHI: When bands like U2 hit the road, spectacle often accompanies them.

(Soundbite of song, "Vertigo")

BONO (Lead singer, U2): Honey, I'm home.

QURESHI: On its last stadium tour, U2 played under a massive 360-degree screen - showing a live relay but also graphics and montages of news footage.

(Soundbite of song, "Vertigo")

BONO: Uno, dos, tres, catorce.

QURESHI: Where there were once smoke machines and light shows, Hollywood-style special effects have become the stadium norm. But Icelandic singer Jonsi from the band Sigur Ros prefers a different setting.

(Soundbite of song, "Sinking Friendships")

QURESHI: His orchestral, anthemic solo compositions are better suited to smaller theatres. But that doesn't mean he's cutting back on spectacle. His upcoming concert tour in the U.S. is more like a live movie. The stage looks like the inside of a burnt-out warehouse. There are several broken glass windows and boxes.

(Soundbite of song, "Sinking Friendships")

QURESHI: During his song "Sinking Friendships" about breakups and the passage of time, it begins to rain against the glass, like water running down your car windows.

(Soundbite of song, "Sinking Friendships")

JONSI (singer): (Singing) We're swimming in the blue.

QURESHI: And then as the drums kick in, a wall of gushing water gradually rises from behind the stage until it reaches the ceiling.

(Soundbite of song, "Sinking Friendships")

Mr. LEO WARNER (Co-director, Fifty Nine Productions): We're never happier really than when someone sees one of our shows and doesn't realize there's any video in it.

QURESHI: Leo Warner is one of the directors of London-based Fifty Nine Productions. It's a company that specializes in designing video for opera and theatre.

Mr. WARNER: What we've been able to do with Jonsi is to kind of take a stage and take a set up and really make something come out of that that the audience isn't expecting - creating an emerging world that happens in front of people's eyes.

(Soundbite of music)

QURESHI: Think of what they're doing as the opposite of a movie soundtrack. In Hollywood, a musician is usually brought in to compose for scenes that have already been shot. In this case, Fifty Nine Productions was presented the songs and asked to create a visual soundtrack.

Mr. MARK GRIMMER (Co-director, Fifty Nine Productions): It's kind of a cross between an art installation and a live gig and a film.

QURESHI: Mark Grimmer helped come up with animated sequences of wolves chasing deer across a forest, a fire that burns through the set and a climactic, violent thunderstorm that appears to consume the band during the finale. But none of these scenes are happening on a screen. They're all projected onto the walls, the objects on stage, even the musicians.

Mr. WARNER: We have a kind of general principle of trying to hide the technology or at least not let the technology take over.

QURESHI: Leo Warner.

Mr. WARNER: Whether that means projecting on a surface that's not a screen or a three-dimensional object which becomes animated in some way. It's very much a kind of ambition to be as subtle as we possibly can.

QURESHI: Nine projectors are hidden around the theatre. All of the images are programmed onto three servers. They have their own crew that tours with Jonsi.

And Mark Grimmer says this too is different from the 18 wheelers that transport your typical arena set.

Mr. GRIMMER: It has to be able to be built within a matter of hours. It has to weigh a certain amount so it's not prohibitively expensive. And all of that needs to be brought into mind from the very, very beginning.

QURESHI: But even before they consider logistics, Leo Warner says the team tries to figure out how to integrate preprogrammed technology with the art of live performance.

Mr. WARNER: There is a risk with any technology in the theatre, not just, you know, film and video. There's a risk of it being kind of a replacement for dramatic content because you can do special effects, and you can do dazzling moments, there's quite often a temptation to kind of stop the action and watch a bit of video.

QURESHI: The challenge for designers like Fifty Nine Productions is how to strike that balance and convince musicians that this new generation of video won't also kill the radio star.

Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You can see the work of Fifty Nine Productions with Jonsi on the All Tech Considered blog that's at npr.org/alltech.

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