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More than ‘just turning on a camera’: How some of Baltimore’s liveliest classical music livestreams are made

BSO musician, principal clarinetist YaoGuang Zhai, has been experimenting with artificial intelligence during his livestreams.
BSO musician, principal clarinetist YaoGuang Zhai, has been experimenting with artificial intelligence during his livestreams. (HANDOUT)

Time moves differently in a pandemic. Depending on whom you ask, it may feel like either just yesterday or an eon ago that musicians were figuring out how to adapt live performances to online broadcasts.

Musicians have moved way beyond simply pressing the “go live” button on their social media platform of choice. Microphones have been upgraded; cameras, too — and along with those changes, a system of “best practice” has developed among acoustic artists who were previously accustomed to just showing up at a venue to perform while other professionals handled logistical concerns.

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There’s one piece of software that has emerged as an indispensable tool to musicians, regardless of their genre. OBS, short for Open Broadcast Software, first hit markets back in 2012, and for many years it was primarily popularized by the video gaming community as a method to livestream while providing commentary.

“Musicians are coming to it recently because we see the capabilities it has,” explained Audrey Wright, violinist and associate concertmaster with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She familiarized herself with OBS to stream a performance on YouTube; her colleague, violist Colin Sorgi, started looking into it when he noticed the somewhat higher production value on the streamed performances of another colleague, oboist Katherine Needleman.

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Whether through necessity or word of mouth, the use of OBS has spread rapidly among live performing artists. Its main uses are threefold: It allows you to stream a video to multiple platforms simultaneously, it’s relatively user-friendly and it’s free.

For Wright, all of the bells and whistles go a long way towards recreating the feeling of being in a live hall together. “I love that there’s a technology that exists that is accessible enough for people like me, who are not necessarily tech-savvy, to be able to communicate with an audience in a more interactive way than just turning on a camera,” she said.

Another BSO musician, principal clarinetist YaoGuang Zhai, has been experimenting with artificial intelligence.

In June, the BSO streamed a 45-minute recital by Zhai (and his first since the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall shuttered in March) that included works by Alamiro Giampieri, Robert Schumann and Carl Maria von Weber — none of which were solo clarinet pieces. Filling in as the pianist was the Cadenza Live Accompanist app, which provides subscribers both sheet music and audio accompaniment for roughly 1,000 classical pieces.

Abby Becker is one of the musicians who has performed at Mobtown Ballroom's multidisciplinary series Mobtown Live!
Abby Becker is one of the musicians who has performed at Mobtown Ballroom's multidisciplinary series Mobtown Live! (HANDOUT)

“The app is pretty amazing because it will follow your tempo,” Zhai said in an interview. “It’s not like you’re playing with a recording.” Of course, there are flaws: If a performer wants to massage the dynamics, that’s not possible, and sometimes, Zhai said, “I have to wait for it to reach my tempo.” But the quality of the audio — even over a compressed livestream — is surprisingly solid, and the effect in performance is of a musician playing with a technically proficient, if mildly oblivious, collaborator.

But software alone does not a successful livestream make. Even though income streams have shrunk dramatically across the entire live performance ecosystem, many venues have found it necessary to hire additional help to transition to online content.

An Die Musik, the classical and jazz venue located in Mount Vernon, has streamed dozens of concerts from its hall since March — an effort enabled by owner Henry Wong’s decision to bring on two recently graduated audio engineers from the Peabody Institute, Andrew Bohman and David Sexton.

Here, too, efforts are focused on recreating the experience of a live hall, but for Bohman and Sexton, that means capturing the unique sound of the An Die Musik concert room.

With its high ceilings and collection of upholstered armchairs that dampen and diffuse sound, the room “has a unique character,” said Bohman. “In the background, there are a pair of microphones dedicated to just picking up the sound of being in the An Die Musik room. It helps merge what [audiences are] seeing with what they’re hearing.”

In Pigtown, Mobtown Ballroom converted its spacious dance hall into a film and production studio for its multidisciplinary series Mobtown Live! that features musicians, artists and intellectuals. They hired Matthew “Hachi” Reid to produce the streaming series, who, during shows, finds himself “doing the work of three or four people. I’m running the sound board, checking levels, running the video deck, doing some other routing work. Occasionally I’m on the stream as well.”

He’s not the only one juggling multiple tasks at Mobtown — or anywhere. A common thread among musicians’ and other artists’ experiences with producing streamed content during the pandemic is the push to suddenly become a jack-of-all-trades.

Bohman’s studies at Peabody were in composition and audio recording, but the nature of his work at An Die Musik has pushed him to spend much of his free time “doing research and taking online tutorials and classes on how to do better video.” Colin Sorgi, who’s also a member of the digital content taskforce that the BSO created in the wake of pandemic shutdowns, described his gratitude for having taken a single film course in high school, and for a few projects that allowed him to keep those skills operable throughout his career.

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“All of the things that we’re doing right now for the pandemic are in my wheelhouse because for a couple of years I ran a new music ensemble [SONAR] that was focused on multimedia performances,” he explained. “Now I’m video editing every week because that’s the only way to stay connected with our audience.”

But post-production work assumes production — and between the need for decent cameras, lights, interfaces and audio gear the cost can really add up. Again, at a time when the performing arts sector has possibly never been more strapped for cash, artists and organizations have found the need to invest in hundreds or thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment in order to continue doing their work.

Of course, the lending spirit is alive and well. Mobtown Live! operated the first few weeks of its series with equipment lent to them by the Baltimore Rock Opera Society (themselves now hard at work on a streaming series made in collaboration with Human Being Productions); and they’re looking into preparing a kit for the musicians they feature on their show, who, unlike at An Die Musik, are often streamed in from their homes.

“That has been the hardest thing for us, is making these great artists sound great over the internet,” Reid explained. “We’ve talked about making a kit [that would] include a 100-foot Ethernet cable, a small interface, some studio monitoring headphones and a microphone. We would have one or two that we’d lend out at a time. It would come back, we’d sanitize it and pass it on to the next artist.”

The idea speaks to what might be the biggest demand in the tech market right now. When I asked artists if there was a piece of technology they wished existed that currently doesn’t, the answer was the same across the board: Just make more of it, and make it more affordable.

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“There’s a huge lack of equipment right now for the demand,” Reid pointed out. “Not only do you have shows like ours, but you have to think about how every church is doing something like this, too.”

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Behind all these expenditures and adjustments, an important mental shift is taking place among musicians and other performing artists. Every musician that’s gotten online to perform since the pandemic struck has had to think like a producer, weighing all the logistical variables of a performance, instead of “just” as a musician.

In the moment, it’s easy to lament the frayed focus — but, at least in classical music, this kind of cultural shift has been a long time coming.

In Colin Sorgi’s words, “Traditional artforms in general are still reckoning with the fact that the internet exists, and how to connect with our audiences [there]. Now, the pandemic has fast-forwarded that, and we’ve had to figure it out in matter of weeks.”

The implications can be overwhelming for practitioners of a discipline that is, more often than not, built on the idea of a historical tradition, but for Audrey Wright, it’s also “energizing. I do feel like this is a chance to step into the 21st century in a big way.”

Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for The Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions. Nonemaker can be reached at nonemakerwrites@gmail.com.

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