Violinist Samuel Thompson remembers his awe in the early days of YouTube. With the click of a button, he could pull up otherwise hard-to-come-by archival footage of Wanda Wilkomirska premiering Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Capriccio for Violin and Orchestra” in 1967. He remembers discussing the dizzying possibilities with a colleague: “You can live anywhere and do serious study of the violin because we have this tool.”
Fifteen years later, we regard this kind of access as commonplace. But the indefinite suspension of live performances brought about by the COVID-19 quarantines have put the promises of the digital revolution to the test.
Audiences have never had so many musical resources and high-quality performances at their disposal as now, but are streaming concerts worthy substitutions for the real thing? And while digital content lowers barriers to access for audiences, does it in turn create them for performers — who find their home concerts vying for listeners that could just as easily cue up top-quality productions from organizations like the Metropolitan Opera or Berlin Philharmonic?
Katherine Needleman, oboist for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, was among the first wave of musicians to adapt their musical offerings for quarantined audiences. On March 19, she launched the first in a series of weekly “Lockdown Oboe Solo Concerts” streamed live from her home on her Facebook page.
For an orchestral musician, March is typically a month packed with performances. When the BSO canceled upcoming performances on March 12 and Needleman found herself at home with a cleared calendar, she “felt a little useless. I didn’t pick up my oboe for four or five days.” The concerts were a way “to get [herself] to do something.”
Since then — May 1 marks Needleman’s seventh concert — the performances have taken on deeper meaning. Needleman has been using them to make her way through the Telemann oboe fantasias as well as to showcase the work of some of her favorite living composers. Through pre-recorded interviews, these composers even make appearances on her webcasts (Thea Musgrave and Viet Cuong were two of her recent guests); the result is the kind of depth and curatorial insight one would expect from the best live performances.
The biggest hang-up? It’s, by now, the old refrain: the sound quality, the technology. “The oboe is a very pungent instrument,” said Needleman. “For me, it’s probably the most difficult to record well.” Needleman’s felt a little better about the sound of her concerts since upgrading her equipment (she uses a Coles 4038 ribbon microphone and an Apogee Duet audio interface), but she still spends “hours and hours” every week worrying over the technology.
Under normal circumstances, Needleman wouldn’t even consider sharing a full program of solo oboe music with the public without practicing it for one to two years. But the coronavirus pandemic has brought about a shift in priorities: Today’s live concerts, such as they are, are less about showcasing artists at the top of their game than they are about providing baseline support to those artists and connection with their audiences. To that end, there are the perks of streamed performances: Over 12,000 viewers, a number of them flung across the globe, tuned in for one of her lockdown concerts, which is, in Needleman’s words, “unheard of” for a solo oboe concert — “It’s this sort of esoteric thing.”
But it raises another question: What does it mean to be a musician of a particular place anymore, when all of one’s public performances can theoretically be accessed by anyone in the world? It’s a question that Douglas Buchanan, director of music ministries at St. David’s Episcopal Church, has been thinking about a lot as he’s prepared a digital choir of sorts for his church’s livestreamed services.
“If you want to worship at the Washington National Cathedral, or at some big cathedral [elsewhere in] the world, you can do that now,” he said in a phone interview. “So there’s the question of, why choose to view your parish church? It doesn’t have to be religious. Why view your local string quartet when you could watch whoever might be streaming that day, or all the millions of hours of archived footage that we have access to?”
For Buchanan, the answer is similar to why we still have, and need, librarians in the age of the internet. “You need them because they’re curators. They know where to look and how to look.” For musicians, there’s even more to it: “You still carry with you the community that you had before.”
So, sure, the faithful could tune in to streamed services from any number of world-renowned places of worship — but they’re still not actually there, craning their necks to make out details on the vaulted ceilings, listening to voices echo against the walls. If they tune in to their own parish, they can, at the very least, “see the faces of the people they know.”
But Buchanan, too, has grappled with the technology. St. David’s has been streaming what they call services of morning prayer every Sunday, which include performances by their staff choir. At the appropriate moments, two columns, each showing four singers, appear on either side of the screen; as the choir sings the hymn, the text appears in the center.
The effect is that of a live performance — but it’s not. And neither are any of the videos (many of which have gone viral) of musicians “coming together” to make music despite the lockdowns. These videos are created by musicians recording themselves separately, while listening to a click track or other instrumental recording to maintain tempo, and the final result is the product of hours of labor by a mixing engineer.
Buchanan has become that engineer for St. David’s, as well as their video editor. He estimates that editing a service can take anywhere from seven to 12 hours. He doesn’t question the value of the work: For him, it provides a sense of ritual to the week, it allows the St. David’s choir to keep getting paid, and he still sees his role as the same as before COVID-19: “I’m trying to create meaningful and high-quality music … geared towards the community that I serve.”
But the work does exact an emotional toll. Buchanan remembered that the first time the choir sent him their files and he began editing them together, “it was really hard. It really hit me because I knew this was how I was going to be interacting with my singers for a long time to come.”
He worries, too, about the wider ramifications of the rush to provide digital content, pointing out that “for most concerts that have archival footage, there aren’t mechanical rights that are included in the contract” for that performer. In other words, if a musician agrees to perform and get paid for a live gig, but their contract does not have a clause addressing redistribution — and the concert is recorded and later streamed — then that musician will not receive any additional payment, even if the streamed recording is generating additional income for the organization.
Kerry Holahan, a full-time freelance vocalist whose gigs include singing for St. David’s and the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, worries about another unintended effect of digital concerts. “I’m worried that we’re giving our audiences a false sense of normalcy,” she said in an interview. Specifically, the simulations of live performances might imply that “musicians have innovated and bounced back in the way that artists tend to do when they’re faced with challenging situations — when really it’s anything but.”
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By now, Holahan has developed her own best practices for recording for streamed concerts — she works with her cell phone attached via a rubber band to her music stand — but her frustrations with her limited technology and her fear about the future has made for some draining recording sessions.
“Our recording equipment is very subpar,” Holahan said. “I’m using my cell phone and my laptop, neither of which was ever designed to do real recording. I’m in my mother’s living room. There are dogs barking and lawnmowers in the background. Certainly our parishioners don’t care about any of that. They just care about the camaraderie and the feeling of connection, so that aspect of it I’m very happy to maintain. But for the musicians themselves it’s kind of hell. It’s really uncomfortable.”
“It’s uncomfortable because the quality is so subpar,” she explained, “but it’s also incredibly emotional. The first time I was trying to record pieces, I cried for 20 minutes. I couldn’t steady my voice.”
For all of the mind-boggling technological innovations that have expanded our abilities to make and listen to music, our now utter reliance on that technology has revealed a glaring lack: We do not have the ability to recreate simultaneous performances. We still can’t make music together if we’re not in the same place — not really, not at the same time.
It’s worth asking whether that technology ever could exist. Because even if you managed to eliminate latency issues, even if you managed to somehow replicate the acoustic blending of discrete instruments in real time, could this kind of ensemble work ever be anything more than a simulation — a mock-up?
Buchanan reflected on one of the hardest things for his choir to go without: taking a breath together. “It’s this very basic, visceral thing that is bodily and it’s also emotional. For different people it’s mental or spiritual. It’s these resonant bodies acting together in space.”
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 email@example.com.