AN EXPERIMENT BY MCICM
Classical Music in Times of Covid-19
Online Musicking is an experiment by the Maastricht Centre for the Innovation of Classical Music (MCICM), a collaboration between Maastricht University, philharmonie zuidnederland, and Zuyd University of Applied Sciences (Conservatorium and the Research Centre for Art, Autonomy and the Public Sphere).
The outbreak of COVID-19 has greatly impacted musicians and orchestras. No longer able to perform in concert halls, musicians and orchestras are trying to find ways to move their concerts online. We see musicians practicing and performing from their living rooms on our Facebook timelines. Orchestras are streaming previously recorded or live concerts.
But how to perform classical music without the rituals and routines of the concert hall? How do you perform without fellow-musicians or audiences physically present? How do these videos find their way to certain audiences and what does that mean for our understanding of what a classical music audience can be? What does it mean to be a musician or an audience member in this time of home-isolation and social distancing?
In the experiment Online Musicking, we explore these questions with five musicians from philharmonie zuidnederland. Digital media afford different options and opportunities for musicians and orchestras than concert halls. Musicologist Christopher Small introduced the concept ‘musicking’ to talk about classical music as an activity that involves not only performing and listening, but also rehearsing, practicing, and evaluating. What does it take for musicians to engage in ‘online musicking’? What is online musicianship? How does online musicking change our understanding of the live concert? And how can musicians engage with online audiences? In short: How to musick online in a meaningful way?
Online Musicking is one out of five experiments that the MCICM conducts in the NWO/SIA funded Artful Participation project. The goal of these experiments is to explore how audiences can be involved in the programming, performing and assessing of symphonic music.
Below you can read our experiences and lessons learnt with online musicking. It is a story of five musicians and three researchers, who aimed to engage in a community-music project, but instead found themselves isolated at home with only their instruments and digital tools at their disposal.
In February 2020, five classical musicians of Philharmonie zuidnederland sit in a classroom at Maastricht University. Together with three researchers of the Maastricht Centre for the Innovation of Classical Music (MCICM), they discuss their plans for the experimental community-music project Sounding Northwest that is about to take place in the Maastricht neighbourhood Northwest. The group (in the following: we) aim to get to know this neighbourhood, attend social events, team up with some inhabitants, and perform in small chamber ensembles in private homes. Starting from issues voiced by the inhabitants, the musicians and the residents were to embark on an artistic process of composing, arranging and organizing events that would explore how making music together could provide new opportunities to share ideals, experiences and stories. Like troubadours in 19th France, we aimed to use classical music to tell stories, making classical music matter in a different way.
And then Covid-19 came.
Right before the start of the project in April 2020, we witnessed the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The subsequent lockdown started mid-March and continued until June that year. All social events were cancelled and we could no longer go to the people in the neighbourhood. The musicians were no longer able to rehearse or perform with the orchestra, and found themselves without audience at home.
We tried to connect digitally with communities of North West, but many inhabitants were not organised online, or had more urgent concerns to cope with. Limited to online communication, we decided to transform the experiment into an exploration of engaging with digital audiences. We set up a website to document our process. Soon, the website turned into a digital rehearsal space. Over the course of twelve weeks, all in home isolation, the musicians and the researchers practiced and experimented with online musicking: arranging, rehearsing, performing, organising, producing, recording and editing classical music performances on the internet.
This website shows the journey we made and the lessons we learnt along the way. A story about trying new tools, rehearing on camera, acoustic quality, and finding and performing an audience online. A story of a group of musicians and (artistic) researchers, exploring the societal relevance of classical music in an online era.
Cut off from the concert hall, their fellow musicians of the orchestra and their audiences, and limited to digital communication, the musicians (and the researchers) couldn’t fall back on a rich tradition of concert formats, routines and rituals. We were amateurs regarding digital media: the recording, editing, and production of videos with (smartphone) cameras and editing software. We started experimenting with performing music on camera, and reflecting on what it means to teach and rehearse through video-conferencing software. This raised topical questions and challenges regarding performance qualities, audience participation, and societal relevance.
April 8, Percusionist Frank replies to a young fan of the orchestra. Recorded by philharmonie zuidnederland.
The first weeks after the outbreak saw a host of classical music initiatives on social media, ranging from individual soloists performing from their balconies and living rooms, to orchestras recording Zoom-performances and whole neighbourhoods singing opera aria’s. Philharmonie zuidnederland also started recording videos of their musicians playing at home with family, a series which was dubbed #philgood. One video featured Frank, a percussionist in our experimental group, who replied to a young fan. We discussed his experiences shooting the video, and also other instances of online musicking.
We found that many instances of classical music that now emerged in social media, featured children or families, lacked acoustic quality and more often than not didn’t have a specific audience in mind. Some musicians also worried about the fine line between self-promotion of individual musicians or orchestras and authentic and relevant content. We felt a bit stuck: what could we possibly do?
April 14, 2020: A shout out by horn player Jaap: we are still here, and we won’t abandon ship!
Horn player Jaap kickstarted by recording a small musical gesture to the audience: we are still here, and we won’t abandon ship! Recorded with his own smartphone, Jaap and other musicians were a bit sceptical towards the purpose of practicing with this: “There are so many good examples of people with a lot of experience [in digital recording]… why should we do this?” A good question. In the discussion that followed, we decided that our aim is not to compete with orchestras and classical musicians who are able to produce high-quality videos of their performances. Instead, we decided that we want to experiment ourselves with making such videos, in order to learn what is needed to engage online as a group of musicians, what the challenges are and what is at stake. We figured that the best way to start, is to reflect on what the musicians were already doing online.
April 14, 2020: In two videos, Roland shows how he teaches violin to his student, using FaceTime, and how he and his student try to tune together.
Like many musicians in the orchestra, violinist Roland teachers young students. Not being able to physically meet, he decided to try to give his lessons over FaceTime. Already tuning a violin proved to be a challenge: normally Roland would do that for his students, now they had to do it themselves, while Roland tried to hear the pitch through his smartphone.
Roland’s video started a reflection on the sound and acoustic quality of such smartphone-recorded videos. At first, we discussed mainly the technical limitations: from a lack of acoustic quality (in digital compressed forms) to distorted overtones, such as the students’ violin. At the same time, we liked the way Roland’s video was shot and edited (by his son), and how it gave a look behind the scenes of teaching. By discussing Roland’s video, and other examples of online musicking, we learnt that these videos have their own quality and aesthetic values, such as intimacy, directness of communication (like Jaap’s statement), and authenticity. As Christina put it: “Seeing a fellow-musician playing violin in her own kitchen takes away some of the formality and stiffness. It shows the human behind the musician.” So how could we perform and record music, by deliberately using the aesthetics (and less audio quality mics) of our smartphones?
April 14 – May 14, 2020: Percussionist Axel worked on his podcast series ‘Axel’s Classics’, in which he talks about his favourite compositions.
Our team included at least one tech-savvy musician: percussionist Axel. He already started a Youtube-channel, where he plays covers on his percussion instruments, and a podcasts series about his favourite compositions. In our experiment, Axel took the opportunity to rethink how he aims to create an online audience for his podcasts. In isolation, he recorded three new podcast episodes that we together discussed. Axel explained how he learned to adapt his voice for a good audio quality, how he edited the tracks, and the difficulty of constructing a narrative, choosing to focus on which details of the composition, balancing explaining difficult concepts and staying accessible to a general audience. Through these reflections, we learnt that we should think about the narrative that we would like to portray in our videos, both musically and visually. And Axel’s podcasts brought the question of the audience on the table again: who are these podcasts for? How specific should our online audience be? And where, on which medium, to find them?
April 14 – May 17, 2020: Violinist Christina misses her audience. Through three recorded performances she tries to find them…
Violinist Christina took the question of the audience head on. Stuck at home in Switzerland she really missed her colleagues and audience. So she decided to look for them. In the first video, she drew an audience on paper and then performed for them. We found it a powerful, subdued and touching video. In the second, she humouredly painted toilet rolls and tried to perform for them in her small bathroom (which proved to be a challenge). In the third, she manages to go out to an actual live audience – in an Swiss meadow.
Christina noticed that she found playing outside much more difficult: “At home I feel much more comfortable, I can play it ten times over if necessary. But at the street, I feel I can’t.” Christina learnt to edit her videos, which became easier every time. What we learnt from Christina’s videos, was the importance of thinking through a visual narrative using a storyboard, and how a series of videos can build up some suspense of what comes next. And how to turn the aesthetic limitations of a smartphone-camera and -mic to our benefit. Still, the question we struggled with was the same as the one Christina started with: Where was our audience? What to perform for them?
After individually experimenting with different digital media – creating videos reflecting on what it means to teach violin over Zoom, a podcast with inspiring stories about musical works, to a video series in which a violinist searches for a lost audience – we decided to try to record something together.
A first challenge was the repertoire: what to play? The musicians who volunteered for our experimental project were not selected based on their instruments. So we had the odd instrumentation of two percussionists, two violinists, and a horn player. We could dub a violin, and a percussionist also happened to play bass guitar in his spare time. But to find repertoire for this instrumentation was impossible.
While we were discussing the repertoire for the collaborative video in relation to possible audiences, the musicians immediately proposed film music and game music, so we could address children and teenagers. We discussed this ‘educational move’: falling back on routines of engaging audiences that musicians knew from their educational projects. We reflected on this, and decided to try to aim for adults this time, and find something from the canon instead of popularised versions of classical music. We eventually settled for a waltz from Shostakovich’ Jazz Suite that could easily be arranged for the instruments we had.
Then the issue of sound quality emerged again as a challenge. Some musicians were hesitant to produce something of ‘low’ sound quality, given the lack of technical equipment at home, other than smartphones. What would possible audiences or colleagues think? We returned to discussing our previous videos, and what the qualities were. Then one of the two violinist argued: “The smartphone has become an important part of our lives while in lockdown. And if we keep trying to get the best acoustic quality that is possible, then we are trying to conceal that we don’t have access to a concert hall right now. So if we really would like to relate to the world in this moment, than we should use our smartphones.” We all agreed, and we started to plan our recording of Shostakovich.
Since he already had some experience in editing videos, Axel took the lead. He created arrangements for the different instruments – something he hadn’t done before – and directed the other musicians how to record their parts.. To compensate for not being able to play in the same room together, listening and playing to each other’s sound, the musicians decided to play with click track in their earbuds, so at least their tempo would be easier to sync. As Axel didn’t have professional percussion instruments at home, he would play his fretless bass. The musicians went recording at home and we kept track of each other’s experiences through Whatsapp.
April 8, 2020 A week later, Axel presents the video to the group.
We discussed the editing and production process. Because of the straight tempo, Axel found it relatively easy to put all the audio and video files in the software program. Though it did took him quite some time to work with different sources in terms of audio quality and screen ratios, making sure that all the transitions between the parts and the videos run as smoothly as possible. We discussed the overall acoustic quality of the video, and decided that next time, they should all record in their bedrooms where reverb is less, to make the editing afterwards easier.
We could hear that not all the instruments had the same acoustic and sound quality. Axel noticed that the violins sounded surprisingly good on a smartphone-microphone, whereas the overtones of the marimba were difficult to pick up. We were surprised by the result, given the problems the musicians encountered when recording alone at home. Finding the right intonation and dynamics was challenging, as Jaap reflects: “You cannot colour your tone, not tune in to each other. That’s very difficult.” Frank struggled with recording the dynamics of the marimba: “If I would play pianissimo it would still sound as mezzo piano.” The violinists also found playing with a click track challenging, even though they had some experience with it.
This exercise showed the skills that it takes to create an online collaborative video, and the challenges of producing a collaborative home-recording. The musicians delegated roles, and Axel manifested himself as a digital craftsman in many ways: arranging, recording, editing, and producing a musical video. All kinds of skills that are normally not part of being a musician became necessary when performing classical music online, and to deal with challenges of not being able to perform together.
May 7: Walz from Shostakovich’ Jazz Suite
After producing one ‘rehearsal’ as experience, we wanted to create a new collaborative musical video. Still, some musicians also remained a bit hesitant, comparing their video to top quality videos from orchestras with budget and experience. What could we offer an audience instead, next to our own learning process? One musician noticed that audiences often like to see rehearsals, and wondered whether we could show our online rehearsal: the challenges of playing with click track, recording with a smartphone, alone at home. Another musician wondered how we could make the audience of the video actually feel as audience, as they are probably sitting home alone too. How to create an inclusive-experience at home? How to provide musical content and create a musical atmosphere in audiences’ listening situation at home? How to create a situation that would improve the skills of the listeners at home?
We pondered about the emotions of being isolated at home in relation to repertoire. Violinist Christina suggested that the songs of Schubert fit with the kinds of emotions people now go through at home: loneliness, sadness, frustration, hope, joy. The other musicians liked this idea of telling the story of being quarantined at home using songs of Schubert. We discussed the stages of the story of home-isolation in times of corona, starting with peacefulness and carelessness, then shock, sadness and frustration, some joy of being at home with family, and ending with hope. We eventually chose four Schubert songs: Die Forelle, Erlkönig, Lachen und Weinen, and Du bist die Ruh.
We also recognised the benefit of Schubert songs for our atypical instrumentation. Axel: “If we choose songs instead of bigger orchestral works, than we can actually enrich it instead of reducing a musical work to something less.” But how to arrange the Schubert songs for our instrumentation? As this became a much more ambitious video, we decided to cut up the process, and have a better division of tasks and roles. We would first work on the arrangements and the video, and later think about presenting it online to specific audiences. We asked Neil, one of our researchers and a composer, to create the arrangements of the Schubert songs and provide midi-files. Axel would create the click track, edit the videos and produce the collaborative video. Christina, together with student Sanne, would work on the visual narrative of the video. The rest would focus on providing the musical and visual content.
May 29, 2020: We discuss the arrangements made by Neil
In a matter of days, Neil managed to create arrangements for the violinists, the percussionists and the horn player. We discussed the arrangements from the perspective of a producer, balancing requirements for software editing with musical criteria, in order to create a recording plan. There were some worries about dynamics and intonation. There are many parts where the violins play pizzicato, and Axel fears that the mics of the smartphone are not able to pick that up; the violinists should play those parts closer to the smartphone’s mic. Roland learnt from his teaching lessons that muting the violin when playing pizzicato works better. Recording the marimba – the only polyphonic instrument in our group – was problematic in the previous recording: its many overtones distorted the recording, and Frank had to remove the resonators and use a blanket to cover the marimba and mute its sound. We decide to use a Zoom recording device that one of the researcher has for recording the marimba.
There were two horn parts in the arrangement, and Jaap notes that getting the intonation right when recording his part twice is difficult. Violinist Christina recognises this, and worries about intonation when playing with a click track and a midi-file: “I will not trust myself to follow the intonation of the midi-file because it takes all your basic thoughts of intonation away… there are some many things that happen naturally. It really helps if you hear the sound colours of the other instruments.” Some musicians propose to use each other’s recordings instead of a base midi-file and a click track. But Axel disagrees: “That works well in real life, but that makes it very difficult to put all recordings together in the software program.” Neil offers to create a harmonic bassline in the midi-file as a midway solution.
June 3 & 5, 2020: How to portray a narrative?
The video should portray the story of being isolated at home during the lockdown. The music of Schubert conveys the different emotions that people can experience. The musicians suggest to add visual material and the texts of Schubert’s songs to highlight the different emotional stages in lockdown. Christina made a few short, minimalistic videos that could be incorporated. When discussing these short videos, some musicians worry that we “are going to be filmmaking instead of musicmaking”, as the video should be about trying to play music together. But we all agree that visual aesthetics matter and that we need some visual plot. Christina would like the video to be more personal, reflecting the experiences of the musicians themselves during lockdown. She suggests to include personal messages of the musicians in the videos (a bit like Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues). We then discuss how to record ourselves. Roland suggests to record Die Forelle outside, as it matches the arrangement: musicians could play close to the window, and play with the lights. But some musicians mention that the acoustics in their homes for recording are best in the bedroom. We decide to record in the best acoustic and comfortable place at home. With a small visual narrative for the first two videos, the musicians start practicing and recording at home.
June 16 & 22, A small set-back: recording difficulties and entering a new phase in corona-times
After a week and a half of radio silence, we discussed our progress. Roland mentions that his recording went relatively easy: “I know now how to prepare, how to put the smartphone up so it sounds and looks good. It’s getting easier when you’re working on it. “ But Axel and other musicians experienced quite some problems recording the videos. Some of the musicians had trouble to find the time to record it at home, as regular activities started again. As government measures were slowly lifted, the orchestra was gearing up again, organising online performances and live stream concerts for which the musicians started to rehearse. We noticed that we had entered a new stage in the corona pandemic. We agreed that it would be necessary to finish our experiment before all regular activities would be resumed.
Another challenge was recording the Schubert songs with click track. While editing the finished videos, it appeared that the tempi and intonation were sometimes too far off for Axel to be able to fix it in the editing process. Due to these challenges of recording, and time pressure, we created a more stringent time plan. We also decided to change the tempi of some songs, and to record all four videos in one go. The musicians should chose a place at home that sounds best, as one musician remarks: “It’s important that everybody feels comfortable in the space, also in terms of acoustics. I think we have to look for visual aesthetics in the extra shots.”
July 3 & 10: Evaluating the videos and their possible reception
Axel managed to edit all the musicians’ videos and he created collaborative videos for Die Forelle, Erlkönig and Lachen und Weinen. We were all impressed by his diligent work, especially when we heard about the challenges in the editing process. The tempi and intonation of the recordings of Du bist die Ruh would require too much editing, by which the result would sound artificial according to Axel. He managed to cover timing and intonation issues in the other songs to some extent by adding a bass track. The arrangement of Erlkönig appeared ‘thin’ for recording, as one musician remarks: “The elevated feeling of the chords getting higher and higher would work acoustically and would have a huge effect live. But that was too tricky in the recording.” For Christina, this showed the difficulty of not playing together: “Intonation-wise, we are very different. With the Shostakovich video it was easier, because we didn’t have so many melodies together. But now, we’re not really intonating together.” Roland notices that the difficulty of finding the right intonation in-between the other instruments shows in the different ways he and Christina are bowing their violins. According to Axel, this lack of togetherness also points to the difficulty and lack of routine in playing for recording: “The problem with us as professional musicians is that we adjust all the time. We always gradually fix our mistakes and our timing. If we could play based on each other’s parts, that would be much better. But it also has to do with precision, with being strict to yourself in terms of timing and intonation.” We acknowledge that our instrumentation and the choice of repertoire makes the musicians vulnerable in the recording: where musicians in a symphony orchestra can hide behind other instruments, there is nowhere to hide in chamber music, and especially not when recording it alone at home with a click track.
STORY IS IN PROGRESS…
We are curious to hear your thoughts after reading this story! What do you think of the collaborative musical works presented here? How have you been part of online musicking, as audience or maybe as performer yourself? How do you feel about becoming an online audience? And how has music accompanied you during the corona crisis?