Rethinking Live music
In times of a pandemic
In the last couple of weeks, I have spent much of my time looking at the numbers of this pandemic, trying to get a grip on the scale of the current events. After a bit of research about epidemics in general and this one in particular, I came to the conclusion that there is a considerable chance that we will face restrictions to our profession until there is a vaccine or effective medication available, and possibly even quite a bit longer, since vaccinating 60% of the population cannot be done on one weekend.
I also realized that we, the artists that are used to performing for large audiences, were not only the first ones to have to give up our work, but we will most likely also be among the last ones whose lives will return to complete normality.
While wishful thinking makes me hope, project after project, that my work will not get cancelled, reason tells me that we cannot expect that even the upcoming concert season will be normal again.
The world around us is changing rapidly, and I am convinced that we are at the threshold of a new era of live performance. Focusing on financial support from governments and employers is essential to survive this, but in order to be prepared for what lies ahead, I think we have to lift our heads and approach the future in a proactive fashion.
In the past years, live performance has already undergone big changes, and many of us are making an effort to bring about innovation in this field. This crisis might actually serve as a catalyst for a process that started a long time ago, and while it is a massive challenge for all of us to get to the other end of it, it may eventually help us shed the burden of some out-worn traditions faster than we thought.
I am writing this from the perspective of an artist based in the Netherlands. Safety regulations are not the same in all countries. While the Netherlands are still quite liberal concerning outside activities, other countries have made it very difficult to leave the house for more than a few minutes. Almost everywhere it is currently nearly impossible to gather any number of people for a live performance, and I don’t mean to question the reasons behind that. However, I do believe that we should use this time to rethink the way we perform, so that as soon as some of the restrictions are lifted, we have something to offer, and something to fight for.
Performing online and the value of live events
Many musicians have turned to uploading videos of their work to social media, some by streaming live from their homes, others by sharing carefully crafted masterpieces of split-screen chamber music. Some of the most renowned ensembles and orchestras have either made their already existing services available for free and later on a discount (the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, for example) in the first shock of the lockdown, or even started a completely new streaming channel for free (for instance, NDTV by the Nederlands Dans Theater).
This crisis keeps surprising us with how much is actually possible online. We are familiarizing ourselves with recording technologies and have found new ways of bringing music to audiences on a screen, keeping everyone safe at home. However, while these new opportunities may seem intriguing, I would like to argue that they are also dangerous in some ways and might be undermining what we are trying to achieve. Our goal is, ultimately, to connect audiences with our art while, at the same time, making a living out of it.
By bringing the perfection of our video output to new, impressive levels, we are helping create an illusion that what is visible on screen is as good as the real thing. While this is not a new development, it is certainly gaining momentum with screens currently being our only outlet. It may not have been everyone’s dream, but counting a singer’s nostril hairs is no longer difficult thanks to HD quality and superior editing skills. Visually speaking, we have come closer than ever to having the audience with us on stage.
In addition, we often (inadvertently) give the impression that the same amount of work goes into a flawless video recording as does in preparing a live performance. While it is part of our work ethic as performers to aspire to making the most difficult things look effortless, we do charge money for rehearsals and travel time, and we are ready to explain to anyone just how much dedication and discipline it takes to become a professional artist. But do we really make sure that hours of editing and the funds required for recording equipment pay off?
Oftentimes, uploaded videos are offered entirely for free. Far too few ensembles and visual artists have come up with intelligent monetizing systems in the last few weeks, which is counteracting efforts to achieve fair payment in the sector.
All this may seem far-fetched in times where live performances and streaming services coexist, as they do when we are free to move and live our lives. But now that social gatherings will be posing a health threat for months without an end in sight, audiences and, perhaps more importantly, politicians might forget what is so compelling about a live performance.
Experiencing music or any other form of performing arts live is essential, not a luxury. I think it is crucial to reflect upon this when discussing the position of the arts in times of social distancing.
Music is always tied to the space in which it is performed. A space makes the experience complete, by either emphasizing or contradicting what we hear and see. Whether a Bach chorale is performed in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, a cathedral or a factory building makes a world of difference and you cannot reproduce that on screen.
Playing an instrument is a very bodily activity. It is an analogue craft, and never as sterile as the most recent trends in lighting and editing try to tell us. We desire the aforementioned seeming lack of effort, but no matter what, whenever we are in the same room with the artist, we will always see a person at work, making it relatable and moving.
Going out to a live performance means caring for yourself by making an effort. We dress up in a way that we think matches what we are going to experience, we put on something that we would like to be seen in, because going out to a live performance also means being noticed by other people, feeling their presence and reacting collectively to what is brought on stage.
When we are at a live event, we cannot be distracted. For a few hours, there is no other place for us to be, nothing else for us do to and we leave our phones in our pockets for the most part, save for taking a photo or video to capture this moment.
Our entire body is engaged – our limbs aren’t numb because we are staring at a screen, cutting off all physical sensation. We are awake, we are alive.
Ultimately, experiencing performance arts live is what makes us human, by connecting us with others in an event that nourishes mind and body and inspires personal growth.
Imagining a fresh start
I am convinced that there are ways to create these experiences that are safe for all parties involved, even while regulations to counter the spreading of the virus are still in place.
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, but we should examine the situation during the coming months and ask ourselves:
How can I perform live while respecting the current restrictions?
Assume for a moment that everything you had planned for the rest of the year is off the table. Imagine having to begin from scratch, considering the following aspects:
Once there is a clear regulation for the maximum amount of people allowed to be in one room – how can and should we position them?
Apart from the maximum size of a group there is also the matter of keeping distance from each other. I have seen several proposals on local news recently for leaving two or three seats between audience members, but I think we can be far more creative here.
Do the performers really have to be in front of a block of listeners, or can they be in the middle of the venue?
Can we find a way to accommodate multiple groups of the maximum allowed size by seating them on different levels or on opposite sides of the performers?
These groups could be managed completely separately from one another, as though they were in separate buildings. They could be let in using different entrances to the building and to the hall by having very clear regulations for ushers. This way these groups would have no physical contact to each other.
If supermarkets are able to regulate the number of shoppers and create ways to keep distance, we should definitely be able to come up with creative solutions of making seating part of the show. The path for creative seating has already been around for years.
What about playing live in front of a smaller group and streaming the performance to a different location within the building, or outside? Think about ballet and opera performances that are transmitted to a big screen in a park, where it is easy to keep small groups of families and couples separated.
Examine the infrastructure of a building. How many entrances are there, where are the restrooms, how do people get to their seats?
Now, all you need is a piece of paper (or, of course, an online shared whiteboard!) and start drawing.
I think we have to take into account the possibility that an oratorio with huge orchestra and choir might not happen this year. This is not simply pessimism, but rather it will save us the pain of more and more projects getting canceled because we held on to them for too long, instead of focusing on concepts that are compatible with these exceptional times.
Of course, involving and thus paying fewer players because of these restrictions may seem like an unfair solution, since all of us want to start working again as soon as possible. I do think however that having one half of a group back at work is better than no-one. Maybe this would be a good time to set up a solidarity fund within the ensemble, and divide the income in a way that those who cannot be involved still get payed a certain amount?
The easiest way of doing this would be to simply program different works. Earlier repertoire with one or two players per part, chamber music instead of a big orchestra. For orchestras specifically, it does not have to be the same group of layers throughout the entire concert, you could also take turns with different chamber ensembles.
In 2018, I played a series of wonderful concerts with la festa musicale where we divided Biber’s Mystery Sonatas among four violinists, accompanied by a changing set of continuo players. The music was coupled with live drawing on a screen and there were four different spots between which we were moving for the different sonatas. In this specific program, there was never one big group of performers in one place, but quite a few people were involved throughout the entire concert. It made for a very intimate, yet consistently dynamic concert experience.
If giving up on specific works that were programmed this year does not appeal to you, think about if there might already be an arrangement for a smaller group. Did the composer or one of his contemporaries maybe write another version of the piece?
Collegium 1704 is currently exploring recordings of live performances with social distancing. This works especially well with polyphonic music, again making use of the space you are in. Their video uploads are definitely worth checking out.
Let us try and view these restrictions as a source of inspiration. In the worst case, this would mean that at least some of us get the opportunities to be on stage again, in the best case we create new, more intimate musical encounters.
3. Number of concerts
Several groups started experimenting with this before full lockdown began:
We can play more than one concert after the other in order to have double the amount of audience. Of course this is also double the amount of work and it may not work for all concert programs. Shortening the program to 1-1,5h could be an option here.
Again, if your group is bigger than chamber-sized, it might be an option to divide the concerts among the players. And you could even show different perspectives on the work of one specific composer by choosing different programs.
And now what?
This is by no means a complete list of options for future concerts, rather a few things that came to my mind while thinking about our professional situation in the last few days.
What I am trying to say is that we, the performers, should not wait for someone else to decide the fate of live concerts for the next six to twelve months. We should not rely on politicians to figure out detailed plans of how our sector will get back in the game, but make clear that live performances are far too diverse to all be classified as “large-scale events”.
Get in touch with the managers of the ensembles you play in. What concept could your group come up with? Contact venues, and find out what they would be willing to try out within the safety limitations of your country/region.
Contact politicians. Explain to them that if we reconceptualize live performance:
- It can be safe.
- It will help the scene get back on its feet quicker, which is what everyone should want.
I would love for there to be a discussion about this. A discussion under the premise that there are solutions. That we willbe able to argue convincingly that performances should have high priority in public discourse, now too.
Together we make one strong hive mind, and there is a lot we can do to get the ball rolling again.