Lockdown and the Remote Recording Revolution
Prof Edward Higginbottom, Interim Director of Music, 2019-2020
Since late March, little has remained normal about College life. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if you expected one of the casualties of the present pandemic to be our musical performances, alongside sport and hanging out in the bar. After all, the performing arts are all about proximity, not about social distancing. They are certainly not about creating musical performance across hundreds of miles. Or maybe they are, or at least can be. Read on.
We have all become aware of the timely arrival of e-connectivity to help us through these times. And this is the technology, on a white charger, that has come to the rescue of our music-making. It turns out that things can be achieved at a distance. In fact the music business recognised this early on in lockdown. There are some musicians who simply put themselves out there on home videos. Solo pianists are in a good place, although they won’t get much audible applause. It gets more complicated when there’s more than one performer, and when those two or more are living miles apart. In these circumstances trying to do anything in real time is a waste of time. But trying to do something using recording technology is not.
Many of you will have experienced this phenomenon: musicians performing in isolation and yet being brought together into an ensemble. We thought we should try it at St Peter’s. Not simply to test the technology, but to keep our show on the road, as the Today programme has it. Choirs are vital organisms, constantly cultivating skills and developing practice. If left inactive, they whither. We very much didn’t want that to happen in St Peter’s. So we embarked on our voyage to discover how to make ‘music in isolation’.
The first thing you need is a person with the gear and technical skill to produce your music. At the beginning of Trinity Term one appeared, a recent alumnus of the Choir and still a Sunday regular, John Warner. We couldn’t have been more fortunate. John knows all about us, and cares about the Choir. He is a fine musician, and very good at the screen, with its keys and buttons. Ideal. Without such a person there is nothing to be done. With such a person we were able to set forth.
The challenge was to create a Choir performance combining distanced voices in a synchronized, balanced and coherent format. I thought we’d start with something simple, a short four-part motet by Luca Marenzio, sung by four solo voices. The process we established for this piece is the one we have adopted for all subsequent performances. I recorded (on my phone) what I call the piano-conductor. This is a keyboard rendition of the work providing the scaffolding for the voices. I added a short tutorial on performance issues arising in the piece – things I might be saying in a live rehearsal. A musical score was then distributed to the singers along with my audio file. They listened to my advice (I hope), plugged in my audio using earphones, picked up a score, and video-recorded their part, again on the phone. They could do this more than once, of course, to get what they thought would be a good result. It’s quite a demanding business, since you have to get everything right in one take, always anticipating what the piano (i.e. the invisible conductor) is up to. You need also to have warned the rest of the family, and your pets, to keep down the ambient noise.
Now we have as many separate video recordings as there are participants. The producer’s job is to line them all up. That shouldn’t too difficult provided each individual was disciplined enough to stay exactly in time and in tune with the piano. But there is more to it than that. The voices have to be balanced. Some inevitable misjudgements may have to be repaired. The videos need to be synced. And some ambiance added, so that we are in a better space to listen to this music than someone’s bedroom. Finally, my piano-conductor is removed, easily done in a multi-track environment. Now we have a piece of unaccompanied music, which miraculously hangs together.
We realised we had traction. The Marenzio performance was poised and musical, and very affecting: it spoke powerfully and movingly of individuals reaching out from constrained circumstances, still able to combine their voices. That was Week 1. We attached the result to the Chaplain’s weekly blog, and moved on to the next project, a motet by Hieronymous Praetorius. And fell promptly flat on our faces. It was a step too far with solo voices. So, tutti options then beckoned.
All this is going on as students faced extremely challenging times and conditions, especially finalists. I had to keep the project going, but at a level manageable by Choir members. Our second recorded piece of term was an anthem by Samuel Sebastian Wesley, Blessed be the God and Father. It’s a long and diversely scored work, but could be split into three installments, one for each of the weeks 3 to 5. For those following our work, there were two excellent musical cliff-hangers defining the episodes.
Some two-thirds of the Choir were involved in this production. And indeed it involved me at the piano as well, adding the final accompaniment element. And as we have moved forward we have achieved increasing participation with our performances of Attwood (Come Holy Ghost for Whitsun) and Rachmaninoff (Praise the Name of the Lord for Trinity Sunday). The final anthem for Trinity Term is Bruckner’s Locus iste. But the Choir is not finishing there: the Founder’s Day service will be furnished with more music, here with the support of some additional Choir alums.
Having alums sing alongside us is not a normal option for the Choir. It is an opportunity opened up by the pandemic. There have indeed been some pandemic pluses, though not enough to offset the personal tragedies it has brought. When I think about the Choir’s work, our new manner of working has helped validate individual contributions, kept us all disciplined with respect to musical timing and tuning, made us more conscious of the strategies that help get music across, and crucially provided a strong trace of emotional solidarity. In sum, it has given the Choir a product of which it can be truly proud. It will never be like ‘the real thing’, but eventually we may be sad to lose those special things that making ‘music in isolation’ has brought us.