The intimate world of individual musical performance in the pandemic
With the world in the throws of public health lock-down, and public gatherings of any sort unthinkable, music has taken on special attention. Concerts, big and small, are gone, and even rehearsals and casual musical gatherings are untenable. But music survives and adapts.
As a composer, personal and orchestral musician, the uses and adaptations of music are of keen interest. Traditionally, music has always found a place at public events, whether political, spiritual, or casual, and has provided the necessary special mood. Music has also accompanied theatrical events, plays, opera, ballet, and even film before the music was incorporated into the film itself. Music has also taken the stage by itself, with concerts of music from single musicians all the way up to symphonies of a thousand.
With all of the public uses of music shut down, however, the emphasis has shifted to music available in the home. Music for public events becomes mood or background music for home activity. Music for theater becomes music for video (even video games). Concert music becomes personal listening. The interesting thing about this transformation is that the music that has adapted to the home environment is different than its public cousins.
Public event music, generally, tries to ramp people up, while private background music tries to wind people down. Music for video is subtly different, generally being less grandiose, but generally provides the same function. (Because the experience of watching a film is so engrossing, it strikes me that home video systems have done as much to become more like a movie theater experience as the art form has done in adapting to the small screen, which has also happened.) Never-the-less, “grand” just doesn’t make it better on a video. All music comes from the same speakers, and therefore, is perceived as equal. Intimate music can be very effective in video. A love scene doesn’t need to whip up the volume and the violins to get the message across.
Though professional interest has found me watching opera, ballet, and concerts in video, it is not because I find them more interesting. As a rule, I find them to be rather awkward and inappropriate for the medium. Large scale concerts are perhaps the most out of sync. The larger the scale, (orchestra, chorus, etc.) the smaller the images become. The big extravaganzas at the Olympics or the Super Bowl are the worst. The screen and the speakers never change. The physical limitations of the medium inhibit the ability and intent of the composers and musicians to impress, and makes them concentrate on the emotional message they are trying to express. A large ensemble actually has trouble communicating on a small screen, something it can do very well when the performance is live. A good video producer understands this and usually shows an orchestra, for instance, as a series or shots of individual members, a full stage shot appearing only occasionally. A Super Bowl-type event video will also concentrate on shots of the soloist and not the thousands of people performing behind them.
The special circumstances of the present lock-down have come to emphasize the private nature of individual communication. And this has held true for music as well. The internet has become a godsend for musicians and listeners alike. Individual musicians, performing from their homes, have become the norm, casual, one-on-one, intimate. Large-scale Zoom ensemble performances don’t really make it for me. For one, they are not real. You can’t play live in ensemble because of the delay (known as “latency”). The takes have to be individually recorded and specially mixed. Music teachers can’t even play at the same time with their students on Zoom or Skype. The delay across a stage can be difficult, the delay online is impossible. But also, “large scale” simply takes away the great advantages of the medium.
Individual soloists can perform uninhibited, and I have already seen a number of wonderful examples. Whether there is one person watching or millions, the experience is always personal. Expression is everything, especially now.
Below is a performance of a friend of mine, cellist Sarah Walder, alone under lock-down, in the attic of her apartment in the Netherlands. Simple. Moving.