On a recent Friday, I joined an audience of seven at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill for a program titled “Spaced Out” by new music mainstay the 21st Century Consort. I know this because I have all kinds of evidence.
From the handful of slow-panning videos I shot of the church interior before the show, I recall feeling like the room’s configuration articulated both the beauty and strangeness of the moment: Instead of pews and people, the nave was overtaken by a socially distanced circle of instruments, cameras and microphones awaiting their operators. When the eight-piece ensemble (plus artistic director and conductor Christopher Kendall) filed in, they spread out as far as space would allow. Whatever was left, they filled with vibrant, kinetic sound.
From the wrinkles in my program printout, I can tell that the music had moments of great tension. From the scribbles in my notebook — little phrases here, little diagrams there — I can see how those questions of space articulated themselves within the music.
And from a rough edit of the video that the 21st Century Consort shot of the performance — soon to be available for public view on its YouTube channel — I have what could be considered the richest, most robust capture of the evening’s events, with its own uncanny simulation of intimacy, however removed: You can hear the players’ shoes against the hardwood as they shuffle places between pieces. The creak of wooden chairs registering in the rafters. The breath of the camera operator.
In the real-life acoustics of the church, Jeffrey Mumford’s five-movement solo for violin, “An Expanding Distance of Multiple Voices,” reached through Alexandra Osborne’s instrument to search the arches of the space like a freed (or trapped?) bird, and Carlos Simon’s “Between Worlds” — a gripping homage to the visual artist Bill Traylor in the form of three solo pieces for violin, cello and double bass — seemed to rise up from the floorboards and address us as a congregation. Later, a full ensemble performance of Zosha di Castri’s “The Form of Space” at times felt drawn so tightly between the players it was as if the distance between them might snap and collapse.
The video certainly documents all of this, but it struggles to replicate the spatial dimensions intended and enacted by the selections: Re-watching the concert feels more like lighting up the darker corners of my own recollection of the experience than returning to my seat in the church to experience it anew.
And although that might seem too obvious an observation — or too abstract a distinction — for established orchestras and smaller ensembles alike, this problem of presence brought on by the pandemic amounts to a creative crisis.
Kendall (who also heads the early-music Folger Consort), has reluctantly embraced this compulsory virtualization across the music world. In March, the 21st Century Consort was deep into rehearsals for a concert at the Hirshhorn titled “H2O Music” when the coronavirus abruptly cleared everyone’s calendars. They were able to film the performance — featuring works by Tan Dun, Kati Agocs, Stella Sung and Luciano Berio — without an audience, with help from filmmaker H. Paul Moon, but to Kendall it was as if the water was missing its wet.
“I think he did a wonderful job, but so much was lost,” he says. “It really brought home to me the challenge that we’re facing.”
To the conductor, the absence of an audience subtracts something essential from the music as well; it becomes an unbalanced equation, an unanswered question. Assembling what few of us were there to hear this music was a way of completing it — and ensuring that the only observers weren’t ones mounted to tripods.
Hi-def cameras and high-speed connections are crucial elements of keeping audiences and performers engaged as the pandemic drags on (and picks up), but Kendall, like many other artists, fears that distance-listening may become the norm.
“I’m very interested in alternative forms, and the kinds of creative work that a lot of young musicians are doing with new forms,” he says. “On the other hand, I have a real sense of foreboding about the erosion of stable arts institutions in our culture. It feels like there’s a sort of a parallel transformation happening in these different domains.”
If the response to first seven months of the pandemic was a wave of Zoom choruses and stopgap measures, the next stage seems to be about a reluctant acceptance of the virtual, and a reexamination of what that means for the actual. Look around at other local institutions and you’ll see this transformation underway, as orchestras and ensembles undergo a mass pivot to video, with a wide variety of approaches.
The National Philharmonic recently announced an entirely virtual 2020-2021 season of Sunday afternoon concerts broadcast from Strathmore Music Center and AMP by Strathmore. The Washington Chorus first surfaced after the lockdown with a Zoom-based talk show on YouTube, and on Nov. 14 it will premiere “Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow,” a short music film from composer Damien Geter and Emmy-winning filmmaker Bob Berg. And this week, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced 27 more episodes of its BSO Sessions docuseries, which mixes high-def performance footage with an intriguing backstage view of how the orchestra is navigating, well, everything.
This is a tricky time to be a listener: Are you hearing the music or the media that brought it to you? It’s also a tricky time to be a critic: What am I experiencing by watching what I’m missing? And it’s well beyond a tricky time to be an artist: What are you making when what you make must be made into something else?
Composer David T. Little is addressing the problem of how people see his work by changing how he sees it himself. Since the pandemic hit, he has been revisiting operas he composed years ago and adapting them into short films.
Little recently retrofitted his 2010 comic opera, “Vinkensport, or the Finch Opera” (with a libretto by Royce Vavrek), from the stage to an Airbnb in Houston, where a socially distanced version was filmed and assembled over just a few days. It had its digital premiere Oct. 23 by the Houston Grand Opera.
And “Soldier Songs,” the composer’s powerful 2006 monodrama performed by baritone Johnathan McCullough (and originally imagined as an opera that would travel in a modified Airstream trailer) naturally lent itself to a coronavirus-compatible film adaptation, now in production for Opera Philadelphia.
Of course, these kinds of adaptations naturally lend themselves to Little, who came to composition through film scores.
“I always joke that in writing opera, I really like that I get to write the film score but also make the movie,” he says. “So it’s funny that now we’re actually making movies.” Little is also developing “Black Lodge,” a filmed opera with a libretto by poet Anne Waldman.
Though he points to a brief but influential history of opera made for television (the experiments of Robert Ashley, for instance), Little says the ubiquity of streaming is an accelerant that, pandemic aside, makes the meeting and melding of forms inevitable.
“I don’t think this is going to replace live performance,” he says. “I think it will become parallel, which is really exciting because I do think there are certain works that maybe live best as film. ... One doesn’t exclude the other. They can coexist. And I think they can combine in a really powerful way.”
I land somewhere between Kendall’s skepticism and Little’s curiosity — is this optimism or despair I’m feeling?
On one hand, this doubling down on screen time is forcing artists and institutions to be more nimble, creative and eager to find audiences beyond their rows, which is good. On the other, this shift to the virtual feels like a fundamental betrayal of the music and how it’s meant to be heard, felt and experienced. As long as we’re separated by screens, it’s always going to feel as if something is getting lost in translation.
But if we want to be there for the music in the future, we have to “be there” for it today — in whatever form it takes. Music may require presence, but presence will require patience.