Performance and Technology in a Socially Distanced World

I sit down at the piano for the day’s recording. Click, and the track starts playing in my earbud. A rhythmical ticking starts playing, dictating with utmost precision the tempo I am to assume for the accompaniment track of this orchestral piece. Yet I’m alone in the room. Is this… music? Is this really what it was supposed to be like? How is this still a musical performance?

No one could’ve predicted these circumstances. When Milhaud wrote his opening bird cadenza in the beginning of “Tais-Toi, Babillarde!” from “Chansons de Ronsard”, he would’ve never fantasized a pianist 60 years later locked up in his house counting in agonizing silence the entire 12 bars of that cadenza during the performance. Because that was the actual performance. There was no soprano in a night gown to sing it to the audience, then perhaps gently glance or gesture in your direction so you can start your part; just you and a silent voice recorder propped up on a bookshelf.

The opposite wasn’t so much the case, as the soloist you were recording the track for would play their part with the track in their hands; still, the strict fidelity with which the recording was reproduced left no room for changes at the heat of the moment, be it a slight adjustment or a capricious exhibition of virtuosity to excite the audience. Everything had to be rehearsed and executed with the utmost rhythmic precision and clarity, gradual accelerations and decelerations of tempo had to be meticulously planned, while the issue of rubato when called for by the composer was a rather unpleasant topic to bring up and was usually swept hastily under the rug or dealt with very superficially. Performance now was difficult to distinguish from a well-rehearsed karaoke party, and prospects for change were nowhere to be seen in the near future.

But for whom were we performing? There wasn’t even a live audience. Everyone for themselves, and with only themselves to keep them company. Just when technology seemed to be able to bridge the physical gap that separated us for so long, its limitations became so pronounced that it ended up compromising our work rather than facilitating it.

I haven’t experienced another period in my life where I appreciated the act of making music in the same room with other people like this one. “The grass is always greener on the other side”, they say. And yet, that grass seemed to be already months away, a distant memory of what it felt like to be interacting with other people in an enclosed space. The thought of in-person ensemble music making seemed almost stupid to even examine beforehand, as it was a definite given that that’s how you were supposed to rehearse the music. Everything depended on the non-verbal dialogue you were forming with the other musicians during the twelve or so minutes a chamber music piece would give you, how you were able to reach a musical consensus with the other person(s) using nothing but your desire to communicate your musical ideas to them. This exchange could never be the same in two rehearsals; there was always a new path drawn in every take and the performer was forced to rediscover their rapports with their fellow “co-workers” in every single performance in order for it to retain its freshness. What was it, therefore, that made ensemble music-making during the pandemic seem so lifeless, so futile?

There’s a word that was first coined by Christopher Small in 1998 in his same-titled book: Musicking. In the introduction to his book, he states that “To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing.”[1] Focusing on the first aspect of this word that he lists, performing, we see that music is but a process. Every time you perform a piece, the particular emotional, mental and even physical state you are in play a role in the way you interpret it. Heraclitus famously once said: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”. From the smallest fluctuations in air humidity to major life-changing events affecting your mental and emotional state, there’s countless factors that influence a musical performance. What we managed to achieve, however, is to lose the process, in other words to lose the spontaneity of every new performance. Musicians were left with either only one person’s recorded impression of a musical work at a given time or with a clicking track to fit their interpretation through the same mould it fit all the other performers’. The performance process’s constantly altering quality was now substituted by a need to desperately reproduce one single take. Inevitable even though it was for the sake of putting together all the parts successfully, this made the element of dialogue between the performers very difficult to achieve, substituted by an inadvertent lecturing of one performer’s ideas to the misfortunate other who happened to use their recording.

Were there solutions to this problem? There certainly were efforts made, and I would be lying if I didn’t admit I tried a couple. As an accompanist, the most obvious, and the least cumbersome one, was to record preliminary takes and send them to the soloist in order to get some general feedback or opinions on tempo fluctuations, articulation, texture and dynamics. While this had its merits, I cannot say it was nearly as good as demonstrating your ideas in person, which would be the otherwise typical thing to do. The other, more difficult way would be to attempt to work in real time- through a Zoom call or similar- playing excerpts from the piece and discussing them but never playing together, as the technology was far too limited to do so.

It is worth mentioning here that an interesting project was run by the Digital Catapult in collaboration with King’s College London and the University of Bristol, where they managed to create a multi-location musical performance between 3 performers, who were able to rehearse and perform in real-time while being miles away from each other. While it certainly offered hope to those of us still wishing of going back to the traditional means of performing, the technology hasn’t yet achieved widespread use, and therefore could not benefit anyone other than researchers and scientists.

What is more, neither of these solutions could resolve another issue that physical separation created: not being able to sense your partner(s) besides you when performing together, not being able to connect and synchronise with them, from the way you finish a phrase to the rhythm of your breaths. Spatial perception of the other person(s) body language can sometimes be crucial in effectively communicating rhythmic and dynamic nuances too fine and detailed to be talked about. In a conversation I had with Rita Fernandes, who participated in the previously mentioned project, she expressed how very apparent the physical separation between her and the performers was, even with a latency as low as normal face to face interactions. What is more, I myself was sometimes left feeling a bit empty after recording an accompaniment track, as it felt like I couldn’t use my skills to their fullest extent to make that performance shine.

Returning, finally, to my initial questions (Was this music?), I realise that Small’s way of defining it can provide a possible answer. While it is perfectly possible, due to the rhythmic consistency of indeed most classical music pieces, to record and put together the different parts separately, that a musical performance does not make, for performing a piece in this context is intimately tied with redefining one’s relationship with the piece in every new performance[2]. These past five to six months have certainly acted as a wake-up call for me to realize the incredible value of ensemble and orchestral performance, and I can’t wait to get back to it.

Phoebus Kyriakoudis, September 2020

References [1] Small, C., 1998. Musicking: The Meanings Of Performing And Listening. Wesleyan University Press, p.9. [2] There are, of course, many examples in later years, where perhaps performing while oblivious to the other people’s parts might do the piece greater justice (see the work of Ives, Ligeti, etc. where multiple tempi, time signatures and/or tonalities are required to coexist with the greatest precision), however these are out of the scope of my examination.

Digital Catapult project:

Youtube Video:

Phoebus has also written:

Manos Xatzidakis / For a Little White Seashell (1947)

Dmitri Schostakovich / Symphony No.5 (1937)

Review of 2018 Album (F)lute Songs by Mary Jane Leach

Rosemary Brown: Transcriber for the Dead

Wanda Landowska - Scarlatti Keyboard Sonatas (Warner Classics, 1993 Remastered)


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