Classical music reluctantly embraces its new virtual reality

Michael Andor Brodeur

THE WASHINGTON POST – On a recent Friday, I joined an audience of seven for a programme titled Spaced Out by new music mainstay the 21st Century Consort. I know because I have evidence.

From the handful of slow-panning videos I shot of the interior before the show, I recalled feeling like the room’s configuration articulated both the beauty and strangeness of the moment.

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 programme 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, 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.

In the real-life acoustics, 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. 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 National Philharmonic rehearses for the ‘Beethoven at 250 Birthday Bash’ online concert. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

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 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, has reluctantly embraced this compulsory virtualisation 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.

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 said. “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.”

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. “I don’t think this is going to replace live performance,” he said. “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 scepticism 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.