July 2020

Arts & Letters

Fermata: Musical performance in lockdown

By Anna Goldsworthy

Satu Vänskä, Australian Chamber Orchestra. Photograph by Electric Bubble

What becomes of the communion of classical musicians, composers and audiences during social isolation?

At the end of the old order, when such things were still permitted, I went to Romeo Castellucci’s Requiem at the Adelaide Festival. Billed as opera, it was a staged production of Mozart’s Requiem that unfolded as a series of striking tableaux. The soloists and chorus joined dancers in folk-inspired routines, splattering paint around the stage, as a relentless series of items from an “Atlas of Extinction” was projected upon the far wall. Right from the beginning it was clear exactly where all of this was going. Extinct species gave way to extinct languages to extinct architectures to – inevitably – the extinction of all things: “Laughter. Wonder. Water. Fire.” At the work’s end, a lone baby was deposited upon the empty stage, where it gurgled for a moment and then started to cry.

Susceptible as I am to intimations of annihilation, and to Mozart’s glorious, redemptive score, these conflicting messages seemed to neutralise each other, and I felt largely unmoved. I hurried from the theatre afterwards, partly to avoid foyer post-mortems and partly because I had an early flight in the morning. (This was in my previous life as a touring pianist: a life which, like Castellucci’s “wonder” and “water”, soon succumbed to vanishment.)

But perhaps I was more affected than I realised, because it shortly became clear I had boarded the wrong train. I disembarked at the first available station, and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I found myself in some abandoned industrial wasteland, punctuated only by a cemetery. I felt that particular Adelaide emptiness: a combination of the menacing and the banal. This was clearly a choice location in which to be raped and murdered. Thank God for Uber (despite what I had been saying to my friends); thank God I had actually charged my phone. But even when Uber claimed to have arrived, Uber could not be found. I raced back and forth through the dark underpass – inhaling large draughts of stale urine, my footsteps hysterical against the concrete – until finally, like deliverance, I sighted the distant brakelights of a Subaru. But even after I had clambered in and gratefully accepted my mint, I remained unsettled. The production had struck me as heavy-handed, but my own behaviour seemed even more so: to have meditated on extinction for a couple of hours, and then to have brought myself to such a place. My sons were at their father’s; I never enjoyed returning to an empty house, even when entropy was at a safer distance. As we coursed through the unfamiliar streets, which were soon revealed to be Dudley Park (a suburb I used to live alongside and have often driven through), I texted my pregnant sister compulsively, trying to remake a known universe.

At the time, I took this experience as a reminder of the proximity of the bad and lonely place. It was that feeling of waking up past midnight to a vast WTF, as if, in your sleep, you have boarded the wrong cognitive train and been conveyed to some Dudley Park of the soul. But now as I look back at that evening, I see it as something else. I think of it as the Bad Fairy at the christening: sweeping into town, casting its unwanted spell.

I suspect there is nothing new that can be thought or said about the coronavirus: rarely has so much of the world contemplated the same subject simultaneously, or had so much time in which to do so. Alongside a hundred years of sleep, the Bad Fairy delivered a pretty comprehensive package of anxieties, ranging from the personal to the global. University of Wollongong sociologist Roger Patulny describes the pandemic as a “Mass Emotional Event”. This is not to say it has been any sort of equaliser: one of the many things it has shone its fierce light upon is the persistence of structural disadvantage. But for those of us fortunate enough to sit out the crisis in our own homes, the pandemic has been a shared emotional event experienced in isolation.

Once upon a time, concerts offered emotional events of a different order: opportunities for inwardness, shared communally. Despite the social, public iterations of classical music, many of its great composers were scribes of loneliness. This year was supposed to be a “Beethoven year”, in which we were all going to be playing a lot of Beethoven, celebrating his 250th anniversary. There was even talk (before all conversation contracted to a single topic) that there might be too much Beethoven. But it is difficult to overdose on a music that offers so many different things, one of which, particularly in the later works, is an articulation of inner life. As Beethoven’s hearing abandoned him, so too did the outside, social world, leaving him – us – stranded in the reverberant solitude of his own mind. Schubert, whose music so often celebrates conviviality, is also one of the great poets of loneliness – not least in his late song cycle Winterreise, which opens with Wilhelm Müller’s lines: “A stranger I arrived; a stranger I depart.”

Such song cycles might promise to rescue us from our aloneness, but now – when we need them most – these very consolations threaten to make us sick. After reports of multiple cases of COVID-19 in choirs in Washington state and Amsterdam, there was widespread speculation that singers might be “super-spreaders” (the one superpower you never wished to have). Researchers from Munich’s Institute of Fluid Mechanics and Aerodynamics suggest that playing the flute is a more dangerous activity than singing, and recommend the use of a protective gauze over its end: a flute condom. If COVID-19 is a musically transmitted disease, then sitting among a body of people, as part of an audience, becomes an act of reckless promiscuity. Strangers we arrive; strangers we remain.

The day after the Castellucci production, I headed off on a concert tour, and soon found myself on a stage again, surrounded by beloved colleagues, existence confirmed by a thousand ears and eyes. But now, like all the others, I am a musician without an audience. I see it in my colleagues: all those sad eyes over Zoom, a particular form of grief.

There is, of course, the horrific financial impact of this crisis, with no real promise of relief, even as restrictions are lifted. As if it were not clear enough already that Australia undervalues its artists, this crisis – married to the denuded funding model of the Australia Council for the Arts alongside a disappeared ministry – amounts to a Performing Artsicide. “Artists are not only indispensable,” said no Australian federal politician in recent memory, “but also vital, especially now.” (The German culture minister did say this, however, as Germany rolled out a €50 billion support package for the arts back in March.)

But there is another type of grief beyond the financial. The music is still there. You just need to pick up your instrument and you will find it, and it still offers consolation. But somehow, in the absence of an audience – or the expectation of an audience, tomorrow or next week – it becomes harder to pick that instrument up. I wondered if this revealed an unfortunate character flaw: that showing off had, after all, been the entire point. But I often think of cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s description of playing music as “reporting on what you experience”, a formula that presupposes somebody to report to. German-Russian pianist Igor Levit claims that “sharing what I do with an audience justifies my entire existence as a musician. Without it, literally, I fall sick.” Performing is an act of communion: with the composer, with your colleagues, but also – critically – with your audience, which almost wills the experience into being. It offers a mode of connection that can feel telepathic. It was the internet before the internet; it is a social media that feeds rather than depletes.

In the early days of lockdown, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra streamed a live performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade from an empty Hamer Hall. I heard part of it on the car radio, then realised I was crying. Already, the fact of so many people playing music in a room together seemed both improbable and wonderful. “MSO is going to keep the music going,” announced cellist Nicholas Bochner. But by mid April, MSO musicians had been “hibernated”: a euphemism as chilling as “putting a pet down”. Will there be an audience when winter thaws?

Classical musicians are not, by definition, early adopters. Instead, we remain very fixated on old machines. The modern piano is one of the most recent, but even this has scarcely changed since Steinway’s patented version in 1859. We also remained fixated on an old format: dressing up in formal clothing, and performing to silent, seated audiences in concert halls. Richard Tognetti, artistic director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, describes this as the “church” aspect of music-making: that aspect of communion, of togetherness in silence.

In the 19th century, the public concert evolved symbiotically with domestic music-making. This was often a gendered equation: the glamorous male virtuosos – with their aura of sex and sorcery – existed alongside the virtuous lady pianists of the drawing room. Over the past century, as domestic music-making declined, concert series continued to limp along, but the grim and closely guarded secret of many a performing arts organisation was that audiences were dying – in many cases literally, given the demographic. And that was before COVID-19.

But we have other sustainability issues besides. My own complicity in this became painfully obvious at the end of last year, in that apocalypse that preceded (and will outlast) the current apocalypse. In November, on a day of catastrophic fire warnings, my trio landed in Port Lincoln, South Australia. Stepping off the plane felt like opening a fan-forced oven: the roar of the air, its insult to eyes and skin. As we placed our lunch orders at the hotel, the town’s power was switched off and all food was cancelled. The locals converged on the one pub in town with a generator. Over the course of the day the mood darkened, and the cocktail of fear and alcohol became more potent. Outside, the trees swayed violently; inside, service was slow, children were crying, men in hi-vis workwear, faces as fluorescent as their vests, abused the waitstaff. 

Of course, our concert was cancelled: it was an entirely fatuous visit in which we increased our carbon footprints only to witness firsthand the effects of our carbon footprints. And the next day we took three planes – three! – to Dubbo, New South Wales, where the sun was an angry red sinkhole in a sky of brown, and the formidable director of the Macquarie Conservatorium, Vivienne Winther, reported on the drought – the slaughtered stock, the abandoned harvests – whose effects were everywhere, including at her conservatorium. “Don’t think you’re safe in the city,” she said. “It’s coming.”

The artist-led initiative FEAT, launched in May 2018, has worked with carbon analysts to calculate that the average musical band, on a national tour of Australia, generates 28 tonnes of carbon emissions. Late last year, Coldplay, a band that generates exponentially more than this, announced it would stop performing until it devises a more sustainable model. In classical music, star conductors and soloists spend much of their lives in the sky; orchestras circulate the globe for “exclusive” performances; chamber groups such as my own drive or jet around this drought-stricken country, notching up carbon miles. We assuage our consciences with carbon offsets, as tokenistic as indulgences purchased from the Mediaeval Church, for sins in advance. Or we can go one better and invest in solar infrastructure projects through organisations such as FEAT. But is this enough?

In music, a fermata – represented, ironically, by a corona symbol – is a pause of unspecified duration. It can signify an ending or a pregnant silence, or it can be an opportunity for embellishment. Our own collective fermata should be a good time for music: like religion, it makes more sense when the stakes are high. But, under the harsh light of the pandemic, many of our practices look a little strange. Pianist Artur Schnabel described tradition in piano playing as “a collection of bad habits”. In the London Review of Books, novelist James Meek characterises the effects of the bubonic plague in similar terms: “When the plague killed more than half the people in this society, much of the pattern was exposed, at least temporarily, as simply habitual behaviour, as opposed to an expression of some fundamental identity.”

Might the current crisis be an opportunity to perform an audit? To take a careful look at which of our habits spark joy, and (with gratitude) let go of the rest?

Some have proposed a digital solution: to conduct our acts of communion behind screens – those other prophylactics – smiling gamely, pretending it’s just as good as the real thing. Certainly, it addresses the issues of both audience and environmental sustainability. The Australian Chamber Orchestra responded to the current crisis with alacrity, rolling out its digital season on April 6.

“We were told by the Bill Gates foundation last July about the release of a lab-designed virus,” quips artistic director Richard Tognetti, but in fact, he tells me, this quick turnaround was born of necessity. The most successful organisations, in terms of box office, have suffered the most from the cancellation of seasons; those already more reliant on government funding have enjoyed some cushioning. “You need to think about good online content,” Tognetti explains. “It’s not just the flat broadcast of musicians in tails in empty halls.” Indeed, ACO’s series of “HomeCasts” are as inventive and schmick as you might expect from this ensemble, featuring collaborations with cinematographers, and musicians performing in separate houses stitched into seamless string quartets. But for me, the most affecting material has been the most personal, recorded in real time with minimal engineering. ACO’s principal cellist, Timo-Veikko Valve, is usually a gleaming presence under the stage lights, but here he invites us into the bright living room of the Sydney home he shares with violinist Liisa Pallandi. Surrounded by a hygge assortment of blankets and cushions and instrument cases, they give an enlivening performance of Biber’s Sonata representativa.

Chamber music works well in a living room: it is where so much of it was designed to be heard. Could this amount to a revival of domestic music-making? Amateur music-making appears to have been thriving under iso, with instrument sales booming. According to one version of the future – in which we successfully ride the wave of the fourth industrial revolution and manage to dodge our annihilation – greater leisure time awaits, for which this experience could be a dress rehearsal. The variety of ACO’s online offerings – including educational resources, Spotify playlists and interviews – speaks to the expanded role of musicians in this scenario, as agents of music in the community.

Cellist Chris Howlett and administrator Adele Schonhardt were earlier adopters, launching the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall on March 16, “run by Melbourne musicians, for Melbourne musicians, to support our fragile industry during the COVID-19 crisis”. Equipping the Athenaeum Theatre with streaming technology and a grand piano, they have hosted live-streamed concerts ever since, raising more than $250,000 for musicians, and reaching a broad audience. “This is a way to build audiences in regional communities, and amongst the aged and disabled who find it harder to get out,” Howlett explains. It has also revealed the loyalty of Melbourne audiences towards their own. Although excellent international content is readily available online – the Berlin Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall, a long-time industry leader, has opened its archives for free – there is a clear interest in “shopping local”.

There may be a lesson in this for the cultural gatekeepers of this country. Cultural cringe is nothing new, but classical music suffers a particularly debilitating case of it. We consistently import figures from the Great Elsewhere to run our institutions, to people our music departments, to furnish the flagship events of our festivals, and to be soloists with our orchestras. Of course, international insemination can be as fruitful for local artists as it is for audiences (some of my most joyful collaborations have been with visiting musicians). But a problem emerges when introduced species replace our own ecosystem, rather than enhance it.

It is difficult to argue against this tendency without sounding stridently Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi, or exuding the whiff of sour grapes, as an Australian musician who is clearly not quite good enough. But where is the inventiveness – and discernment – in importing somebody else’s culture wholesale, rather than exploring our own? Marshall McGuire, director of programming at the Melbourne Recital Centre, argues this has long been a problem. “We must nurture our local talent. Other countries do it, and we should too.” For nine years, MRC has run the chamber music program “Local Heroes”, featuring Melbourne musicians, which he claims has “deepened engagement between artists and audience and given voice to so many outstanding composers and performers who have so much to say”. As international travel remains uncertain, several of our arts festivals have swivelled towards Australian content. Australian artists are being offered roles as “understudies” for international soloists next year, and may well be forgiven for asking: if they are good enough for our audiences during a pandemic, why are they are they not good enough the rest of the time?

At any rate, the international world is closer than ever. Digital technology has a flattening effect on all boundaries and borders – including those of the fourth wall. Over the past couple of decades, classical music had already been undergoing a demystification, with performers increasingly speaking from the stage; iso has hastened this process. I heard pianist Igor Levit last year at the Salzburg Festival, and was struck by his formidable (if austere) pianism, but there is a different pleasure in joining him in his Berlin apartment. Dressed casually, often in a hoodie and socks, he broadcast 52 consecutive lockdown recitals on Twitter before taking a break, returning for a 15-hour performance of Satie’s Vexations at the end of May. His offerings have ranged from apocalyptic readings of Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata to renditions of Billy Joel hits (delivered cross-legged with his back to the piano, arms extended above his head to reach the keys), to Schubert’s magisterial Piano Sonata D960. Levit describes the “loneliness” of the second movement of this sonata, which gives way to the “celebration of life” in the work’s finale: “a feeling we should not forget in these days, weeks and months”. A digital native, Levit has long been savvy about social media, but his broadcasts feel less like public relations exercises than affirmations of music’s purpose. “I have probably never felt the actual life saving meaning of music and sound before,” he tweets. “Not in this existential dimension of today.”

Touring with my trio over recent years, submitting to the hugs and confidences and egg sandwiches of our audiences, I have occasionally wondered whether the point was not so much excellence as connection. Not that I wish to abandon the pursuit of excellence, having invested well over the requisite “10,000 hours”, but I sometimes wonder whether we lose sight of music’s purpose by dressing it up in tails and insisting on its perfectibility and applauding it from a safe distance. Mid lockdown, I had a teary late-night conversation with a frontline medical worker friend. Her day had been a very different sort of bad than mine, and after we hung up, I sat down at the piano and recorded one of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux for her on my phone. Actually, I did this for myself as much as for her, but a week later she was still thanking me. “That snippet has sustained me more than I can tell you.” The American non-profit organisation Project: Music Heals Us has been streaming bedside concerts to patients of COVID-19, including those who are unconscious, and those dying alone. Perhaps music needs to be rescued from its high priests, who insist that their/our way is the only way; perhaps it needs to be recovered from our temples and delivered back to the people in their homes, or indeed their sickbeds.

And yet there remains that craving for assembly. ABC Classic radio presenter Genevieve Lang described to me her “homesickness” for the concert hall: “the feel of the concert lights, the anticipation of performance, the pleasure and focus of being in flow”. Figures from the COVID-19 Audience Outlook Monitor, released in May, suggest that 67 per cent of audiences will return to arts and cultural events when they deem it to be safe, while 11 per cent will wait until the risk of infection has abated completely. Older audiences are more likely to be cautious, which does not bode well for classical music. Ninety-six per cent of respondents said their likelihood to attend would be affected by safety measures. But what would such safety measures look like? In the Danish city of Aarhus, singer-songwriter Mads Langer pioneered a drive-through concert, a format best suited for amplified music. New York’s Kennedy Center is exploring small indoor venues separated from outdoor audiences by glass. More traditional spaces might need to stagger seatings over the course of an evening, as in a restaurant. But concert halls are already prohibitively expensive to open. Can they sustain radically reduced audience numbers?

One way around this might be the “hybrid” concert, designed for reduced live audiences augmented by larger remote ones. This is not a radically new concept: sports broadcasting has offered a version of this for some time. The Metropolitan Opera of New York, with its “Live in HD” series, broadcasts to cinemas around the world, a format described by writer James Steichen as “a dramatization of the experience of attending the actual Metropolitan Opera, effectively doing double duty as opera broadcast and institutional documentary”. There is the loss, of course, of not actually being at the Lincoln Center and experiencing the spectacle and the occasion, but there are also gains: during interval, you are led through the bustling village of backstage to visit a diva in her dressing room, or to chat to a French horn player in the orchestral pit. Such events pose challenges for the performer, who now has to address two audiences at once: the audience in the hall, which requires projection and clarity, and the screen audience, which might be more finely attuned to nuance. Already, the Met’s broadcasts have reshaped aspects of the art form, forcing singers to act more with their faces, and comply with Hollywood standards of beauty. Art adapts to the technology – for better or for worse – just as technology adapts to the art.

Since March, my phone has been pinging frequently with reminders of where I was scheduled to perform that day. I have felt grief for my vanished life – as well as surprising moments of relief. At the end of April, I had organised a Beethoven mini-festival at Elder Hall in Adelaide, featuring the Australian String Quartet, pianists Konstantin Shamray and Lucinda Collins, and my own trio, Seraphim. David Malouf was going to deliver a talk on “late style”. Of course, none of this happened.

Our cellist was stranded in Sydney, so violinist Helen Ayres and I performed a live-streamed recital of duos instead, for the concert manager, camera operator and sound engineer. I trace my recovery from the COVID blues to that day. Even cycling in to Elder Hall was a huge relief: the purposefulness of travelling to a destination, rather than orbiting my local streets like a damaged satellite, in flight from homeschooling. Helen and I have performed there since childhood, and it has always reminded me of an ark, but never more than on this occasion: a safe haven for our music, a vessel to keep us afloat in these strange, biblical times.

When we arrived, we tested the sound, which was a little boomy without the absorbent flesh of 600 bodies, and checked the camera angles. And then we were live. At first it was disorientating. Were we in Elder Hall, or in cyberspace? Where should we pitch our voices? Would they find you? But as we played Beethoven’s first violin sonata – an early, sociable work – everything became clearer. I was here, where the music was, playing with my friend, as I had been for the past 25 years. After we finished, there was an awkward silence instead of applause. But the emojis rolled in on Facebook, and comments drifted into our website for the rest of the afternoon. “Thank you.” “You saved me today.” “I shall to go sleep with your music running through my lonely brain.”

Afterwards, when I listened to the recording, the sound quality was better than I expected, but not as good as in the hall. Still, this was not the point. The point was the message.

It is that text message in the back of an Uber from your pregnant sister. It is that string quartet streamed on an iPad beside a hospital bed. It is that code bleeped out into the ether, from one human to another, across time and space, via concert hall or recording device or whatever technology comes next.

You are not alone. You are not alone. You are not alone.

Anna Goldsworthy

Anna Goldsworthy is a writer and a pianist. Her most recent book is Melting Moments, and her most recent album is Trio Through Time. She is an associate professor at the Elder Conservatorium, and director of the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at the University of Adelaide.

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