Virtual Space kinda sucks

Classical music isn’t always very good at space. Conservatories and ensembles have a canon of repertoire that was written with drastically different acoustical needs: There is antiphonal choral music designed for the reverberations of specific cathedrals; chamber music designed for parlors and parties; orchestral works which demand large halls that have just enough reverb so the orchestra sounds full without muddying up the rhythm. There are performance spaces of all shapes and sizes to accommodate this different music, of course, but most musicians eventually have to make sacrifices. At my undergrad, for example, music students would frequently complain about performing large ensemble concerts at the gym (a perfectly fine acoustical space!), even though the chapel had far too much reverb for most orchestral or band music. (Singing in that chapel, on the other hand, is a pleasure).

But there’s also beauty in that diversity of space. Other genres are excellent at exploiting large rock venues, or nightclubs, or car speakers, or headphones. Classical music, frankly, doesn’t sound as good in most of these media, but put an orchestra put in a hall designed for orchestra, and the result can be beautiful and visceral. If anything, the diversity of acoustics in classical music isn’t a problem with space, it’s a problem of too much adherence to the canon at the expense of everything else (including attention to venue).

If only those of us complaining about performing in gyms knew what was to come. 2020 was the year of virtual ensembles, individual video feeds sewn together and synchronized to mimic as best we could the large ensembles that could no longer meet in person. For months, this was the only way ensembles found any kind of communal music-making, and the threat of returning to zoom rehearsal looms.

For some, this was the closest semblance of music-making they could find. As a performer, I can’t stand them, and frankly I find the alternative of no performance at all to be preferable. I remember in march staring at a video conference, my microphone muted as I sang along to recordings of choral repertoire to prepare for a recording. It sucks. I participated in one virtual choir for fun, and tried a few more times but literally could not bring myself to submit recordings; the only virtual large ensemble performances I have done since were paid gigs, or favors for friends.

As with ensembles, composers adjusted to this new medium of performance (if they composed at all). Some attempted to work with the limitations of live video performance, accounting for input lag in their approach to rhythm and texture. Others adjusted to the new limitations and fluctuations of ensemble instrumentation, working with open instrumentation and giving up some control of timbre.

These are all valid approaches to composition, and I hate them. I know some who are apprehensive about the loss of control; I welcome this, as I have been looking to give up control over other parts of my music. But I really dislike the artifice and limitations of writing for music that will be “performed” in a video. A live performance has so much space to it, and a video performance will be squished into two channels (if not one channel) to accommodate modern headphones. Recordings are valuable, but in a performance practice so rooted in live performance, the energy is never the same.

As the opportunity has arisen, I’ve begun playing with space more in my composition. I’ve always loved hockets and antiphony, but with live performers (and audiences!) I can do so much thinking about movement across space that I haven’t tried before. More than ever, I’m paying attention to spaces, their features and their limitations, and there is nothing more exciting to me than an empty room with people and things and sounds in it.

It’s about being surrounded by sounds as performers circle the audience, like in Le Monde des Ronds et des Carrés.

It’s about hearing the acoustics of a space distilled, like in I am Sitting In a Room.

It’s about watching performers pass a melody around in hocket, like in Tapas: Six.

I wish you could see them live! Watching those pieces performed live (or performing them myself) changed how I thought about music.

There are limitations to exploit in the medium of virtual ensembles. There is music to be made; hopefully some of it will be good. But for me, the circumstances of the past two years didn’t inspire me to do anything online; if anything, it made me appreciate the resources and things to explore in the performance practices that we lost.

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