Clarinet in the Time of COVID
The Virtual Tour: redefining the concert tour experience by Ford Fourqurean
The entire music community has made a drastic shift to online education, performance, and interaction over the past months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As arts organizations ranging from management companies, self-run chamber ensembles, and presenters all recalibrated to the realities of COVID-19, there are few options left for musicians bringing live performances and workshops to audiences across the country. Live streaming is becoming the next best alternative to live performing, but it brings its own set of challenges. There are many great resources focusing on the types of equipment needed for teaching, but streaming a small ensemble requires different types of gear to present high quality audio and video. Ensembles also face the same issues of connection and intimacy in performance. How can an ensemble gauge an audience and really interact with them on a personal level? In addition to the performances themselves, ensembles need new ways to offer their workshops, lectures, and lessons online when previously presenting these things in person during university tours. Creating a worthwhile experience, especially engaging with an audience that is not present in the performance space, requires the right combination of technology, adaptability, and communication.
I am the clarinetist and artistic director of Unheard-of//Ensemble, a New York-based chamber group bringing live performances of new works written for us (clarinet, violin, cello, piano with electronics) to universities and colleges across the United States. My group is one of the many ensembles that has made the switch to virtual live-streaming performances as well as recording projects in this new quarantine time. After being forced to cancel a March tour in Texas and postponing our remaining spring concerts, we recalibrated our summer program (the CCI//Sessions) and took our original plans of three performances, twelve workshops, and eight guest lectures all online. Our concerts were broadcast over Twitch. Workshops, lectures, and lessons were held over Zoom. Unheard-of is now planning to use these same models to present our fall concerts and Florida tour, where we will be performing and working with composers at Florida State University, University of Florida, University of Central Florida, and Kaleidoscope MusArts – all presented while at home in New York. We will meet up and isolate together for a week presenting these events from a studio space and broadcast them to each of tour location.
The most important aspect of a successful live stream show or educational workshop online is the audio and video quality because it can make an enormous difference in audience engagement. No listener wants to hear shrill, tinny sound, lagging audio/video, or flat, characterless sound. Unheard-of uses an eight channel microphone setup running through an audio interface into Ableton Live. Soundflower and Black Hole virtual audio drivers available to control and route multiple sound sources within a computer. We perform with a full microphone setup, monitoring and click tracks if needed through headphones, and live electronics, all routed to the stream through virtual drivers.
The cameras and audio feed into OBS (Open Broadcast Software). OBS, Streamlabs, and Restream function as broadcasting software that captures audio and video as well as allowing stream curation.
Curating a high quality online performance can require a significant investment in equipment. While there are many expensive camera options available, GoPros and many action cameras are also a good relatively inexpensive option. In terms of microphone, interface, and audio needs, many people have been sharing their recommendations for affordable yet good quality options.
Violinist Todd Reynolds has been streaming regularly with his recommendations on equipment along with many other streaming tips still on YouTube currently. Violist Trevor New recently published a new video with a wealth of streaming resources. Michael Lowenstern also offers microphone types and placement suggestions on his channel. Keep in mind that budget equipment used properly can always look and sound better than higher end gear with poor placement or settings.
For the event streaming itself, there are many streaming platforms that each have their own strengths and weaknesses. Facebook, Youtube, and Twitch are all popular and can be better for a specific artist depending on the target audience. Unheard-of decided to use Twitch because of the audio and video clarity during our streaming tests.
Unheard-of is opting to stream in-person in a socially distanced space. At this moment, we have not found a reliable enough realtime solution to performing from separate spaces through a multitrack setup. We were able to present workshops at our summer festival using multitrack recordings that we compiled prior to the start date, but the issue of latency always poses a large challenge when trying to synchronize. There are programs out there allowing some level of “live” reaction time through adjusting for the latency times between computers but the ensemble has not found them to be a realistic solution. When are unable to meet for a distanced performance, as we were unable to this past summer, we made the decision to record asynchronously. I build click tracks to mirror musical decisions in our scores and then we layer with piano as a pitch center to which I then add each part and mix each track. Our goal when streaming is to offer something both musically compelling and visually striking. The in-person distanced streaming experience offers us the chance to present these works closer to their original form while also using our own projector setup within the space.
Like Facebook, YouTube or Instagram, audiences still have the chance to engage through the chat, ask questions, and express their thoughts on the performance but within the controlled space of the chat. While Zoom is great for panels and discussions in real time, we wanted to avoid the loss of video and sound quality during performances. Zoom also drops frames more regularly in screen sharing meaning that multimedia works will look choppier than on a direct stream as in Twitch. For individual workshops like when working one on one with a composer, the ability to perform and have that immediate feedback can be more important than full sound clarity, though there are ways to improve sound quality within the settings. The power of your streaming computer is also a major consideration.
If you are a clarinetist planning to use electronics, multiple programs, and routing within your computer, a more powerful processor and higher amount of RAM will be required. Processors that have multiple cores (quad core or higher) and at least 8 GB of RAM will provide enough power to run most applications. Unheard-of opted for a computer with an eight core Intel i9 processor, 32GB of RAM, and a separate GPU has the extra power for live sound and visual processing while streaming from one machine. Using a wired ethernet cable also offers a faster, more consistent connection than wifi. Upload and download speeds can become a major bottleneck if using unstable or slower internet connections leading to dropped frames during a stream.
Creating a residency experience that fully takes advantage of this equipment and content curation requires flexibility and communication with your presenting partners. We communicated with each of our Florida venues to find out what they most wanted out of these collaborations. For some composer-centric performances, the quality of individual workshops and recordings produced is more important than immediate feedback. For example, at Florida State University we are working with the composition studio to record five student composer works which we can workshop live (though losing some of the sound quality) and then record and send uncompressed mixes to each composer in our second session with them. This allows us to offer them a combination of synchronous rehearsals for live musical adjustments but guarantee a focused session. For universities that want a live concert experience, we can curate a stream that features us live while also bringing other media such as introduction videos from our collaborators to connect the audience with the composers and visual artists creating the work.
Taking extra time before and after the stream to talk with people is also integral. Musicians have lost a major part of the live concert experience. The interpersonal moments before and after a concert talking to the crowd, the time spent around a workshop going into deeper questions and tangents, are all lost if the event ends when the music stops. We hope that live music returns as soon as it is safe to do so but in the meantime, we look forward to collaborating and bringing music to new audiences.
- Todd Reynolds Streams: https://youtu.be/qr9HeYpQf8I
- Performing setup ideas from Trevor New: https://youtu.be/vI9RE9w5vaE
- Michael Lowenstern mic placement tips: https://youtu.be/zuxubJM5OAE
Ford Fourqurean serves as clarinetist and artistic director of Unheard-of//Ensemble as well as executive director of the Collaborative Composition Initiative (CCI) composer workshop connecting contemporary music with new communities and audiences across the United States. He performs cutting-edge works with Unheard-of, visiting Manhattan School of Music, Cornell, CCM, Georgia State University, Art Institute of Chicago, and others in recent seasons.
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