MusicWatch Weekly: The Apocalypse will be livestreamed

As world ends in slow motion, musicians struggle in solidarity

First of all, how are you? Eating enough? Staying inside and entertained? Called your friends and/or family lately? Good.

Let’s start by collectively admitting that we’re Not Doing Alright. It’s been a busy two weeks since last we spoke, dear reader: schools closed, concerts canceled, tours derailed, musicians laid off, stay-home orders issued, force majeure clauses invoked. We’ve been comparing notes with our fellow Gen X-ers and other overthirties, folks who experienced 9/11 and its aftermath as adults, and we’ve all reached the same conclusion–this is weirder by far.

Nobody knows what the hell is going to happen next, and as we scramble to make sense of it all we find ourselves grasping for new definitions of “musical activity” in general and “music journalism” in particular. We’d like to quote words from Oregon ArtsWatch Executive Editor Barry Johnson’s Mission Statement, which have recently comforted us:

The arts remind us that we are in this together. That we aren’t alone in our particular thoughts and feelings. That things can be made right and whole, if just for a moment. They remind us that the individual can do great things, and so can individuals acting together. And somehow, they resolve the great tension of American life, that between the rightful autonomy of the individual and the responsibilities that come with belonging to a group. We can’t imagine a good outcome to our dire problems—as a community, a nation, a planet—without the complex lessons the arts teach us.

We believe that the processes of discovery, explanation and discussion of journalism have an important role to play in all of this. An “informed citizenry” extends to cultural matters, and that is the mission of Oregon ArtsWatch—to help those of us in this particular culture share support and create arts and culture that respond to our needs.

The ArtsWatch Music Editor Desk (my email inbox and social medium feed) has been flooded with all manner of stories about how musicians and musical organizations are coping. It’s a mixed blessing–as a composer, PSU grad student, and Portland-based music beat journalist, the present author has a front-row seat to the comings and goings of the area composers, performers, students, teachers, and arts administrators who make up a sizable portion of our friend group (not to brag: that’s just the line of work we’re in).

Sometimes that means seeing a pic of one of Portland’s most popular composers buying the last bags of store brand dried split peas and thinking to myself, “yum, I’m gonna make split pea soup tonight too.” Sometimes it means watching videos of Sarah Kwak and Vali Philips standing on a suburban street playing block party duets for their lawnchaired neighbors (read that whole story, with lovely pics aplenty by Joe Cantrell, right here). But what it mainly means is that we’ve spent the last two weeks curating livestreams and podcasts and virtual choirs and masterclasses and home recitals and all the rest of it–and now that you’re grounded with the other introverts, we feel it’s time to share.

And after that? Well, dear reader, as far as I’m concerned the only real disruption is the sudden scarcity of live events to review. Things are still happening, composers are still composing, musicians are still musicking. The class warfare that forms the hidden current of our writings has not abated. So we’re gonna ride it out, with gratitude for our good luck: as a writer in a sea of music professionals, I’m one of the very few whose work hasn’t been 100% disrupted by quarantine qancelations (dancing about architecture has its benefits after all). As your devoted First Audient, I’ll be at my Music Editor Desk, watching the musical weather, keeping you informed and entertained. We’ll also have album recommendations, the usual philosophical jokes and speculations, and a series of reader challenges.

In the coming weeks our music section will be further exploring Johnson’s “informed citizenry,” with our customary spread of reviews, interviews, industry news, and other surprises from the Arts Watch bag of tricks. You, our dear readers, are invited to be part of that informed citizenry. How are you doing? What’s your take on all this? Watched any good operas lately? Dusted off any favorite old records? Had any late-night epiphanies about The Future of Music? Let us know in the comments!

Gently up the stream

Back when people went to concerts, the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in downtown Portland was one of the finest of our classical venues. If you’ve been to a big classical show in the last hundred years or so, you’ve walked by the illuminated old marquee on your way to the box office–and, if you’ve done so in the last few years, you’ve probably encountered a dapper, mustachioed violinist named Tomoki playing Bach and Nintendo tunes on the corner of Broadway and Main Street.

We’re starting with Tomoki because he–and musicians like him–are at the front line of what’s happening to all musicians and music-lovers. He’s not in the symphony; as far as I know he’s not in any symphony. He stands on a street corner in a three-piece suit and plays video game music. Or he did before that stopped making sense. Without busy Portland’5 audiences streaming past, pausing to listen, and dropping a buck in the violin case, Tomoki is as out of a job as Kwak and Philips. Now there’s nothing at the corner of Broadway and Main except a misdemeanor.

Watching Tomoki’s quarantine videos this last week hasn’t been quite the same without the buzz of distracted symphony-goers and the rush of cabs and limos in the background, but they’ve kept us grinning. Same goes for recent home recitals of Mike Hsu and Hannah Penn. On Tuesday, Hsu livestreamed a program of Bach, Beethoven, and his own wonderful music. Part of Hsu’s charm has been how his skills as violinist and composer combine with a spirit of openness–we’re used to seeing this man in bars, playing amplified Shostakovich and singing classicized Depeche Mode covers. As with Tomoki, it’s a little different but not that different.

Mezzo-soprano Penn is something of a regional superstar, from her Barbara Strozzi lecture-concerts with In Mulieribus to her stunning performances (with two different Oregon companies) in Laura Kaminsky’s pocket opera As One, which might as well be a solo show. In other words, we’re generally used to seeing Penn all glammed up on the opera stage with an ensemble behind her, which makes it a little weird to watch a video of her accompanying herself on an upright studio piano and singing Schubert’s “Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart” in last week’s livestream recital.

Meanwhile, the tireless Extradition Series people have plunged with their usual aplomb into a series they call the Extradition Social Distancing Project, home recordings of the experimental/improvisational music we love them for. Check that out here.

If you really want to dive deep, you could start following Metropolitan Youth Symphony music director Raúl Gómez’s MYS Virtual Hangout series. Fear No Music‘s Kenji Bunch and Third Angle‘s Sarah Tiedemann have already been on, chatting and performing music for the online audience (who respond with clap emojis–but never between movements). Gómez is doing these hour-plus episodes just about every day, no doubt driven by cabin fever and that urge to do rad shit which characterizes all these musical badasses. Upcoming guests include Joe Kye and Gabriela Lena Frank.

We’re not going to get into aaaaaall the livestreaming that’s happening now; consult this list for more. We will say that the Berlin Philharmonic comes very highly recommended–the stuffiest composer we know and the most adventurous composer we know both rave about the quality of the performances and the audiovisual experience. We’d also like to mention the Metropolitan Opera, who deserve a great deal of credit for bringing centuries of opera (from the oldest to the newest) into movie theaters around the country for the last decade or so. The present author could never have survived one particularly miserable Dubya-era spell in suburban Florida without the intervention of the Met–and, of course, of Portland’s eternally endearing All Classical radio. No doubt their free nightly streams will become some of our fondest memories of this strange time.

Life is but a dream

But eventually the livestreaming current will run its course and empty into the great ocean of internet irrelevance. It’s the same problem as ever: no real way to monetize. Musicians have never been taken very seriously by those with wealth and power, being regarded generally as little more than colorful servants. You know it’s true: the fanciest musicians in town (the ones on their Tigard lawns) are the doctors and lawyers of the musical world, but right now they’re just as out of work as the local bartender. “The danger of collapse, it seems, is very real,” as Senior Editor Bob Hicks said yesterday in reference to Oregon Symphony’s dire situation. Carlos Kalmar is unemployed. Let that sink in.

We’d like to share something written recently by Charles Noble, another “front row seat” music journalist with a literal front row seat as Oregon Symphony’s longstanding assistant principal violist. Noble is scared:

When people are not allowed to congregate in public groups larger than 250 people, then we have a serious problem. We can’t deliver take-out concerts. I mean, we could live stream concerts, but we couldn’t reasonably be required to charge for those streams, could we? Could we charge the median price for a live concert ticket? People don’t even want to watch 30 second ads or see banner advertising in order to view ‘free’ content – which is never free to produce. Far from it. Our entire business model is a large number of people paying to have a shared communal experience of great symphonic music in the same room.

So what can we do, besides following Noble’s advice and applying pressure to those with the power to effect change? Well, for now you might as well watch all the music videos you can stand. Put together watch parties: start a Zoom session with your friends and watch the nightly opera stream together. Treat it like Mystery Science Theater 3000, but for classical music. You’re not sharing space, but you’re at least sharing time–and spirit.

You could support your musician friends while they’re out of work, but then you’re probably out of work too right? Here we begin to see that this whole problem is essentially a capitalism problem. “Support” simply means “money” in this context–but that’s a real form of support, because lack of money is a real damn problem. This is true for musicians who are lucky enough to have unions and/or work for institutions with the means and moral will to pay them through the crisis, and it’s especially true for the majority who were already working themselves to death for meager pay and no benefits.

So, for now, do what you can do to support musicians. Watch their livestreams. Drop five bucks in their venmos and patreons. Buy their albums on bandcamp. Write to the Browns and Wheelers and Wydens. Donate to–or apply for help from–the Jeremy Wilson Foundation Musicians’ Emergency Healthcare Fund.

Or grab your guitar, slip on a face mask, and hit the porch yourself. Have a friend take a video–six feet is ideal for a good shot anyways. And then, O Informed Citizenry, upload it and share it here!

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One Response. Have your say.

  1. bob priest says:

    Yes, the Berlin Philharmonie Digital Concert Hall offerings are off-the-chart fabulous. Here’re are a few programs I’ve checked out so far:

    1 – Late Night with Patricia Kopatchinskaja (Pierrot Lunaire like you’ve never experienced it before – trust me)

    2 – Sir Simon with Berio’s Sinfonia & Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra (this might help hold you over until our superb OSO gets back to the Berio one day . . . )

    3 – Kirill Petrenko conducting Mahler 6 (he’s their new conductor & you’ll see/hear why the orch loves him)

    Take good care everyone!

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