How musicians went digital to hit the right note during Covid-19

4 Dec 2020

Eímear Noone. Image: Steve Humphreys

Award-winning Irish conductor and composer Eímear Noone spoke to the Future Human audience about how orchestras overcame the challenges of Covid-19 restrictions.

While Covid-19 saw many talented individual musicians move online to perform, orchestras by design must come together in order perform, meaning the Covid-19 restrictions created substantial barriers for them.

However, the growing adoption of technology within the music industry and the orchestral world in particular has enabled some truly innovative solutions to bring live music experiences back to audiences in the middle of the pandemic.

Eímear Noone spoke to the Future Human audience about the adoption of such technologies. As an award-winning Irish conductor and composer and the first woman conductor to perform at the Academy Awards, Noone not only had expert insight into the orchestral world, but she invited some of her peers from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra to share their experiences of working with orchestras in the time of Covid-19.

‘You can’t stop being a musician because you’re on lockdown’

She told the Future Human audience that, while many of the technologies used have been around for a while, the pandemic has brought with it “a shifting attitude and a mind opening out of pure necessity”.

“You can’t stop being a musician because you’re on lockdown, that’s not who we are. Every molecule of us is a music-making molecule, so we start to shift our creativity in ways that can help us to continue to be who we are and do what we do.”

During her Future Human session, Noone spoke to Dr Jane McDonald of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. McDonald talked about the creation of The Friday Night Club, which enabled the team to put previously recorded concerts online.

“We ran bars and events after the concerts and Zoom where they could meet the musicians and talk to them, so we actually found it was quite nice,” said McDonald.

“They weren’t just using it for concert-going, they were then using it to contact their friends and their families so we felt it had a bit of a social purpose beyond just the concert.”

Noone also spoke to Simon Webb of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra who discussed how they took matters into their own hands.

“The musicians decided that they were going to start recording together remotely from home,” he said. “One of the musicians created an orchestration of an Irving Berlin song, the musicians found a way of recording their own sound, bringing it together and they brought in a freelance sound producer to make the audio.”

He said that within about two weeks of lockdown, while management were under pressure of getting from one day to the next, the musicians presented them with a completed recording of an Irving Berlin song, which was then played out on three national stations in the UK over two days.

“They taught themselves the technology and how to do this. What we then did was create the environment for that to happen repeatedly, over and over again.”

 ‘Meet me in my virtual green room’

Aside from how the musicians themselves rallied together in order to move their musical world online, Noone noted another positive consequence of this transition: opening orchestral music to a bigger audience.

“My wish for the future would be to send out an email to my friends and say, ‘Hey guys, meet me in my virtual green room and let’s go and hear Schoenberg with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra or let’s go to Dublin virtually for the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland and hear some Beethoven’.”

With an extensive background in video game music, Noone said one of the things she loves about massive multiplayer online games is that it can bring together people from different backgrounds, with different abilities and give an immersive experience.

“It’s an incredibly democratising situation as well. I love that for classical music in particular. I love how that opens up that whole world to the world and it’s no longer just constantly elitism,” she said.

While Noone noted that an online musical experience is not the same as a live one, the acceleration of using technology and opening up online options means audiences can experience a combination of the two.

“The future of performance in both the digital realm and when we’re back to our new normal in the live realm, I can see both of those having a legitimate place in our cultural experience and then wonderful crossovers happening in terms of real-time interaction inside of the live space, both digitally and physically in person.”

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic