We’ve received a lot of questions about how our musicians have been able to perform together despite social distancing. The answer, of course, lies in technological trickery.
Several of us are using an app called Acapella which allows us to record one track at a time. In the very first video we released (a flute and oboe duet), Ruth Ann recorded her line and sent it to Natasha, who was able to record her part despite living 20 miles away. This allows us to record in “real time” without having to counter delays in internet speed.
This system, of course, is not perfect. The August Winds did the original test of the app on a snippet of David Maslanka’s Third Woodwind Quintet. This is a piece we know very, very well, but it still took each of us several tries to get our lines right.
To begin with, Marianne, our clarinetist, doesn’t have the right phone to be able to download the app, so she recorded a separate video file and sent it to Ruth Ann. If you have ever seen The August Winds (or any woodwind quintet, for that matter), you would know that the flutist generally leads the ensemble, giving most cues. Now, that’s not to say that Marianne is not a more than competent musician and is perfectly capable of giving cues herself. However, the way the video stacked up, the end of Marianne’s clarinet is cut off, so cues were a lot more guesswork than they would be in person!
Since we had to fit five musicians on a screen, finding the right angle to fit yourself into the camera angle also presented a challenge. Ruth Ann and Michael each ended up using a series of books to prop the phone onto a music stand. But as the performer also has to be tethered to the phone by headphones, the situation is more than a little perilous!...not to mention, perhaps not the most flattering of camera angles...and a lot of views of ceiling fans.
The piece itself also presented challenges, because this section has a lot of fermatas. What’s a fermata? It looks like this:
The official definition of a fermata reads: “The symbol indicates that the note or rest is to be prolonged beyond its normal duration.” That’s rather vague! Normally the end of the note would be signaled by a large cue…probably from the flute player. The first time he tried, Jon (horn) sent a plea via group text: “How am I supposed to play the fermatas?!” It came down to multiple listenings of the recording and reading the slightest cues given on the video.
Another thing that’s very awkward about playing with a live recording: THE TUNING. Now, tuning is complicated at the best of times. Here's a chart to help you visualize the math involved:
Just because a person is "in tune" with a tuner does NOT mean that they will be in tune with the rest of the ensemble. A few of the many factors that wind players have to consider include: if you're warmed up; if the rest of the ensemble is warmed up; the tuning tendencies of your personal instrument; if the instrument is (or was) cold (or hot); if the room is (or was) cold (or hot); altitude; what the weather is doing (or about to do); if your reeds are happy with any of the above situations; if you have very bad allergies that day; what the acoustics of the room are like; and how your note fits into the chord.
The August Winds have been playing together for almost 20 years, and at this point we naturally know which notes will easily tune with the group and will automatically fix any problems. But when playing with a recording, you’re locked in to whatever pitch center you’ve been given by the players before you. And if Marianne's house in in a warm, high altitude New Mexico produces one set of sounds, that doesn't mean it will be the same for Natasha in damp, humid, sea-level Texas! While each individual player is (probably...!) in tune with themselves,
that doesn’t mean that they’re in tune with the chord that should be coming out of the group!
But despite all that, we think it turned out pretty good for a first attempt. Here’s our quarantine recording:
And for comparison, you can listen to the same example from a live performance in 2012.
As we’ve gotten the hang of it, we’ve been working on some new pieces, so watch for those soon!