How composers fight to have their works performed.
Written by Hidde Kramer
Edited by Yóuell Domenico and Andrew James Clark
Videos from the Festival described in this article can be found HERE.
Spring Festival Cancelled
In the beginning of March 2020, an idea emerged. The coronavirus had us all sitting at home, and by then it was clear that public festivals and concerts would be out of the picture for at least a few months. This also included the Spring Festival of the Royal Conservatory in the Hague, the yearly festival in which many of the school's composers display their primary projects for that season.
Many of my colleagues were devastated. Dozens of projects folded overnight. The people that wrote their pieces for this festival were already in the process of rehearsing with their players. Many projects were close to completion when the announcement came in: “No more rehearsals, no more classes in the building, Spring Festival was to be cancelled”.
The next day, a call for pieces was made in the internal Composition group on facebook. We had an idea to set up the festival via network performance. We could present the pieces one by one from our homes into a single “festival space” online, and by that, salvage at least some of these unperformed works from ruins of the public festival.
Danya Pilchen, Yóuell Domenico and Arie Verheul-van de Ven were motivated enough to take the lead, and soon, more people applied to have their pieces performed. That was the moment where I also got involved, offering a space that could possibly be used to perform one or more of the pieces from. One thing led to another and soon I was also helping in the organizational process.
Early planning contained a ‘MacGyver’ quality. We had a vague idea of how we wanted to make the festival happen, but only limited tools at our disposal. We had a vision of a fluent experience - like sitting in a concert hall - where the audience could be presented with a diverse program while kept blissfully unaware of the extraordinary administrative effort taking place behind the scenes.
We also wanted everything that wasn’t a fixed piece to be performed live - no playback of any prior recordings. The tension of a live concert seemed important for us to maintain, but this is easier said than done in a context of multiple live-streaming pieces to the audience.
How we did it
Early on, our plan was to have everybody use their own streaming applications and post links of their streams to a common website - which could be activated by the audience at home at the right time.
This was problematic. If we couldn’t stick to the right schedule people would have to start searching for the link that was active at the moment, which left a lot more room for error. Pretty far from the fluid viewing experience we imagined. Our second plan was instead to have separate streams ‘channeled’ into one streaming channel for the audience. This felt like another pitfall - with complicated methods and unnecessary headaches, but was closer to what we wanted.
So we decided to switch to the freeware OBS studio, because it seemed to be reliable, and offered the option to actually shape the livestream with visual material and transitions. We were headed in the right direction.
In the meantime we were asked by a colleague composer Cristiano Melli if we wanted to collaborate with Studio LOOS - a fantastic space near us which we used often for new music performances throughout the year.
The space would act as a mission control centre to run the festival from, as it gave us the space to be ‘together’ while still physically being in different rooms and using different entrances. We could then make sure that solo musicians could enter and leave whenever they needed.
In the blink of an eye, we were one week away from the festival. In theory we had everything set up. There was a program of diverse pieces, ranging from ensemble to solo pieces as well as fixed media, and we had devised a method to get it all together in one computer which would stream it to the world. On the first day of testing however, we were immediately crippled.
The system worked in principle, but our software would spontaneously shut down. We knew immediately we had to obtain a stronger computer. Following this, the first rehearsal was nothing short of a train-wreck. An extravaganza of frozen laptops, non functioning systems, network session time outs, and line of impatient musicians waiting to have their soundcheck.
We had to abandon at least half of the pieces that day because we couldn’t get them to work. You can imagine the stress we were under as we realized our computer set up couldn’t handle the weight of all the software we were using at all.
More problems ensued. Up until now we had been using Mac laptops, but the only usable laptop we had left to switch to featured a Windows operating system. Since we had little other options for the time constraint, we knew we had to make the switch for tomorrow's rehearsal. With a long night of installing and testing, we began to load the new software on the windows laptop.
We didn’t know at the time, but this was the best idea we’d had as the second and third rehearsal days ran like clockwork. We managed to easily adjust the Windows laptop to our streaming purposes, and in the end it turned out to be a great choice. The software we used now provided more stability and the computer featured higher processing power. We are all Mac users, and are not advertising against our operating system, but in the world of streaming video, windows definitely has more, and faster options.
While all this was going on, we also had to consider visuals, and how to make the live stream for each piece look as best we could.
Our strongest advantage was that the festival was as varied as it could be, with performers live streaming from their homes in a virtual ensemble - to soloist pieces with electronics, to acoustic performances, to fixed media and animation.
For pieces we had physical access to, such as various solo pieces that were to be streamed from Studio LOOS in the Hague, - we could add lighting effects and external dramatic camera angles. For the pieces outside the country, or works with many performers in a virtual room, we were limited at showing the live streams performer’s cameras, which usually consisted of their laptops cameras.
One question remained persistent in our minds: How do we glue it all together and present it to our online audience?
Just three days before the start of the festival, with the help of Julian Verkerk - a local graphic designer, we were able to add screens with the names of the pieces, composers, performers, and a brief program note. This further shaped our broadcast into a clear cut concert format - with one piece following another smoothly accompanied by title screens and a few moments of silence to reconnect to the next performer, and do a fast sound “check” in between as the audience waits.
Finally the days of the concerts arrived. Although anxious and excited to see if everything would go well, we felt confident that we had a system that would hold its own during the performances.
Cristiano - who let us in and out of LOOS, and waited patiently for us to finish, and described the whole situation in LOOS as a sort of ‘mission control’, as Danya and I were seated in separate workstations, with laptops, microphones, headphones, etc., and in constant touch with different performers and ensembles who were spread all over the globe. We even had countdowns before we ‘launched’ the next piece to the stream.
Even though we couldn’t see the audience, and sat practically alone in LOOS, we still felt the normal jitters that you would get before a live concert. Would everything come together? No connection drop-outs or other weird network shenanigans? At this point, we could only hope we prepared well. Of course, nothing we can say would allow someone to re-experience this festival with us. But what we can declare is that what we planned, worked.
We consider the festival a success for many reasons. Firstly, it was a timely online festival - one of the first. It came only a month after the emergency situation was called globally with COVID 19. Our schools were now shut down, and so were our music venues. Every project was cancelled, and many of us went home to countries all over the globe, unlikely to see each other again. This festival “fit” as a last performance of the season for many of us, and first of the COVID generation.
It felt great to see the concert actually become a reality, and to know that many people watched on the ‘other side’. There was a sense of a connection there, even though we couldn’t see the audience. Only in one piece we experienced some musicians dropping out, which created a bit of confusion, yet was easily forgivable, as most people understood the basic connection errors.
Curation and retrospect:
The festival felt as if it went by much faster in the days following, likely due to our most “heavy” concert experience being on the first day. Most of our ensemble “heavy works” were planned to perform.
Our real concept behind how the pieces were organized was based on the location of the “hub” computer - the computer that was used to collect incoming signals from performers and broadcast to video for the audience. The first day was mine, from Studio LOOS in the Hague, and the second was Arie’s, who was broadcasting all the way from Canada. It made sense for us to divide things that way, as he was performing two works, and could broadcast the other fixed media works easily. This made changes between sets during broadcasting much smoother, that was how the days were divided.
This both limited us, and made our job much easier, especially as this was the first online festival of the Conservatory, and a lot was on the line. We were curious to see what was considered standard concert planning and which aspects were completely new due to the online nature of the festival.
To close off these entries, I wish you the best at broadcasting online festivals. Please do it often, and without too much worry of consequences. No, it will not be the “same” as a real concert, but a different experience altogether. Aim to make things interesting by trying technically advanced pieces, but test everything at least three times. Do it with your friends, or people you wish to be close to, and involve your “community” as much as you can.
This is what brought us together in our “isolated” time.