This past month has laid bare many things about our society that have been able to be ignored for far too long. We started the Korrigan Consort fundamentally as a way for young female singers to be able to make money together as singers in an ensemble where the power structures traditionally present in choral ensembles were reassembled in order to ensure agency on behalf of individual women. We wanted to do something about the constant economic precarity we found ourselves in because of our gender, and the result has been a political experiment as much as a high-talent, powerful ensemble. There are very clearly going to be massive changes in how the economy of the music industry functions. My partner Will and I are currently stuck in the house together, and we’ve had lots of time to talk about the current changes in the choral music scene in the wake of pandemic and what we think about them. Here are our thoughts!

Let’s start out with a throwback. Here is a short snippet from the website for “Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir:” 

It began in 2009 as a simple experiment in social media when one young woman – a fan of Eric’s music – recorded a video of herself singing “Sleep” and shared it on YouTube.  Moved by the video, Eric responded by sending a call out to his online fans to purchase Polyphony’s recording, record themselves singing along to it, and upload the result.

virtualChoir3

‘The Virtual Choir’ ericwhitacre.com

The result? Another recording. It’s a very nice recording, and it’s an extremely professionally produced recording. But call it a “virtual choir” and you get 8,000 people to buy your music and a place at the Commonwealth Games. Musicians who perform with regular ensembles have recently been increasingly asked to do “virtual” projects by directors in order to try to keep up the ensemble’s musical activities. Considering how difficult the task of recording is, and the fact that the average musician doesn’t have professional recording equipment at home, it begs the question – whose benefit is this for?

The answer is complicated. Each circumstance is different. First there is the issue of power structures. We’d like to emphasise our concerns regarding these are mainly aimed at professional ensembles, or ensembles in which money is changing hands. A close friend of mine happens to live with the organist at the church she sings at, which has a very close-knit community (particularly within the choir). They are currently live streaming some hymns and working on recording some music for holy week. This circumstance is very much not the same as a director – who has the power to decide whether or not you will be booked for future paying gigs – asking you to partake in a project out of your comfort zone.

Ensembles tend to be cost-neutral / cost negative if all of their players are freelance, as their primary outgoings are paying musicians for concerts; if there are no concerts, there’s no need to pay. Force Majeure clauses usually limit the liability of promoters to have to pay musicians when an event is cancelled for reasons out of their control. With the cancellation of upcoming concerts,, “ensembles themselves” won’t suffer but the players – facing a significant loss of income –  will. 

So what is “the ensemble itself”? It is a certain group of people? At its heart, yes. But it is also that which it does, its musical output, its own artistic brand. Who gets to define that? When we talk about “artistic vision”, those words tend to go hand in hand with the words “artistic director”. If “the ensemble” is conflated with a single person, then that’s where the danger lies. 

Equally, does an ensemble exist because of its audience –  and if so, is “the ensemble” essentially constituted of those listening and engaging with it? If they stop engaging, does the ensemble disappear? To be long-term profitable (i.e., to be booked for gigs as a group, win grants and awards, residencies, etc.), an ensemble needs an audience. These “virtual musickings” (i.e., videos, live streams, recordings, etc.) are a core part of building and retaining this audience.  So if an ensemble continues to put out content, does it benefit the long-term finances of all its members, or just those of the individual director of its artistic vision, who continues to hold power? 

In a precarious financial situation, without the benefit of a stable income or long-term contracts, freelance musicians need to pick up as much work as possible. In order to be seen as a “team player”, and therefore more likely to be booked for paying work in the future, individual musicians need to be seen to accept unpaid projects for the time being, at the behest of the director who has the power to grant or take away paying engagements. This is particularly the case for female singers, especially sopranos, who are regularly told (both implicitly and explicitly) by directors that they are replaceable. We could have an entire essay dedicated to times where sopranos have been pressured into doing things they weren’t comfortable with, to the point where they were put in dangerous situations to avoid being deprived of work. The necessity of affability creates a very, very dark underside to the music world.

We’ll come back to power structures in a bit, but let’s get back to this weird question of “virtual” choirs: what is the deal with them? No-one buys a CD and says they got a “virtual choir” recording. Most people don’t refer to recording artists as “virtual” (e.g. Sgt Peppers isn’t a “virtual album”) even if the individual players weren’t, or never could be, in a room together. This label seems to come from the fetishisation in the classical music world of live performance. Live performance is the bread and butter of classical music. The qualifier “virtual” marks it as “not authentic” as opposed to  the authentic product, the live performance. Yet, very few people would describe classical recordings, which are polished, spliced, and produced, as “inauthentic”. 

Yet in this inauthenticity we find a paradox, not dissimilar to Youtube vloggers. There’s a reason Youtubers cultivate their brands around their personality: it makes it easy to connect to them and buy their things. The medium of the vlog is at once highly stylised (jump-cuts, very fast talking, a certain set of stock phrases), and yet portrayed as an authentic window into the vlogger’s self. Likewise, the constituent video of the “virtual choir” – a single performer at home looking straight into the camera, alone –  embodies this “authentic” inauthenticity by inviting us into the artist’s living room with them – a voyeuristic view into the world behind the all-black concert dress and locksteady stage presence. But of course, this “authenticity” is a fiction – the video may have been recorded several times, spliced, and been “improved” in post production. It has to be – there’s an assumption that iphone recordings don’t give a “true” approximation of the performer’s sound whereas professional, artificial recordings do, even though they’re heavily produced and edited. Hence all these anxieties needing to be bundled together in that single qualifier, “virtual”.  

Crucially, in a recording studio the artistic director has control over everyone – but in a “virtual” performance each individual artist has their own autonomy, because a director can’t pick and choose during the process. This means the power of the director, to a certain extent, dissipates, as they are reliant on their supposed “ability” to “inspire people,” to be able to get everyone together to make music together (even though the reality is generally musicians are there for the money- it is our job, after all…). In the absence of being able to physically gather the musicians around them we again find the need for this  qualifier “virtual”.

On that note, let’s take a look at who doesn’t benefit from these “virtual choirs.” When it comes to recording, most lower-end recording equipment, particularly the built in microphones in phones, struggles to render higher frequencies without distortion, creating a gendered aspect to who gets to sound good “performing from home”. In fact, it does seem like there are far fewer women uploading media of themselves singing. There are lots of historic reasons for women being shamed out of making sound in public spaces (you can check out our archives  for some of our chat on that topic), but the fact that women’s voices are often held to a higher standard is a big part of the risk women face in uploading things that are not professionally recorded: we are fundamentally less likely to get the benefit of the doubt. 

Let’s also not forget the fact that far fewer women are members of salaried ensembles. While prestigious ensembles like the King’s Singers, Voces 8, etc. come to mind, Cathedral choirs refusing to employ sopranos is a huge part of this issue. This substantially contributes to women’s inability to say no to things they aren’t comfortable with for fear of losing future work. Far, far fewer women are directors of professional ensembles, or indeed, amateur ensembles- positions where a salary would mean they didn’t have to worry as much about paying rent or buying food, meaning they could take more artistic risks and exercise their own artistic agency. But the answer to this isn’t “more girl CEOs”, as it were, but rather a question  – how do we do away with power structures that put people at risk?

Fundamentally, the classical music world has fetishised something unsustainable. Having a free market of ensembles constantly trying to grow and compete within the same spaces is an inherently unstable environment for the majority of musicians in a crisis, compared to one which provides secure, properly funded, salaried work. It’s tempting to see social media and growing one’s fan base as just “sharing one’s music”. But how different ensembles “get ahead” comparably to others depends on what they are putting out there. Are we holding on to beautiful things in this dark time? Or are we simply helping to reinforce the troubling structures that give those with financial and institutional power a disproportionate hold over those without the same stability at a time when that stability is most necessary?  . 

We’ve had all of our gigs for the summer, which were preparing to release just prior to the lockdown, cancelled. We miss each other and we miss making music together, and it’s hard to pretend everything is business as usual when it clearly isn’t. We’re hoping to release some recordings if possible, but for this time we’re prioritising care for our loved ones and ourselves. We encourage you all to do the same. Make music as much as you can because you want to, and for who you want to, and when this passes over you can join us on our quest for change in choral music. 

Our next round will be shorter, and more plague/17th-century England based!

By Caroline Lesemann-Elliot & Will Anderson

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