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Olivia Fuchs and an RCM vocalist rehearse in the Britten Theatre in October

FeatureAutumn 2020

Creative ingenuity and the new landscape of performance

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In this extraordinary year, stories of how members of the RCM community have stayed creative, hopeful and connected act as testaments to the power of music. Here, we hear some of those stories.

In August 2020, the RCM launched an autumn events season unlike any other in its history. For the first time, the usual programme packed with live events spanning concerts and masterclasses was replaced with a roster of on-demand recorded performances and a series of specially made films. The reason for this is no mystery: in these times, launching live events is an extraordinary challenge.

In all quarters of the classical music world, the response to the adversity caused by Covid-19 has been a huge mustering of energy. An abundance of creative thinking and innovation has come out of what is a significantly difficult time for musicians and venues alike. Reimagined performances, advanced use of technology and collaborations among artists have been used to plug the gap left by shuttered venues. These efforts, to keep making and giving music, offer a serious show of strength and optimism at a time when the arts sector has become vulnerable. The RCM is proud to be a vital player in this new landscape, and its community – staff, students and alumni – is hard at work staying creative.

[quote quote="There has been a flourishing of inventiveness and imagination." author="Annie Corser, Editor of Upbeat"]

Among musicians there has been a flourishing of inventiveness and imagination, leading to innovative projects that artfully overcome the barriers we currently face. The social media videos and Zoom calls of the spring have developed into online concert series, podcasts and new recordings. In a period of great uncertainty, many in the RCM community are finding that building their own opportunities for expression is a way of sharing joy and connection.

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Upbeat has spoken to four alumni whose activity during this wellspring of creativity has spanned filmmaking and producing, social media strategy, composition collaboration and performing for neighbours. Each of them attests to the value of finding new ways to connect and create.

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Samuel Dewese

Baritone Samuel Dewese graduated from the RCM with a Master of Performance degree in 2018, supported by the Vivian Prins Award. During lockdown in his Illinois home, Samuel began to sing on his front porch for his neighbours. Here he talks about the resulting ‘On Your Street’ concert series:

I didn’t expect my 2020 season to take place on the street. After constant cancellations concerning work stretching into autumn 2021, by late May I was devastated. I was lacking motivation, hardly singing and slipping into a deep sadness exacerbated by the constant revelation that another company would not need my voice. 

As the weather improved, I saw friends abroad having fun performing on front steps or in gardens, with safely distant crowds. Mourning my loss of work, I knew from previous experience that the longer I didn’t sing, the longer I would feel hopeless. I decided to go for it: I bought a powerful Bluetooth speaker, created a set list and began to rebuild my stamina. I found my speaking voice too and decided to share how these concerts were born from deep sadness and a profound need to reconnect. This is the genesis of my ‘On Your Street’ concert series. I never could have predicted the response.

The first concert had an audience of nearly 100. Singing the first notes to a real crowd brought me to tears. While ‘On Your Street’ concerts are free to host, my bank details are made available to the audience; the generosity of people missing live music has been overwhelming. Word of mouth led to new engagements: if I could drive there and the weather held, I would sing.

This series has given me so much: I’ve learnt new music, met new people, learned to market myself in new ways. I’m booked up to December (for festive gigs complete with self-serve cocoa). I’ve sung outside retirement homes, on patios and in gardens. Above all, I have learned that there is no substitute for live music. It is a balm for me and for those who choose to come and hear me sing.

You can read more about Samuel and ‘On Your Street’ here.

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Laura Attridge

Laura Attridge is a creative in opera and theatre, working as a director, project leader and writer. In the spring Laura launched the ‘Notes From Isolation’ project, in collaboration with composer and RCM alum Lewis Murphy. Here she talks about the song series and what they’ve set out to achieve:

In late spring of this year, composer Lewis Murphy and I began a series of interviews with performers that would create the foundation for a song project we entitled ‘Notes From Isolation’.

For many artists, the ongoing pandemic has been a time of identity crisis, leading to feelings of powerlessness, forced passivity, disconnection from their art and – as a direct result – disconnection from the world around them. ‘Notes From Isolation’ had its genesis in my own desire to combat these issues, not only for myself but also for my friends and colleagues. 

Lewis and I engaged nine performers – eight singers and a flautist – to share their stories of lockdown. Over Zoom interviews we laughed with them, cried with them and discovered something extraordinary: in every interview, no matter the hardships of which we were speaking, the conversation ultimately turned towards moments of joy and optimism. It became abundantly clear that this needed to be the common thread with which to sew our songs. The project became a vehicle through which we could offer powerful missives of hope in a time of fear and uncertainty.

All eight ‘Notes From Isolation’ are utterly bespoke for their respective performer/s: not only written to showcase the unique artistry of each person, but also to honour and celebrate their humanity. After their interview, performers continued to be involved in the creation process, feeding back on the text and music to ensure they felt their song a true representation of themselves. Much of the visual material used to accompany the songs online has been shot with or by the performers themselves.

By holding space for our performers to share their experiences, offering an amplification of their stories and voices, and inviting each to nominate a charity of their choice to support with their song, our wish is that this project gives each of them the opportunity to feel heard, empowered and connected. 

The full ‘Notes From Isolation’ song series can be viewed on Laura and Lewis’s YouTube channel, and more can be read about the project here.

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Timothy Henty

Timothy Henty, conductor and arranger, studied at the RCM with a Foundation Scholarship and won the Tagore Gold Medal. He has recently worked with the London Mozart Players on a series of films, both directing and producing recordings. Here he discusses those projects and the technical solutions (and challenges!) he’s found while bringing the films to life:

As devastating as lockdown has been, the one positive outcome I’ve experienced is the drive to push my own boundaries.

I was lucky enough to be able to continue developing the relationship I have formed with the London Mozart Players, whose innovative #AtHomewithLMP online lockdown video series has focused on the wealth of talent offered by its players and its guests. Following a video explaining the process of conducting, ‘Live to Projection’, I made a series of four documentaries about aspects of the conducting profession called ‘The Grounded Conductor’. I interviewed a host of artists for the series including Sir Antonio Pappano, Wayne Marshall, Sir Thomas Allen and Roderick Williams. It remains one of the most worthwhile things I’ve done.

LMP then floated the idea of assembling an original ‘remote’ recording of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, with film. I jumped at that like a lemming to a cliff: I’d never produced a remote recording before and I’d never ‘directed’ a film. Each member of LMP recorded their parts in isolation to a click track I’d devised, and along with conductor and RCM alumnus Benjamin Pope, I used a Digital Audio Workstation (something I was introduced to during Composition for Screen lessons at the RCM) to produce the recording. I then had to learn – from scratch – how to direct remotely and use Final Cut Pro to edit.

It was a family film and so it seemed obvious to use LMP families to tell the story. They were the stars of this and LMP’s strong community spirit – which has illuminated audiences for decades – shone through. RCM alumna and LMP Concert Master Ruth Rogers’ wonderful son Oliver made for an excellent Peter. Many other family members (and pets!) were cast too. So far, it has been viewed over 35,000 times on YouTube and, although I donated my time to all the above projects, the positive response from Peter and the Wolf has started a new revenue stream in my portfolio career. We’ll not be brought down by this. Musicians are resourceful, innovative and lateral in thinking. There is always hope, even if it’s heartbreaking that our paths are occluded for now.

Peter and the Wolf can be watched on Timothy's website here where you can also read more about his career and projects.

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Rosie Land of BLOCK4

BLOCK4 is a successful recorder quartet formed at the RCM in 2012 and including alumni Emily Bannister and Rosie Land. During lockdown, the group pivoted to making films for children, in a series called Recorder Minis. Here, Rosie shares how the project came about and what the group learned:

Recorder Minis is BLOCK4’s newest project, created during the lockdown. It’s an entirely digital, free project made up of four new commissions, with animated videos and printable resources to encourage children to make music at home. We felt this was important because many children weren’t getting their usual music lessons. It’s about staying creative, actively listening to the world around us, and of course, keeping music fun.  

When the first lockdown was announced, we had secured funding for an interactive children’s concert. It became clear these performances couldn’t take place, so rather than shelving the project, we decided to adapt and continue working and luckily, a grant from the Arts Council England meant that we could take the project online.

With so many new skills to learn, it was very different to projects we had undertaken before, with an entirely new set of challenges. Instead of days in rehearsals, we spent hours on laptops editing recordings, putting together video material and managing social media. We were very lucky to be joined by a team of such enthusiastic composers, alongside videographer Thomas Ross, who brought original and fun ideas to each piece.

The advantage to working digitally is that our project will now remain free for anyone to access. The project is complete, but now we are spending time making sure as many people know about it as possible. We’ve even translated our work into German and Dutch to broaden its reach. This is so important to us, because now more than ever, access to creative resources is key.

Whilst this isn’t a replacement for live performance, Recorder Minis has made us grow and adapt as an ensemble, developing our portfolio and our online presence. We’re now making plans to build on the project for next year. We are mindful that our plans will have to be flexible, but confident that we will find a way to keep being creative and sharing our work.

You can watch more of the Recorder Minis here.

Upbeat would love to hear more from alumni who’ve launched exciting creative projects or pivoted their activities away from traditional performance in recent months. You can send your stories in to news@rcm.ac.uk.

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Annie Corser

Annie is the Editor of Upbeat magazine.