Conferencing from the Comfort of Home: Meeting in an Online Environment

10 July 2020, 10:00
Conferencing from the Comfort of Home: Meeting in an Online Environment

Cultural life has endeavoured to move into a sterile and "life-safe" social networking environment in an unequal struggle against the viral phantasm and government lockdown regulations. In the darkest months, music institutions competed with one another in staging recordings of memorable concerts, and major opera houses broadcast to the world those of their performances that gained the most success from spectators.

However, music is not just a performing art – various workshops, seminars, training camps, summer schools and conferences are also taking place. And also in this space, some bold people were found who decided to move the programme to a virtual environment. One of these events was the third annual Conference on Music Communication and Performance, to be held, under normal circumstances, in the Italian city of Montecassiano under the patronage of the Associazione Europea di Musica e Comunicazione (European Association for Music and Communication – hereinafter referred to as  AEMC), the president of which is also the conference organiser Alberto Nones. A slightly threadbare journalistic question became the main topic of the programme, which took place on the weekend of 27 and 28 June: Is Classical Music Dead? It was provoked by the e-book Challenging Performance by the musicologist Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, who commented critically several times on the current state of the performing arts.

The pianist, music teacher and member of the Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble Natalie Tsaldarakis  was the first to have her say about Daniel Leech-Wilkinson's criticism in her contribution The Work, the Mirror, Relevance and Meaning: Is Classical Music Dead? A Critical Response in Beethoven's 250th Anniversary. Tsaldarakis understands Leech-Wilkinson's opinion as a continuation of his critical view of so-called historically informed performance, but she herself tried to look at the problem in a peaceable manner, and moreover in terms of structure, autonomy, strength of emotions, conformity, and general or personal meanings and interpretations of a musical work. In her contribution, she also followed on from the theoretical work of the composer and musicologist Lawrence Kramer, whose lecture on the topic was the centrepiece of the programme of the second day of the conference and which, unlike the other fifteen-minute contributions, had reserved for it an entire hour. However, most of the lecturers stuck to the key topic only in a symbolic fashion and, in some cases, essentially not at all. However, this lack of thematic boundaries did not seem to bother anyone excessively.

After all, already the second lecture in a row was the theme of Waxing and Waning: Musical Depictions of Cyclicity and Fluidity in Moonlight by the musicologist Hamish Robb. The subject of his analysis was the motif work in the film Moonlight (2016) by Barry Jenkins. The thematic diversity was also demonstrated by a contribution delivered by the composer and oboist Francisco Castillo entitled Our Local Music and the Classical Music of Others: Misconceptions and Possibilities in Colombian Music Education, dealing with the polemic between European artificial music and Colombian folk culture. The most remarkable research presented was, in my opinion, the work of the musicologist Cecilia Taher Performances Expression and Empathy in Children, examining the degree of empathy and identification with an artistic experience in children aged eight to nine and ten to twelve. These two groups were presented not only with the music itself, but also the music with a video of the performer, with the reactions of the two age groups to these incentives being different to a significant extent. While the children aged eight to nine didn't really care if they just listened to the music or could also watch the performer during the performance, the older children strongly preferred the version with video. Equally interesting was the contribution by the composer, lawyer and educator Jeffrey Izzo, who in his presentation entitled Space, Time and Memory: Examining the Disconnect Between Looking at Contemporary Art and Listening to Contemporary Music searched for identical and different features in the visual and musical arts. He asked himself the question of why people accepted modern fine art much more easily than contemporary music, to which they often struggle in vain to find their way.

A significant part of the conference also consisted of streamed concerts featuring Animo DuoIvory Duo Piano EnsembleDuo Francés-BernalEurasia String Quartet, the Czech Trio Aperto (thanks to which I had gotten to know about the conference) and Deborah Stokol. For example, the Animo Duo performed a programme entitled Animo Declassified consisting of works by Daniel Dorff, Maurice Ravel, Adam Caird, Anna Boyd and the premiere of a commissioned work The Journey of Alan Kurdi by Lukas Piel. The Eurasia String Quartet could also boast of a premiere – they performed the String Quartet No. 8 “Reflections and Memories” by Lawrence Kramer. The Aperto trio presented four compositions for a wind trio and an electroacoustic component – Wooden Music by Emil Viklický, Ritorni  by Pavel Kopecký, and a composition entitled Krapp Trio by Vojtěch Dlask and Unknown Terrains by Lucie Vítková; as part of their presentation, the trio introduced listeners to the specifics of the interpretation of music with an electroacoustic component using these examples.

Last year, the Trio Aperto took part in the AEMC Montecassiano chamber music competition, where it won third place and, in February this year the trio also appeared in Porto Recanati in Italy, at the invitation of Alberto Nones. Barbora Šteflová, the oboist of the trio, commented on the selection of pieces as follows: “The choice of presenting electroacoustic compositions for a wind trio was obvious to us. We consider the compositions with the EA component to be a very interesting phenomenon, which allows us to expand the timbre possibilities of the instruments and the sound possibilities of a chamber ensemble.

A brochure with the conference papers should be published later this year. The conference was concluded by an English language teacher and singer-songwriter with her songs based on the poetry of Homer's Odyssey.

Although at first glance it might seem that similar events are at home in the online environment, the effort to preserve the classical conference format as faithfully as possible brings with it a number of pitfalls. First of all you need to choose a suitable platform – AEMC chose the Microsoft Teams service, which offers not only the conference calls themselves, but also work with files or desktop sharing. (Another option would be the Zoom service, which I coincidentally had the opportunity to get to learn about at another conference taking place at the same time.)

Presentations are relatively friendly in Microsoft Teams, allowing participating spectators to scroll through the individual slides at their own pace, and return, if necessary, to some pieces of information already discussed before. However, it should be noted that not everyone can handle similar software equally efficiently and it is difficult to expect people who have dedicated their lives to historical research, performing arts or analysis of musical works to be equally agile in a relatively complex application in a short time as those who move around such an environment every day. As a mere observer, I could just heave a sigh of relief that I don't have to deal with sharing presentation controls or sharing audio tracks in the files played back. In fact, it frequently happened that we heard the sound, which was supposed to be a shared track, indirectly through often poor-quality microphones of laptops. And such music – even if it was the most beautiful – will unfortunately never satisfy itself or the performers. Fortunately, the musical performances were mainly sorted by providing a link to a YouTube video, so everyone could listen to the recordings without the above-mentioned problems, which occurred mainly during demonstrations played in the lectures themselves. Hence, those who wanted to enjoy the sound recordings in the highest possible quality did not have to be disappointed.

The biggest (and probably also the most unfortunate) concession that the online form of the conference required was the discussion. In the environment of lecture halls, one can simply react much more flexibly and naturally, and it does not happen rarely that several different parties participate in the conversation. Here, such a situation would result in an incomprehensible overlaying of voices and "feedback sound" of microphones.

Despite some of these shortcomings, the conference can be described as more than successful, mainly thanks to the organiser Alberto Nones, who took care not only of managing the conference as such, but often also dedicated himself to the technical side. This resulted in a thematically varied and musically rich event, the third year of which, even in this unusual and last-minute-chosen online environment, proved one thing in particular: If both performers and musicologists join hands, the results can be truly remarkable!

Alberto Nones/ photo from archive of the artist



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