Cohen: How did you come up with the design for the speakers?
Nally: My idea was: If we can't sing together, then who sings for us, right? What does that mean? You can amplify shit, and it just gets louder, right? That's not interesting to me. I wanted to make it more intimate. So, how could we do something where singers were singing at their absolutely softest and most intimate, and yet have an audience member be able to understand exactly what they're saying? And the answer, of course, is to have a singer 25 feet away and a speaker right in the audience member’s face. Kevin [Vondrak] and I developed this piece called The Forest, which we wrote for this sound system. And then our sound person Paul Vazquez and Kevin and I developed what the speaker would look like. Paul knows all this stuff: which speaker we would use, adding a looper to it, adding a mixer to it to boost the sound. The looper allows every singer to sing with themselves and make harmony with themselves over and over again. Each singer could be a twelve-voice choir if we wanted. Multiply that by 24 and you have hundreds of voices in a piece if you want.
Cohen: You were able to set that up in your field, right where you were stuck?
Nally: We did. And then we eventually took it out to Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve and made this piece in the forest. The whole metaphor of the singer, like a tree's relationship to the forest—they actually rely completely on the other trees and vice versa. A singer is that same thing, an individual artist, but they rely on and acquire all of those other elements and people. The libretto to The Forest was written by the singers about their experiences. That is one of several ways we responded to getting art and money to singers. I was very fortunate that there is a friend of The Crossing who was eager to support whatever we were going to come up with. Unfortunately, he passed away then at the end of October from COVID. One of his last projects that he did with us was to support—at a really substantial amount—all of this, plus our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and company-wide exploration, and eventually commissioning a few pieces that were related to that topic.
Cohen: I think we had the same kind of response. We sat down in March and said to ourselves, “How are we going to put our musicians back on the stage? How are we going to create something that engages our artists and connects with our audience?" The difference between our organizations is that you have this treasure trove of live recordings that you had made, so you could immediately dip into that and create the Rising w/ The Crossing series, which was fantastic. PCMS had done nothing like that. We had zero archival materials, other than some world premieres that we had recorded. We were so innocent in terms of what it meant to livestream or put your performances on multimedia. We had to go back and learn everything. And like you, we were fortunate to have some patrons step up and support that in a way that was very meaningful to us, purchasing video, audio, and lighting equipment. But to us, for the most part, we had really just thought about, We put musicians on stage and magic happens. Now you had to think about angles and cameras and where you’re going to place the mic, where the lighting is going to go, what kind of environment and ambience that you're creating, and whether you can do that in a hall like Benjamin Franklin Hall at the American Philosophical Society, which is really just predominantly a lecture space.
I gauged from our musicians that performing to no one, to cameras, was a very different experience for them. There was no collaboration between artist and audience anymore. For us, because we were going to be in a hall, I said, "We have to figure out a way to see if we can get a small audience into the hall. Even if it's only 25 people, it will immediately change how a musician performs, because there's somebody to perform to in the hall." For us, it wasn't just about getting livestreaming up and rolling. I felt like everybody was doing that. I wanted to figure out how we could put an audience in the hall. And that of course was complicated for a number of reasons. Would your artists agree? Would your board of directors agree? Would your patrons agree? Would your staff agree? And how could you do this all without getting sued?
We went through that process and kept our fingers crossed a little bit, but what we found out in creating and finding out step-by-step who was willing to do it was that the musicians were willing and eager to do anything. They just wanted to get back out there. I can only imagine that when you did get back and you actually met your musicians again, it must have been an incredibly emotional experience.
Nally: It was, but it's funny that you should say that about their willingness, because our singers are incredibly flexible and really generous. However, these Echoes amplification kits, they were designed back when we were still not leaving our houses, so they were designed to allow every single singer to carry their entire kit by themselves into the woods and set it up by themselves and have no interaction with other human beings. It turned out that was probably a little overkill. But here are these singers with the backpack, and a woofer, and another pack with the four segments that go on top of it, and these boards that go on the ground, and never a peep of complaint.
There's one other thing that you mentioned—and it is in my whole philosophy about performance—that you're doing what you're doing in the process, and then you open the doors and let your friends in and say, "This is where we are and we hope you like where we are." But I try to not treat a performance as any kind of an elevated thing. However, you brought up this really good point: Without the audience it is still kind of just practicing, and everybody who's doing it knows it. When you're making a recording, for time management, money management, all that stuff, you're really trying to get it right, but you know that most of the time that's a practice because you're going to go back and do it again. You're so right in that it just changes everything about the way in which a musician on the stage—and I think a person at home—reacts and interacts. So, I stopped watching livestreams after by the middle of May 2020. I was just like, "I'm sorry, I'm out, I just can't."
When did you start back with audiences?