When the pandemic hit, Utah Chamber Artists’ artistic director Dr. Barlow Bradford resisted pivoting to virtual concerts. Large groups of people singing live in enclosed spaces was definitely out. But recording separate individuals singing in their own homes? Where in that process, he thought, was the art? But Barlow was eventually brought around to the idea, even if, in his words, it might have been with him “kicking and screaming.” Now, however, he says UCA is “refining an artistic form like I’ve never seen anyone else do.”
Since 1991, UCA has been celebrating choral music — both the traditional repertoire and contemporary pieces, as well as commissioning new work. Barlow works with up to forty singers and forty players. UCA tours and records and, for 30 years, has offered a concert season in Salt Lake City. This generally consists of quarterly concerts in places like The Cathedral of the Madeleine and Libby Gardner Hall. COVID-19 forced a pivot for their 30th-anniversary season: on Oct. 21, they released the first of 12 videos produced by Bradford and crew.
Laura Durham, a long-time friend of 15 Bytes who, among many other things, sings with UCA, shared with us some videos she’s been putting together about their digital pivot. The bullet-points she included in an email sum things up pretty well:
Many people assumed we were lip-syncing to an existing recording. We’re not.
This is hard.
It’s time-consuming, but we’re excited to still be making music.
It’s required a certain vulnerability from the singers we’ve never had to expose before: listening to our voice on its own (ack!) and turning over our voice to an engineer.
Because of the previous bullet point, this will ultimately make us a better choir. We’re learning how to listen to ourselves (rather than rely on the voices around us to blend). There’s nothing like listening to a recording of your own voice to make you think, “Let’s try that again … “
To create these recordings, Barlow first played the piece on the piano, to get the phrasing he wanted. Then, he recorded himself conducting to that recording, so the performers could both see and hear him, in order to understand what he was after. “I think most of the choir knows what I’m going to say before I say it,” Barlow says of the advantage of the hard work his group has put in over the years. He sent these recordings to eight singers, to see if the process would work. The singers then recorded themselves singing to his recording. When they were able to pull this together, they went back to the entire crew, and Barlow felt they had “a master class right in front of them as to what to do.” After everyone had recorded their own parts, they would put it together, have a zoom meeting to listen and discuss it, and then usually they would decide to go back and do an additional recording.
Bringing it all together is sound engineer John Hayward, who was tasked with blending recordings from 45 singers and 20 orchestral players. Hayward handed the final audio off to Carter Durham, who used his own video pieces with videos of the players and singers for the final product.
It’s a long and tedious process. “You know what?” Barlow says in one of the videos about their pivot, “Live rehearsal is also tedious.”
The end result is anything but.
Utah Chamber Artists will release their next performance December 7, 2020.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.