Music production may have made a permanent shift during this CoVid-19 stricken year. Quite a few musicians have collaborated “virtually” in the past, taking advantage of powerful new music syncing and editing tools. Other are used to performing most or all the parts to their songs solo, taking advantage of mashups, loops, sequences and sampling techniques. These musicians tended to take centre stage this year, as their musical output was largely unaffected by the pandemic. (Watch any of Tash Sultana‘s concerts to get an idea of what a multi-instrumental solo musician can do live.)
Meanwhile, those with large bands, backup ensembles, and improvisational styles have had a much harder time of it.
My guess is that we’ll see the use of these “isolation workarounds” even after the pandemic is over. Many musicians were already depending on concerts to make up for the pathetic royalties they now get from streaming and dollar-a-song services, and for several months, as users tuned into everything for free on Zoom, their income was essentially wiped out.
But by year end, the production quality of Zoom concerts had dramatically improved, and performers were justifiably charging $20-$40 ticket prices for live online concerts. And why not? You get to interact with the performers and other audience members without interrupting the performance, the acoustics are near-studio-quality, and everyone has a comfy front row seat. This is not likely to go away. A year from now, the recordings of the paid performances can be put up for free to show just how high the quality is, and they’ll attract people to the next paid performance.
Concerts are all about the experience. Expect to see high-quality Zoom conferences simulcast with in-person concerts, from arenas, concert halls and private homes, and even outdoors from some of the world’s most beautiful venues, once the pandemic is over. They’ll be way better, in interactivity, sound quality, production values and the many “extras” new technology allows, than the low-tech televised fund-raising concerts of the past. All that will be missing is the physical presence of the crowd.
Here are my 10 favourite songs of the past year. A few of them were recorded last year or early this year before the pandemic hit, but most of them are just excellent performances that worked around the CoVid-19 limitations brilliantly. Titles link to video or audio recordings.
- Ólafur Arnalds — We Contain Multitudes. The classically-trained Icelandic pianist and composer wrote this stunning piece in isolation, and (pictured above) he plays it from home. To me the greatest works of art let you see and feel something you’ve never seen or felt before; this song conjured up birds flocking and then soaring higher and higher until they were out of sight. Sheet music available free; download it and see there’s a lot more going on in this song than you might think.
- Shari Ulrich — The Sweater. I am honoured to call Shari a friend and neighbour, and she just keeps getting better. This stunning piece, recorded last year in the awesome Chan Centre, describes what it is like coping with and tending for a loved one with Alzheimer’s.
- Fleurie — Monarch. Nashville’s 29-year-old Lauren Strahm has been performing for seven years. She’s a poet and multi-instrumentalist who co-produces her own work, and, while this is largely an irrepressible dance song, her craftwork shows in the build, in the untraditional rhythm, and in the careful layering of tracks.
- Ti-Ansyto & Florence El Luche — Souke. Yes, I know I have a soft spot for Haitian Kompa/Zouk music. This is a fun love song (the title means “to shake” in Créole), based on a familiar Kompa rhythm, but with layered instrumentals in a variety of Caribbean and African styles.
- Eric Whitacre Virtual Choir — Sing Gently. For the sixth time, the Juilliard-trained maestro sent out sheet music and other tools and held multiple online rehearsals, and then compiled the audio and video of 17,500 individual musicians’ singing and playing his newest opus, into a masterwork.
- VOCES8 — Momentary. Another Ólafur Arnalds song, this one written for strings but arranged for eight-person choir. Version showing the choir singing (just before CoVid-19 lockdown) is here. Original string version from last year is here.
- Alina Baraz — More Than Enough. Gotta love torch songs, which you don’t hear very often these days. You can just sink into this one. Someone has actually looped it into a four hour long version.
- DJ Keishawn & Kayos — Say My Name. A Haitian-Canadian duo overlays some nice harmonies over their spirited Kompa tune.
- Lissa Schneckenburger — How’s It Going to End? Yes, I know this is an old Tom Waits song, but I just heard this lovely cover version, with harmonies, this year. The lyrics are just wicked! And isn’t this the question we’re all asking more than any other this year?
- Lights & MYTH — Dead End. Canadian electro-pop music star and activist Lights Poxleitner-Bokan from Timmins ON teams up with synth artist MYTH on a clever and infectious dance song.
- Rose Cousins — I Were the Bird. I’ve often said that if I had the chance to change places with a bird, I’d do so in a heartbeat. Apparently there’s at least one other Canadian of the same opinion. A joyful, lyrical paean to our avian neighbours.
- Molly Parden — Kitchen Table. Another stirring torch song, this one about loss. Some fine words, and interesting chord progressions, from this Nashville singer.