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W&M works with alumnus’ company to combine voices, instruments

  • Ensemble members playing instruments in various squares on Zoom video
    Staying tuned:  Members of William & Mary's Middle Eastern Music Ensemble with guest artist Johnny Farraj performing together in a video and audio recording produced by Arts Laureate last spring.  Screen shot by Jim Agnew
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Ever since COVID-19 forced their voices and instruments apart in March, William & Mary musicians have been finding ways to bring them back together for virtual audiences.

A major factor has been the music department’s use of Arts Laureate, which is an audio and video production company owned by former student Christian Amonson that has combined individual performances together in one audio and video recording.

This started when campus shut down with the rest of U.S. society in the spring. For example, the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble was scheduled to host guest artist Johnny Farraj right after spring break, and was able to continue to work with him through virtual means.

“Connection is everything right now — connections from student to professor, students to each other and from the ensembles to the community,” Amonson said. “Being able to work on a piece of music as a group and then give it life by creating a video is so powerful.

“The process becomes a teaching tool, too — reviewing the guide and performances together online, submitting individual recordings to the director and getting feedback, and then finally recording your official take for the video. Students are also developing technical and media skills that are going to last them a lifetime.”

{{youtube:medium:right|Enn0hDZXtiw, Botetourt Chamber Singers}}

W&M music’s work with Arts Laureate goes all the way back to when Amonson was a student from 2005 through 2009. He was already working in sound and recorded concerts and student recitals.

“We didn't have an in-house recording presence at the time, so it filled a niche for faculty and students alike,” said Jamie Bartlett, associate professor of music and associate director of choirs.

“When the pandemic hit, I wanted to find a way to have my students see at least one of their pieces to fruition. We'd been working so hard on preparing the music.”

Knowing that Arts Laureate was looking for projects since all of its scheduled live performances had been canceled and that Amonson was interested in pivoting to virtual projects, Bartlett said she jumped in to get W&M music groups signed up. Arts Laureate quickly designed to produce audio and video to enable groups to perform online.

{{youtube:medium:right|hCi5JOoPyEc, Middle Eastern Music Ensemble with Johnny Farraj}}

The Wind Ensemble was one of the first at W&M to use the service.

“The Wind Ensemble was planning to sing part of ‘I Love My Love,’ a Cornish folk song Gustav Holst used in his Second Suite for Military Band at our spring concert, which ended up being canceled,” said Richard Marcus, assistant professor of music and director of the W&M Wind Ensemble.

“We could not perform the concert virtually because many students did not have access to their instruments; however, Arts Laureate helped us create a video of Wind Ensemble members singing ‘I Love My Love’ that turned out beautifully.”

Currently, Marcus is working on a virtual alumni band concert for Homecoming on Oct. 16 at 8 p.m. Arts Laureate will put together the audio and video, which is open for submissions from all current and former members of the Wind Ensemble, Jazz Ensemble and Pep Band.

“The Wind Ensemble is on hiatus this semester while I am on leave,” Marcus said. “The virtual Homecoming concert will help ensemble members maintain their skills and allow those who are unable to return to campus to participate in the group. It is also a great opportunity to reconnect with alumni.”

Music Professor Anne Rasmussen, director of the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble at W&M, said using Arts Laureate allowed her to continue some of the group’s plans in March including the concert with Farraj.

“Continuing to meet weekly with the ensemble members and our guest artists, we chose an instrumental and a vocal piece from our concert repertoire and spent our weekly meetings on Zoom perfecting that music,” Rasmussen said. “The recording process, first by me and our guest artist, Johnny Farraj, and then by each of the group’s members, was far more time-consuming than I had imagined.

“Performing alone with just the right lighting and sound, and of course no mistakes, is much more challenging than one would imagine, but it was a terrific exercise for our musicianship. We gained new skills performing for a machine, doing several takes and uploading our best performances to the Arts Laureate website for the final editing.”

Amonson said his Washington D.C.-based operation has been humming with work throughout the pandemic, and he has hired seven new employees just this month. Calling W&M music “his musical home,” he described how in shifting from a student to a full-time professional role, he has been partners and colleagues with its faculty for years.

“When COVID hit, we were all asking the same questions together: ‘What do we do now? How can we continue to make music? How can we continue to collaborate? How can we continue to teach, learn and grow?’” Amonson said.

As the company’s concert schedule was canceled in March, he asked directors what they needed and got the answer of “a way to perform together.”

We created in two days and started developing new workflows and establishing standards and processes to make this possible for any group,” Amonson said. “The hardest part has just been keeping up. We've hired 30 more engineers, up from five.  I'm really proud of the team and proud of what we've been able to make with our friends and family at W&M.”

Asked what an outsider might find surprising about the process, he pointed out the difficulty.

“It's hard,” Amonson said. “Even if you align the videos to start at the exact same time, it won't sound together. So we separate the audio and pay attention to every single note, making sure it sounds aligned just like the group would on stage — breathing together, notes together, phrases together. It's exciting to hear it all come together.”