The Lockdown Concert
At Home with Silvana Estrada
It’s now been over two years since Naomi and I have been on tour. This might be the longest we have gone without travel in our lives together. We actually started traveling before we started playing music – the first time we jumped in a rental car and set off for weeks and weeks of Motel 6’s and diner meals, it was for a photography project supported by a fellowship Naomi won in college. We were so young, I had to get a driver’s license so I could tag along. We loved it. Little did we know we’d end up hitting the road as a profession, more or less.
This has also been the stretch of time with the fewest live music experiences I can remember, because the pandemic not only nixed our own travel for performance, it’s limited what we can see here in Cambridge and Boston. As I write, the latest round of local restrictions is only just lifting again - a bit. It’s still far from simple to go out and see a show.
But just as the virtual classroom turned out to have some strengths, at least for certain students and situations, the lockdown has opened up virtual concerts in a way I don’t think would have happened otherwise. There’s an obvious reason artists haven’t spent much energy developing the format to date: it’s difficult to charge for it, like everything else online. Gigs are among the few reliable opportunities for “monetization” in our contemporary musical lives, and that largely depends on physical spaces limited to paying customers. Also, putting your touring show online means giving away what it’s like before people have a chance to buy tickets and see it. Teasers are one thing – but you don’t necessarily want people to know everything you are about to do before you’ve even started.
Lockdown left many musicians with no other choice, however. Perform online, or don’t perform at all.
There have been loads of experiments with virtual concerts as a result. Naomi and I did one, courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum in nearby Salem, MA. I’ve watched many by both friends and strangers – it’s been a way to try and maintain a connection to live performance. And yet… it’s not the same as live performance, even if it’s livestream. It’s simply different to see a show surrounded by others. Their reactions, their concentration or lack thereof, their movements, just their physical presence changes the experience. It’s impossible to watch alone the way you do with others.
From the performer’s point of view, it is also impossible to play a show to an empty room the way you do to an audience. Well, there are different performers with different skills - perhaps I should speak for myself, since I’ve tried this. It is impossible for me to play a show the same way without an audience. For one thing: there’s no applause. I’m not sure I ever really appreciated what applause does for a musical performance, filling the room with sound provided by someone other than you. What a relief! It’s also a reminder that you’re not alone – even if the lights are so bright you can’t see the crowd, even if your eyes are closed in concentration, even if you don’t want to know that anyone is out there for whatever reason… applause reminds you after each and every song.
You know all those cabaret performer clichés, about feeling the energy from the room? They’re true. But not from an empty room.
Which is why when a virtual concert really works, it’s a special achievement. I think the most effective I’ve seen is by Silvana Estrada, the Mexican singer-songwriter who just released the album Marchita.
In a mini-concert filmed during lockdown for NPR Music, Estrada appears in her family home. The setting on its own is intimate, revealing in a manner that a performance in a public space can’t provide. But the staging goes further to engage the viewer – seemingly in one, continuous take, Estrada moves within the space to reveal more musicians who join the arrangements as they appear. In a final, dramatic twist she leaves the house to walk outdoors, only to emerge into another performance space with an additional accompanist: her father, on double bass. As they complete this last song of the set, the camera pulls back and we see that the other musicians have come outside to listen… and then applaud.
What a brilliant use of the virtual concert this is. Watching it, I didn’t feel isolated with my computer screen – I felt drawn in, quite literally as I followed Estrada deeper into the room, and simultaneously deeper into her musical arrangements. The duet at the end, outside, feels public in contrast to the privacy of the interior room. We find ourselves witnessing a truly live performance, which, despite the clever staging, seems spontaneous. When the other musicians applaud, I was moved to join in. Brava!
It doesn’t hurt that Estrada is a wonderful singer. She is currently on tour in the US, amid all the difficulties that entails. I hope to see her Boston show. But in a reversal, I find myself wondering… Will it be as engaging as this thrilling, virtual concert?
Listening to: Nylon string guitar in my living room
Cooking: Scrambled eggs and avocado