In the age of COVID-19, it’s a challenge for all artists to survive in isolation. Being out of work and cut off from global residencies and new projects while sheltering in solitude isn’t a unique situation right now, but it did leave Denver composer Nathan Hall swinging between feelings of loneliness and cherishing the extra time he’s had to contemplate what to do next.
“It’s been difficult,” Hall says. “I feel like I've always had creative work to do that makes the best out of odd circumstances, but I never expected limitations like this. Sometimes I feel down; I even grieve a little bit.”
In the meantime, concert programming for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra crumbled during the ensuing cultural shutdown precipitated by the pandemic. That included its annual RSNO Takeover event wherein the Young Ambassadors, a group of young musicians, normally works with the orchestra on stage to create their own unique live programming. It took some creative thinking to visualize how to do that in quarantine.
In the spirit of “The show must go on,” a go-between at the RSNO who’d previously met Hall while working at the Denver Art Museum reconnected with him to invite the composer to do something completely different: work with the youth musicians virtually via Zoom to compose and present an online concert in tandem with the larger orchestra.
He happily agreed. “So many arts programs have been canceled or postponed until who knows when,” Hall notes. “I see this as a way for me to reach out and connect while meeting both young and professional musicians. It makes me feel less lonely. I get to use my skills to make them feel welcome and to create a community with them.”
“They asked me to do it all online,” he continues. “What could we do in collaboration with the symphony players to make an online experience and allow ideas from the young people to steer the whole thing with their own musical voice? That was a good challenge.”
Hall prefaced his plan with this statement: "What kind of music can we make in this weird world right now? We still can’t meet face to face, and virtual choirs are almost old news. I want to try something different, more like an online opera. We’ll come up with characters and dialogue, music that we write together and for the RSNO players, and we’ll work with our technology and what we have at home. Don’t worry — you don’t have to sing, as there will be something creative for everyone. This is all new territory, and we’ll explore it together!"
That plan became an adventure through uncharted territory for everyone. Hall had weekly Zoom meetings with the young musicians. “At the beginning of each meeting, we’d have a musical activity — for instance, we might talk about how could we draw musical scores as if they were visual art,” he explains. “We could use the strangeness of Zoom to our benefit, sending ideas back and forth like letters.”
It still didn’t always flow. “They're kids, and there’s a big intimidation factor,” Hall says. “They all want to look good and sound good, so nobody wants to raise their hand first. It’s part of being a teen.”
To ease the tension, he broke them up into smaller groups. “They are all really talented, with good insights,” he adds. “It takes time for anyone to make a relationship, but it’s even more difficult on the Internet. I found that I used my sense of humor a lot to gain trust and confidence.”
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As if to break out of the finite terms of their online connection, the Scottish teens began to come up with a kind of musical travelogue, dreaming of places they’ve been or would like to see. Together, Hall and the teens created Going Places, something he calls a “weird digital opera.” The short video work unfolds in six different scenes, each set in locations where individual students have traveled or places they’ve never been.
“There’s no formal arc to the plot they've come up with,” Hall continues. “It’s more of a narrative about different countries and imagined places they wish they could go, and putting music to those ideas. Sometimes they play. Sometimes they write, adding sound effects or voiceovers to create a collage of musical ideas.”
Hall says he’ll probably overlay his own interludes or voice-overs into the piece, but essentially, “each scene includes music from the young people, and then the Royal Scottish Orchestra musicians respond to their music, in a call and response.”
Going Places debuts online on Tuesday, June 16, beginning with a pre-concert talk at 6:30 p.m. in Glasgow, followed by the concert at 7 p.m. (11:30 a.m. and noon MDT in Denver). In Colorado, you can join in with viewers around the world starting at 11:30 a.m. MDT on the RSNO Facebook page, YouTube channel or website.