In the age of YouTube, it’s easy to get cynical and jaded about music online. So much of what’s posted there is ripped without artists’ consent, or greasy with the fake spontaneity of a brand promo, or shot with such ineptitude that you’re listening to a guitar while the cameraman shows you the singers’ legs. And when many of us stare at a screen all day long for work, staring at the same screen again for music doesn’t really feel like an occasion.
So what does it take to create compelling online music: the kind you just can’t use as background; the kind you might even be prepared to pay for? For many musicians under Covid lockdown, the question is vital. They need to play, because that’s who they are. But they also need to monetise, because that’s how they eat.
Not being fake is a good place to start. Even before the pandemic, NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts https://www.npr.org/series/tiny-desk-concerts/ have always shown us who artists really are, shorn of the paraphernalia of showbiz hype. The Tiny Desk is still going strong, and these days it’s even tinier, streamed from artists’ own homes. (Check the diverse, deeply personal and moving performance a couple of weeks back from sometime Christian Atunde Adjuah sideman Braxton Cook.)
But while the free Tiny Desk events have made a feature of their homespun feel, they still always sound good. Sound and videography matter, particularly if you’re selling tickets. If next month’s online National Arts Festival is going to sell festival packages successfully – and the artists are depending on that – it’ll need to bring us into digital spaces that feel acoustically like real venues. One set of stop-motion, pixellated images and wow-filled sound and many people won’t come back for more.
All hail then, to the Urban Jazz Sessions that I previewed last week. Filmed live, these South African concerts bring you into an intimate space that feels like you’re sitting in the old Bassline: almost (but not quite) knee-to-knee with the piano player. The camera-work is informed and accomplished: hear a bass player, see her fingers – it’s actually a better view than many of the tables at the Orbit used to offer. Assuming you’ve got decent speakers or cans for your device, the sound is clear and rich.
There are other advantages too – most particularly, if some idiot wants to talk over that bass solo, he is free to do so in the privacy of his own home. You don’t have to listen to him. There’s no transport hassle and you provide catering of your own choice, without having to spin out the entire evening over the plate of chips that are the only thing on the menu you can afford.
Is anything missing? Certainly. Much as the noisy vibe can be irritating, the sociality of a club is part of the experience. Tweets running along the bottom of the screen don’t quite equate to face-to-face conversations about the music in breaks and at the end; the serendipity of finding an old friend unexpectedly in town for the gig; a shared smile with a stranger at a particularly neat horn run; and the shared shouts of the crowd as the drummer winds up to a crescendo. We humans are social animals and we draw comfort from that kind of thing.
But improvised music in particular provides an incredibly rich source of sociality that can nourish us almost as well: the sociality enacted between the players on stage. There are conversations, debates, inspired changes of direction and new solutions to old musical problems. Glances are exchanged; eye contact sparks flights of imagination; body language signals shifts in mood – just as they do in a live show. The perceptive camera angles of the Urban Sessions let us in on that, so we can draw sustenance from it – so much so that you might well feel like clapping at the end, even if the artists can’t hear you.
The series has some potentially intriguing gigs scheduled for the next two weeks:
Siya Makuzeni 13 May https://militia.cleeng.com/siya-makuzeni/E205389648_ZA
Sydney Mavundla 15 May https://militia.cleeng.com/sydney-mavundla-live-in-concert/E214203335_ZA
Keenan Ahrends 16 May https://militia.cleeng.com/keenan-ahrends-live-in-concert/E490893031_ZA
Ayanda Sikade 20 May https://militia.cleeng.com/ayanda-sikade-live-in-concert/E563782568_ZA
Benjamin Jephta 24 May https://militia.cleeng.com/benjamin-jephta-live-in-concert/E824392073_ZA
So go catch a show – you can even dress up if that matters to you as part of the experience (there are always selfies). Just as artists need to make music; the rest of us need to partake in it, because the late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano got it right: “The tree of life knows that, whatever happens, the warm music spinning around it will never stop. However much death may come, however much blood may flow, the music will dance men and women as long as the air breaths them …”