By Laurence Vittes | From the March-April 2021 issue of Strings magazine
At a time of isolation, online “music minus one” (MMO) services that allow you to practice and feel like part of an ensemble seem like a perfect antidote. In fact, the idea of being able to participate in such a way seems like a perfectly normal expectation for a society that is newly smart with Zoom and other ensemble-type software.
According to Joshua Gindele, a founding member of the Miró quartet, one large tech company early in the pandemic was already “trying to figure out a way to get people to be able to play together in real time without latency. And what they found was that it was fairly easy to do with rock bands and music that had a backbeat they could preplan for; then everybody could come in virtually and they could broadcast together. But it was really hard with chamber music because of all the technical issues around latency and internet bloat.”
There has been an actual Music Minus One company since 1950. Now part of Hal Leonard, its 700-plus titles devoted to classical, chamber music, opera, lieder, popular, jazz, and religious music began with Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet [the Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667]. In its 21st-century incarnation, the sheet music and additional educational material for each Music Minus One title come in paperback-book form, and the audio is accessed online, including a multi-functional audio player that can change speeds without changing pitch, set loop points, change keys, and pan left or right. In addition to its existing catalog, Music Minus One has added important titles like its collection of Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas, recorded by Mario Hossen, who selected the pianist, Sung-Suk Kang, a student of Viennese classicist Paul Badura-Skoda, and edited the score “based on tradition.”
JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, tells me that many of her friends “have used Music Minus One and loved it.” She does not herself, she says, because she “was concentrating on classical guitar.”
Cellist John Walz says he used an MMO recording once, back in the ’70s, as he was preparing for one of his “earlier performances of the Schumann Concerto. The last movement of that piece is very fragmented and difficult to memorize,” he tells me, “so I used to drill it with the LP, mainly for memory. It was very helpful.”
Cellist Alban Gerhardt found it useful for a different reason. “I played a couple of times along with the LP of the Dvořák Cello Concerto in the ’80s. It was not an easy task, as they followed the awful traditions the poor piece is filled with. But it helped me to be flexible,” he admits, “when later I had to play with real orchestras—and not such good conductors.”
The new frontier in this play-along technology is represented in part by two viola de gamba players, Phillip W. Serna near Chicago and Sam Stadlen in the UK, who since COVID lockdowns began have developed vigorous, forward-looking sites that demonstrate what virtual ensembles could be like.
Serna tells me that his Consorts-Minus-One project was “the outgrowth of a Kickstarter campaign focusing on contemporary music for viola da gamba by women composers. Having spent years performing all sorts of chamber music for viol consort meant I could record all of the parts.”
When COVID struck, Serna had already been thinking about how he might use the many recordings he had already made as the basis for a music-minus-one project. “The pandemic made me see the potential niche market for early-music play-along recordings while so many were in lockdown at home and unable to gather together.”
Serna’s catalog spans the vast range of the consort repertoire including Leonora Duarte (“the only currently known woman composer of viol consort music”), Gibbons, Ferrabosco, Hume, Ortiz, Picforth, Poynt, Purcell, Tomkins, and even, on a technicality, Mozart. “It was his entry application into the Accademia Filarmonica di Bologna, on which Mozart was tasked to write a piece in the style of Palestrina,” Serna explains. “I think it sounds gorgeous on viols rather than a modern string quartet.”
Sam Stadlen’s Music-Minus-One site (“Play Consort Music While Home Alone”), contains tutorials, music scores, parts, audio files, and videos that include recordings of famous viol ensemble music with Stadlen playing all the parts, minus one, which subscribers can then play themselves. A member of Fretwork and viol teacher at the Royal College of Music in London, Stadlen tells me that, in addition to being a gamba player, he is also a sound engineer and videographer, “so my subscribers benefit from my professional recording equipment and knowledge in this area.”
After abruptly ending a Canadian tour with his LSJ Trio, with violinist Paul Luchkow and fortepianist Michael Jarvis, Stadlen returned to the UK and found himself faced “with being unemployed essentially. I started the service with about six or seven pieces available and that quickly took off as I spent all my time recording more and more stuff. I remember saying to my wife early in the process, ‘Can you imagine if I had ten subscribers? I’d be able to pay my mobile phone bills.’ Now I’ve got a hundred subscribers and it’s replaced my income, which is great.”
Stadlen designed his service for viol players “as a practice tool so that people can practice their parts with a professional player before they go and see their friends. And hopefully they play better when they’re in their social situations.” He offers nearly 100 pieces by Couperin, Dowland, Gibbons, Jenkins, Lawes, Purcell, and others, plus a beginners’ section. The tutorial videos are published free of charge on Stadlen’s public YouTube channel. The recording collection, however, which includes all scores and parts, “is exclusive to subscribers. All recordings are available at both A415Hz and A440Hz, and video can be played back at 50- and 70-percent speed to aid practice.”
Serna initially included recordings only at A415 but soon added recordings at A440 for those who play modern string instruments and not viols. The majority of works he includes link to published editions for purchase as well as the International Music Score Library Project/Petrucci Music Library.
Both viol entrepreneurs had user-friendliness in mind when designing their services. Serna wanted to make sure that all users needed was a smartphone, a good set of earbuds or headphones, and an instrument. People have been telling Stadlen that they’re using their iPads, some with sound systems.
Joshua Gindele’s Miró Quartet had an actual encounter with how this new technology might be developing. “We were working with a company to do something similar. We had our audio engineer take one of our Beethoven recordings and drop one part out so that you could play with the group, so if we dropped the cello part I could play with the group as I would normally do, but audio only. Then we thought it might be fun if we did something like that for people just to mess around with, where we would publish them online through social media or something and invite people able to play the missing tracks, and even post recordings of themselves playing with us.”
Gindele points out that there were definitely people in the pop world doing that too, where they would record a track and say, “‘Go ahead and improvise.’ It was less structured than Schubert or Mozart. But there were some people doing it very effectively during the early part of the pandemic, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s actually pretty cool.’”