Four curators were given an orchestra, a film crew, and huge creative freedom. This is what happened
Watch spectacular and immersive orchestral mixed-reality performances in UNDISRUPTED, streaming now on CBC Gem
The COVID pandemic has forced every organization in the world to ask themselves some very fundamental questions about how they operate. How much of a workforce can work remotely? How do you protect people who can't? When can things get back to "normal"? Should they ever go back to normal?
For the National Arts Centre Orchestra, the question was this: what do you do if you can't perform in front of an audience? For many performing arts organizations, the obvious answer was try to replicate the live experience as best you can. "A lot of people were recording something [or] putting it on Zoom live," says NAC creative producer Donna Feore.
But Feore and NACO music director Alexander Shelley wanted to do something different.
"There's nothing like a live audience — that communal, organic experience of people together," says Feore. "So we couldn't do that. But was this then an opportunity to reach more people and look at this digital platform as a future? I personally believe it is a huge future, and it can live alongside that live experience, especially for our marginalized communities in this country who have no access to get to [NACO's home stage] Southam Hall."
In addition to staging something "you could never see live," Shelley and Feore also wanted to help create something that spoke to the issues of the current moment: the movement for Black lives, the fight for reconciliation between Indigenous people and settler Canada, the long-tail effects of #MeToo, and the general sense of heightened anxiety because of the pandemic.
"We're a national organization," says Shelley. "We always feel like we have a responsibility and a mandate to be engaging with Canadians, not just in Ottawa and not just the National Capital Region, but across the nation. And we try to act and create new projects as such, but all the more so in this context. We said, 'If we're a national orchestra of a national organization, what can we do to help? What can we do to engage?'"
The product of all this reimagining is UNDISRUPTED, a new four-part series on CBC Gem. The NAC chose four curators — opera singer Measha Brueggergosman, composers Nicole Lizée and Ana Sokolovic, and CBC Searchlight Rising Star winner Shawnee Kish — and gave them free reign, within certain constraints of time and budget, to create a new musical/visual work.
Shelley says that making UNDISRUPTED not only forced him and the orchestra to interact with the audience in a new way, but it also forced them to have to re-learn how to play with one another on a very fundamental level. COVID precautions meant that, among other things, the musicians had to be further away from each other than usual. Instead, they sat on an extended stage that went deep into what would usually be the audience's territory.
"From a musical perspective, it's really hard to do what we did, which is to spread the orchestra like that," he says. "We normally sit very tightly packed on stage because it works best. Sound travels at a particular rate. The further you are away from each other, the less easy it is to communicate with sound.... We spend our entire lives honing instincts to use peripheral vision, to listen and respond. A lot of the instincts that the musicians would normally rely on, they couldn't."
Feore, too, had to change the way she worked when working with the film crew and putting the episodes together.
"The hardest thing for me — and this sounds kind of superficial, but it really isn't as an artist," she says. "We talk after a day or we re-evaluate things, especially in film where we're looking at dailies or rushes, and it was so limited, how many people we could have in a room. We were distanced. We really had to get out of the building. And that was the hardest thing ... because so many, so many great ideas come from those moments."
The UNDISRUPTED episodes themselves vary tremendously, from relatively straightforward performances with added animation to a surrealist art film and a musical documentary. They cover topics ranging from the challenges facing Indigenous youth to the history of Canada's Maritime provinces to questioning the nature of orchestral music itself.
"This is not your typical series of four episodes," says Shelley. "They are all fundamentally different. So if you dive into one and you absolutely love it, the next one might be completely not your thing. Or if you're not feeling the vibe of one, you might find the next one transformational. You might just love the whole lot."
UNDISRUPTED is streaming now on CBC Gem.