Before the pandemic hit, the most thrilling part of Los Angeles composer Ali Helnwein’s job was hearing the notes he once scribbled at home leap off of the page and into the air as cellists, violinists, flutists, percussionists — sometimes up to 30 musicians at a time — made his musical scores their own. They would build on and bounce off of each other’s sounds, blending together in harmony and breaking out in crisp solos, creating a sonic ecosystem that would respond and react to every nod of Helnwein’s head or wave of his hand.
“Having all of those musicians playing live together in a room is incredible,” says Helnwein, an Emmy-winner who composes scores for film, TV, and commercials. “It’s just not the same over Zoom.”
Like millions of people around the world, Helnwein and the musicians he collaborates with were forced to bring their work home earlier this year. That meant no live rehearsals, no in-person recording sessions, and none of the serendipitous revelations that happen in the moment when musicians play together. Even as businesses around the country reopen, musicians are still struggling since live events have been cancelled and production schedules have been put on hold. Musicians in Los Angeles have lost an estimated $32 million in wages because of canceled scoring sessions during the pandemic.
But, Helnwein and the musicians he works with have played on. From makeshift home recording studios in bedrooms, home offices, and quiet corners of apartments, they play their individual parts in front of laptops and webcams as Helnwein observes and offers feedback from a little square on their screen. Later, Helnwein assembles all the tracks into a complete, cohesive score. While remote recording is common in popular music, it’s new territory for many classical musicians.
“When you’re in a studio together, it all kind of falls into place until it sounds right in the room,” Helnwein says. “Playing apart requires a different language, and a different way of working together.”
Building a composition, layer by layer
Playing apart also requires adapting to the technology that makes remote work possible. For example, the audio and visual lag of video conferencing can make it difficult for Helnwein to get a clear sense of how a particular bow movement is affecting the sound of a note or how one musician’s rendition of a piece lines up with another’s.