Modern Life

The way we work now: Creating together, in isolation

When COVID-19 made in-studio sessions impossible, composer Ali Helnwein and his orchestra found a new way to play.

By Garage Staff — July 8, 2020

Modern Life

The way we work now: Creating together, in isolation

When COVID-19 made in-studio sessions impossible, composer Ali Helnwein and his orchestra found a new way to play.

By Garage Staff — July 8, 2020

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.

“The technology is there to let you work with musicians anywhere in the world and, at a time like this, do an entire score remotely.”

—Gina Luciani, flutist

“In a studio session, there’s nonstop communication between me and the musicians — nonverbal cues and direction they interpret on the fly, which doesn’t really work over video,” Helnwein says. Now, each musician records on their own with help from a click track — essentially a digital metronome — to ensure they’re all playing to the same underlying beat. “What I hear depends on their own microphones and the audio that’s coming through my speakers,” he says. “I don’t really know the true sound until they send me their recordings.”

Whereas before the pandemic, Helnwein would have had engineers working alongside him the studio and on post-production, he now has the added step of being his own engineer, sorting through multiple takes from each musician to find the best ones, and then piecing together layer after layer of instrumentation to re-create the sound of a live performance.

“I have to be a lot more hands on,” Helnwein says. “I’m listening in a different way and even writing in a different way to try to sculpt the sound I want in the end.”

Farther and closer at the same time

The musicians Helnwein works with have had to adapt as well. Alyssa Park, a violinist for over 30 years, has been working with Helnwein for 10 years recording scores for film and TV, and also plays live music as part of the Lyris Quartet. She says playing without being able to see her fellow musicians has taken some getting used to, but it’s also given her valuable new perspective.

“How the musicians around us are breathing and just the tiniest of body movements can influence what we do,” she says. “You can see someone moving the bow a little more slowly, or you can feel the energy rising in their body, like they’re getting ready to jump, and you can just feel what to do next.”

The Way We Work Now: Creating Together, in Isolation | Episode 3

Composers like Ali Helnwein have learned to adapt their creative process, workflow, and even the way they think about music to meet the challenge of collaborating with musicians remotely, without the in-person interactions they’ve always relied on.

Without that in-the-moment calibration, Park says she’s paying more attention to her own singular sound. “I have more license over how I want to sound, and I’m learning new things, like how to set up my own mics and use recording technology,” she says.

Another surprise benefit of working remotely: It’s brought her closer to her colleagues. For example, composers like Helnwein can give individuals a level of one-on-one attention they might not be able to provide in a packed studio.

“Instead of showing up to a recording session, doing your job, and leaving, there’s a lot more communication over email, phone, and video,” she says. “Out of that, you just end up being human and speaking to each other more. It’s a nice connection.”

Flutist Gina Luciani has also been playing with Helnwein for a decade, including the occasional remote recording session to meet a last-minute deadline. Along with recording for TV, film, and video games, Luciani is active on social media, where she’s built a personal brand. 

During the pandemic, Luciani has been using her social presence to help other musicians adapt, creating tutorials to walk musicians through the ins and outs of collaborating remotely and teaching music students how to promote their work through video and social media. She still finds ways to play live, though, treating neighbors in her Westside, Los Angeles, apartment complex to flute performances from her balcony a few times a week.

“Live music and in-person recording can never be replaced,” she says, “but this definitely opens up exciting new possibilities for our careers now that the technology is there to let you work with musicians anywhere in the world and, at a time like this, do an entire score remotely.” 


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