A Long Distance Audience: Performing on a Digital Stage

Words by
Leigh Harrold
ANAM Associate Artist

It felt covert, oddly surreal, and slightly dangerous. For three weeks I’d been working exclusively from home, with my work ‘uniform’ consisting of trackie-dacks and a hoodie. Even putting on a pair of jeans felt like donning formal-wear. 

And yet here I was, polishing my black shoes and putting on a suit. A suit!


The day before, I had been sent a list of clear, emotionless instructions which made me feel like I was starring in my own James Bond film: the venue door is down this side street, text this number when you are five minutes away, look for the small staircase, etc.

I read through the instructions as I sat in the back seat of the Uber in my suit. Honestly, the only thing this scene was missing was a dry martini.

I arrived at the venue and the door was lying ajar, as promised. The first thing I was confronted with was not another human being, but a solitary wooden stool on which sat a bottle of hand sanitiser. I fulfilled the last of my instructions (‘wash your hands’) and started to take in the scene around me.

Not too far off in the distance, I heard a sound that had become familiar to me over the last month or so. It was the sound of someone playing small tone clusters up and down a piano, pressing groups of two or three black notes together and then sliding off them to the white notes in front. It could only mean one thing - someone was wiping a piano down with alcohol swabs.

I walked onto the stage. A voice in the distance welcomed me, and then gently warned me to stay exactly where I was until Adele had finished sanitising the piano. On the other side of the stage, my wonderful duo partner for this concert, ANAM violinist Phoebe Gardner, was warming up. In relation to this performance, she was the only human being I had actually seen before the gig, in a socially distanced rehearsal at my work studio a couple of days earlier. I waited in place for a few seconds more, delighted to finally catch a glimpse of the wonderful people behind the subterfuge.


The irony is that the subterfuge is precisely what makes this entire operation utterly above board. In a world where traditional concert-giving has been temporarily shut down, ANAM alumnus Chris Howlett and Musica Viva’s Adele Shonhardt have miraculously masterminded the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall. Having already entered the Melbourne zeitgeist with the acronym MDCH, it serves up the triple threat of providing Melbourne musicians with a paid opportunity to perform, providing isolated audiences with the thrill of a live concert, and rigorously adhering to all social-distancing laws the whole time.

It is also, I believe, changing the way musicians approach performing.

There was an odd feeling of taking to the stage for this concert that I was not entirely prepared for. Musicians tend to get used to certain cues that switch us ‘on’ for a performance - for a live concert, those cues include bright lights, a darkened stage, and the anticipatory murmurings of an audience. In the past, when I’ve been switched ‘on’ but an audience has been absent, it’s been because I’ve been doing something very different - I’ve been in a studio *recording* rather than performing. For most musicians, the words ‘performing’ and ‘recording’ have very different psychological implications. A ‘performance’ is live - it’s passionate, spontaneous and fleeting; one can throw a bit more caution to the wind because it’s a shared moment in time with an audience that is ephemeral. A ‘recording’ is for the ages - passion is important, but it has to be tempered by the ability to land every note in precisely the right place when required, back-tracking to improve this precision if necessary.


MDCH operates as a performance platform unambiguously - an audience’s ticket entitles them to a single performance at a single time, just like a traditional concert. But because Phoebe and I were performing to an empty hall, my internal processors kept returning a syntax error. My brain *knew* it was a performance, but my body felt like it was operating in recording mode - a mode where caution prevails and where the most minor musical blemish feels like an unforgivable failing. For about two minutes, I wrestled with this strange internal short-circuiting, very grateful that I had both a wonderfully assured violinist on stage with me, and the genius of Beethoven to help me maintain focus.

And then, a wonderful thing happened. As Phoebe and I synergised, I felt myself opening up to a new sense of community. Those feelings of being cut-off from the touch of others, of being denied my craft, of uncertainty for the future, of this incredible opportunity I was currently being given - they all crystallised and came to the surface, unearthed somehow by Beethoven’s wonderful music, and by the knowledge that everyone watching this concert was experiencing the same mix of iso-feelings as both of us. That performance of Beethoven’s G major sonata will remain joyously etched in my memory for a very long time to come.

As social distancing laws gradually relax, the MDCH programmes are growing to encompass trios, quartets and even quintets. My beloved Syzygy Ensemble gets a guernsey in a fortnight or so. What Chris and Adele have achieved is truly astonishing - the MDCH is adapting almost in real-time to the current world situation. In turn, artists are creating, evolving, and using a time of crisis to grow ever stronger.


A Woodwind French Odyssey
Sunday 31 May 5pm
Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Syzygy Ensemble – Our Australian Legacy
Thursday 4 June 7pm
Melbourne Digital Concert Hall


Image Credit: © Albert Comper Photography, courtesy of MDCH.

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