Eugene Lew reflects on a year without live performances

During the pandemic, the lecturer and director of Sound and Music Technology in the Department of Music switched from organizing live performance events to collaborative online technology.

Fifteen months ago, most in-person musical performances stopped abruptly when COVID lockdowns began. Before then, Eugene Lew, lecturer and director of Sound and Music Technology in the Department of Music, had been going to at least one performance a week, and organized them for others. His events included Moon Viewing Platform, a large-scale performance and gathering space in the open air that featured music and videos, and MUSICA PRACTICA / ELETTRONICA VIVA, a series of electronic music performances and events, which continues to be made possible by a Sachs Art Grant.

Eugene Lew in his music studio
Eugene Lew, lecturer and director of Sound and Music Technology in the Department of Music. (Image: OMNIA)

Like many, he expected the pause to be a few weeks long. As shut-downs stretched out, artists began to adapt. “Early on there was a run on equipment like recorders or USB microphones, and shipping delays because of the pandemic,” he says.

Many musicians tried to perform live online, but some ran into technical difficulties.

“Even with a real-time Zoom meeting, we’re actually viewing recordings, with a delay of 30 to 120 milliseconds,” says Lew. “We’re interacting as recordings. And I have no idea what the person on the other end is hearing. So we end up having to try to describe what we’re doing, which we normally don’t have to do.”

Because of the technical problems, many artists prerecorded their performances or turned to their archives. That’s valuable, says Lew, but it’s not really performance.

“I see performance as an opportunity to work with other people, to collaborate,” says Lew. “Maybe this will sound odd, but not very different from getting together and cooking with some friends or people you just met or your mom. And just as important. All of those moments that you can’t plan or schedule, you just have to be there, are what make things special to me. And obviously, we haven’t had much of that of late.”

Technology did let people perform together while staying distanced, and they could collaborate with and learn from people all over the world.

“It’s been great for many reasons, but I’m sure we’re all a little burnt out,” Lew says. “My eyes burned some days from being on the computer for so long.”

The class he taught in the spring of 2021, Electronic Music, usually doesn’t even use computers. He tried a software synthesizer but it competed with Zoom for processor time, so he sent a semimodular synthesizer, the Make Noise 0-COAST, to each student so they could compose at home. They were able to meet in person for their last class.

“The energy was electric, and it was a relief to not be on Zoom,” says Lew. “We had one student in China and one in San Francisco on a screen. And we spent time listening to the same thing, because we were finally in the same place.”

Read more at OMNIA.