Coping with crisisMore and more arts organizations and universities are finding ways to connect with audiences through the pandemic – but none has been quite so novel as NC State University‘s approach. “Brickyard Broadcast” is no ordinary virtual performance, in construction or delivery. “Virtual performances,” as we are now used to calling them, are typically prepared by each singer or instrumentalist recording individually, aligned with a click track. Composer Lisa Bielawa‘s “Brickyard Broadcast” was designed to contrast this, on purpose. Not to mention, it was entirely heard and experienced in VR (that’s virtual reality).

This was a massive project – a huge creative team and over 200 performers came together to create it, starting before the fall semester began. Bielawa, a Rome Prize-winning composer who is known for her innovative and community-building works (prime examples include this year’s Broadcast from Home and Voter’s Broadcast) was commissioned by the NC State University Department of Music to write the music and create the final result. Drs. Nathan Leaf and Peter Askim, respectively NC State’s directors of choral and orchestral activities, led the rehearsal and recording process, aided by not only their collegiate ensembles but also by the Raleigh Civic Symphony Association and Concert Singers of Cary. The digital media teams from NC State University Libraries built the premiere setting – a virtual replica of the Brickyard, a beloved plaza on campus.

The premiere event began with an introduction from Bielawa, Leaf, and Askim. They discussed how the uncertainty of the fall semester spurred this solution for a communal experience, a new way to make music together. Nearly 500 people tuned in for this pre-concert discussion before diving into the performance.

Upon entry into your personal version of the Brickyard, the 19-minute-long performance begins. Noble-sounding instruments individually float in, all repeating a three-note rhythmic motive that remains intertwined throughout the piece. Soon after, mostly unison vocal phrases appear in the soundscape. The lack of exact rhythmic precision is exactly the point – the resulting music is free and organic, highlighting individual voices and players in a unique way. In fact, all the musicians were hearing it for the first time too – after they had created the building blocks Bielawa used to make the unique soundscape.

None of this addresses yet the effect of movement on the soundscape. Once inside the Brickyard, audience members may float around freely and hear the music balanced based on their location, resulting in a personalized concert each time. Avatars and instruments representing the musicians, placed throughout the Brickyard, can be heard more loudly the closer one navigates to them. For variety and “surprises,” as Bielawa put it, the eight groups float to other spots as the work progresses. It is quite a fun challenge to spin around and find where that particular phrase is coming from!

The choral texts come from a variety of American creators and writers, all theorizing on the ideas of “place” and, more specifically, “the defiance of singing together in one place” (as Bielawa explained it). Melodic highlights included Gertrude Stein’s “a refusal to sing is one thing, to go on with a song is not wrong”; Charles Ives’ “A song has a few rights…”; and Walt Whitman’s “I am large – I contain multitudes.”

At times beautifully unison and at other times layered in aleatoric fashion, the choral melodies imitate the instrumentation, but with more intense dynamic contrast. The result, especially heard with headphones, is a bit eerie and cacophonous at times. However, there still seems to be a tonal center, and repeated notes and motifs help ground the music a little. At its end, the music leaves with a feeling of pride, completion, and community.

The performance is still accessible here for a “limited time.” If you don’t have a VR headset, not to worry – you can access it with any device, although it’s best experienced on a computer screen. In addition, for the full stereo surround sound, it’s recommended to use wired (not Bluetooth) headphones.