I think we can all agree that times are pretty strange right now. In our confinement, the entire music community has faced a unique circumstance in which we are all trying to figure out new ways of accessing our various creative outlets without being able to perform together live. Despite how bizarre and unpredictable everything is, we can make the best of a difficult situation by continuing to bolster our community even though we’re all in isolation.
One way I thought we could collaborate was to utilize the technology we all have at our disposal to make some music together from across the boroughs. And thus, the Quarantined Woodwind Ensemble was born. I wrote an arrangement of Prince’s hit song “I Wanna Be Your Lover” for a whopping 32 woodwind players (with a few percussion friends), that we video-recorded remotely from our homes and edited together to showcase the entire band.
My dear friend and ensemble co-director Tyler Burchfield and I have been discussing ideas like this for months, but we’ve never had the spare time or mental bandwidth to facilitate this sort of an undertaking. In the circumstances of normal life, the logistics involved in getting people to do this might have also added a significant degree of complication. But we’re all home and are itching to make music and to be with our community, even if it’s only virtually. So if we can’t do it live, this is the next best thing.
A lot of people are doing similar remote recording projects using apps like Acapella or even iMovie. I’ve only done video editing for simpler videos involving far fewer people and I knew I needed help from a real video editor, so I enlisted my friend and colleague Adam DeAscentis (who is also an excellent bassist) to run the show. He suggested keeping it simple by having everyone just record their part on their cell phones, and he could tweak the audio mix in his editing software enough to make everything sound clean.
This kind of project works if you are very organized and do all of the required work in advance of contacting the players, so that they aren’t required to labor over the task. That also makes your job and your video editor’s job much easier on the back end of things. To organize the band, I recorded a demo track for people to play along with while recording, and had everyone upload their videos to a shared folder online. I have a full recording setup at my home, so I recorded most of the demo myself and outsourced a few parts to Tyler.
Writing for this particular type of ensemble is an interesting challenge, which Tyler and I both have been excited to take on. The parts have to be inclusive enough for the players, the arrangement itself has to be interesting, and the music should sound as complete as possible without electronic instruments. When it comes to choosing a tune for an arrangement, I’ve found that 80’s pop tunes seem to lend themselves really well to this sort of project because they have a lot of layers to work with. I then try to replicate the tune by breaking it down to its fundamental elements and superimposing those elements over complementary woodwind voices in as interesting a way as possible. The melody has to be strong enough to be compelling without lyrics, and the bass line should do most of the heavy lifting. The main melody should be assigned to an instrument that mimics the singer’s voice as closely as possible. In an arrangement for a soprano-voiced Prince tune like “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” I probably wouldn’t give the lead line to a tenor sax, unless that player was fellow 802 member and truly skilled woodwind master Ben Kono, playing tenor way up in the altissimo. But you get the idea. Clarinets and bass clarinets sound like a lot of synthesizers, so I like to use them in that role whenever possible. This all is a balance of writing parts to reflect the tune with writing parts that will be effective and fun in the hands of the players.
There are currently six arrangements in the works for the Quarantined Woodwind Ensemble, all of which each have largely different personnel comprised of friends and colleagues from many Broadway pit orchestras and the New York jazz scene. I think my favorite thing about this project has been getting to involve so many incredible players — between all of those arrangements, it’ll be over a hundred people! It’s been thrilling to have so many different notable people involved, from classical and Broadway flutist Janet Axelrod (who’s also a member of the Local 802 Executive Board), to outlandish jazz showman Ed Palermo (also an 802 member), to my teacher and mentor the great Lawrence Feldman (another 802 member), among many others.
Performing together is what brings joy and inspiration to so many of us in the New York woodwind community, and without an outlet for regular creation we find ourselves not only physically contained but also emotionally and mentally contained. Anything we can do to reinforce our sense of community and to create music together in these unusual times can only benefit us as a whole. Hopefully, through this Ensemble, the woodwind community can bring a little bit of joy to each other, to our colleagues stuck at home, and to everyone else who’s listening.
Emily Pecoraro is the director of the mentors program of Women in Jazz Organization. A member of Local 802 since 2016, she is a professional woodwind player, composer and educator. Watch the video above at www.bitly.com/q-woodwind-ensemble.