It was a most unusual jazz performance. For starters, the three headlining singers, Reggie Pryor, Prajna Murdaya and Tanya Sen, were barely on stage together throughout the entire concert. Instead, they took turns to belt out solo jazz ditties, with just one pianist, Mei Sheum, providing the musical accompaniment. They only appeared together to sing the grand finale.
And while it was technically a “full house” at the Esplanade Recital Studio, more than half the seats at the venue remained empty. Still, even though the audience had to remain masked throughout the performance, many bopped enthusiastically to the tunes and clapped especially loudly to make up for being unable to cheer with abandon.
Welcome to a live music concert in Singapore during pandemic season, where there is a slew of precautions and social distancing measures in place to keep performers and audiences safe from the virus.
Since the onset of Covid-19 last year, the music industry has been subjected to various restrictions ranging from cancelled performances to reduced audience capacities, dealing a blow to the industry as a whole. But while these challenges have been difficult for musicians and music lovers alike, many are determined to keep their passion alive by finding ways to enable musicians to keep going in these tough times.
It is this grit that spurred Pryor, Murdaya and Sen to organise the concert, A Sunday Soiree, at Esplanade Recital Studio in March, despite logistical and administrative challenges like complying with onstage and backstage requirements, managing the guest list and implementing a socially distant seating plan. Still, the effort was worth it as it turned out to be the first live concert for most in the audience in months.
“One could literally feel the positivity and happy ambience throughout the concert hall and I believe the show sparked renewed interest of concert goers to go for more. Nothing beats a live performance as the interaction between the audience and musicians is a critical component of appreciation and enjoyment of jazz.
The spontaneity and synergy is both audio and visual,” says Pryor, who released his debut solo album, Love Anthology, last year.
A space for musicians
This is exactly the kind of energy that music patrons like Peter Ng, director of jazz bar Maduro, hopes to foster through his tireless championing of musicians over the past year. Even though small venues like bars are still unable to resume live performances, he has opened up Maduro to a range of musicians including those from the Jazz Association Singapore Orchestra and Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music to produce livestream performances. The bar also initiated a number of themed livestream shows featuring jazz and classical artistes like vocalists Christina The, Alemay Fernandez, Richard Jackson and their respective bandmates.
More importantly, he secured support from the National Arts Council so that the musicians, talents and logistics crew involved in the live streams could be paid for their work.
But these measures, says Ng candidly, are not quite enough.
“Streaming was a steep learning curve for everyone involved and even then, its viability had to be monetised in ways that makes sense for the musicians and stakeholders still remains unheard of. It also didn’t take long before fatigue over the number of live streams took over,” he says. Many gig musicians, he adds, have likely not received any income for over a year from performances and have to resort to other side hustles like teaching to get by.
He hopes that the list of venues that are allowed to host indoor live performances will soon be extended to include smaller joints like Maduro. Currently, the list includes a range of spaces such as performing arts venues, premises of arts and culture organisations, museums managed by the National Heritage Board, National Stadium, Indoor Stadium and the integrated resorts.
“Small venues like ours are informal and most musicians and audiences love the intimacy of the room. If we are allowed to present these performances in some form of a soirée like many places in Europe, where historical buildings have little concert rooms, it will promote such informal venues for small ‘concerts’,” he explains.
Cosier spaces are also a good way for musicians to build rapport with their audiences and can be less intimidating for newer or less experienced performances.
“Playing to a public audience helps them build confidence, experiment with repertoire and is a great form of exposure for aspiring musicians. My aspiration is for musicians to be able to gather with family and friends in close proximity.”
Helping each other
The music community too is banding together to ensure that local music remains on the public’s radar. At least two other independent artistes, besides Pryor, went ahead with plans to release new music in order to keep the scene going.
Singapore-based indie folk musician Flanery — who some might know as Aude Giraud, the proprietor of Ask A French Flowers — worked with respected producer Leonard Soosey and two other musicians to record her upcoming album, from which she has currently released three singles.
While the ongoing safe management measures have not been conducive for musicians hoping to reach a wider audience in person, she nevertheless decided to launch her music as “there was no point in holding back something that was ready”. It was also a way to remind listeners that there is still music in Singapore.
“We don’t know how long the pandemic is going to last, so the show must go on in a way,” she says.
Cheryl Ann Spencer, band leader of Evolution Quartet jazz band, echoes a similar sentiment. The band, which first got together as friends before playing sessions at Maduro, recorded their debut album, Reflections, in January last year just before the world went into lockdown.
Her love for music stems also from the camaraderie that the band experiences when they practice and perform together.
“We have a safe, multicultural environment to make and play music in. I find so much joy in composing and arranging music and look forward to rehearsals with my band mates,” says Spencer.
So last September, after months of preparation, they were ready to launch, no matter the state of the world. “The album kept us busy and it gave us hope; we had something to look forward to.”
Still, as the little red dot continues to ramp up vaccination rates and gradually relax measures, there is hope that the restrictions on live performances will ease up sooner rather than later.
To give musicians an additional boost after more than a year of setbacks, Spencer suggests: “It would be ideal for the government to provide free jamming platforms, which would otherwise be prohibitively expensive for new budding musicians to showcase their original music. We have so much talent here, but we need a stage.”
In the meantime, Pryor urges audiophiles to continue supporting their favourite musicians in whatever way they can, including attending paid live streams or by donating generously.
“Performers do spend as much time preparing for live streaming as being live on stage,” he says.
“Most of all, do watch live performances whenever possible, as nothing gives us performers more energy and encouragement than seeing the audience getting immersed in the music we make.”