Stanford’s Music Will Go On: Recapping Spring Musical Innovations

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It’s no secret that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has taken a devastating toll on school music culture around the country. As the Arts and Entertainment editor for the Stuyvesant High School student newspaper, I watched in varying shades of fear, awe and terror as my school closed its doors — and thus access to all performing arts and music-recording — as COVID-19 effectively drowned out my city’s entire music scene for a number of months. Stanford and Stuyvesant have faced similar challenges, tribulations and triumphs while the schools navigate the situation, and from a musical standpoint, both schools have had to implement major changes to avoid a complete sonic capsize.

This spring saw countless Stanford students, musicians, recording engineers and music faculty historically dependent on on-campus facilities think on their feet to keep their music-making afloat. According to Federico Jose Reyes Gomez 21, co-director of Stanford Concert Network (SCN), the warning signs came in early March when the first event size cap was instituted. “At first there was a lot of confusion as to what was going on and what the restrictions were, but thankfully we were able to put on SCN’s smaller show and a Palm Drive Records student showcase. Those were the last events that happened,” Reyes Gomez told The Daily.

Other campus groups, however, were able to brace themselves for the impact a pandemic might bring. According to Stanford Live’s executive director Chris Lorway, the company started making contingency plans all the way back in January. “As we worked through the communication protocols for canceling these events, we still didn’t comprehend how COVID-19 would soon fundamentally disrupt the arts and entertainment sector as we knew it.”

For Elena Georgieva ‘19, a recording engineer at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), Stanford’s musical closures hit especially close to home. Two productions she had been very involved with — as a performer in the Stanford Laptop Orchestra (SLOrk) world premiere of a guest musician’s opera “The Furies: A Laptopera” and as the sound designer for Rams Head’s production of Pippin — were both postponed indefinitely in late March. The prospect of shows like these and countless others are in a current state of limbo, and as students graduate, the chance that they will ever get performed for a live audience wanes, wiping out months of hard work by Stanford community members. 

However, Stanford musicians are creative and resilient, and they quickly embraced virtual music events as the next best option to in-person, on-campus performances. This year’s Blackfest: Encoded 2020, co-produced by SCN and Blackfest, gave an exemplar for how to successfully produce a virtual concert. Gomez told the Daily how SCN pursued online versions of more traditional live concerts, which often feature multiple students or guest performers playing their tracks in the style of a live concert (one performance at a time, presented live).  

Another notable Zoom live stream concert example is Stanford Medicine’s ongoing [email protected] weekly concert series, which has been a continual source of entertainment throughout the lockdown. Jacqueline Genovese, the executive director of the “[email protected]” series, cites both pre-recorded concerts to share with nursing home residents and beautiful live-streamed organ music in Memorial Church on Sundays as creative and noteworthy musical responses to the physical limitations posed by quarantine. This harmonization of music and social good similarly developed in a Benefit Cabaret that raised over $10,000 for Stanford Students for Workers’ Rights (SWR) in response to a massive round of lay-offs. 

Gaby Haeun Li 22 followed a similar tune by founding the non-profit Virtual Companions (VC) at the beginning of spring quarter. As a human biology major and music minor, Gaby told The Daily that she is “always trying to find creative, human-centered solutions to issues in community health like incorporating the power of the arts in health issues like loneliness.” Where VC differs from [email protected] or the Benefit Cabaret is that they specifically organize virtual concerts (VCVC) for nursing homes, fostering “acts of kindness and meaningful companionships between generations through conversation and the arts.” Haeun Li told The Daily that the YouTube concerts produced by Virtual Companions include original music, interviews, dancers, instrumentalists, spoken word poets and more. 

Of course, the entire Stanford music scene is not just a series of organized concerts and performances. The university once thrived on the very culture of the music it created, which allowed people to come together and connect through the instruments they played. Georgieva told The Daily about JackTrip, a software designed at Stanford that allows two or more remote individuals to perform music together online. Using ethernet cables and routers, this technology allows near-instantaneous transmission of sound, with just milliseconds of latency on all ends. This technology allows for an important piece of Stanford’s music to continue to grow and develop, and makes the post COVID-19 musical environment more accessible and less formal.

What will happen in the near future of Stanford’s music scene is really anybody’s guess at this point. For Genovese and others involved with [email protected], “a reunion of our more than 80 Stanford Medicine performers” is a potentiality down the line. Lorway is exploring the possibility to move Stanford Live’s in-person events into the outdoor Frost Amphitheater, and is hoping that improved hygiene and distancing protocols can allow concerts to proceed at a slower-than-usual pace. As in-person events slowly creep back into existence, it can be expected that a number of delayed concerts and other similar events will finally make their long-awaited debuts at some capacity. 

Despite the disrupted rhythms of the Stanford music scene, the efforts of dozens of dedicated individuals have kept music alive such that the pandemic ultimately did not prove a total shipwreck. “As fall starts I think we’ll start to see a lot more activity with Stanford students engaging with the community a bit more,” Reyes Gomez told The Daily. “We’re just trying to get music to people in any way we can.” With all hands on deck to explore new music programs and concert softwares, Stanford community members on and off-campus are well-poised to continue revamping the music scene in the coming months. 

Contact Morris Raskin ‘at’ mraskin20 ‘at’ stuy.edu.

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Morris Raskin is a high school student writing as part of The Stanford Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.