The Violin Channel recently caught up with Canadian violinist James Ehnes.
“If I create a product without compromise, one that I can feel truly proud of from both a musical as well as an audiovisual standpoint, can I sell it directly to consumers and earn enough money to potentially get through an extremely lean period in the industry? … It’s kind of an experiment, really,” James has this week told The Violin Channel.
Where did the idea for the ‘Recitals At Home’ series come from?
“When the concert cancelations started piling up back in early March, I figured concerts would likely resume again in April or mid-May.
It was in early April when my spring season really fell apart entirely, including a bunch of recital appearances at European festivals at the end of May into early June.
A couple of these presenters – Prague Spring Festival and Dresden Music Festival – asked me to prepare some solo violin recordings from my home.
I had no equipment at all, and no experience with recording myself from my house, so I got in touch with various friends in the business to learn about equipment, and spent a lot of time on Skype with my producer and great friend Simon Kiln, who is in London.
With his guidance, I made a few big purchases – good mics and a good recording interface being the main ones – and started experimenting with getting as good a sound as I could.
Figuring out filming was just as big a challenge, and I again reached out to some great friends to give me advice with that.
I was able to make recordings for Prague and Dresden that I was proud of, particularly in terms of sound, so I started thinking, “what’s next?”.
By this time, concert cancelations has gone through basically the entire remainder of the season and summer, and were already accumulating for the 2020-21 season, so I was feeling a tremendous amount of pressure to at least try to find some sort of path forward.
My producer Simon was the one that told me that he felt we could achieve a CD quality sound from my home, and that I might want to consider making some “proper” recordings.
An Ysaye project had been in the back of my mind for some years, and I had also been thinking about re-recording the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, which I had recorded before but back in 2000, so I thought why not now?”
Tell us about how you went about making these self-produced recordings?
“I was only interested in doing this if I could do it without compromises.
So there was a lot – a LOT – of experimentation done with every variable to get results that I felt I could be proud of.
I’m not a recording engineer, nor a video producer, not a cameraman, nor a lighting director!
But I had to figure out how to do a lot of this stuff, and I owe such a huge thanks to my remote “team” for helping me through this.
My wife, Kate, was a full partner on all of this, reviewing recorded samples, helping me take all the rugs and furniture out of our living room, experimenting endlessly with lighting and camera angles, and getting the room set visually.
Our house is pretty isolated from a lot of street noise, but even so it became clear that the only time it would be quiet enough to record was going to be in the middle of the night.
I’m a night owl anyway, so I got into a routine of taking a nap in the mid-evening, waking up around 11 or so, and working 12-4AM”
What was your process for finding the right professional technical equipment for accomplishing this project?
“On the audio side, I owe huge thanks to my producer Simon Kiln, as well as friends Jeremy Turner, Owen O’Neill, and Abhay Manusmare.
Their contacts at Telefunken and Sweetwater were also very helpful with expediting my orders and providing additional guidance.
For the filming, my great friend Ben Ealovega (who has taken virtually all of my PR photos and CD covers for the last 10-15 years) gave me advice with lighting and camera work, and introduced me to Richard Wilson, who really helped us put the “look” together, and Ed Beck, who has been doing the video editing.
The audio equipment I’m using is really terrific – Telefunken M60 mics with TK61 omni capsules and omni adapter spheres, fed through an Audient iD44 interface.
The video equipment is quite the opposite – it’s basically just the stuff we had around the house complemented by really cheap internet purchases!
The cameras are Kate’s iPhone 11, my iPhone X, and a Canon SL1 DSLR. We got a very inexpensive stage light and a few tripods, and that was basically it.
The most important purchase for the filming was probably the Filmic Pro app for the phones.
This allows for full manual control of the iPhone camera, so that allowed a lot of flexibility in terms of finding the right look”
What challenges did you need to overcome?
“I don’t even know where to start with this question! Everything was a challenge.
Obviously, having all of that music in my hands was the most important thing, and while the Bach is always kind of “there”, at least to a certain degree, it had been a long time since I had looked at some of the Ysaÿe Sonatas.
But learning how to use the audio and video gear, and getting to a place where I felt confident both in the process as well as the result, took an enormous amount of time.
I would estimate somewhere over a hundred hours.
Then of course there was the challenge of recording for hours in the middle of the night while trying to live a somewhat normal life and be a good husband and father during the day.
And then working with Simon and Ed to put the programs together, learning about different streaming platforms, thinking about marketing strategies, etc.
It’s been all consuming”
If listeners would like to rent of purchase your series, how can they go about doing this?
The best way is to go to the dedicated page on my website www.jamesehnes.com/recitalsfromhome.
That has links to the programs as well as trailers, release information, and some written content about the process”
What message are you hoping to send to the music community by creating this as a paid series – rather than a free youtube upload?
“Playing the violin is my job and playing music is my product. It’s really the only product I have.
Selling that product is how I support my family and pay my bills.
For years, recorded content in the classical world has basically just been seen as advertisement for the “real” product, the live performances, and the financial model in the industry reflects this.
There was a time when recordings were a legitimate source of income for classical musicians, but streaming changed the game and in all but the most rare cases it just doesn’t work that way anymore.
But now, recorded content is the only product we have.
I’ve lost four and a half months of concert income, and at this point my fall season is almost completely gone as well.
So, I thought I needed to take a chance.
It’s kind of an experiment, really.
If I create a product without compromise, one that I can feel truly proud of from both from a musical as well as an audiovisual standpoint, can I sell it directly to consumers and earn enough money to potentially get through an extremely lean period in the industry?
It has been a big risk, because I’ve made a significant personal financial investment in this series with no guarantee of making my money back, at a time when I can ill-afford to do so!
But if I can at least break even, then maybe this can be a path forward not just for me, but for any performing artist who can’t rely on the traditional performance infrastructure during these crazy times”
Do you see self-producing as the model of the future for classical musicians?
“I really don’t know, to be honest. I’d like to think there’s a place for it, but the challenges are immense, and the reward is uncertain.
Ask me again in a few months!”
Episodes 1 and 2 are available now at www.jamesehnes.com/recitalsfromhome for $10 each for a 48 hour rental or $20 for purchase.