Phillips Music Goes Virtual (Part II)

All of the concerts of our 80th season of Phillips Music are being presented online. In the second of this two part series, Director of Music Jeremy Ney shares insights on how the performing arts world has adapted to virtual concerts. Real Part I here

Timo Andres and Rachel Lee Priday performing in Andres’s home. Register for the broadcast on March 7!

How has the concert world adapted to the digital space?
2020 saw many musicians and artists turning to the digital space to present their work. This ranged from professional recordings in empty concert halls to home-spun DIY recordings using basic equipment. Some artists, like pianist Igor Levit, built a huge following for his daily house concerts, which offered comfort and respite from worldwide lockdowns in 2020. Other artists, like pianist Timo Andres (who appears on our series on March 7), replaced cancelled career-defining moments (Andres was set to give his Carnegie Hall solo recital in 2020) with virtual realizations that offered an intimate portrait of creative adaption. The overarching message in the performing arts seemed to be: don’t let the circumstances defeat you, find ways in which such restrictions can hold generative potential to do something new.

How do your musicians feel about performing virtually?
Well, it clearly does not replicate the experience of performing for an audience. Audiences are the lifeblood of performances; performers thrive off their presence, their enjoyment, their love of the music being played. There’s a reciprocal exchange that happens in the communion between artist and audience and so the absence is just that: an absence, something you miss and hope will return soon. We all long for the day when we can bring audiences back safely to enjoy the thrill and vitality of live performance.

All musicians are different though and some take to the virtual space with greater ease than others. Some musicians treat a virtual concert like the live experience, and if it is being pre-recorded (which is increasingly prevalent), then they do one take to preserve that freshness of the moment. However, others like to return to specific passages to repeat them and treat the experience more like a session in a recording studio. Both have their merits but are very different approaches. Regardless of which mode an artist adopts toward virtual performance, I think it is safe to say that everyone I’ve worked with hugely misses the energy that is created with a live audience.

Is there any advice you have for an audience member new to virtual performances?
My advice would be to try to invest the same degree of patience in a virtual performance as you would (or did) when we were all able to gather in-person. While the digital realm presents many possibilities, we know that that digital attention spans are notoriously short. There are obvious reasons for this: we live in a visual culture and the internet-age has flooded our lives with a constant stream of visual imagery. Saturation has demanded economy, and often the advice in social media circles is to keep video content to no more than 60 seconds, which doesn’t get you very far into a concert! So, I would urge a virtual performance audience member to look at the concert experience as something different to the bombardment of visual ephemera that we all experience every day, to look upon the experience as something to delve into, be captivated by, to lose yourself in. That’s what we strive to put into the world.

Phillips Music Goes Virtual (Part I)

All of the concerts of our 80th season of Phillips Music are being presented online. In this two part series, Director of Music Jeremy Ney shares the trials and tribulations (and perks!) of presenting our acclaimed Sunday Concerts virtually for the first time. Read Part II here

Recording Stella Chen and Albert Cano Smit in the Music Room. If you missed their performance, you can still stream it on the concert page.

Tell us about the transition to virtual events. What were some of the challenges you faced/are facing?
2020 was a hard year for the performing arts across the board. The goal posts kept shifting, and so one of the primary difficulties was when to decide to go virtual. Everyone across the country, and even arts organizations in DC, were doing things differently, finding solutions to their own unique challenges. However, it was important for us at The Phillips Collection to continue to present our series, and not abandon it until we could have in-person audiences again. This season is our 80th anniversary, which aligns with The Phillips Collection’s centennial year—these are major milestones and thus, it was important to pivot toward new ways of presenting.

It has been a hugely enjoyable process to go digital this year, though there are definitely some pitfalls. If you don’t already have the infrastructure in place to support filming and presenting online concerts, then the learning curve is pretty steep. You have to identify funds for new equipment, look at staffing capacity and skills gaps, negotiate new issues around concert logistics, onsite protocols, music licensing, which online platforms to use, ticketing—the list goes on. You also have to look at how to do this sustainably for your institution without over-stretching budgets at a time when all organizations, cultural or otherwise, are having to respond to the impacts of the pandemic.

Lastly, the digital realm presents lots of new opportunities in terms of format and reaching new audiences. When you only have a small performance space like we do at the Phillips (our Music Room has a capacity of 140 people), then digital platforms can really help drive interest in the work we do. Despite the difficulties of changing everything you have done before, this is to be embraced. Even when we return to some version of “normal,” the digital element is not going away—so it’s best to understand and get to grips with that landscape now.

Tell us about your process for presenting digital concerts at the Phillips?
I think the Phillips is in a unique position; we have an intimate space surrounded by outstanding visual art. It was important to capture the special nature of the Music Room as faithfully as we could. That meant: high quality equipment. Working with local videographer Dominic Mann we invested in three Canon C200 cameras, which have the capacity to film in 4k. We also got to grips with the software and hardware needed for live-streaming events, which is becoming the norm. Luckily we already have outstanding audio engineering from our long-time engineer, Ed Kelly, who has recorded concerts at the Phillips for many decades.

Editing Stella Chen and Albert Cano Smit’s performance in Adobe Premiere Pro

In three months our small team has created work that I’m personally really proud of. A typical concert day first entails our Concerts Manager Abigail Winston and I getting the artists here safely and ensuring protocols are followed onsite. We record performers in the Music Room during a 4-5 hour session (typically). Ed Kelly then masters the audio, usually working on it late into the night, having it ready for the next day. Videographer Dominic Mann then starts to synchronize the audio to the video footage using Adobe Premiere Pro. Dominic puts the major scaffolding of the project together for me to then begin the editing process. The editing process is usually very involved, switching camera angles as “musically” as possible to create a visually rich experience. Sometimes the most minute edits are required, stitching together small fragments of music from one cut to the next. Color correction, graphics, cross-fades, pacing—all key to giving a performance the best look and feel that you can. When you have outstanding performers doing what they do best, you feel a keen duty to capture that in the highest possible quality.

How as the engagement been?
The initial signs of growth in audience engagement have been very encouraging. For January and February, there has been a 300% increase in concert attendance for digital performance vs in-person performances. In seven concerts we have had over 3,000 people sign up to attend—if those concerts were in-person, we would have been able to welcome 900 people max. We’re also able to engage global audiences, with over 1,000 views from countries around the world. The digital realm has also allowed us to expand our partnerships locally and globally—in February, the London Symphony Orchestra published a Phillips Music performance on their YouTube channel that reached 1,400 viewers in a week. We’ve also managed to increase our social media footprint, with almost 25,000 views on Instagram for our concert clips.

Stay tuned for more from Jeremy Ney about Phillips Music going virtual.

That Long Distance Call: Renée Stout and the Blues

Director of Music Jeremy Ney on Renée Stout and the blues. Visit our InstagramFacebook, and Twitter August 10-30 to learn more about the intersections of art and music.

“How can you capture a wail in an artwork, which is basically a silent thing?”[1] This was a question posed by artist Renée Stout in an interview from 1994 with art historian Marla C. Berns. The wail Stout refers to is the vocal and guitar sound of bluesman Robert Johnson, who was the inspiration for Stout’s 1995 installation project Dear Robert, I’ll See You at the Crossroads. In the blues folklore, Johnson was said to have sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for becoming a virtuoso blues guitarist. Johnson’s short life (he died in 1938 at the age of 27) is full of such legends and metaphysical encounters, and his raw, soulful blues is captured on only a handful of recordings taken at the end of his life when he was a traveling musician performing in and around the Mississippi delta in the late 1930s, enduring—like so many others—the extreme trauma of segregation.

What is it about the sound of a musician like Robert Johnson that Renée Stout seeks to “capture” in “silent” art objects like paintings or sculptures? This kind of synthesis is not a question of semiotic transference between one material domain (the aural) to another (the visual), but is more about a sense of shared emotional territory, a question of affect, feeling, and mood. Music is often thought to possess the most direct and emotive effect on our senses; music is visceral, it can transform the way we feel. This is what Robert Johnson’s music does, it speaks of pain, suffering, and hardship, but also joy, hope, and creative spirit. Renée Stout describes how, “When I first listened to Robert Johnson’s music it really hit me because it was clear this man was in pain and needed to sing about it. I’ve heard other blues singers I like just as much, but his music hit me differently. It made me want to see what it was that he saw…I just have this need to ‘illustrate,’ as best I can, the music of a man that I’ve become so fascinated with.”[2]

Thinking through music—both in the way that it “hits” us and the historical associations that underline its social meaning—can help reveal rich conceptual depths in the work of an artist like Renée Stout. Stout’s visual explorations of the “blues aesthetic”[3] (a term coined by art historian Richard Powell), are inextricably linked to her parallel interest in African history and the diasporic traditions that have shaped the musical, social, and spiritual origins of the blues as the “first completely personalized form of African American music.”[4] Two works recently acquired by the Phillips exhibit Stout’s ability to recall elements of African culture, spirituality, and mysticism, and set them in dialogue with the African American experience, generating contemporary objects that are suffused with what theorist Paul Gilroy has called “diasporic intimacy.”[5]

The 2015 mixed media sculpture Elegba (Spirt of the Crossroads) invokes the complex trickster deity of West African Yoruba culture. Elegba (or Eshu or Èsú in other African cultures) is god of the crossroads, a spiritual location where an individual must confront difficult decisions in life. The crossroads metaphor simultaneously signals a site of danger or opportunity, and in West African culture Elegba was believed to hold the spiritual potential to effect change. Through ritual and divination, where music, dance, religion, and spirituality where united in an indivisible network of social practices, the Elegba deity could be drawn upon by humans to influence events in their lives and in the world. The Elegba deity features prominently in Stout’s explorations of the legend of Robert Johnson.

Renée Stout, Elegba (Spirit of the Crossroads), 2015–19 Mixed media, 39 x 17 x 13 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of the artist and Hemphill Gallery, 2019

Renée Stout, Mannish Boy Arrives (for Muddy Waters), 2017, Acrylic and latex on wood panel, 16 x 20 x 1 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Director’s Discretionary Fund, 2018

But the powerful Elegba symbol also appears elsewhere. In Stout’s 2017 painting Mannish Boy Arrives (for Muddy Waters), the shape of the Elegba sculpture seems to manifest itself with a bright orange light that appears to signal a path forward, perhaps indicating a choice to make at the crossroads. In the song Mannish Boy,” bluesman Muddy Waters sings, “I’m a hoochie-coochie man,” invoking a veiled double meaning: the sexually provocative 19th-century dance and the hoodoo spiritual traditions that connected enslaved Africans of the Mississippi Delta (the birthplace of both Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters) to their ancestral homeland. The “diasporic intimacy” of these traditions, as scholar George Lipsitz has observed, allowed “displaced Africans in the American South to keep alive memories of the continent they came from through a wide range of covert practices.”[6] Stout’s deployment of the Elegba icon in Mannish Boy Arrives (for Muddy Waters) is similarly covert and coded, and the image of the crossroads serves a blues-tinged metaphysics, an imagined transitional and transcultural site where African ancestry and African American experience meet. Renée Stout’s sculptures and paintings thus perform the cultural memory of the blues, conjuring a space in which an acoustic past resonates in the visual present. Far from being “silent” objects, they vibrate with sonic potential, calling out to us to look, listen, and respond.

Adapted from the forthcoming catalogue Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century (D Giles, 2021), published on the occasion of The Phillips Collection centennial.


[1] Quoted in in Marla C. Berns, Dear Robert, I’ll See You at the Crossroads: A Project by Renée Stout (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press), 38.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Richard Powell in “Introduction: The Hearing Eye,” in The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Art, ed. Graham Lock and David Murray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 4.

[4] Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 221.

[5] Paul Gilroy, Ain’t No Black in The Union Jack (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 156.

[6] George Lipsitz, “Diasporic Intimacy in the Art of Renée Stout,” in Marla C. Berns, Dear Robert, I’ll See You at the Crossroads: A Project by Renée Stout (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press), 10.