Pianist Chris Duigan at his home in Pietermaritzburg. Val Adamson
Pianist Chris Duigan at his home in Pietermaritzburg. Val Adamson

Making music in a pandemic

By Frank Chemaly Time of article published Jan 23, 2021

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Ten months of lockdown have left South Africa’s musicians in dire straits – without venues, without audiences, and without work prospects. For many, the government's response has been decidedly tone deaf. But for others, the music plays on.

The Independent on Saturday spoke to top South African pianist Chris Duigan, who has been live streaming performances into living rooms ever since the pandemic hit.

“The effect of the lockdown was devastating.” Duigan says.

“My entire income stream disappeared in a week. My entire business folded. We were not allowed to have a gathering. The number of people was not viable. Paying for venues was not viable. And the risk was not worth it. The majority of my audience is more mature and I would hate to put them at risk to support me,” he said.

But he had “bills to pay” and took the plunge into live performances online, his first concert recorded on his cellphone.

“My first concert was on March 28, which is world piano day. It’s the 88th day of the year for the 88 keys on the piano. I played the first piece and there was such a shock when it was met by silence. I thought is this working? Is anyone out there? We are so used to a rapport from the audience. I wanted to shout out to people.

Chris Duigan with his miniature dachshund Lucy, who has become one of the stars of the show.

“The early concerts were difficult because I had to focus on my playing, and reaingd and replying to the cellphone messages. It loses the tension somewhat. When I look back on those first concerts, they were not terrible, but they were very basic.”

Production was ramped up with the assistance of Kevin Liddell of Big Beat productions.

“We’d worked together before and his business was in a similar situation. He was happy to support me and sponsor it, and brought in a level of professionalism. He gave me a clear sense of the possibilities technologically.

“Many of my audience had technologically advanced devices at home that can receive high quality images and sound, so I can’t feed a poor quality in. Kevin brought in lighting, cameras, a top quality mixer, microphones. It immediately added a whole new element and I was able to engage better. I’m really grateful to him.”

Three months later, when Liddell’s business started needing the equipment again, Duigan put out an appeal.

“I’m fortunate that three principal donors – all three of whom I’ve never met – sent substantial amounts of money to purchase the equipment I needed, with the KZN Performing Arts Trust sponsoring the rest,” he said.

Since then Duigan has been doing two live streams a week. Wednesday’s piano hour features lighter pieces, often including some of Duigan’s own compositions or improvisations, while the Saturday concert is more serious and takes in the big classical repertoire. Duigan introduces the music in his own style. He has amassed more than 100 hours on his YouTube channel.

He is surprised that people have really taken to it.

“The biggest feedback comes from a number of people who are very alone, very isolated. While you can read a book, the fact is that someone is coming to visit twice a week. I talk to my audience and share aspects of my life and the music. I create something beautiful around the music. And Lucy, my miniature dachshund, has become something of a star.”

Duigan changes the decor around the house regularly – and the camera angles.

“There might be snippets of a painting, or my succulent collection, or a mirror, or flowers. And programmes are constantly changing. I have a huge repertoire built up over a number of years. For one show, I took period paintings of various composers and interleaved them with the work of Iranian 3D artist Hadi Karimi’s graphic reconstructions.”

Chris Duigan at the piano with some of the technical set-up behind the scenes.

In between, there have been unexpected challenges – including dealing with load shedding and hiring generators when large swathes of Pietermaritzburg were without electricity for days earlier this month

Today you could run a “TV studio” from Duigan’s Pietermaritzburg home.

“I set up the room the day before. There’s a lot of coding for the live streams. I’ve learned a huge amount technically. There are four HD cameras, two of which are manned using a switcher, studio quality microphones and my piano is tuned once a month. The final addition was a high powered computer to run it all.

“It’s very stressful going out live. You can’t edit anything. The texts are coming up live and the camera angles changing live,” he says, admitting that he’s occasionally ended up skipping pages of music.

“My partner Barry Lovegrove, runs backstage and adds a very good artistic element to it, so we do it together,” he says.

Lovegrove is a retired professor of ecophysiology at UKZN, whose seminal work is Living Deserts of Southern Africa.

“It’s a really nice project for us to work on. We’re under strict lockdown and don’t leave the house. The only time I put on proper clothes the whole week is for the show,” he jokes.

“I pinch myself regularly. My audience has grown around the world, with people watching from places like Mexico, Turkey and New Zealand. Many are watching every week and building their lives around it. Some get hooked and some just watch for a few minutes, but it’s exposing people to another world of music. I’m grateful people are supporting me and getting something out of it. I decided not to ticket it because it would be defeating the object of what I’m trying to do.

As for the lack of applause, the social media feedback more than makes up for it.

Duigan intends to carry on the live performances “for as long as I can”.

“It’s been great fun and very exciting, not only mastering the visual and technical challenges, but ultimately sharing an enthusiasm and interest in the music, music created by real people with real feelings,” he says.

“Music doesn’t have to be removed into a large concert hall. It’s real. A live performance can bring that to people at the other end of the world.”

The Independent on Saturday

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