On a Saturday morning in January, at a recording studio off the Dallas North Tollway, eight sopranos and altos sing on either side of vertical, sound-absorbing panels. The vocalists are wearing masks and headphones, and are using iPads instead of paper scores.
They’re singing a distress call — “water’s high” and “SOS” — and repeating Amelia Earhart’s name with crisscrossing vocal lines, suggesting the sound of crashing waves.
“Evoke the fear of dying here,” Anthony Maglione yells out from the control room, which is next to the recording space. Maglione, the director of choral studies at William Jewell College in Missouri, came to Dallas to serve as recording producer for a project on the cutting edge of artistic innovation.
Dallas’ Verdigris Ensemble was recording Texas-born composer Nicholas Reeves’ Betty’s Notebook, which it premiered in 2019, and will release the work on the blockchain. An online database, the blockchain allows various users to simultaneously access information, kind of like a Google Doc.
Businesses have increasingly used the blockchain for transactions because of its security. Artists have benefited from it as well. Last month, a piece by Mike Winkelmann, a graphic designer who goes by Beeple, sold for $6.6 million on the blockchain. And from now until March 11, Beeple’s art is being auctioned off at Christie’s, marking the first time that the company has sold entirely digital work.
Kenny Schachter, an artist, collector and dealer based in New York, has witnessed the effects of the blockchain firsthand. He recently netted about $200,000 in one night with five digital artworks he had released on the blockchain. Schachter, who’s been in the art world for 30 years, says the technology is “the best thing that’s ever happened” for his art.
Still, Schachter says the quality of art on the blockchain is inconsistent. While there are “great pieces if you dig hard enough,” many users are dropping works that look like “stills from video games.” Schachter also suspects the technology will “be overused, overhyped and there will be lots of inflationary, stupid prices.”
“99% of the people are not going to make money,” he adds.
Verdigris’ director Sam Brukhman believes the choir’s project could turn a profit. This would be especially noteworthy because traditional choral recordings typically lose more money than they make. Verdigris’ venture could also reach a wide audience at a time when vocal groups across the country have canceled performances because of the pandemic.
Back in the control room, Brukhman and Maglione often conduct along from their seats, with pencils as batons, and large printed scores in front of them. They tell the ensemble which measures to perform, discuss what went right (and wrong) among themselves and then give suggestions about diction, blend, phrasing and intonation.
A tenor himself, Maglione occasionally sings to show the group what he’d like to hear. In one section, he calls out the pitches that sound out-of-tune as they happen. “That’s why I have you here,” Brukhman jokes with a high-pitched laugh. When particularly happy with a take, Brukhman and Maglione say, “That’s a keeper,” “That’s the one” or “We’re holding on to that one,” and give a thumbs-up to the vocalists.
Although the singers all got negative COVID-19 tests beforehand, they still have to follow a strict schedule — 30 minutes in the recording space and 15 minutes out — to limit the risk of aerosol spread and let an air purifier with a HEPA filter do its job.
The piece they’re recording, Betty’s Notebook, draws inspiration from a 15-year-old girl’s alleged encounter with pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart over the airwaves. In the summer of 1937, Betty Klenck was cruising on the dial of her family’s shortwave radio, when she suddenly heard a woman saying, “This is Amelia Earhart. This is Amelia Earhart.”
Aware of Earhart’s attempt to fly around the globe, Betty began jotting down what she heard in her notebook. Earhart’s mysterious disappearance somewhere over the Pacific Ocean on one of the last legs of her quest remains a source of fascination for many.
Reeves’ work sets text from Betty’s notebook for a 16-voice choir. It also weaves in prerecorded sounds, including snippets of Betty reminiscing in a later interview and jazz tunes that Reeves composed in a style to recall what Betty could have listened to on the radio as a teenager.
Though Verdigris premiered the piece in a private concert, Brukhman thinks it works better as a recording. “It’s a radio transmission,” he says. “To have the choir in an acoustic space actually defeats the purpose of what Betty’s Notebook is.”
Verdigris is looking to sell the recording to a private collector or public space, such as a museum, in Dallas. The price tag is $150,000. Whoever buys it will get a 1930s radio console repurposed to play the composition. Verdigris will also equip the console with an LCD screen showing digital art by Bryan Brinkman, a graphic artist and animator who works for NBC’s The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live.
The art will feature colorful illustrations of glamorous women based on drawings Betty made in her notebook, some of Betty’s notes and various portrayals of Earhart’s plane. “I’m hoping the pieces of my art reflect both the story and the production, and can help guide the viewer through both of those aspects,” Brinkman says.
In mid-April, Verdigris plans to sell the recording’s four individual components — the 16-voice choir performance, the interview with Betty, the jazz songs and a choral texture derived from the sound of Betty’s voice — to four separate buyers on a blockchain platform called Async Art.
Each component will come with three different MP3 files, only one of which can be played at a time. The buyers can switch among the MP3 files online, changing how the piece sounds on both the blockchain and radio console. For example, whoever owns the jazz tunes can control which jazz tunes will play.
It’s helpful to think of the online work as a toy house made of detachable bricks. Whoever has access to the house — whoever can “play” with it — can rearrange some of the bricks, creating a new design, but can’t physically alter them in any way.
The online work will also include Brinkman’s art. Brukhman says each component will cost between $1,000 and $5,000, though prospective buyers can bid higher.
Implicit in these prices is a barrier to entry. Only those with enough money ($1,000 at least) to buy the bricks (the recording’s components) can affect the house’s design (the recording’s sound). In other words, the project filters out potential buyers by their means.
Moreover, if a private collector buys Verdigris’ radio console, it may be difficult (if not impossible) for audiences to view the physical work in person. “If the physical piece is given to a private collector, it is our desire and hope that the private collector will lend it out to be shown at public spaces,” Brukhman says. “But we can’t guarantee what happens with that.”
And yet, Betty’s Notebook will be streamed for the broader public to hear on Async Art’s website. The radio console will also be publicly accessible if it winds up in a museum or gallery.
“We as arts organizations have to fight to show the world that Dallas truly has world-class artistry and musicianship,” Brukhman says. “And I think this project can showcase that.”
Whatever the result, Verdigris’ resourceful use of technology distinguishes it from many organizations in the field of classical music. And if the venture succeeds, it might even pave a path that other arts and music groups could follow.