BED-STUY – Once you’ve shoehorned 80 musicians into a Brooklyn flat for a live recording of an imaginatively arranged cover of a radio-friendly pop song, where do you go next? If you said, “Iceland, obviously,” you’re on the same page as the Apartment Sessions, the “multimedia collective trying to incorporate as many people and instruments and styles of music to celebrate diversity and musicianship and creativity.”
The shorthand description of the project from one of the founders, Luke McGinnis, acknowledges the Ripley’s Believe It or Not aspect of the series, squeezing an ever-expanding community of musicians into a Bed-Stuy apartment to perform “big giant arrangements” of songs streamed for a growing audience on YouTube. But it also underlines the more serious aims of Luke and his fellow impresarios Evan Tyor, Drew Krasner and Liz Maney, which eventually led them out of Brooklyn and on to an international tour.
They have taken stock of the ways technology has created new opportunities for performing, recording, and sharing music and seized the initiative to move forward, but often by looking back. “The nature of this project has always been ‘say yes to everything,’” said Evan.
“In that way we’ve forced ourselves to innovate, and the technology has allowed us to do it. We’re catching up to what we have, which is really cool,” Luke added.
“With all of the technological advances in music making and sound production, our goal is to use as many real instruments as possible,” he continued. “In musical theater the trend is as many synthesizers as possible: cheaper, less space. One of our goals is let’s go back in time a little bit. Let’s get three violas in here. That’s what’s really exciting about the technological stuff catching up to where you actually can record a string section in somebody’s apartment.”
While the technology makes it possible, making it happen is a very human enterprise. Along with arranging the music—creating orchestral scores for works that were originally composed for much smaller ensembles, which is done mostly by Luke and Drew—there’s also the challenge of arranging the musicians. Just fitting the number of people who appear on some of the Apartment Sessions live recordings into a four bedroom apartment seems unlikely. Doing it in a way that facilitates both performance and recording was a process of trial and error that began with 14 musicians and grew from there.
It starts with removing most of the furniture, and even taking the doors off their hinges. “A lot of what we’ve learned is that we try to have an input per instrument with as much isolation as we can get,” Evan explained. “Putting like things together. Putting loud things together. And then putting strings in a separate bedroom. Putting a harp in the bathroom so that it’s got it’s own space.”
“At this point, we’re utilizing all of the rooms as sections, so we have separate people conducting in separate areas,” Drew said. “Because the nature of the recording and how big it is, we need separate conductors.”
“We’ve even used mirrors so that people can see the conductor,” Evan added.
Perhaps the steepest learning curve was for Liz, who supervises the video production, though she had no experience in either video or music when she signed on. An accomplished photographer whose evocative shots of musicians in performance and in portraits were drawing attention, she met Evan at a show and he invited her to handle video for the Apartment Sessions.
The first Session, before Liz was on board, was filmed with a single camera. “Then I came and I brought in one more,” she said. “Then we had four cameras, including two GoPros. I think on our grand finale we have four moving cameras and ten still cameras.”
Liz’s videos capture the ship-in-a-bottle nature of the Apartment Sessions, leaving you wondering how they fit everyone into the space. The philosophy of the project is to present the sound and vision of the performances pretty much as they happened. “It’s an all-live recording, that’s the idea,” Drew said. “It’s not something we’re trying to put through a bunch of filters afterwards. We do editing and post production stuff, but that’s really the beauty of still keeping everything live.”
Liz’s images have an air of effortlessness that’s almost magical; a behind-the-scenes recording of the same session shows how much work goes into making it look easy. New York composer and bassist Adam Neely, who performed on that recording of “Empire Liquor Mart” featured the session on one of his popular online “gig vlogs,” and the contrast between the two versions of the event is illuminating.
Luke and Evan had birthed the Apartment Sessions by inviting 14 friends to play in their apartment without the thought of making it a recurring event. “Then a couple of months later, we decided to do it again,” Evan said. “And it was a bit bigger. And we picked up Drew and Liz very soon after the first one, and we all kind just kept doing it. It kept getting bigger and bigger.”
“In the beginning, it was how are we possibly going to find people to come over to Bed-Stuy,” Luke recalled, “because we can’t pay people very much because there are so many people involved. And now the problem is we can’t fit all the people in.”
They had done a couple of apartment sessions outside the apartment—covering a Bob Dylan tune in the shadow of Trump Tower and performing Queen’s “Somebody to Love” on a train crossing the East River. So after reaching critical mass for musicians performing inside a single flat, “it’s like the opposite kind of thing,” Evan said. “What’s the most open space we can find?”
Drew suggested Iceland, where he’d done an artistic residency, and once the Apartment Sessions arrived there, Evan could tell he was right. “Iceland is like, ‘I’ve never looked so far in my life,’” he said.
“That’s the direction we went in—always being here but exploring other places,” Drew said.
“And trying to bring as much music with as many people as we can out of New York,” Evan added. They headed for the North Atlantic island with a cast and crew of 40 people for ten days of recording around the country.
In the course of their trip, Evan said, “We recorded a whole movie’s worth of Apartment Sessions.” Now, continuing their fascination with how technology can shape the way music is shared and distributed, they’re working with the material and figuring out what format to present it in.
“It feels like the Iceland thing is a new 21st Century album because it has this multimedia element to it,” Drew said. “I feel like album-making is going out of vogue as a concept, but that’s what we’ve done in the realm of this video/audio narrative.”