In a furnished Allston basement, Curtis Heimburger and Josh Polack set up a half-dozen microphones and two acoustic guitars last week. The room around them was crowded with amplifiers, string lights, and an upholstered chair.
To a camera, the duo, one half of Mom Rock, sang a cover and two originals.
That recording session closed out #BerkleeAnywhere, a virtual performance series Berklee College created in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and ended Tuesday. It acted as an intimate look into the lives of student musicians forcefully scattered across the globe. (The contemporary music institute suspended normal operations in March 2020 and returns to the classroom full time this month.)
“On Berklee’s part, it was some quick thinking,” said Heimburger, a recent Berklee graduate. “Everyone had gigs canceled when the world shut down, and [Berklee] saw an opportunity to give artists the chance to showcase themselves anyway.”
The weekly streams, prerecorded by musicians and then edited by Berklee staff, took audiences into 75 makeshift studios — some continents away. A singer-songwriter from Denver kicked off the series on April 7, 2020. Later, the program touched down in a mandatory quarantine hotel room in Singapore, a terrace in Valencia, Spain, and a living room in Oslo. Others tuned in from London, Beijing, and, inevitably, Boston.
In venues near Hynes Convention Center, Berklee normally hosts hundreds of performances every semester, said Jonathan Foo, a concert producer and event liaison at the college. #BerkleeAnywhere replicated that schedule on a smaller scale.
“We were just trying to create something to let people share their music,” Foo added. “With the technology today, turning to digital platforms during COVID just made sense.”
What he did not expect, though, was the overwhelmingly positive response #BerkleeAnywhere received.
Students clamored for a spot on the roster through a virtual application process. (Chosen participants demonstrated both musical and technological skill.) And thousands tapped into the streams, leaving excited comments for musicians on the screen.
Part of the charm laid in the performances’ casual nature, Foo said.
Jason Ji, for example, played solo fingerstyle guitar for a June installment in a hoodie with a smattering of leafy plants beside him. A senior studying professional music, he hit a host of obstacles while recording. He unsucessfully tried to bring his cat into the frame, and the air conditioning gave out.
“But that’s all part of it,” Ji said in a phone interview. “It’s more laid back this way.”
He relished the chance to perform again. The pandemic left him, a Chinese-born Australian citizen, alone in Boston. The Four Seasons canceled his weekly gig in early 2020, and his friends retreated home last year.
Coming back to the stage, even virtually, was “beautiful,” Ji added.
Bahar Badieitabar agreed. She played oud, a traditional Iranian instrument, from a Cambridge patio in August 2020. Practicing became a solitary experience during the pandemic, giving her “space to be with myself and improve,” she said.
Yet, she enjoyed watching the variety of #BerkleeAnywhere performances — “the different qualities of sound, the instruments, the locations ... it was fascinating.”
Berklee students have been filtering back to Boston for in-person classes this week. Live performances will return, and #BerkleeAnywhere will become obsolete, Foo said.
“The series was what we needed at one point,” he added. “Now, it’s time for something new.”