As the arts world continues to adapt to a landscape still dominated by COVID-19, the Australian String Quartet has come up with something intriguing and a little bit different. The Adelaide-based foursome have already been busy with “The Australian Anthology,” an ambitious plan to release key Australian works for string quartet digitally each month. Now they have come up with ASQ Live + On Demand, a new streaming platform, that launches with a series of weekly webisodes, entitled ASQ Live at UKARIA.

“We always had ambitions to create an On Demand platform. Once COVID hit we were determined not to slap something together but instead take the time to focus on producing something that will build into our future,” explains ASQ violinist Francesca Hiew. “The aim was to create a pilot series of live streamed concerts with high-quality audio and visual and zoning in on eight string quartets – four Australian and four European masterworks – that will be the centrepiece of each episode. Audiences will also get glimpses into our world and the reason we chose these pieces.”

Australian String Quartet. Photo © Jacqui Way

Filmed at the beautiful UKARIA Cultural Centre in the Adelaide Hills – the ASQ’s partner for the venture – the webisodes also offer viewers the chance to explore the South Australian landscape. They even plan to add elements of lifestyle programming to the mix as well as what they describe as a splash of sports broadcast excitement. “We see music as a part of life,” says Hiew. “It enriches, challenges and fulfils, and the message we aim to convey is that we want people to embrace more music in their everyday lives.”

“In both sport and music, nothing can replace the real thing – being there – but when you can’t, there is plenty to be learned from sports broadcasting,” adds ASQ violist Stephen King. “For example, there is commentary leading into the game, you get to see the locker room, go with the players onto the field, and you have the ability to watch and listen again on demand. So, we learn from this, but we don’t add the cheerleaders or fireworks!”

Hosted by Johanna Allen, a versatile actor, singer, writer, and passionate chocolate lover (so says her Twitter account), the series will feature a slew of South Australian guests including luthiers, street-artists, chefs and entrepreneurs as well as pianist Konstantin Shamray in order to promote the South Australian life-style experience to what is potentially a global audience. “The idea wasn’t necessarily to talk about music, but to explore our wider community and how we all fit together and inspire each other,” explains Hiew. “I’d say most of our guests actually aren’t celebrities or household names, but rather just people we admire.”

Lockdown has been especially tricky for the ASQ, with two of their players stuck in Victoria and two in SA when state borders closed. “We had plenty of online meetings and made many attempts at using different platforms to play together remotely but none of it created satisfactory musical results,” admits King. “Playing with click-tracks or adding layer to pre-recorded layer was working against the essence of making music together.”

“The disappointment of cancelling all our performances has been an enormous adjustment,” he continues. “However, having quality time with families and partners has been fantastic and clearing through layers of almost finished projects, very satisfying. In terms of personal practise, a balance has shifted from the necessity of learning notes to the joy and fascination of exploring music. Having time to think and the ability to act on it have been some positives to come out of this time.”

And like many musicians, COVID-19 has had a huge impact on income. “It’s a scary thing when your primary business is touring and performing,” says Hiew, who still has concerns for what the group will be able to deliver if social distancing continues for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the limited capacity in place for ASQ Live at UKARIA streams will adhere to current guidelines with socially distanced seating arrangements and other necessary preventative measures to reassure returning audiences.

Morning at UKARIA. Photo © Sam-Jozeps

One key factor in the new venture was the engagement of multi award-winning cinematographer Maxx Corkindale to be the series’ Director of Photography. “This was a hugely important factor for us,” says Hiew. “We want whatever we put out into the world to be of the highest quality we can muster so it was essential that the visual quality matched the audio. You’ll get to see the inner workings of the string quartet, our mannerisms, kooks, subtle smiles, or even scrawls on our iPads. We want people to get as close as they can to being inside a quartet.”

The eight 45-minute ASQ Live at UKARIA concerts will livestream every Sunday afternoon at 3 pm ACST (3:30 pm AEST) and all performances are live. Viewers can subscribe to the entire platform for just $40, which includes access to the ASQ Live at UKARIA series as well as on demand access until the end of October 2020. Existing ASQ+ subscribers will get access free of charge.

But will it make sufficient money to keep the wolf from the door? The Quartet chose to charge for the service out of a fully justified belief that artists deserve to be paid for their work. “It was a delicate balance and took hours of discussion and thinking but I believe we landed at a good outcome,” says Hiew. “$40 for the entire series can give a whole household access to eight concerts over eight weeks, which equates to $5 per episode.”

“This is a pivotal time for the arts, and while it is wonderful that there has been so much free creative, collaborative content to come out of a worldwide crisis, we need to balance this with sustainability,” she continues. “The high quality comes at an equally high cost and we’re grateful to the project partners and supporters who are helping to make this possible. The ASQ is by no means expecting its costs to be covered by subscription sales, but it would be nice. We’re looking at this project as a pilot that will help shape ASQ Live and On Demand. It’s an investment into the future.”

To subscribe to ASQ Live + On Demand click here.

ASQ Live at UKARIA Program Guide

Sunday August 2: Mendelssohn String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80 (live-stream)

Sunday August 9: Paul Stanhope String Quartet No 3 (live-stream)

Sunday August 16: Dvořák Piano Quintet with Konstantin Shamray (live-stream)

Sunday August 23: Ross Edwards String Quartet No 4 *World Premiere* (live-stream)

Sunday August 30: Mozart String Quartet in C Minor “Dissonance” (delayed-stream)

Sunday September 6: Matthew Hindson String Quartet No 3 Ngeringa (live-stream)

Sunday September 13: Shostakovich String Quartet No 3 (live-stream)

Sunday September 20: Joe Chindamo String Quartet No 1 (delayed-stream)