With many events canceled this year due to the onset of COVID-19, going to a live concert may be the last thing anyone would dream of. But while many museums, concert venues and galleries closed their doors to the public, MUSE/IQUE continued to play live music for the community.
For Rachael Worby, world-renowned composer, founder and artistic director of MUSE/IQUE, canceling performances and stopping the music was out of the question. “Music is a lifeline for people who have been going through difficult times during the pandemic,” she says. “You have to move the heart and replenish the soul.”
With performing for the community at the core of MUSE/IQUE’s mission, the nonprofit organization came up with many creative ways to deliver music.
“It’s always been my fervent belief that live music ignites imagination like nothing else in this world, and through our imaginations, we’re able to create empathy for the rest of the world and for people around us,” says Worby. “When we have empathy for one another, we learn to feel and be inspired to move towards social change. So, in this time in particular, using live music to access people’s imagination and create change seems essential.”
From drive-in concerts to front lawn serenades, MUSE/IQUE has found ways to perform while remaining safe and socially distant. “We were built to pivot and to be disruptive,” says Worby. “We were built to make a difference in people’s lives in a fresh, non-duplicative fashion. So, when the pandemic hit, we simply moved along with it.”
Self-proclaimed as the “outlier live music organization,” MUSE/IQUE simply viewed the entire city of Los Angeles as their concert hall. “The foundation of MUSE/IQUE has always been to play in unexpected places,” says Worby. “And whether we’re in the locker room of the Rose Bowl Stadium, or an empty factory space, or a grocery store, or an outdoor field, we make ourselves at home, and we make a home for live art.”
To keep musicians and audiences safe, everyone is kept six feet apart. At a recent backyard concert, musicians were seen wearing masks even on stage and singing within a Plexiglas barrier to safeguard against airborne particles. Audiences were purposefully seated and positioned to maintain social distancing.
“We’ve just been reinventing on the fly,” says Brian Colburn, president and CEO of MUSE/IQUE. “None of us had any experience in creating video content going into the pandemic, and now, we’ve produced more than 70 videos which are up on our YouTube page, and we’re coming out with a music-in-location film series called ‘Around Town’ in November.”
Currently, their newest video series is called “In-a-Minute,” which Worby herself curates twice a week. “We’ve had a great response from people,” Worby says, and she hopes that their digital work will continue to serve as a long-term value add for the organization. During their latest live performance, the team used drones to capture concert footage and share with members of the community who couldn’t physically attend.
Worby, a passionate and driven musician herself, grew up admiring great performers like Leonard Bernstein, Paul Simon, Nina Simone and Thelonious Monk. “I looked at him [Bernstein] like this fantastic octopus, this person who was taking things in, devouring them, and then creating and not being fearful of the outcome,” she says. “I said to myself, that’s me. The person who doesn’t want to be boxed in. The musician with a voracious appetite and a love of all types of music.”
Worby’s background as a music conductor who understands a range of instruments is audibly and visibly apparent through MUSE/IQUE’s performances. Mixing classic songs with up-and-coming artists of all backgrounds and genres also helps MUSE/IQUE stand out from the crowd. Artists like Fausto Cuevas and LaNesha Latimer performed their own take on Stevie Wonder’s song, “Higher Ground,” and the T Sisters arranged their own version of “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King, all of which are available on MUSE/IQUE’s YouTube page.
“Inspiration for me springs directly from the audience,” says Worby. What she means by this is that she enjoys bringing an element of surprise through unexpected renditions of familiar melodies.
“For example, if I’m doing a lawn serenade for somebody who I know is passionate about the Beatles, I do it from a different point of view, with a different lens shining a different light. If I bring live music to somebody who loves Mozart, maybe I’ll have it played on the banjo, just to open the ear,” she says.
For aspiring musicians today, Worby encourages them to remain focused and disciplined with their music. “There’s no magic potion, and no amount of dreaming that will allow any artist to be able to give to the world from their hearts, without an extreme amount of focus and discipline.”
With humble beginnings in 2011, MUSE/IQUE has quickly grown to a large organization nearing its 10th anniversary. “When we began MUSE/IQUE, we inaugurated an education program to reach out to disenfranchised [members] of the community,” says Worby. “In our first year, we had one partner and saw 16 people. We now have 16 partners and are able to build bridges to thousands of people.”
During the first year, Worby recalls being a one-woman team, pulling out 45 metal folding chairs for audience members, picking up the artist and setting up the venue to prepare for a concert. “I’m very proud of our growth. We went from a small organization to one that sees tens of thousands of people every year, and now the job of setting up the chairs is not mine,” she laughs.
The team is currently preparing to film “Motown/Moves,” where modern dancers move to the music of Motown through iconic streetscapes in Pasadena. To celebrate their 10th anniversary in 2021, MUSE/IQUE plans on highlighting 10 main events that explore the heritage and identity of music in Los Angeles. From performing vibrant Latinx music, to digging deep into the intersection of East and West, MUSE/IQUE is preparing to go big. A list of 2020-2021 events can be found on their website.
“We meet the moment, and we do so with passion,” says Worby. “Music is resilient, and the opportunities are infinite.” Whether performing for children living in foster care treatment facilities or bringing music to the homes of members, MUSE/IQUE aspires to remain a ground-breaking organization that indiscriminately performs everywhere, for all audiences across different musical genres.