How One New York Bandleader Turned Isolation Into a (Virtual) Orchestra

Ghost Funk
Courtesy Photo

Ghost Funk’s “Quarantine Orchestra”

The project is helping create a community for gig-less session players in New York and beyond.

When he joined the thousands of Americans sheltering at home to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, New York-based producer and multi-instrumentalist Seth Applebaum says he "sprung into action" from his Queens apartment, making one-minute experimental tracks and remixing his own songs to keep busy.

"It started out as me messing around in the basement," says Applebaum, the brains behind 10-piece psych-rock band Ghost Funk Orchestra. "Then I realized that all my musician friends are stuck at home like I am."

Just two weeks later, Applebaum is releasing the first video installment of Ghost Funk's Quarantine Orchestra, for which he gathered more than 30 session musicians in New York and beyond to collaborate on a song cover from the safety of their homes.

He started by putting out a call for orchestral musicians on Instagram on March 18, inviting them to take part in the project. As DMs from musicians across the country trickled in, he shared the sheet music for the upbeat track "Can’t Get Out Your Own Way" by his friend and Colemine Records labelmate Ben Pirani.

Jeanette D. Moses
Applebaum making music while quarantined in his basement in Queens.

Musicians then recorded themselves playing the song on the cello, clarinet, violin and more, and sent their recordings to Applebaum, who assembled and mixed the individual sounds into a fully fleshed-out piece of music in Logic Pro X.

The result offers a beam of positivity in uncertain times, especially since the song he chose "finishes off with that high note," Applebaum says. "It seemed like everybody who was involved appreciated that it was a simple arrangement on the granular level, but together, it feels very triumphant."

But more than a singular video, the project is helping create a community for session musicians who are out of work due to coronavirus-related gig cancellations, including Applebaum himself. Several Ghost Funk Orchestra concerts were postponed indefinitely as a result of efforts to contain the pandemic, including a show at the venue Brooklyn Bowl in March -- a bucket-list item for Applebaum. "It's heartbreaking," he adds.

Applebaum says the Quarantine Orchestra has already fostered new connections among session musicians, and even helped some artists face their instruments at a time when the mere act of playing can mean dredging up pain.

"One of my friends who played violin in this piece was starting to spiral because all of her gigs were disappearing," he says. "She was spooked to play her instrument for a few days. But she said she appreciated something lighthearted that got her back into playing it, at least for a few minutes."

Still, other musicians he reached out to say "they couldn’t do it because they’re like, ‘I don’t know how to face my instrument right now,’" Applebaum adds. "I couldn’t argue with it."

He plans to continue the series with a second Quarantine Orchestra edition in the coming weeks, and urges viewers to donate to one of the dozens of relief funds and GoFundMe pages offering aid to out-of-work musicians.

The orchestra project "really drives home the fact that they're really talented musicians, and they’re stuck at home," he says, "but they can still make a good sound happen."