What does the coronavirus sound like? Classical music composers answer with strings ... and screams
Dozens and dozens of brand new compositions address the pandemic head-on. Some are dire, some domestic.
It’s the climactic moment of All the Rage, a solo violin work written in recent weeks by Philadelphia composer David Serkin Ludwig, a Curtis Institute faculty member, to capture what he calls “the intense rage that people are feeling … against our government’s response and negligence.”
Leading up to the scream is solo violin writing that’s meant to capture the distorted sound of death metal electric guitar.
All the Rage is just one of the 40-and-counting short pieces for unaccompanied violin that Koh has commissioned in recent weeks through her nonprofit Arco Collaborative. These new works — running anywhere from 30 seconds to three minutes — are written not for next month or next year but to be premiered now in her weekly Facebook Live programs each Saturday.
They’re all available on the Jennifer Koh YouTube Channel, where you’ll find All The Rage about 15 minutes into the Week 5 installment of her Alone Together series.
“It almost feels like an archive of different aspects of this quarantine,” she said during the sixth segment. “It’s been a roller-coaster.”
» READ MORE: Philadelphia Orchestra gives gift of ‘Pomp’ to graduates everywhere
Other performers, institutions, and foundations — from the Guggenheim Museum to the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra — have been commissioning and performing pieces in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The idea is to help to keep composers financially afloat and doing what they do best. (Many events are listed on the website icareifyoulisten.com.)
Taken together, these direct artistic responses are the classical soundscape of the pandemic.
The keep-your-spirits-up message that circulated early on in the classical music community has given way to something darker, no doubt coming from the mounting uncertainty whether institutions that once fostered artistic work will survive at all.
Then there’s the artistic loneliness. Composers and musicians not only miss each other, but live listeners.
» READ MORE: Musicians worldwide are playing their hearts out in live-streamed performances. These are some of the most soulful ones.
“People say there’s more time to think. There’s no upside of that. I refuse that,” said pianist Igor Levit, one of the most celebrated musicians of his generation, in one of the many webcasts he has performed during the shutdown. “I’d rather be with you.”
In the weekly musical pandemic “chapters” written by bicoastal composer Lisa Bielawa (she’s now up to six), “testimonials" that people submit to her website, lisabielawa.net, find a voice in loose-limbed songs. Multiple voices sing lines like, “I feel like I’m going in reverse,” “I miss being healthy,” and “I was just getting my life on track” — often written with a lag time suggesting social-distanced reality. Sample title: “The New Abnormal."
» LISTEN: ‘The New Abnormal’ from Lisa Bielawa’s “Broadcast from Home” series
Some composers turn toward God. Gratias Tibi, church Latin for “giving thanks,” is the title of a piece being composed by Jose Luis Dominguez for the New Jersey Symphony and a physically distanced choir. All performers will record their parts individually from home in what promises to be the largest pandemic piece so far, celebrating frontline workers. The virtual world premiere is on June 8; look for details at njsymphony.org/gratiastibi.
Others find inspiration in the mundane. Composer/pianist Conrad Tao, one of 30-plus Guggenheim-commissioned artists, created the music video What I’ve Been Doing, riffing on “the drip of my leaky ceiling; the tone of running water hitting a drain, so faint I always wonder if I’m imagining it; the rustling of a low-density polyethylene plastic bag.” (The full Guggenheim series is on the Works & Process Guggenheim YouTube channel.)
Surprisingly numerous composers are writing about the loss of spring. In another Guggenheim commission, Michael R. Jackson sings about a romantic breakup during the lockdown titled “Your Silence.”
Obviously, these pieces aren’t likely to sound like the composer’s “business as usual.” “I always ask myself what can I do now that I can’t do any other times,” said Lansdale-born composer Missy Mazzoli, concerning her Koh piece Hail, Horrors, Hail (quoted from Paradise Lost). “The pause has forced me in a good way to try something totally new.”
The piece, performed at the end of Koh’s Week 6 installment, may be one of her most effective, with themes repeated in ways that become obsessive and hysterical. Koh isn’t asked to scream: Mazzoli does it for her.
Vacuum Packed was Thomas Kotcheff’s name for his Koh work. “That’s how I felt,” he says in an explanatory video, “sealed off, closed off and trying to maintain my own bubble of sanity.”
Finding herself unable to work with her usual colors while composing for Koh, Pulitzer Prize winning Ellen Reid envisioned a brick wall: “You can’t go over it,” she said in an accompanying video. “It’s impenetrable.” The title: Brick Red Mood.
More sounds of the times
More amiable and upbeat is the Los Angeles-based web show Living Music with Nadia Sirota: Pirate Radio Edition with a playful intro suggesting a send-up of The Tonight Show. The casual party atmosphere has Sirota and her three or four guests on each show proudly drinking on the job while unveiling new works (or new versions of older works) by noted composers such as Donnacha Dennehy. Listen 9 p.m. Eastern on Tuesdays and Thursdays on the Living Music with Nadia Sirota Facebook page.
» WATCH: Episode 11 of Living Music: Pirate Radio Edition, featuring the music of Donnacha Dennehy.
On more distant fringes is a group called ThingNY whose SubtracTTTTTTTTTlive has, among other things, the ultimate muted outburst with six screens, open mouths, but no sound. Find archived episodes on the Ensemble thingNY YouTube channel.
The enterprising HERE arts center has launched a series of what it calls Covideos. One features noted puppeteer Basil Twist and a set of hands floating in midair in an urban stairwell. Sound artist Christine Campanella plays a piano keyboard wearing surgical gloves. You can find them on the HERE Arts Center Facebook page.
Most daring but most reality-based is Phil Kline’s Every Night at 7, employing sounds recorded from the streets of New York City. Best known for his Vietnam War-oriented Zippo Songs, Kline is a major composer who has also authored the ambient music perennial Unsilent Night (periodically performed in Philadelphia). Now, he has organized music from the cacophony that erupts on Manhattan evenings in gratitude to the epidemic’s first responders. The piece encompasses sirens, church bells, and lots of pan banging. Listen at Dreamcity9 on SoundCloud.