Isolation is nothing new to a composer, nor is it distressing. For decades I’ve done my best work in quiet places without others around. So I have to admit that for me, the coronavirus pandemic actually arrived as a gift. Nonmusical work went on hold, I stayed well by staying home, and my composing flourished.
Contemplation also thrives in isolation. Although regular worship routines were interrupted by the pandemic, many of us found more time to read and reflect. We enjoyed the opportunity to attend Holy Week and Easter services in spaces far from home, over the Internet.
So it was perhaps no surprise that during Lent 2020, while our home of New York City suffered terribly from the first wave of what became known as COVID-19, my creative practice became more reflective. Two major works emerged, both marked by the pandemic but quite different from each other.
And it wasn’t just me: social media buzzed with creative energy of composers and performers harnessing online tools, and directly speaking to the needs of the moment: consolation amidst personal loss, national tragedy, isolation from family and friends. Like all shocks to a system, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we composers thought and the way we worked. However gruesome it was as a public health emergency, it forced us into new channels that proved fruitful.
The Well-Tempered Quarantine 1
Every day staying home, I was playing selections from JS Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The two sets of 24 pairs of preludes and fugues are endlessly inventive and deeply expressive. Soon I found myself responding to them with music of my own. Many times before, I had sketched little fugues as technical exercises, but this time, I was composing finished works in my own style; and as Bach did, writing in different tonalities and affects across many small pieces. I mischievously titled my little pieces The Well-Tempered Quarantine, partly in homage to Bach’s volumes, but also acknowledging how composing them gave me a daily purpose through the pandemic shutdown.
The work was positively exhilarating. I modeled many of the preludes directly on various preludes by Bach, and then developed the fugues from the preludes. Each prelude and each fugue, being about two minutes long, was completed fairly quickly. The miniature size also drew my attention to the tiniest details, to expressing exactly the idea of each piece without one extra note. And the sense of communion with the master, Bach, gave me a grounding, a strong sense of belonging in the tradition. Over three months, I completed six pairs, preludes and fugues. Then, to reach beyond my creative isolation, I recorded videos of myself playing and speaking about the pieces, and put them out on my YouTube channel 2. This led to dialogue about the pieces and the project among colleagues. Other pianists began performing them.
Of course the pandemic did not end in June 2020, though that was what I thought was happening as I wrapped up the six pairs. The following spring, having completed two larger projects, I returned to The Well-Tempered Quarantine, and composed six more pairs. The first six, from 2020, explored different tonalities. The latter six, from 2021, are more focused on various keyboard textures. The whole set of 24 pieces form a satisfying whole that can be played complete, or in selected pairs.
The second work I composed during the pandemic, Mysteria, is overtly concerned with spiritual experience. (Mysteria was commissioned by the Borromeo String Quartet and percussionist Ian David Rosenbaum, with support from Chamber Music America.) Whereas at the WTQ consists of short, concise constructions each building on a single idea, Mysteria is a large, single-movement work, 20 minutes long, with many musical ideas interacting and surfacing at different times in different guises.
Conceptually, Mysteria explores the transporting experience of sacred ritual, the way that ceremony can reduce the separation between the divine and everyday life. My imagination was drawn to images of ancient, earthy traditions and sounds of nature. To suggest the inter-penetration of the two worlds, I asked the string players for percussive effects, tapping their instruments and even playing the strings with rubber mallets. I assigned lyrical lines to the percussionist, including playing with a bow on the musical saw. Thanks to a delayed premiere, due to the pandemic, I had enough time to imagine and experiment and develop sounds that carried me in new directions. Without COVID, it would have been a very different piece.
Mysteria’s sound world was inspired by Xenakis, Bartok, and Stravinsky – it could hardly be farther from the Bach-influenced WTQ. And yet I composed this work in the hiatus between composing the first six and latter six prelude-fugue pairs. The two works seemed to complement each other, different sides of my creative imagination given space to respond to the horror and the isolation of the pandemic.
Many other composers also took advantage of the time and the dislocation of the pandemic to bring fresh beauty into the world. They refocused their energy on their craft and their essential purpose as vessels of art and community, and devised ways to use new technologies for connection. Though many performers felt more stymied, since they could not perform live, still, some brought forth creative responses that helped the musical community survive.
“Alone Together”4 was an online commissioning project involving 40 composers, each writing a “micro-work” for solo violin, to be performed by the renowned Jennifer Koh. Twenty established composers donated their new works, and then nominated 20 emerging composers, who were paid commissions, providing much-needed income and opportunity to freelancers. Ms. Koh performed all the works and initially posted them on YouTube. They were later released on a CD 5 that went on to win a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Solo. Thus an idea about providing work and income to young composers became a widely acclaimed concept album.
One of the established composers participating in “Alone Together” was Lisa Bielawa, who in April 2020 embarked on an open-ended work of her own: Broadcast from Home6. People around the world were invited to provide testimonies of their personal experience during the pandemic, and then were invited to sing with their own voices the melodies that Bielawa composed on their words. Bielawa compiled the recorded voices into online “performances.” By July 2020, fifteen Chapters had been released. Thus amateur musicians and music lovers collaborated in shared exploration of the pandemic experience, creating a space for healing.
Human creativity continues to make new beauty in evil times. Those of us privileged to work as artists experience this first hand. The times will continue to change, and our means of connecting with our audiences will keep evolving. Music and art will continue to meet the new challenges with fresh ideas and voices. But let us hope, not in another such deadly pandemic.
1. https://theodorewiprud.com/music/the-well-tempered-quarantine-preludes-and- fugues-2020/