Just about two weeks ago, by complete chance, I met the comedian Kate McKinnon at a popular Upper West Side cafe. In the next hour, I picked up our kids from school, as it turned out, for the last time in…[we’ll have to fill this in eventually..?] Two days later, that restaurant and most other neighborhood establishments were closed. Going outside became a game of chance — will I get it? Where? Half of the people I see are wearing masks – why not me? Had I washed my hands long enough?
Almost overnight, everything in my public life was canceled (or, as we’re learning to say “postponed until further notice”) — concerts, projects, residencies, collaborations, meetings, rehearsals —some things that took years to conceive and develop, fundraise for and promote.
Perhaps one day I will write more in depth about the Coronavirus experience in New York — but not this time. My experience is not singular — every working musician is sitting at home thinking of ways to move forward, to provide for their family and to raise the morale of their community, and of those working on saving lives in the hospital.
Instead right now I want to focus on the music.
In lieu of public performances, most of the music community shifted online, in search of a digital audience. Major arts organizations — Berlin Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic and many others — began posting free streams of concerts on their websites. Major stars began broadcasting concerts from their living rooms. Orchestras began putting together emotional virtual performances, stitched together from individual musicians recording their parts at home. It is an embarrassment of riches, brought to you by artists worldwide, some of whom are collecting unemployment checks, many who are not.
My initial response to COVID-19 was to create “NetLicks” – a blues-based boogie-woogie waltz that anyone could play and record from their home, which I would then compile into an ever-exploding composition, as I have done through the Netlicks Nightly Bakes playlist on my SoundCloud. NetLicks currently involves fourteen musicians from the US and one from Mexico, the youngest being five years old.
As I continued to contemplate ways to engage with the musician community, I realized that we have a major problem — either the internet was not built for musical collaboration, or our musical language was not built for the internet. Principally, the internet is full of latency, it is laggy — if you’re watching the same live stream on two different devices placed right next to each other, they will not be in sync but just slightly off — the exact time difference will depend on the connection speed, the picture quality, the distance to the network source, the device’s age and processor speed, and many more factors that are beyond control.
Almost every kind of music and most performing arts depend on vertical alignment, where every instrument has to sound in its right place in time. The drums have to be in sync with the bass, the choir has to be in sync with the orchestra, the dancers in sync with the beat, the car chase in the movie has to be in sync with the sound effects — everything has to be together in the same time, our whole understanding, our experience, depends on a vertical coexistence. We know in mind and body what it is to be “in sync” and what it feels like when things are “out of sync”.
There are creative ways for experimenting with sync issues — for example, Witold Lutoslawski and Krzysztof Penderecki in Poland, and John Corigliano in the US (among others) composed music using a technique called “aleatoric music”, where time is controlled on a macro scale, but the precise timing of a gesture is left to the performer. In another example, American composer Terry Riley’s “In C” created a sense of sync by using the smallest possible organizing unit — the repetition of a single note. Both approaches create a vertical alignment that is flexible and open to interpretation.
While watching videos of my colleagues performing alone from their homes, I began to conceive of a series of compositions that embrace the variety of sync issues that the internet brings to the fore, using the tools of connection that we already have – phones, computers, and video conferencing software.
“Intermezzo” (originally written for three cellos, but premiered by two cellists, Laura Melnicoff & Valeriya Sholokhova, and myself on fadolín) uses a form of “call and response” to create an accompaniment that is free flowing between two performers, while a third performer offers a melody that is floating on top. The result is a sort of “rubato”, a sense of bent time that would be hard to replicate in the real world.
“Social Instants”, written a few days later, is a suite of micro-duets for two musicians (violin and fadolín in the premiere video), which explore a variety of techniques to create a sense of sync without using vertical alignment — imitation, call and response, rhythmic ambiguity, listening to and ignoring your performing partner. The video above inter-cuts between two performances — featuring violinists Leonor Falcón & Nataly Merezhuk — to illustrate the different challenges of performing remotely. “Social Instants” is fun and easily sight-readable for most — you can download the sheet music for free.
This is the space where I am now – trying to compose new music and actively engaging my musician friends and colleagues in creative ways over the internet. We have to find ways to confront the situation we’re in, to creatively meet the challenge of our isolation, embrace latency and continue performing, alone but together.
P.S. Here’s a little bonus video — a 1-minute excerpt of “April Fòóls Hora”, with my dear colleagues Zisl Slepovitch (basset horn), Jordan Hirsch (trumpet), Binyomin Ginzberg (organ) and myself on fadolín, recorded in front of two people in our Zoom audience on April 1.