Counterstream Radio is your online home for exploring the music of America’s composers. Drawing upon New Music USA’s substantial library of recordings, our programming is remarkable for its depth and eclecticism. The station streams influential music of many pedigrees 24 hours a day. Keep listening and discover the sound of music without limits. Click here to open Counterstream Radio.
It feels like old news at this point to say that I have struggled during the Covid-19 pandemic. There are days where getting out of bed has felt like a chore and where my fears, both irrational and not, have consumed me into a spiral of anxiety. There are days where practicing clarinet, writing, working on projects, and teaching my students helps me find calm. However, a cloud of ambiguity tends to dissipate that calm and instead fuels anxiety as to when my next live performance will be. Like many, I have not-so curiously wondered where in the world the end to this global health crisis is, and why it hasn’t arrived sooner.
It also feels like old news to say that the pandemic has made me reflect on my artistic practice. I have felt empowered by improvising, by creating my own layered recordings, and even by writing the words you see here, but have felt insecure about my ability to do such in a world that is healing from unimaginable loss, pain, and grief.
Within days of restrictions being lifted in New York, ads for ticket sales and tour dates began populating my newsfeed. With cautious optimism, I thought, is live music really back? I was waiting for a point where another bar would close or a party would get too out of control, forcing me to be in the confines of my childhood bedroom once again. I had already wondered where my work as an artist fits into the ever-changing world, and with the dichotomy of student versus performer I assigned to myself, I pondered whether my art would be taken seriously, even as I chose to continue my studies.
Within days of restrictions being lifted in New York, ads for ticket sales and tour dates began populating my newsfeed.
I was in awe of the artists who I only knew virtually until that day making music so beautifully and authentically.
I want to be creating performances where people are not only called on to be present, but feel welcomed into doing so.
Working two jobs hasn’t given me much free time, so when I miraculously woke up to a Saturday with nothing on my schedule, I almost laughed. What should I do? Should I hang out with a friend, go get my nails done, catch up on my email? I went with the obvious choice and met up with a good friend who recently moved back to Manhattan. While sipping our coffees in the park near his apartment, I realized that there was free, live music happening in Astor Place that night, including two fellows from bespoken, a mentorship program we’re a part of that supports female and nonbinary musicmakers, who run the The Juneteenth Legacy Project. I debated whether I should go solely because I thought the more responsible thing to do would be to catch up on work, but it was Saturday, and I knew in my heart I needed to be out and about.
The energy was euphoric on the 6 train to Astor Place. With baseball fans chattering and families laughing, the subway felt far more alive in comparison to when I’ve taken it in months past. This felt familiar, reminiscent of what my “old life” resembled, but intersected with gratitude for even being in a dinky subway car with all of these strangers.
Walking up the stairs and out of the station was like a pantomime. I was immediately welcomed to the sounds of violin, piano, voice, and even electronics from The Red Stage, an outdoor pop-up space in Astor Place created by artist Rashid Johnson, blending with the hum of passing vehicles and the energetic laughter of passersby. Isn’t that fascinating – how the sounds from around us can add so much to a concert or a show? As cliché as it sounds, I don’t think I would have considered that had it not been for the pandemic. I never thought I would feel so grateful for the small sounds of people coexisting with me, yet there I was, bobbing my head along, feeling pure contentment and gratitude for sharing this space with all of these strangers. All of the fears and doubts swirling around in my mind left my body; instead, I was in awe of the artists who I only knew virtually until that day making music so beautifully and authentically. For how many people was this their first taste of live music again? Surely, not just me.
The Red Stage’s mission is to invite artists to create freely and authentically after a year of such immense anxiety. I had originally come to see the Juneteenth Legacy Project featuring Nnenna Ogwo, Erika Banks-Alvarez, percussionist Donnie Johns, and the Sterling String Quartet, and was delighted to also hear multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter Celisse, violinist Ché Buford, and genre-bending artist mal sounds, whose sounds greeted me as I first arrived. What I loved was how open the environment felt, not only because of its outdoor location, but because of the programming and energy generated by the artists themselves. There was no rushing to change over artists, no “shhs” when people clapped more than once; rather, there was space for each listener, whether there for a minute or an hour, to experience movements between experimental, classical, and even pop music. The concert was about 2 hours, featuring music by H.T. Burleigh, William Grant Still, Lizzo, Ché Buford, Childish Gambino, and more.
There were about 50 people in the audience, with benches dispersed near the stage, but many, like myself, took the option to stand amongst friends and enjoy the music in our little cohorts. From time to time, a light drizzle pushed its way into the atmosphere, but most paid no mind; there was a collective feeling of gratitude for being able to hear these artists do what they do best.
The Juneteenth Legacy Project (Photo credit: Jelani Thompson)
When I think of this concert and this time I carved out for myself to experience the thing that inspires me most, music, I smile from ear to ear. All I kept thinking while the show was going on is: “This is how concerts should feel.” The vulnerability of the artists to share this music with us in such a confusing time had me thinking about the idea of being present–at an event, a dinner, and in my daily life. I want to be creating performances where people are not only called on to be present, but feel welcomed into doing so. I don’t want to be limited to one genre of music; I want to be at the forefront of all the artistic possibilities I saw, heard, and experienced that night at The Red Stage.
Joy has always been the thing I have wanted to be at the center of what I do. The idea of cultivating a space for joy, to not only feel joy while creating sound on clarinet or writing these very words, but sharing that with the world at large, is fuel for me. Being at this concert brought me back to that part of myself. The world is healing, and so am I. I have the power to spread that joy–in whatever medium, in-person or online, right here, right now.
Val Jeanty (Photo by Wolf Daniel, courtesy of Roulette Intermedium)
From Val Jeanty’s essay “Sonic Ritual”
Music is pure communication and Vodou-electro is rhythmic intelligence that escapes the boundaries of the tonal. Operating as a kind of sonic communicative life-form, it incorporates a host of sampled wavelengths, rhythms and effects. Its tech-driven effects allow it to confuse the ear, blending interior and exterior realities so that, under the right conditions, it can virtually be seen, touched, and interacted with. More than just effects and inspiration, Vodou Culture has always been a powerful catalyst of change in my work, introducing powerful abstract harmonies that encapsulate new ways of thinking and bold compositions. Each rhythm has produced its own unique set of resonances and all of these sounds have – at some point – fused with and influenced one another, merging into a vibrational ocean of Haitian ancestral legacy. I continue to sample this ocean, creating new pulses and rhythms that send tentative sonic probes into unmapped realms and the ancient futures.
Tomeka Reid (photo by Joel Wanek)
From Tomeka Reid’s “5 Favorite Quarantine Recipes”
I love sunflower butter and have attempted to travel with it but have often ended up having it confiscated by the TSA! Forgetting to check it in my luggage, I’d have a jar in my snack bag and because of its “creamy” nature it would get tossed! Additionally, in my efforts to limit my use of single-use plastic, I decided to learn how to make it. Using 3 cups of raw sunflower seeds, lightly toast them on high on the stove for a few minutes until browned and then put them in a food processor. Blend in 1 minute intervals. A total of 10 minutes of blending usually does the job of turning them into a nice paste or butter. You can also do this with sesame seeds to make tahini. No oil needed in either case! The oils will eventually be released from the processing. Store the butter in mason jars or some other suitable container. I can’t say too much about the shelf life because it’s usually gone after a week or two. I also don’t add anything like sugar or salt, for example, but I’m sure you could!
From Lesley Mok’s essay “Liberalism in Music: The Limits to Representation”
The conservatory is one of many institutions that co-opts the politics of “anti-racism” into its own non-profit industry for corporate diversity initiatives without addressing structural root causes. I’m afraid our DEI economy has created a culture of fear and shame, and consequently pride (cancel culture), instead of a practice of investing the necessary time and resources needed to disrupt the well-oiled capitalist engine that continues to churn a profit from POC workers.
My hopes in writing this is to point out the insidious nature of liberalism in creative music–both in education and in performance. Tokenization will continue to run rampant without a true effort on the part of white administrators & teachers to meaningfully include musicians of color, especially women and non-binary people in developing a curriculum, and without white bandleaders thoughtfully creating a musical context that allows them to uniquely and personally contribute to the music. It’s not enough to have us just be in the band. Representation alone will not save us.
From Romarna Campbell’s essay “Stream of Consciousness”
I realize that my use of the word ‘SKIN’ is a euphemism for my identity as a whole – artist, musician, Black woman, drummer, composer, producer and so much more. I also realize the loneliness that comes with the intersectionality of these terms and identities. Some days, that loneliness manifests itself as pain, other days, as bitterness, and other days simply giving up. All these terms that are used to describe me as a person can feel claustrophobic and like a steel box that I can’t get out of. How do I explain how hurtful is when someone says, “Oh, I didn’t expect you to look like that,” or “Do something more lady-like,” or laughs when I say I’m a drummer or asks me, “When are you going to get a real job?” These are not even the most offensive comments that have been said to me over the years. It hurts because I care so deeply about these things!
From Sumi Tonooka’s essay “Remembering Philly Joe”
My first road trip with Philly Joe Jones was a weekend gig in Washington DC. It was 1975. I was nineteen years old and he was in his mid-fifties. My mother was not happy about my taking this gig and very wary of him, and that’s putting it politely. Philly Joe Jones was the last band leader that any parent would want to see their teenage daughter go out on the road with! My mother did not trust him. She was aware of his drug use and the many notorious stories, some of which are legend. During this period, he was not at his peak of hard drug usage, thanks to the influence of his wife, Eloise, who helped him transition off of heroin. He was still a heavy drinker though and a user of multiple substances at once.
Jen Shyu playing a moon lute (Photo by Wolf Daniel, courtesy of Roulette Intermedium)
From Jen Shyu’s essay “Zero Grasses and Fertility: Your Backstory Is the Real Story”
Don’t wait for your “clock” to start ticking. You might not hear it. From ages 33 to 37, I lived in Indonesia, Korea, and Timor-Leste, also traveling to Malaysia and Vietnam, except for three or four short visits to see my parents in Texas and to see my then-partner in NYC. People would always ask me in the places I lived whether I was married and had kids. My parents also wondered if I’d ever “settle down,” but I assured them that my partner and I would eventually marry. When I returned to NYC, I reunited with my partner, and though we lived separately, we readjusted to life after a bumpy long-distance road. I was waiting for my biological clock to kick in and tell me that I was ready to have kids. Perhaps because I had been putting so much creative energy into birthing my artistic work and research projects, I never felt this physical “urge” for kids. I wish I hadn’t waited for this “feeling” to just appear in my body.
From Caroline Davis’s poem ‘Aretes of the New Cyrene’
Eyes open / examining phonics, texture, phraseology of binding wounds.
Do we heal the injuries / is ours an iterative loop / or are we.
I / your lack of femininity might be addressed with a dress.
And I / you will have few roadblocks in your career due to re:dress.
And so I / I took the liberty of shaping your hips in the final edits.
Maya Keren (Photo by Zora Arum)
From Maya Keren’s essay ‘Reminder to Self’
In what I imagine is a common experience for many throughout this pandemic, I feel I have lost sight of my power: my sense of inner assurance; my direction; my fire. These past couple months have felt especially hard. Maybe it’s that I’m only socializing with the few people I live with in my Covid bubble as I finish up a semester of Zoom classes. Maybe it’s that I haven’t felt that rush that comes with playing and listening to live music in too many months. I’m realizing my well-being relies on a communal web far more expansive than I ever imagined. I’m familiar with the amounts of time I need with close friends and by myself, but maybe I need the embarrassed thrill of meeting new people; the same conversation with that one friend I had class with every Wednesday; the hellos and nods and gossip and flirtation and animosity. All these invisible threads holding us in silent trembling equilibrium.
To express what is beyond your own understanding, or your control, is the destination. To achieve the heights of thought-free expression, to trust in something beyond – to be concerned only with staying in vibration with a higher frequency that speaks a truth inside you personally and viscerally – that is your only responsibility. Having ideas about yourself, or concepts about your musical expression has its place, but the “I” that thinks these ideas will not tune you into the vibration of Source that you are seeking.
Sara Serpa (Photo by Carolina Saez)
From Sara Serpa’s essay Motherhood in Music in 10 Steps
Most of the music clubs, venues and concert halls don’t allow children. I once had a musician telling me that I couldn’t bring my baby to a concert because “this scene is not for babies”. I absorbed that quietly, feeling embarrassed for even asking. Most artistic residencies for musicians refuse families and children, with only 10% of artistic residencies in the US being family-friendly. Most grants for musicians do not consider or offer childcare support. I have never seen a children’s room in a performing space. Very few music festivals, studios, or educational institutions have childcare facilities. In general, it is the mother musician who is expected to be flexible and accommodating and not the institutions.
From Anjna Swaminathan’s essay, “The Sun Itself: Expanding my Horizons as a Queer Multidisciplinary Being”
My abundance lives in intergalactic melodies sung into a frying pan sizzling with shallots, cumin seeds, cloves and bay leaves. It lives in the precarious watering schedule of my 27 plants and their alliterating names (Parachute, Parvati, Pankajam, Pita and so on). It lives in the laughter that echoes through the walls of my fiancée’s and my rainbow-colored apartment. My abundance cannot live on a page (or worse on computer software with poorly produced midi) because it was born from something far less tangible, yet far more intrinsic. It was born in the whisper of crisp winter winds coming into one ear and endless poems and songs flowing out of the other. How can I possibly bastardize this oh so divine and human abundance by fixing it onto a page?
I don’t think of myself as the type that gambles with the rent money, yet that’s exactly what I felt like I was doing during tech week of the live, online, remote song cycle I recently produced called Swell. The riskiness of the endeavor, which was funded by the Mayor’s Office of the City of New York along with assistance for ASL interpretation from A.R.T.-NY, didn’t become clear until one night in tech when the internet was bucking wildly and we couldn’t sync the audio feeds coming from various corners of the country the way we’d successfully done during the past two weeks of staging rehearsals. It occurred to me that choosing such an unpredictable medium for a live, remote production whose subject was very dear to me may not have been the most clear-eyed decision.
A few years in the making, Swell began with an encounter with a piece of Nathalie Joachim’s that hearkened back to a trip she’d taken to her mother country of Haiti. Listening to her, I began wanting to make work like that, work that transported me to another place and to another way of life. It made me immensely nostalgic for my own island of origin, Taiwan. After that experience, it became my mission to find composers who identified as immigrants/children of immigrants, ask them if they’d be willing to write a song about some aspect of that experience, and on top of that, ask if they’d be open to collaborating with me on the lyrics. (At the time, I’d been writing lyrics for about three years and working with a couple of different composers; I was enamored with what music could do to enhance text and could see no reason to stop.)
My definition of new music was fairly broad—electronics, pop-inflected sounds, opera, opera lite, atonality—it was all marvelous as far as I was concerned.
It took a while to track down composers in New York who fit the criteria, and who were also comfortable with new music. I remember explaining the idea for the song cycle to one composer from Israel that I’d approached, and afterward he had a pained look on his face. He asked, “What if I didn’t immigrate to escape war or poverty?” My immediate reply was that that was ideal, because not every immigrant’s experience involves fleeing horrific circumstances. He wound up writing perhaps the cycle’s most well-loved earworm. Another composer decided to set his memory piece at a breakneck tempo, because he wanted to emphasize the humor in the song, as well as play with the fact that not every immigrant from Mexico has the same journey, literally or figuratively, to the U.S.
As it turned out, my definition of new music was fairly broad, and by the time I’d found ten composers, the song cycle included electronics, pop-inflected sounds, opera, opera lite, atonality—it was all marvelous as far as I was concerned. I loved, too, that each composer had (sometimes vastly) different musical backgrounds and training. They were all accomplished, yet they’d entered the field from different directions, meeting finally at this project. In summer of 2019, I was offered a two-day workshop at HERE in New York to test out the concept. The workshop presentation utilized three singers, three instrumentalists, projections, a little bit of lighting design, a smaller amount of set design, and music stands because nobody could be expected to be off-book. I’d paid everyone out of my savings, which at the time added up to a few thousand dollars—it was my emergency fund, and being offered space to present this work on very short notice seemed like the perfect emergency. In naming the song cycle, I arrived at a term that evoked both turbulent seas (and sea-crossings), and voices rising in unison.
While people who looked and sounded like us were being taken from their homes, we presented a song cycle underscoring how human and relatable immigrants actually were.
The workshop of Swell coincided with the weekend that ICE began conducting mass raids at the behest of then President Trump. It was an eerie coincidence, as the raids were originally scheduled to occur the weekend prior, but had been postponed for one week. So, while people who looked and sounded like us—people who came from immigrant families—were being taken from their homes, we presented a song cycle underscoring how human and relatable immigrants actually were. Our show wasn’t exactly a solution to what was happening, but it was a place where people could, and did, gather in solidarity against it. Fast forward to March 17, 2021, when Swell opened for a five-day, live, online run, after being given the green light to convert its originally intended, fully staged, in-person production into a virtual one. That night, as we finished up our first post-show production meeting, news of a shooting spree in Atlanta appeared in my feed. It wasn’t being called a hate crime, but it looked at least like a violent act that grew partly out of racist thinking and misogynistic ideas. The following day, I was asked how I was doing and whether there was anything people could do to help. The only answer that made sense to me was to ask people to watch the show. As it happened, half our composers were of Asian descent. I felt, and continue to feel, that the show kept me buoyed during a time when it would otherwise have been easy to succumb to fear and anxiety. I made the show’s comp code available to the public, which was a decision I could make easily as producer. It felt to me like everyone, for different reasons, could use our show at that moment.
As we finished up our first post-show production meeting, news of a shooting spree in Atlanta appeared in my feed.
Aside from the piece itself being moving, there was the undeniable fact that thirty artists contributed to it in some way. That thirty individuals helped to make what amounted to an online experiment, during a pandemic, while getting paid, is inspiring in and of itself. What I think made it such a powerful antidote to the race-based hate and violence toward Asians/Asian Americans, is the community we created over the course of making the show. Although every rehearsal and every meeting took place virtually, we maintained a kind and supportive ethos, even as we were attempting something highly stressful with a considerable chance of failure. It was important to me, especially early on, to have as much individual time with everyone as possible. Along with talking about the music, I swapped life stories with the music director (whom I hadn’t worked with before). I walked the performers through setting up their lights and green screens, and gave them as much time as they needed to get comfortable with the equipment and with me. I found this early getting-to-know-each-other period crucial for buffering the stressors that would inevitably come later in the process, such as scheduling snafus, tech week, and the sundry unpredictable surprises that crop up, which producers tackle on a regular basis.
It’s generally assumed that I regard Swell as my baby. Though this is true, it’s also true that I regard every project of mine as my baby. In theater, I’ve found that producing one’s work is the surest way of seeing that work in the world. In music (or more aptly, music-theater) which I’m newer to, an artist who produces their own work, let alone produces the work of others, seems something of a unicorn. At its core, producing is a time-consuming, stress-inducing, sleep-depriving job, and requires a set of skills that, if one doesn’t already possess them, one must be open to acquiring. Having done it, I can say my favorite things about producing have nothing to do with seeing the work realized. Instead, what I most enjoy are the problem-solving aspect and the power of paying artists. Every day I worked on Swell seemed to present a new challenge, and every day ended, if I was lucky, with a creative solution. Apart from that, nothing gives me as much joy as sending money directly to an artist for making their art. It was almost as if every time I hit ‘send’ I was paying myself.
One of the accomplishments that came out of Swell that I will take to my grave is that many of the composers (perhaps all?) had the chance to write about themselves in a way they’d never been asked to before. This again, was a difference between this world and the theater world. In theater, writers are often pressed to write about what they know, and while the intentions behind this remain well-meaning, for BIPOC writers this can sometimes feel restrictive or worse, extractive. Yet for composers who had never been given the chance to consider their heritage or their personal stories in the context of making work, they came away from Swell with a sense of self and a sense of purpose they hadn’t known they were missing. The other accomplishment of which I’m exceedingly proud is the ability to provide ASL interpretation for the show. What is meaningful to me about this is that for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, music can feel like an activity that belongs only to the hearing. Making this production accessible, with dynamic visuals, captioning, and a separate window for ASL interpretation (as large as the window for the show, if one chose to make it so on their computer screen) to a community that is not typically served, particularly when it comes to sound-based work, was revelatory. Suddenly it made sense to think of Swell as a work of art, rather than a work of sound.
Writers are often pressed to write about what they know, and while the intentions behind this remain well-meaning, for BIPOC writers this can sometimes feel restrictive or worse, extractive.
When we finally got Swell up and running, the same butterflies that attend an in-person show came swarming in. I saw people in the audience I knew, and there were names I recognized. It felt so live, and because of that it was scary. Every night we had different things to contend with, sometimes software related, often internet related. At the end of one night that went particularly well, the applause (via chat) was instantaneous, and my phone and email blew up with messages of awe and appreciation. As with in-person performances, one night like that is almost enough to erase all the imperfections that, to the maker, seem so glaring. If I had known from the beginning what putting Swell online entailed, I think I would have gone ahead and done it anyway.
I had just spent a joyous half-hour at the piano with my son, introducing to him the score of Beethoven’s First Symphony. It was a rare moment, when I was actually able to forget my now habitual caution, so necessary since the resurgence of my symptoms this past October: the need to weigh each word, to assess the value of every conversation, to allot the days of rest necessary to prepare for that next class, or Zoom meeting, or phone interview. For one brief half-hour, I was able to simply revel in the moment of allowing my voice to follow the dictates of my mind. My health was improving, as I had been on vocal rest the whole previous month: my chest pain upon speaking, a raw, knife-like soreness so singular to this virus, was waning, as were the low-grade fevers and debilitating chronic fatigue that accompanied it. But then, the familiar burn reared its head once again.
On April 4, 2020, I was diagnosed with COVID-19. I began exhibiting symptoms on March 26, and started my self-isolation at home before moving elsewhere, to maintain the health of my husband and son after they tested negative. This was before it was determined that infectiousness ends after 11 days: as my symptoms were not abating, to ensure my family’s complete safety, I remained away in quarantine for over four weeks.
This virus affects everyone differently; there can be no presumptions about what to expect. Upon diagnosis, it is futile to then neatly pencil 2-3 weeks into one’s calendar for recovery, scheduling life to resume as planned once the aforementioned time limit is hit. This disease does not answer to deadlines: it lingers, even for those fortunate enough to exhibit mild or moderate symptoms, not extreme enough for medical facilities to help. We were so fortunate to even procure tests, as none were available in the early stages of the pandemic. We were able to locate a private doctor who traveled to people’s homes to administer them, for the sum equivalent of a 13-week seminar’s pay.
I am aware that in certain ways I was blessed. Blessed with options. Blessed with the most beautiful-spirited and loving husband and son, without whom I could not have endured this: my Angels. Blessed that the virus, initially headed toward my lungs in the more dangerous “inflammatory phase” of the second week, then “seemed to change its mind,” in the words of my doctor, although—while an initial X-ray showed clear lungs—a subsequent CT chest scan revealed that they had indeed been affected.
At first, medical presumption held that my experience would be relatively light, and my symptoms were indeed mild. As for self-isolation, composers are generally quite comfortable with this status quo, even to the point of seeking it out, and so I decided to take the Romantic view: I had just been granted an unexpected artist residency! To my new quarters I brought two large pads of manuscript paper and pencils, with which to explore the beginnings of a new work, inspired by Beethoven. The piece, conceived the previous summer at MacDowell before the pandemic even began, would be an exploration of how infirmity might paradoxically inspire and enable one’s creative need. It would illustrate how isolation, induced by both society and self, could breed a passionate, yearning love for humanity, and a fierce drive to enable and universalize communication and connection through one’s art.
The following convergence of events were most likely serendipity. (That said, I do wonder if we as creators—especially at the earliest stages of writing—tend to invoke these paranormal occurrences, rendering every gift provided by the universe as creatively meaningful, no matter how trivial!) From the outset, I marveled at how my experience seemed to match Beethoven’s in certain ways. We were both exploring ideas in complete silence (not least as my temporary residence had no piano). We were both handicapped in such a way that alienated us from basic human communication: Beethoven with his encroaching deafness, I with my increasing difficulty in breathing and speaking without pain. On my first day in quarantine, I was practically certain that Beethoven’s spirit, over in Elysium, had mandated an unforeseen 12-hour break in Internet service, to ensure that I was truly internalizing his own silence! This was followed by a hail storm later that day, which began just as the “Tempest” Sonata—the very work Beethoven had completed before writing his famed “Heiligenstadt Testament”— resounded from a radio in the next room. Isolation seemed to heighten my awareness and appreciation of these mundane incidents, and the need to conjure whatever spirits necessary not only to feed my art, but to lend poetic value to an otherwise sad and pointless experience; they struck me as a heavenly gift.
But then, I entered a new, unforeseen “inflammatory stage,” far more dangerous, which I was told could last 2-4 weeks. Apparently, while improvement was possible, one also could experience setbacks, or “plateaus.” I was prescribed hydroxychloroquine, cautioned that a significant side effect could be vision loss, a terror for any composer. I elected not to take it, skeptical yet rattled by the public unfolding of Boris Johnson’s own bout with the virus, which landed him in the ICU on a ventilator after he had refused the drug.
My place of convalescence, while comfortable, was unfamiliar, and could only be reached via a steep and narrow staircase and a series of doors. In retrospect, the way into the apartment from the street entrance was not very long, but due to my vulnerable state, which included dizziness and vertigo, it seemed overwhelmingly labyrinthine. At night, as I tossed—ever-cognizant of my state of breathing even in half-sleep—I had visions of medics unable to reach me, should any emergency arise, as I would be too physically weak to toss them the keys to these various doors from my window. The prospect of losing the ability to breathe while completely alone was terrifying. I found myself h thinking of those suffering from AIDS, during the early days of the epidemic when there was so much confusion, helplessness, and fear. It was also not difficult to imagine that grim awareness of those elderly or already with pre-conditions, who find themselves being wheeled to the hospital, in complete isolation, everyone around them masked and bedecked in astronautical gear, their loved ones unable to be near them. I realized that, in addition to the actual physical havoc wrought by the virus, this was a disease of loneliness.
I went “there,” perhaps inevitably as, at this time of world-wide fear and foreboding, along with the relentless telling of somber stories, it was impossible not to. I allowed myself to imagine the various predicaments that earlier composers had faced at the end, each in their mid-forties, each an idol and inspiration: Scriabin at age 43, accidentally nicking himself during what would become his last, deadly shave; Berg, aged 46, attempting to ignore the inconvenient festering of an eventually fatal insect bite… First, the incredulity — how silly, to fall ill over such a trifle! Surely our spirits are more powerful and transcendent than this, and must prevail? Then, after a rallying of fierce determination and hope, the gradual sobering. The daze of disbelief. And, finally, the pained horror, and clarity, of… “This is it.” Submission.
I wonder if, whenever one must reconcile with such fate, there is an irony. The irony of details, that this is, after all, the way it ends: a bed, a lonely room, the lack of touch, the struggle to speak, to breathe. Or, there is another more existential irony, perhaps akin to what Haydn had felt, as he wistfully mused about how then, only then, did he truly begin to comprehend writing for woodwinds.
My husband was my Knight. He would visit me each day, masked and at a distance, delivering nourishing home-cooked dinners in Tupperware. My quarters were near enough that he and my son could take daily walks to visit, calling up to me beneath my window so that we could view each other unmasked. While they maintained brave demeanors, their eyes bespoke such sadness.
My ultimate salvation was music. It was especially important to return to those native energies that had so fueled my original creative impetus, especially as there were few other pastimes that could deeply transport me for which I had energy. In particular, I had the pleasure of listening to the latest CD collection of the great thereminist Clara Rockmore, entitled Music and Memories, which features interviews and newly unearthed, astonishingly profound performances: the most notable (to my mind) are her second movement of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, which she plays in dialogue with herself via overdubbing, and her rendition of the Franck Sonata, both violin and cello versions combined, due to the scope of the theremin’s range. To be brought so close to Clara, one of my dearest, most profound mentors and inspirations as a musician, through her music, her lilting voice, her grace, felt to me like a resurrection or visitation, a centering, a true gift.
By June, I seemed to have recovered fully, and I enjoyed the summer and early autumn months in a state of restored health. In the ensuing months, I grasped at the blessings and even the silver linings: after all, didn’t Tolstoy claim that “illness can liberate the power of the spirit in us”? I relished every precious moment at home with my dearest ones (what paradox, that hardship can enable beauty to be experienced all the more vividly!), and welcomed a rigorous teaching schedule at the two institutions where I serve on composition faculty. In those particular days of national unrest, it was a joy and a blessing to dissociate from it all through work with my students. Every composer-professor can doubtlessly relate to the tug-of-war of energies that arises as one must balance not only time and mental space, but also the constant shifts in the way one engages with the world. (I’ve noticed, too, that teaching and composing can be unexpectedly symbiotic.) That said, convening with my students – all excellent, particularly focused and inspired – was a true balm for the spirit.
First premiere post-Covid: “Resurrection,” from Different Loves, at the Cell, presented by Bright Shiny Things. Sept. 9, 2020.
But then, in October, the symptoms returned, causing lecturing to be especially difficult. Each two-hour seminar seemed an Olympian feat, prompting bouts of chest pain, severe fatigue and low fevers that would last as long as 36 hours, and demanding days of recuperation. At the time, the syndrome of “long COVID”—or any awareness that there might be a long-term impact from the virus—had not yet been discovered, although COVID survivors whose onset of illness began before April 2020 (who term themselves online as “Long Haul COVID Fighters”) were describing dismaying symptoms of relapse at the seven-month marker. By November, it had come to the point where I stayed silent except for when teaching my classes. To my own family I would whisper, until I learned that doing so causes more strain. Every occasion to speak was accompanied by the prospect of danger, the dread that the chest pain will return. Increasingly, I would teach via email correspondence, and a composer colleague was on-hand for any last-minute substitution, which was increasingly necessary. I had a podcast interview scheduled, and then a pre-concert talk, that month: preparing for each necessitated a week’s vocal rest. I felt in quarantine within my own physical being.
Communicating through music, therefore, was truly my sustenance. Music has the capacity to penetrate and surmount the limitations of spoken language, a reason why I am addicted to writing it and exploring its endless capacity for emotional wisdom (all-too-often revealing and teaching new significances to the composer during, and long after, the process).
I noticed how, as a composer with a propensity for introversion, it was not very difficult to cocoon back into the safety of one’s interior existence. The repertoire I gravitated toward brought about unexpected discoveries of light. I rediscovered Liszt, specifically his Consolations and the Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses for solo piano, surprised at the spiritual depth and capacity for simplicity in both works. I loved the freedom with which Liszt alluded to liturgical texts within the piano line, almost as an invisible voice, and the joy with which he conjured different composers such as Beethoven and Palestrina; I also heard him foreshadowing Wagner, not just spiritually but in structural scope. I reconnected with Schubert, Faure, Messiaen, and both Schumanns, feeling myself able to access each composer’s spirit and intent in newly intimate ways as I myself experienced their music through ears, fingers, and mind: I was sure that the Consolations were written by Liszt as consolation for himself. I believe that one of the miracles of being a creator is to be endowed with the gift of healing oneself from within: one’s music, in the most ideal of scenarios, can take others—and the composer—through an emotional journey, even to catharsis when necessary.
So what sort of music does one write during a pandemic, and during the course of such an experience? I can liken my recent creative impulses to those I had in the year following 9/11. Some weeks after the Twin Towers fell, I flew to Israel on a Fulbright Scholarship. It was a time and place particularly rife with turmoil. At times, I found myself unsettlingly close in proximity to the latest calamity, and was also—as it happens—battling a chronic illness.
As for self-isolation, I decided to take the Romantic view: I had just been granted an unexpected artist residency!
Communicating through music was truly my sustenance.
One of the miracles of being a creator is to be endowed with the gift of healing oneself from within.
To function as a composer in our era and society, an essential requirement—one not much mentioned—is that of basic physical health.
Did my music express tragedy? Not at all: I ended up composing works of fierce, defiant celebration, of deep and ecstatic joy. I believe that the act of composition was the most profound medicine, providing me with an overwhelming strength and invincible energy, and provoking an intense liberation of voice, tremendous self-discovery and reconnection with something deeply intuitive and visceral.
I realized, back in 2001, something I have been reacquainted with now: that Music—creating it, playing it, receiving it any way that it may be experienced—is the ultimate antidote. It is our lifeline, our “best friend,” the ultimate expression and reflection of our souls, of the best of ourselves. And then, there is the beautiful irony that what arises from the most internal and vulnerable place within us then serves to reach others, crossing barriers of language, culture, and politics, reaching people as individuals and embracing them in communal understanding and togetherness… at least for a moment.
On the academic front, this past year’s experience has brought me uncomfortably in touch with the precariousness of the adjunct professor’s—and, indeed, the freelance artist’s—lifestyle. Having taught composition full-time at a reputable conservatory in Boston for ten years, in 2011 I had relocated to my native New York for the sake of both my musical and family life, carving for myself an active and multifaceted identity as a composer, academic, and performer (on both piano and theremin), and teaching composition at multiple institutions, along with an independent studio of private students. At the two institutions where I am currently on faculty, my students, colleagues, and department chairs could not be more understanding, flexible, and sympathetic, and for that I have been deeply grateful. That said, I discovered that there are no options in place for adjunct faculty when catastrophe hits, such as the need for paid medical leave, even during our current crisis: the system is simply not set up for such situations. To function as a composer in our era and society, an essential requirement—one not much mentioned—is that of basic physical health. One must have banks of energy in reserve supply, a surplus, and there is no room for illness in this equation. In the absence of a full-time academic position that would allow for a more flexible teaching load and manner, it occurs to me that there are so few alternatives for composers—aside from receiving a sizable grant or a large orchestra or opera commission—that don’t mandate the regular use of one’s voice.
At the time of this writing, I have mostly recovered. After some months of being able to rest my voice, my fatigue has now ebbed. Each day yields improvement, thanks to a regimen of rest, patience, an altered lifestyle, voice healing work, and a seemingly beneficial bout of Prednisone. I am lucky to have basically avoided the characteristic “brain-fog” and work as I can, passionately, while parenting a gifted sixth-grader who needs my nurturing, guidance, and energy. Composing has sustained me, kept me joyful, idealistic, and sane. This March, practically one year after my initial diagnosis, I will return to a limited amount of online teaching, and am increasingly confident I will be able to do so. With the onset of spring, I am filled with renewed hope and anticipation.
Virtual Premiere of Different Loves, A Cycle of Classical Portraits (2020-21) by Dalit Warshaw
Composed from Jan. 2020 to Jan. 2021, Different Loves explores the seven Classical Greek Loves through this seven-movement cycle of musical portraits. From friendship, to family devotion, to altruistic love, to Eros, we are taken on a journey through the spectrum of human emotion and experience, culminating in intimate and reflective self-love. The undertaking of composing and performing this work served as a spiritual antidote to the challenges of this somber time.
In late October I had a what I thought would be a passing conversation with a friend that ended up affecting me quite profoundly. He described to me how he visited his local convenience store, one he visits often, and he saw several heavily armed protestors outside. While normally he felt at peace when stopping at this store, this time he felt uneasy. In describing that moment, he said that he wasn’t scared for his safety or fearful of the rhetoric. What scared him most, he said, was that he was looking at his home which he no longer recognized.
That sentiment stuck with me all through the election week and in the months since. While after that week I have occasionally felt flashes of recognition for a society I remember from my youth, for the most part, I am still looking at a society and a set of communities that I don’t totally recognize anymore. I am troubled by the rampant disregard for the truth, lack of courageous leadership, and the attacks on the fundamental democratic processes of our country.
In 2016, the day after the election, I wrote a long response that I was planning on sharing on social media. I ended up not publishing it and it has since been lost to the internet or a hard drive somewhere. I don’t remember specifically what it said, but I vividly remember feeling lost while I was writing; I didn’t know why I was writing or even what I wanted to say, only that I had to get something on paper.
Looking back, I think I felt the instinct to write a response because I was looking at a world with which I was having a hard time reconciling my musical education. At that time and for the next couple of years after, the most common question I would ask myself was something along the lines of “Why does all of the work I’m putting into my independent practice, classes, rehearsals, and performances matter?”
I was having a difficult time reconciling my artistic practice and endeavors with a world that no longer seemed to share the values I was taught to believe in my youth: values such as trust, working together, and community. I had become untethered from an artistic practice that felt relevant and while I initially wrote that response in 2016 to share, I realize now I wrote it for me. I was looking for a new path.
Fast forward to the day after the 2020 election, and I was asked to give a talk at my alma mater: the Hugh Hodgson School of Music at the University of Georgia. I was asked if I would be willing to talk about my doctoral research into creative placemaking and community-engaged music making. The timing of this request did not escape me as it made me think about my path to this research, which started with my soul searching in 2016. This time when I examined my own practice in the context of our society, I found an answer to why my artistic activities matter. That meaning came in the form of another question to which I can tether myself and from which I can perhaps find a bit more understanding. While in response to the events of the months following the election, my feelings have continued to vacillate between confusion, disbelief, and anger, I have not felt as lost during this time as I did four years ago thanks to this guiding question.
That question is: “What is the role of artists in our communities?”
To answer that question, we have to start by looking at our communities. In recent decades in the United States, we have become more divided culturally and ideologically than ever before. We have geographically, politically, and even spiritually sorted ourselves into like-minded groups. To put it another way, most Americans now live near, work amongst, and interact with only other people who think exactly like them. We have sorted ourselves into communities and social groups with other people who affirm our own beliefs.
In his book, written in 2009, called The Big Sort, Bill Bishop says this, which has only become more pronounced in the years since: “We all live with the results (of this sorting), balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible; a growing intolerance for political differences that has made national consensus impossible; and politics so polarized that Congress is stymied and elections are no longer just contests over policies; but bitter choices between ways of life.”
I think it’s important to note at this point that elections in the US have always been bitter choices between ways of life, especially for those with less privilege based on our societal structures. Nowhere is this division more evident than in the history of racism in our country. The country was founded on principles of division and racial superiority/inferiority that we are still trying to overcome to this day. Yet the change referenced in the above quote still resonates strongly with me because I believe those of us with more privilege, myself included, have become more aware of this division and its far-reaching effects within our society and, more importantly, are committed to addressing it head on.
We would expect that alongside the sorting we have done in American society, we would feel a greater sense of belonging in our communities and to the people around us, but that isn’t the case. In fact, levels of reported loneliness in the United States have gone up. In 1980, around 20% of the country reported feeling lonely, while in 2017 that number had more than doubled to over 40%. Human beings are social creatures; we are hard-wired for connection with each other. We need it to survive. In fact, loneliness is just as deadly to our health, if not more so, than smoking or excessive drinking. One study entitled Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality by Julianne Hold-Lundstad, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton estimates that loneliness increases our risk of dying young by nearly 45%.
However, this sorting has gone beyond polarized politics and loneliness, and over the past two months we have witnessed the depth of our disregard for the truth in favor of viewpoints that fit our own perspective and attacks on the fundamental democratic processes our country is based on, culminating in the stunning acts of violence committed at the US Capitol on January 6. I’ve noticed a trend where we find that it’s easier for us to hate the “other side” rather than confront our own pain and loneliness head on. We resort to dehumanizing other people rather than searching for understanding through empathy and compassion.
I was looking at a world with which I was having a hard time reconciling my musical education.
We resort to dehumanizing other people rather than searching for understanding through empathy and compassion.
Music has the power to change our brainwaves and even our body chemistry.
We must welcome our communities to the table of the creative process.
We can use each other’s stories as a mirror and a lens to understand our own.
Noted author, professor, and social worker Brené Brown states that “Dehumanizing always starts with language, often followed by images. We see this throughout history. During the Holocaust, Nazis described Jews as Untermenschen—subhuman. They called Jews rats and depicted them as disease-carrying rodents in everything from military pamphlets to children’s books.” An example from our own country’s history is the use of minstrel shows to degrade the identity and artistic practices of Black Americans. This manipulation of language and art can be used to create an enemy image and a sense of moral exclusion that allows us to treat someone else as less than human.
This instinct to dehumanize a group of people based on their identity and inflict harm on them because we don’t agree in order to compensate for our own pain is what strikes me as being most antithetical to the society I thought I belonged to. This didn’t just change over the past four years. It has been slowly developing over time and is destined to continue unless we confront our pain and our fear head on.
This is where artists come in. In her book Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown says the following about music and art, “Art has the power to render sorrow beautiful, make loneliness a shared experience, and transform despair into hope … Music, like all art, gives pain and our most wrenching emotions voice, language, and form, so it can be recognized and shared … The magic of music is the magic of all art: the ability to both capture our pain and deliver us from it at the same time.”
Just as human beings are hard-wired for connection, we are also biologically programmed to respond to sound and music. The human brain is conditioned to align itself with the visual and aural rhythms of the world around it through a process called entrainment. Music has the power to change our brainwaves and even our body chemistry. Think of the ways we use sound in the medical field to break up cataracts, treat tendonitis, conduct ultrasounds, or even fight cancer. Music can be a vehicle to create a space for authentic connection and relationships between people. It can be part of the antidote for the loneliness we feel. Just as art can be used in the process of dehumanization, it is essential to the process of rehumanizing our society.
If we want the art we make to heal our community’s loneliness and pain and bring us back together again, then it has to be about more than creating a pristine product to be consumed. We need to recognize art’s place as part of the fabric of our society, an essential piece of our culture, and a means for enabling authentic connection between people. Artmaking is a representation of the human condition. We artists, similar to many other disciplines in this day in age, need to take a hard look at our priorities and recognize that the historical traditions of our art form are just traditions which can be molded to address new challenges; they are not immutable laws.
Every element of our creative process is a lever that we can adjust to place connection and relationship-building at the center of artistic experiences. These levers can include elements such as behavior expectations for performers and participants, choice of venue, availability of food and drink, choice of repertoire, and so much more. I use the term “participant” here instead of “audience” intentionally, because the term audience implies passive consumption not active engagement in the artistic experience. If our goal is building relationships and understanding, then every participant must invest themselves fully in a personal experience with the music. This active engagement on behalf of participants demonstrates, as Eric Booth states so eloquently in his book The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible, that “art lives in an individual’s capacity to engage in that fundamental act of creativity – expanding the sense of the possible.” Making authentic connection the central goal of our artistic endeavors unlocks the possibility for our art to begin the work of rehumanizing our society. We do this by prioritizing understanding and empathy in our relationships with each other and respecting every person’s dignity as a member of the human race.
Just because things have been done one way and are easy to keep doing that way, does not mean it works every time. We will find more connection by exploring a different means of performing, teaching, and communicating and we must bring our communities into the creative process of designing these experiences. One example of these new means could be co-creating new works of music with direct input from community members so it tells their stories. We can also lean into providing opportunities for two-way communication between artists and participants as a part of every performance through events such as question-and-answer sessions and pre- and post-concert conversations and interactions between performers and participants. We critically must also embrace equity and inclusion so that the stories we share in our art belong to all people. We must welcome our communities to the table of the creative process and expect intentional participation, even if that means dissent.
We have to make a priority of creating trust, both in our own practice as artists and between us and those who participate in our art. Creating that trust means listening louder than we play and stepping into a brave and vulnerable space where we engage with people whose beliefs we may feel stand against our own truth. It takes a special kind of courage and craft to use our art to face those beliefs and say, “Tell me more; help me understand your pain so we can work through it together.”
When we tell our story, share our own pain, and listen to other people’s stories in artistic experiences, we create the opportunity for rehumanization. We find wholeness and meaning as human beings through our relationships with each other and we can use each other’s stories as a mirror and a lens to understand our own. Rehumanization is not just about finding what we have in common but also about seeking to understand and empathize with what we each hold as most important or sacred, which can be different for each person.
When I go back to that place of questioning four years ago, I realize now what I was looking for was a role for artists to play. In a world we increasingly don’t recognize, one where we pass off our own pain and loneliness by hating and dehumanizing someone else, artists are called to be healers, transformers, and restorers. We have a responsibility to rehumanize each other through our work and remind our communities of what we all share. As artists we are called to stand in the gap of social, cultural, and ideological differences and create experiences that reaffirm our connection to our shared humanity.
I won’t pretend it will be easy. It will be scary and vulnerable, but vulnerability isn’t a sign of weakness. Vulnerability is the lifespring from which our creativity and compassion rise. It’s our courage to show up, be seen, and see other people without the safety of our ideological and artistic safety nets. Being vulnerable is a fundamental part of our humanity.
We, artists of all backgrounds and training, are called to stand in the gap. I hope to see some of you there.