Road From Heiligenstadt: A Composer’s Perspective on Surviving COVID
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. Composers are generally quite comfortable with self isolation, 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!
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.
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.