Tag: #cheer4healthworkers

Emerge, Bridge, Connect


The task of “emerging” artists is to slowly grow into their industry. To create their community, one conversation at a time.

This process relies upon human hugs, handshakes, and the, “Oh! I’ve heard so much about you and how amazing that we’ve just run into each other at the same tuba and microtonal keyboard concert!” But during quarantine, this spontaneous growth of our root networks has slacked for some and completely stalled for others.

Throughout 10 weeks of quarantine, I’ve felt the urge to isolate myself completely, definitely more than “being safe” necessitates. Some of it comes from fear, or from lack of confidence.

By shutting out my friends and connections, I put off the psychological work of believing in myself, promoting myself, and sometimes even writing music.

I am isolated in Los Angeles, where I daily write morning pages, grow tomatoes, and sprout lettuce from a severed romaine stem. The tomato plants are stalling at about 3 inches high, and the romaine has shot up 8 or 9 inches, almost defiantly.

I started therapy. I exuberantly shaved half of my head.

I cook complicated as well as simple dishes, and voraciously type into a document called “Ak’s growing cookbook.” I first opened it in 2016 when I began my masters in composition and started trying to remember the dishes I would create.

I still write music, but quarantine gave me the motivation to hit the gas on my side job. I’m seizing my new path with passion. After months of silence, I’m listening to music again (at hilariously low volumes) while I organize my to-do lists.

It’s a relief to be a beginner again. I am energized by the fact that I can develop new skills over the course of a few weeks. We (all of us), truly, no longer have to be disheartened, thinking that every worthwhile skill must be taken up at age 3 or 5.

I sometimes doubt if I can call myself a composer when I’m spending more than 50% of my time on my side-hustle as a freelance writer / virtual assistant. But as more emerging artists turn to other forms of employment, we will challenge our own notions about what artists are supposed to do. We will redefine how we spend our time and intellectual resources.

And having a double-barreled profession title doesn’t make us any less creative. We will still call ourselves what we know we are.

In fact, bridging professional worlds may force us to confront the shortcomings of existing arts institutions. We may actually gather wisdom from people working outside the arts.

As I learn more about the small businesses who are my clients, I fantasize about bringing what I’ve learned back to the arts. Someday, I tell myself, the skills I’m gathering will coalesce into purpose and benefit the artistic community.

In the meantime, they are helping me survive.


While grieving human-to-human music-making, don’t lose touch with those who inspire you.

We are grieving together. Performers are grieving lost performances, composers are grieving lost premieres and commissions. And although the next concert series won’t be able to hire us, we can still send a friendly note checking in on staff members and performers.

In the end, we need to remember that we create community. Your “new music” community might just be a handful of friends. They might not even listen to new music. They’re probably the people who make you feel safe and supported. We shouldn’t wait for a group of (possibly intimidating) people to find and accept us. Right now we just need people, not “important” people.

When you have energy to spare, offer it up to your friends.

Most of them will say, “Oh, thank you for reaching out!” with a genuine sigh of relief. The relief is gratitude for that one thing you did: you gathered the materials — which you can both use, now, to build bridges between each other. When you return to that pit of loneliness, craving people, or just craving — your friends will walk back towards you along the bridge.

Maybe performers, composers, and commissioners can pick up the emotional pieces from projects that have fallen through. Maybe we can focus on getting to know one another. Maybe we actually can still make something together, even if it’s two different batches of odd, dry-looking bread. If we can spare the time for each other, our relationships will be that much deeper. Our community will thrive.

In our subsection of Los Angeles, we are making a return to the hyper-local. We are bartering homemade lemon cake for toilet-paper, a haircut for homemade pierogies, or a Zoom weight-training session for original “relaxation” music. The personality of it all feels delicious. Money never left me feeling this way.

Our hyper-local sound-making leaves me with a newfound curiosity about the lives of the people living in my neighborhood.

At exactly 8:00 pm every night, a steam vent opens and my neighborhood explodes with shouting, bells, and the banging of pots and pans. It’s cathartic. (A Ph.D. student could write about the importance of our exuberant yowls: a post-verbal communication style.)

Even without a (musical) performance, here is an audience.

Yes, we’re buffered by a bit more space. But sound forms a transient bridge between us.

“Thank you, health-care workers!” my neighbor shouts at the top of her lungs. Sometimes her toddler shouts the phrase after her, a tiny yet powerful voice breaking through the dusk.

This is the kind of sound-making I want to be a part of.

It requires us only to be where we are.

Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.

ASCAP Foundation Logo

For Our Courageous Workers

A screen shot of a video depicting frames of 29 different individual musicians performing on various instruments in front of their windows.

For Our Courageous Workers is a 4-movement, 11-minute long graphic piece I conceived which was composed together with Hajnal Pivnick and Dorian Wallace, realized by musicians of all levels in New York City and beyond, and performed at 7pm—the time of the daily “Cheer for Front-Line Workers”—on April 29, 2020, during the period of our COVID-19 virus “stay-at-home quarantine”.

It was intended to fulfill many purposes. To call attention to the risks that front-line essential workers face, doing the jobs that allow us to live and survive through this virus period, and to celebrate them and their work. To inspire the people of the city, isolated by necessity and decree, and bring them together through music. And to allow musicians to do what we do—make music! (For many New York musicians, accustomed to playing with others on an almost daily basis, this was the first time they had played live with others in almost two months.) Hajnal Pivnick, Dorian Wallace, and I saw our roles as being both composers and directors of a ritual, spectacle performance.

The composition presented a number of challenges. We had to ensure that it was not only playable by all levels of performers, from amateurs, students, and rank beginners to the world’s finest professional, performing musicians, but would also be enjoyable to perform. To this end, we chose instructions that anyone could achieve at their own level.

It needed to both grow out of and function as an extension of the daily “Cheer for Front-Line Workers” ritual that takes place in NYC. Michael Brodeur, in the Washington Post described it as follows:

New Yorkers have established their own socially distanced approach to celebrating the efforts of health-care workers—cheering them every evening at 7 from their windows and rooftops with a clamor of pots, pans, songs and applause.

We began the piece with this clamor of pots, pans and applause, and added a jubilant major fanfare. The drummers used only cymbals, reminiscent of the explosive percussion in Chinese New Year’s celebrations. Then, instead of ending at around the time the cheer would normally subside, we went into a contrasting section.

We chose a four-section structure to give it both musical shape and a narrative focus:

1) CHEERING (for the workers);
2) REFLECTING (on the devastation and loss);
3) CATHARSIS (“a full-blown play anything, glorious, jubilant, ecstatic, cacophonic, sonic catharsis” to release pent in feelings, be they anger, grief, rage, frustration); and
4) GRATITUDE (for the workers, for our lives, families, loved ones, health, community).

Any attempt to have a synchronized rhythm or pulse would have failed, as would having the length determined by a number of bars. We defined the four movements through clock time not metronomic time. (Although, in order to give a sense of slowness, the 2nd movement has the instruction to the drummers: “Quarter note pulse = 60 bpm”. This was meant to be taken either literally or figuratively.)

A hypothetical listener hovering above the city would hear 3 minutes of Bb major, with an emphasis on the Bb major seventh chord (Bb-D-F-A), fast and explosive; morphing into 3 minutes of slow pensive D minor; a sudden eruption of 3 minutes of total noise and chaos; and a final coming together into one unified pitch and sound. E Pluribus Unum, out of many, one. In determining the home pitch for the fourth section, we debated using D (easy for the string player) or Bb (for the winds). Bb was chosen because I remembered reading somewhere that New York City vibrated to a fundamental bass tone of Bb (possibly from the electrical grid or subway vibrations).

Limiting the pitch sets for the 1st, 2nd, and 4th movements ensured that it would work as an ensemble piece (if the performer heard others playing it), while allowing players to treat it as a solo performance (if they did not).

Courageous Workers poster

My personal performance went thus: 3 minutes of free blowing Bb major jubilant energy, reminiscent of Albert Ayler’s “Bells,” accompanied by Tony Geballe’s Frithian guitar feedback drones on the next roof. 3 minutes of spiritual, meditative D minor melodies reflecting the sadness of losing so many greats to this virus. Then chaos and release! Allowing myself to vent the frustration of being led through this crisis by a mendacious, self-serving national leader, I ended up screaming uncontrollably while playing the ratchet as fast and loudly as possible—my personal catharsis. The last few minutes of unison brought me down to earth, and I realized that dozens of people in adjacent buildings, hungry for live music, were applauding.

We don’t know exactly how many people participated, but we have received almost 100 performance videos of For Our Courageous Workers. Weaving these together videos affirms that our compositional choices play out: it is a coherent work performed by musicians who for the most part could not hear each other.

I suspect that we will create a number of iterations of For Our Courageous Workers using the submitted material. But it’s going to be a while before we have something complete to share with the world. In the meanwhile, here’s a sneak peek at the first 30 seconds.

For Our Courageous Workers could not have been successful without having many participants. As the entire project went from its initial conceptualization to the performance in 10 days, we relied upon our co-sponsoring organizations—each with a wide reach into diverse New York musical communities—to get the word out to the public. We feel a deep gratitude. All of them, along with the hundreds of people who performed the piece, brought together undzer kleyn shtetl New York (our ‘little village of New York’) through sound.

[Ed. Note: To access the single-page, text-based score for the composition For Our Courageous Workers, click here.]