Tag: how we cope

Choral Singing on the Brink of Delta

Concinnity singing with masks on at Twain House in May 2021

The resurgence of positivity rates and return of mask mandates in recent weeks has become a huge tug on the loose thread that has been holding choral directors and singers from unraveling during this pandemic.  Concert cancellations are likely to commence in the coming weeks and we should be concerned for the musicians and the small choral art organizations who support them. Even if choral music may not be your jam, over 54 million Americans sing in a choir and an even greater number enjoy watching and listening to choirs, ensembles, and a cappella groups. You may even have shared one of those inspiring virtual choirs videos during the height of the pandemic isolation. A number of choral ensembles have a mission greater than cultivating singing, such as creating community for marginalized groups or a vehicle for exploring social justice. Thus, the latest COVID trend is just one more reminder of the trauma that has perforated the choral landscape these past 18 months and decimated many small community choirs. The general public is likely unaware of the carnage or how to help.

From the start of COVID-19, choir became labeled as unsafe, with singers being inappropriately branded as “super-spreaders”. This admonishment really only presented singing groups with two options during the pandemic: go dark and wait out the storm or reimagine choir by transitioning to a virtual model. Neither option was desirable as a hiatus bred despondency for singers and virtualizing choir accelerated burnout for choir directors. But, the choral world stepped up regardless and gave tirelessly during a tumultuous time to soothe and offer connection through music by sharing it virtually. The rate at which choir directors became sound engineers/video editors by proxy in 2020 to keep their singers and community connected virtually was an impressive feat of strength. Choristers braved all types of weather and nature to safely sing and record outside. Directors employed complicated formulas to calculate air exchange rates and hepa filter strength to gauge the safety of  inside rehearsal spaces. Some musicians even harnessed long forgotten sewing skills to produce special singers’ masks for their ensembles.

From the start of COVID-19, choir became labeled as unsafe, with singers being inappropriately branded as “super-spreaders”.

All of these impressive undertakings were often accomplished with little to no financial support for these choirs, which was especially true for small community choirs and choral arts organizations who were not eligible to receive state or federal aid. It is akin to a tree still managing to grow upward when the earth has been washed away underneath. The branches continue to extend skyward, but the possibility of the tree being able to survive for long without soil foundation is debatable. 

Photo by Sarah Kaufold (2021)

Nevertheless, many choirs innovated, collaborated, and stepped out of their comfort zones in 2020 to keep the greater community engaged while singers quietly mourned the loss of “choir” from behind their home computer screens. Let’s face it: choral singing while wearing a face mask, singing outside, or recording virtually is not a particularly enjoyable endeavor for the singer.  This type of choir fits into the “better-than-nothing” category or checks the “it-makes-our-audience-happy” box.  Many choirs managed to endure, but at a significant financial and emotional cost.  It is no wonder that after navigating through the stages of grief since March 2020, many choral musicians found themselves settling into the acceptance stage of the grieving process toward the end of the year—life without choir.

Many choirs innovated, collaborated, and stepped out of their comfort zones in 2020 to keep the greater community engaged.

But then came the light at the end of the tunnel in 2021: vaccines. Virtual rehearsals over Zoom or outside/masked choir sessions concluded with the gleeful countdown of when the singers would be eligible for their shot. The possibilities of a performing season for 2021-22 seemed within reach. The vaccines did allow for a return of singing safely for the vaccinated, but only for a very short time in the early summer. We fell prey to hope that vaccines would open the door to our concert halls, but any plans for a permanent return of communal singing were dashed on the wave of the Delta variant.  If we did not express trepidation before these virus variants took hold in the US, you can bet that choral directors and singers everywhere are calculating how much more disappointment and letdown their hearts can take. Choir is not only our livelihood, it is deeply connected to our identity, health, and emotional well-being. Planning in earnest for the return of choir has become wrought with apprehension because we now know how quickly it can be taken away. Yehuda HaLevi once wrote, “Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.“ Choral singing has become capricious.

As we stand on the precipice of the 2021-22 concert season, the anxiety and unease about the future of the choral landscape is palpable. The difficulty extends beyond losing the opportunity to sing together… once again. The revenue streams we had anticipated with a return of in-person performances this season to keep our choirs afloat are uncertain once more. For many small choral organizations, ticket sales and donations to support performing activities are the main source of revenue. If performing is not available… you can surmise the outcome. Also, there are significant costs associated with creating virtual content; however, virtual concerts do not yield much in the way of revenue.  As for balancing the ventilation calculus in our rehearsal spaces and concert halls, the process and equipment is cost-prohibitive for most choirs under normal circumstances let alone after 18 months of barely scraping by. Many small ensembles rent rehearsal and performance space, which compounds the issue. As previously mentioned, most small choral organizations did not receive any state or federal pandemic aid because they do not have full-time employees nor own a venue, both of which do little to measure the impact these choirs have on their community. Although grant opportunities did exist, not everyone is chosen to receive the funding and each application requires herculean effort. 

Most small choral organizations did not receive any state or federal pandemic aid because they do not have full-time employees nor own a venue.

For many choral musicians, the thought of another virtual choir season in the wake of the Delta variant conjures feelings of dread.  The amount of hours and funding a choir director needs to invest to create one 3-minute remotely recorded virtual choir video is considerable. There is an added cost of procuring a sync license per song to place the video online, which mounts quickly, especially for those choirs committed to sharing music by living composers. In addition, the process to create the virtual choir is stressful on most choral singers as they need to sing alone, which is exposing and time consuming to get the perfect take. 

Singing in a mask to record the choir to share virtually is a possible solution, but masks are uncomfortable, vocally tiring, and hinder the choral sound.  Specialty singers’ masks exist to mitigate these issues, but they are pricey (multiply $20 by 40 singers to get an idea).  Recording outside without masks is possible, but comes with a long list of vocal production constraints and numerous recording difficulties (the wind is much louder than you think.) Most unfortunately, some choir members have recently professed they will not commit to another season of singing in a mask, virtually, or outside. The confessions of these dedicated singers suggests a trauma response to having the craft they love taken away again and provided a substitute that offers reduced benefit to the musician. If producing virtual content does not yield much, if any, revenue for the choirs and the process is not as fulfilling for the singers, what is the purpose?  The benefit of virtual content is to continue that which choirs have cultivated all along – connection, collaboration, beauty, and hope.  How do we continue with exhausted singers, directors, and coffers?

Masks are uncomfortable, vocally tiring, and hinder the choral sound.

It is as if we have reached a choral impasse in the wake of impending virus variant waves. As a society, we need the essence of choir to help evoke community and hope. Directors and choral organizations want to financially support their professional singers.  But, forging ahead for singers and community choirs is colored by trauma and compounded by financial fears. Many choral directors are currently managing their exhaustion as they desperately rework the upcoming 2021-22 season to be safe for singers and audience members. Choristers are weighing the emotional cost of virtual participation or singing in masks or outside while still working through the grief of losing choir.  In addition to considering the emotional component, choir directors and boards are calculating the extensive financial costs of the now ever-changing choral landscape.  Many choirs have committed to adapting, but may not survive the next onslaught without significant support from the community and considerable additional funding. Choirs want to offer connection for the singers, share music with the greater community, and financially support their professional musicians this next season.  But, to be brutally honest, community choirs cannot do it without additional funding, especially from local and state municipalities. The good news is that we can all be part of the solution to this problem: donate to your local choral organizations and contact your local governments requesting they dedicate funding to the arts. Alleviating some of the financial burden of sustaining choir through this next season would be the easiest way to support your local community choir.  Help replace some of the nutrient “soil” washed away with the pandemic so the communal singing in our communities can endure.

Upon Arrival: Experiencing My First Live Concert in Over 15 Months

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.

    Michelle Hromin
  • I was in awe of the artists who I only knew virtually until that day making music so beautifully and authentically.

    Michelle Hromin
  • I want to be creating performances where people are not only called on to be present, but feel welcomed into doing so.

    Michelle Hromin

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.

Road From Heiligenstadt: A Composer’s Perspective on Surviving COVID

A masked Dalit in Forest Hills (October 2020)

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.

Dalit at the Piano

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!

    Dalit Warshaw
  • Communicating through music was truly my sustenance.

    Dalit Warshaw
  • One of the miracles of being a creator is to be endowed with the gift of healing oneself from within.

    Dalit Warshaw
  • To function as a composer in our era and society, an essential requirement—one not much mentioned—is that of basic physical health.

    Dalit Warhsaw

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.

Remember the Uncomplicated Joy

A fisheye lens photo of Methods Body (John Niekrasz on drumset and Luke Wyland on electric keyboard) performing in a cabin.

By John Niekrasz & Luke Wyland (a.k.a. Methods Body)

This is a weird year to drop a debut record. We live in Portland, Oregon, a city that has seen more than its share of upheaval lately. In January, after three years of composing and recording, we’d found great label support, honed our live set, ordered vinyl, and booked tours. Then, our record announcement fell on the same day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Two months later, the record was released just days before George Floyd’s murder. We wept for the world as we went through the motions working on promo and music videos, and the world showed us growing fascism, worst-ever wildfires, and forced sterilizations of the most vulnerable people. Every week of 2020 has shown us something far more important, far more worthy of attention than a record of new music by two white men.

We’ve had the rare fortune of being able to put our most precious energies into our art for decades. We’re lifers. We always thought this in itself was a radical practice: fighting for a life outside of the accumulation of capital, spending our efforts building a community for the arts, and trying to share with our friends and audiences a sense of hope, joy, and inspiration, or offering a new definition of beauty that’s lightyears away from the Gucci-Kardashian-Bugatti-sphere.

But it’s not enough. The same hard questions we asked ourselves after the 2016 election have come roaring back with renewed relevance and force. Are we doing any good? Why should niche art music based on microtones and polyrhythms be important? Should we be taking up any space at all?

  • Why should niche art music based on microtones and polyrhythms be important? Should we be taking up any space at all?

    Methods Body (John Niekrasz & Luke Wyland)
  • Our entire “industry” has essentially disappeared.

    Methods Body (John Niekrasz & Luke Wyland)
  • Art will adapt and go on in new and unpredictable ways.

    Methods Body (John Niekrasz & Luke Wyland)

This year, Portland has been locked down with protest curfews and insane wildfire smoke. One of our housemates was injured by illegally deployed police impact munitions. We had friends of Color buying bulletproof armor or not leaving their homes out of fear of attacks by Proud Boys. And these immediate threats piled on top of our perennial concern: will the American West, and, really, much of the world, continue to be habitable under this kind of worsening climate damage?

We’re learning a lot from our partners and friends. We have it pretty good and so we have a responsibility to re-educate ourselves around justice, mutual aid, and proper communication. We’re supporting our friends in the streets, we’re giving money to liberatory causes, trying to center others’ voices. And, of course, we’re heartbroken. We’ve lost our own lifeblood. We’re not doing the thing we love and have built our lives around: we’re not performing.

Methods Body (Luke Wyland on electric keyboard, left, and John Niekrasz on drumset, right) performing in front of rows of ceiling to floor bookshelves

Methods Body performing in a bookstore (Photo by Jacob Heule)

Our entire “industry” has essentially disappeared. The downtown venue where we first met and played together in 2007 announced it will not reopen. The same goes for our favorite DIY neighborhood spot that has been hosting challenging music for years. How many brilliant ensembles will fold? How many artists are giving up on their dreams this very moment?

The impetus to get to work on our next record is still here, if muddied. We’re both noticing that our expectations for our music have changed drastically. The music we were making even eight months ago feels suspect. Something different is required now. We’ve had the privilege of being together, taking refuge in our instruments, playing and chasing our weaknesses. Trying to remember the uncomplicated joy of just spending time at an instrument. Fighting to feel like it can matter. We find solace in hearing from other musicians who are forging ahead with hope: Ed Rodriguez, Amirtha Kidambi, Holland Andrews, Chris Williams, and many others.

After the last inauguration, John did some speculative fiction about a future in which we might need to assemble resistance cells to oppose fascism. The music in Claimed Events Pt. 2, Overheard is built upon a bit of that writing:

My friends, however, claimed events would identify them, but to
overhear and accept only one month to prepare us in a very
small room with rubble in one corner

John plays the rhythm and melody of this phrase in a drum ostinato that is eventually taken up by the vocals of Holland Andrews. Luke and Holland improvise over this structure.

One of our collaborators, UVA art professor Lydia Moyer, shot some tests for a dance-theater project inspired by images of Civil War battle smoke. Moyer sent us some complex, smoke-choked imagery and the resonances with our present reality were breathtaking—civil war seems, again, a distinct and terrifying possibility; the US has deployed more toxic gas against its own citizens during a respiratory pandemic than in all the years since Vietnam; COVID is out of control. When Moyer and Leeri synched their imagery to a track on our debut, Claimed Events Pt. 2, Overheard, the result was harrowing and beautiful.

Of course, art will adapt and go on in new and unpredictable ways. Poets and musicians here have been supporting the Black Lives Matter protests by performing in the streets. The Fixin’ To, a local venue that’s been shuttered for months, is experimenting with limited capacity patio shows, so we gave an outdoor performance for a few physically distanced (and chilly!) friends this month. We’re starting work on our next record. And we will rise up with others to ensure the voice of the compassionate majority is heard.

Methods Body (Luke Wyland on electric keyboard, left, and John Niekrasz on drumset, right) performing in a dimly lit club

Photo by Taylor Ross

We Can Change the Country, Essay (2020)

A masked Darius Jones conducting a rehearsal of We Can Change the Country at Roulette on October 26, 2020. (Photo by Kenneth Jimenez.)

The killing of Ahmaud Arbery enraged me. The killing of Breonna Taylor broke my heart. The killing of George Floyd crushed me. My awareness of these three murders happening within such a close timeline really shook me to my core. It felt as if 2020 was hunting season for Blacks in this country. But then I remembered that 65 years ago, the attorney of Emmett Till’s confessed murderers warned an all-white jury that if they voted to convict, “Your forefathers would turn over in their graves.” Was this what the Framers intended?

As the pandemic raged like a biblical plague through Black and Brown communities, those in power downplayed the severity of the crisis. Death and despair circled around us, I became overwhelmed and fell into a depressed state. During this time, I came across James Baldwin’s 1963 essay “We Can Change the Country” and marveled at how many themes expressed in the essay paralleled the current moment:

“New York is a segregated city. It is not segregated by accident; it is not an act of God that keeps the Negro in Harlem. It is the real estate boards and the banks that do it. And when you attack that, that’s where the power is. For example, I ask all of you to ask yourselves what would happen if Harlem refused to pay the rent for a month. We’ve got to bring the cat out of hiding. And where is he? He’s hiding in the bank. We’ve got to flush him out. We have to begin a massive campaign of civil disobedience. I mean nationwide. And this is no stage joke. Some laws should not be obeyed.”

– James Baldwin

As protest and civil disobedience grew throughout the country in response to the murder of George Floyd, I, like many others, felt the twinges of hope and possibility. The streets were filled with people of all ages, colors, and creeds marching together to bring about change. Honest conversations about systemic racism and police brutality ventured into mainstream society. People all over the world took notice and staged their own protests in solidarity with what we were fighting for in this nation.

But, even as something beautiful and transformative was taking place, white supremacist groups, bad cops, and outside provocateurs began to infiltrate the protests to make them seem violent and criminal in nature. The bully pulpit was used to portray anti-fascism as bad for democracy, ignore acts of white supremacist violence, and label Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization. During a global pandemic, those in power made wearing or not wearing a mask a political statement.

I felt as if I was living in a never-ending nightmare.

Then John Lewis died, Chadwick Boseman died, and RBG died. The COVID-19 death toll reached 215,000 and continues to climb. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs, face evictions from their homes, and it goes on and on. All the while people in power dance on stage and say, “It is what it is.”

“We are living, at the moment, through a terrifying crisis, and let me try to put it in the cruelest and most abrupt terms that I can. Let us say that a hundred years ago, when I was technically emancipated from the land and given over to the landlords and the bosses – let us say that I was happy in my place and that I loved doing all that singing and dancing down on the levee. Now I, and my father and my grandfather, to say nothing of my grandmother and her mother, never for a moment believed that we were singing and dancing down on the levee because we were so happy, and not for a moment does any black man that I’ve encountered believe that he really was what the country said he was. But what has happened is that the country (by ‘the country’ I mean our government and most of our citizens) believes that I was happy in my place. They believe it so strongly that now they have the courage to ask, What does the Negro want? Well, I know what the Negro wants, and any man who is able to walk and talk knows what the Negro wants. If you know what you want, then you know what I want.”

– James Baldwin

In my piece, entitled We Can Change the Country, I create a compositional environment where a multiverse of boxes and zones carries the sonic textural language of varying perspectives. The instrumentation for the piece is ten voices, violin, bass, banjo, fife, drums, conductor, and film. Everyone is wearing masks, the vocalists are placed in social distancing circles, the musicians are spread six to twelve feet apart from one another, and a film beams light and images on the performers and the space. We Can Change the Country creates an environment of sensory overload as an attempt to reflect the mania-by-design of these past four years.

  • As protest and civil disobedience grew throughout the country, I felt the twinges of hope and possibility.

    Darius Jones, composer
  • Just like this composition, America is a game where the rules and instructions are not the same for everyone.

    Darius Jones, composer
  • Art, like protest, has a way of changing our molecular structure and our brainwaves.

    Darius Jones, composer

Just like this composition, America is a game where the rules and instructions are not the same for everyone. The majority of our so-called leaders currently in government don’t want to actually find solutions to people’s immediate needs and the systemic problems that created them.

Masked performers during a rehearsal of Darius Jones's We Can Change the Country at Roulette on October 26, 2020.

From the October 26, 2020 rehearsal of Darius Jones’s We Can Change the Country at Roulette. (Photo by Darius Jones.)

As the composer or Framer, I created the role of the conductor (leader) who oversees the implementation and direction of the musical content given throughout this piece. The conductor’s overall role is to create an environment where the performers (citizens) can be successful in their endeavors. For any given performance of this piece, the conductor’s (leader’s) own ideas and desires around the musical content will ultimately determine how the piece is interpreted. I as the composer (Framer) have relinquished control over this aspect of the piece. The overall quality of the performance (community) is dictated by the performers’ (citizens’) relationships to one another, their perspectives on the piece (Constitution), and the content (Rights) within. From my perspective, the Constitution is a living document similar to a guided improvisational score, but meant for a society.

This piece pulls text from the POTUS to Octavia Butler to Lalah Hathaway to a voter standing in line waiting to vote and puts them all together in one place, just like social media. My approach to the text is to create a timelessness within language. To present wisdom alongside madness and see which one will be heard through the noise is extremely fascinating to me.

The following statement is included in the Composer Notes for all of my social justice game pieces: This is not a composition; it’s a protest. This is not a performance; it’s a demonstration. This is a political work of art. I wrote it to express the hypocrisy of a nation that continues to deny its history, a history that has and will continue to define our future.

Even though this piece will be presented virtually this statement still stands firm. Transitioning to a purely virtual medium is tough, but in some ways, I look at it as an opportunity to create a truly ritualistic experience for the performers, while witnesses peer through boxes and screens to experience something that might terrorize or tantalize.

We are more than entertainers. Art, like protest, has a way of changing our molecular structure and our brainwaves. It opens our hearts and forces us to confront our empathy. It has the power to change the world and the world knows it.

As I write and amend this document, I realize that as a composer, and more so as a Black man in America, code switching is a constant interruption to my process, even as it affords access. My work is about combating apathy and fear. We Can Change the Country is not a neutral work of art.

A sneak preview of Darius Jones’s We Can Change The Country which will be livestreamed from Roulette Intermedia on Monday, November 2, 2020 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Videography by Kenneth Jimenez.
We Can Change the Country was commissioned by Roulette and made possible with funds from the New York State Council on the Arts and New Music USA.

On Performing Fluxus in 2020

Karl Ronneburg's performance of Yoko Ono's "Voice Piece for Soprano"

In the bright and halcyon days of early 2020, my team at Fifth Wall Performing Arts planned something we thought would be fun: a spring concert of Fluxus-inspired works performed simultaneously by our friends in New York City and Ann Arbor. Each location would be livestreamed to the other, where we’d hoped the broadcasts would create a new sense of what Fluxus artist Dick Higgins called an “intermedia” space. These, of course, were the days before Zoom became a household name, before livestreamed concerts became the unfortunate norm. We’d had the venues booked, the artists lined up, and even an endorsement from Meredith Monk—but it was not to be. Like every concert in the spring, summer, and beyond, our Fluxus Fest was cancelled.

So, I took the opportunity to learn more. Though I first became seriously interested in Fluxus back in 2016 through the wild and wonderful world that is Dick Higgins’s “Danger Music” series, the COVID-19 pandemic forced upon me the time and space to begin correspondence with the LA Phil’s 2018/19 Fluxus Festival Curator, Christopher Rountree, as well as Fluxus scholar Natilee Harren. Their feedback, in addition to my own research, led to the remounting of our Fluxus Fest 2020 as a five-week virtual festival—one which finds Fluxus surprisingly suited to confronting the challenges of our time.

So, some questions: What is Fluxus? And, why Fluxus? Why now?

Fluxus was an art collective and movement in the ’60s and ’70s whose artists took up the direct legacy of John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, and the Dadaists. In fact, some of the origins of Fluxus can be directly traced to John Cage’s 1958 Composition class at the New School in New York City—on the first day, Cage defined music simply as “events in sound-space”. Among the students in the classroom that day were Dick Higgins, Jackson Mac Low, George Brecht, Larry Poons, Allan Kaprow, and Al Hansen. Soon thereafter, Brecht began making what he called “Event Scores”, which, instead of musical notes, simply contained a list of printed instructions to realize a piece.

  • Like every concert in the spring, summer, and beyond, our concert of Fluxus-inspired works performed simultaneously in New York City and Ann Arbor was cancelled.

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist
  • Some of the origins of Fluxus can be directly traced to John Cage’s 1958 Composition class at the New School in New York City.

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist
  • Fluxus artists pushed the boundary of what art could be and who it was for.

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist
  • Ben Patterson’s 1964 Instruction #2 reads: “Please Wash Your Face”. Fluxus asks, how different are these instructions from signs in public places asking you to “Wash Your Hands”, or to “Please Wear a Mask”?

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist
  • Fluxus is protest music, where the dissonance is always cognitive.

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist
  • We put together a five-weekend series, featuring over 30 artists from around the country.

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist

By 1962, the students from Cage’s class were joined by George Maciunas (a Lithuanian-American who coined the term “Fluxus”), and variously included Nam June Paik, Alison Knowles, Yoko Ono, Wolf Vostell, Emmett Williams, Ben Patterson, Takako Saito, Henry Flynt, La Monte Young, Meiko Shiomi, and more—though “membership” in Fluxus was often contentious. Some claimed that Maciunas at one time or another kicked out all but two or three of them, while others say that he had no right to kick out anyone and never did.

The group was active in the USA, as well as Germany, Denmark, France, and Japan, and were an incredibly diverse collective for the time: Dr. Natilee Harren writes that “Participants included artists who were women, who were queer, who were African American, who were from East Asia, and yet these identities were treated with an uncommon fluidity and criticality for the time. An a-national, polyglot community, Fluxus artists were citizens of the world; they traversed a self-defined international network, and the spirit of generosity and exchange in their work countered Cold War paranoia and the retrenchment of national boundaries.”

  • Like every concert in the spring, summer, and beyond, our concert of Fluxus-inspired works performed simultaneously in New York City and Ann Arbor was cancelled.

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist
  • Some of the origins of Fluxus can be directly traced to John Cage’s 1958 Composition class at the New School in New York City.

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist
  • Fluxus artists pushed the boundary of what art could be and who it was for.

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist
  • Ben Patterson’s 1964 Instruction #2 reads: “Please Wash Your Face”. Fluxus asks, how different are these instructions from signs in public places asking you to “Wash Your Hands”, or to “Please Wear a Mask”?

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist
  • Fluxus is protest music, where the dissonance is always cognitive.

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist
  • We put together a five-weekend series, featuring over 30 artists from around the country.

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist

Simultaneously irreverent and spiritual, Fluxus artists pushed the boundary of what art could be and who it was for. The format of the Event Score in particular is interesting because of the way it delegates collective authorship to the performers of a work—a concept familiar to classical musicians, but one uncommon in the visual or written art world, where most Fluxus artists originated. By using text instructions, however, Fluxus artists broadened the scope of the score beyond music to include actions, concrete or abstract, that could be performed in contexts far beyond the concert hall. Though some view Fluxus as an Anti-Art movement (and it certainly contained Anti-Art elements), for the most part Fluxus was about decentralizing and revolutionizing the way we think about art. Again, Natilee Harren: “Fluxus artists looked for value in the commonplace, believing that art can be anywhere and belong to anyone. Rather than eliminating art, they sought to dissolve its boundaries in order to infuse everyday life with heightened aesthetic awareness and appreciation.”

PROMOTE A REVOLUTIONARY FLOOD AND TIDE IN ART. Promote living art, anti-art, promote NON-ART REALITY to be fully (the word fully is crossed out) grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes, and professionals.

From George Maciunas’ Fluxus Manifesto

 

This brings us back to 2020. Spring rolls around, the world shelters-in-place, and life as we know it is over. How can Fluxus address this?

Fluxus as Practice

One of the most famous Fluxus pieces is Alison Knowles’ 1962 Proposition #2: “Make a Salad”. And that’s all there is to it. You just make a salad. I live in a 2-bedroom apartment with my brother, and though we don’t like much of the same foods, we both love salad. I spent a lot of time with him these last 7 months during the pandemic, and salad-making has become kind of a ritual that we perform several times per week. Proposition #2 begs the question: once you know that it exists, are you performing it every single time you make a salad? Thanks to Alison Knowles, I noticed this ritual with my brother, was able to pinpoint it as such, and now my salad-making has a certain kind of mindfulness that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Furthermore, to survive in the Time of Corona, many of us adopted new rituals and had to follow new instructions. Ben Patterson’s 1964 Instruction #2 reads: “Please Wash Your Face”. Fluxus asks, how different are these instructions from signs in public places asking you to “Wash Your Hands”, or to “Please Wear a Mask”? Are hand-washing diagrams not a kind of choreography, not a kind of graphic score? Fluxus reminds us that the daily events we do without thinking are performances, that any time we follow instructions, we are performing a score. Or, as said by Alison Knowles in a 2012 panel discussion: “My belief is that every person who gets up and goes into their day and does their work is coming from some unrecognized belief system that maybe they’ve picked up as a five-year-old, or they don’t look at it anymore. But to address that and work with it is powerful.”

Fluxus as Protest

In many ways, Fluxus is protest music, where the dissonance is always cognitive. Ben Vautier, for example, is known for his artistic practice of signing anything he could get his hands on, a statement on the hegemony of authorship in art not dissimilar to the practice of tagging by graffiti artists. Fluxus works have additionally retained their power today as political statements: for example, in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, a group of 10 women performed a variation of Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piecein pantsuits in Madison Square Park while the Electoral College cast their votes. Natilee Harren writes: “Indeed, the best Fluxus and Fluxus-related work exposes how our lives are scored, orchestrated, or performatively designed for better or for worse, in both utopian and dystopian fashions.”

Fluxus pieces can also be powerful statements of identity. For example, in the first performance of my Fluxus festival, a trans woman friend of mine performed Yoko Ono’s Laundry Piece, going through her laundry basket to tell us about the clothes inside. A more guttural statement of identity might be Dick Higgins’s Danger Music #17 (to be performed on October 17), which reads: “Scream!! Scream!! Scream!! Scream!! Scream!! Scream!!”.

Fluxus as Community:

Finally, Fluxus’ power is in its ability to build community. The barrier to entry to perform a Fluxus piece is low (and the streaming technology widespread enough) that my team could reach out to my friends and colleagues across the country to perform Fluxus and Fluxus-inspired pieces from home, embracing the locations we are all in. We put together a five-weekend series, featuring over 30 artists from around the country, and I can’t be more thankful. I wrote my own Fluxus piece, Phone Call#2: “Catch up with a friend”, that I performed on October 10th as a statement of the power of this community and the power of Fluxus to create simultaneous mindfulness and disruption. In fact, Fluxus was an inspiration for the core mission of our company, Fifth Wall Performing Arts: to not just break the “fourth wall” by acknowledging the audience or the stage, but to break a newly-made-up “fifth wall” as well: acknowledging the artists themselves as human beings and not just characters or performers. When we perform Fluxus, we are performing as ourselves, bringing attention to our actions and their consequences. This opens up the traditional boundaries of performance as an artistic ritual, linking audiences with artists as people, vulnerable and in need of connection as we all are.

The week 4 video featured here begins with a clip from Hannah McLaughlin and Raquel Klein’s performance of Gift of Tongues by Emmett Williams (1962): “Sing meaningfully in a language made up on the spot”, performed simultaneously with Danielle Mumpower’s interpretation of Disappearing Music for Face by Mieko Shiomi (1966): “Change gradually from a smile to no-smile.” The clip then cuts to a portion of James Vitz-Wong’s original “I swear this is research” Piece: “Perform a recital while in virtual reality.” This was presented alongside Carlos Durán, Karl Ronneburg, and Grey Grant’s performance of Orchestra by Ken Friedman (1967): “Everyone plays different recordings of a well-known classical masterpiece. [We chose Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben.] Each member of the orchestra starts and stops playing different sections of the recording at will.”–performed simultaneously with one repetition of Corey Smith’s performance of Bean Snow by Anne Tardos (1994): “Read the text slowly and deliberately, using a normal tone of voice. Bean snow. Bean snow beans. Bean snow beans about themselves. Bean snow themselves. Bean snow beans about themselves. Bean snow.”

I’ll leave you with a 1960’s vision of community and social distancing: Dick Higgins’s Danger Music Number Three: “Divide a large pack of incense among those present in a moderately large room. Ask each person to burn his or her [or their] incense, without flame, all together. Darkness throughout.”

The logo for Follow Fluxus is a series of boxes which each have printed on them one letter: "F," "o," "l," "l," "o," "w," "F," "l," "u," "x," "u." and "s."

The Flauto d’Amore Project: A New Language for New Communication

Flauto d'Amore

How does a nearly forgotten Baroque instrument generate a wave of connection through the antipodes of the world in 2020?

On this last January 1st many of us (including, most obviously, me) were cheering to the new decade, the return of the Roaring Twenties, to a year charged with bearings of hope of change, evolution, liberation. Our expectations were far more glamorous than PJs and Zoom with a pinch of confined existentialism. 2020 took the most dramatic stumble in its incipit, from which it seems to not be able to recover yet, as in one of those grandiose slips down the stairs that keep bouncing you down and down for an apparently infinite time. And yet, the stubborn beauty that forces itself out of any circumstance has revealed itself in the form of resilience, connection, and creativity – despite the situation, or most probably because of it.

The experience I had through my living-room-directed Flauto d’Amore Project during the pandemic lockdown has been a journey of overwhelming inspiration, and of constant wonder.

When I began the Flauto d’Amore Project in 2018, my goal was to bring new life to an instrument that fell into the cracks of history in the 19th century, and lost its opportunity at any modern or contemporary repertoire. Considered the true voice of flute playing by J.J. Quantz, who in his monumental Versuch on woodwind playing writes that the sound of the flute “should resemble the voice of the alto rather than the soprano, and mimic the chest sound of the human voice,” the flauto d’amore was a companion instrument to the viola d’amore, oboe d’amore, and even the clavicembalo d’amore that were all the rage throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. It was beloved and regularly utilized by major Baroque composers (François Couperin, J. S. Bach, Telemann, Graupner, and Hasse to name a few), as well as by Romantic salon virtuosos. One of the most mesmerizing dances from Aida was scored by Giuseppe Verdi for three flauti d’amore (in 1871!).

The flauto d’amore lived on for centuries thanks to its fascinating, unmistakable sound, and yet, just as great artists at times unjustly fade away from the memory of the public, this instrument’s popularity waned as the flute system revolution occurred toward the end of the 19th century. Theobald Böhm, the father of the modern flute, invented the alto flute in G, which ended up replacing the flauto d’amore in the general flutist’s arsenal, despite its very different characteristics.

It takes visionary minds to bring new life to buried potential: in 1989 the vision of Italian flute scholar Gian-Luca Petrucci (if you are noticing a last name correspondence, yes – it is my father), and that of Albert Cooper, a legendary flute artisan of the 20th century, came together, and the flauto d’amore was reborn, through the very first modern system prototype, dreamt up and designed to give new resonance to a long muted voice.

The Flauto d’Amore Project was created in synergy with composer Nathan Hudson with the goal of creating a space for direct collaboration between composers and performers in the exploration of a sound that had, so far, no precedents in new music. It became clear from the very start that the most unique element of this initiative would have been the feeling of mutual wonder at the discovery of the potential of the instrument in the most disparate genres and styles. Working closely with wildly different composers for the mapping of an elusive instrument, a totally uncharted territory, yielded results that bewildered performers, audience, and often the composers themselves.

With the wildfire quality of good ideas, this one sparked up on the New York subway, on a bumpy evening ride on the uptown A train. By the time my final stop came, the structure was there, and in the morning we started making calls. We looked at the composers who were closer to us, those whose intellect and craft we most respected, and who we’d know would sit down to listen to what in the years became to be known as “The Spiel” – the explanation ab ovo about the instrument etc., which you have in fact just read in digital form. We gave the very first rough version of The Spiel to Gleb Kanasevich, Max Grafe, and Liliya Ugay who, together with in-house Nathan Hudson, formed the OG pioneer group in the exploration of the instrument. The first premiere recital happened a few months later, and offered the NY audience a very first taste of a new sound through four entirely different lenses. Since then, we have added to our roster of composers Erin Rogers, James Young, Nirmali Fenn, Clint Needham, Howie Kenty, Chris Bill, Flannery Cunningham, Sunny Knable, Roger Zare – and across the pond Italian composer David Fontanesi, who scored the second movement of his Academic Concerto for flauto d’amore.

Ginevra Petrucci performing on the flauto d'amore at a live in-person house concert, prior to the pandemic.

Back when there were live in-person indoor concerts.


When the pandemic hit, we wanted to have this instrument become a communal element for artists stuck in their studios all over the world to find creative stimulation, and to come together through a remote collaboration to explore something new, removed in so many ways from their physical reach, but present in their imaginations as a trigger of exploration.

In mid March we launched a call for scores through social media, asking that composers with no limitations in age, geography, background, style, or education write a 1-2 minute piece for flauto d’amore, pledging I would record and premiere them within 48 hours of receiving them. Here we saw the unexpected happen – yet another unexpected in the year of expectation-shattering: we had over 30 artists from all over the US, as well as from the heart of Europe and all the way from Thailand shower us with pieces – which made for a very busy month of daily video-recording and premiering. (Since I recorded all pieces on a rolling basis, I was able to premiere a piece every day!)

  • The stubborn beauty that forces itself out of any circumstance has revealed itself in the form of resilience, connection, and creativity.

    Ginevra Petrucci, flutist
  • My goal was to bring new life to an instrument that fell into the cracks of history.

    Ginevra Petrucci, flutist
  • I was able to premiere a piece every day ... for a month.

    Ginevra Petrucci, flutist

In their inherent differences, the pieces all showed a yearning for the creative process, for new inspiration, and for the experimentation of a sonic ground unexplored, non experienced, remote in all senses – but enticing, captivating, challenging, desired. We had established composers such as Joe Sferra from SUNY Potsdam, Italian academic scholar Federico Favali, Iranian-born Rouzbeh Rafie, David Mastikosa from Bosnia-Herzegovina; with Eric Malmquist we envisioned a remote-duet for Baroque and modern flauto d’amore, which we put together with Leighann Daihl Ragusa who owns a Baroque flauto d’amore (still in A, but tuned at A=415 Hz). We had a cohort of talented composers from Bangkok (miracles and mysteries of Facebook algorithms!). We collaborated with Lebanese poet Hyam Yared for Marco Buongiorno Nardelli’s electronic piece based on her work and featuring fragments of her recitation. We joined forces with the New York Composer’s Circle for a feature collaboration with selected composers from the collective. We even had a little venture into blues with a composer offering their original tune for flauto d’amore, trumpet, and bass.

Receiving, practicing, recording and premiering this outpour of works in a time when physical movement was confined and our mind felt compelled to reimagine its potential within constrained boundaries, has been one of the most inspiring experiences of our careers. The sense of invisible connection with artists at the corners of our suffering globe, coming together through one communal element, connecting their energies to create some beauty at times of hardships, has made me (and I would say, all of us) feel more “together” than we would have felt during normal times. The feedback we received from a great number of the composers involved in this project showed that relief was offered and absorbed, energies were exchanged, beauty and hope were created.

The cover image for the Flauto d'Amore project's recording "Creativity Quarantine"

Once we closed the call for scores, we re-recorded all the pieces in higher audio quality in order to issue two Bandcamp albums, Creativity Quarantine Volumes I and II. We donated the proceeds from the two albums to the New Music USA Solidarity Fund, and proceeded then to publish a vast selection of the works in two collections for the Flauto d’Amore Editions, so to make this music available to a wider public (including versions for standard flute and alto).

During the same period we also had a chance to take part in Gabriela Lena Frank’s initiative #GLFCAMGigThruCOVID, where I had the luck to be paired with the wonderful composer Aida Shirazi, whose style and aesthetic really shone in her “Miniature” for unaccompanied flauto d’amore.

The arts community has come together in ways that would have seemed far fetched if discussed over our last New Year’s Eve champagne toast. It was – it is – an uproar of desire of making art to erase, to elevate, to heal, to empower. The New Twenties are still roaring after all.

a flauto d'amore

The flauto d’amore looks almost identical to a regular flute, if you disregard the slightly larger size.