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Serious Composition and COVID-19

These days, we’re all (hopefully) “social distancing,” disinfecting, wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings outside the home, and generally giving anyone walking in our general direction the widest possible berth. This is good for our own health, and for the health of our community and society in general. TV reporters in the field hold microphones up to their masked faces. Late-night talk show hosts are doing their shtick from their basements, living rooms, or patios; the only response to their opening monologue is a sort of awkward silence. Interviews are done remotely, live over Zoom or Facetime. Ads celebrate the sacrifices of "essential workers." Who knew the folks working the checkout at the local grocery store were so important?


COVID has also exacerbated the despair of many people in our society who've been put down, trodden upon, denied, or even killed, only because of the color of their skin. George Floyd died three miles from where I sit typing this; Philando Castile died just a mile from here. We've seen the glow of the fires, heard the continual screech of the sirens, and put up with the noise of helicopters over our house all day and all night for days. We've heard the protesters chant down the main streets near us. The cruel regularity of these murders, magnified by the dread feeling of isolation - already a problem before COVID - only serve to heighten everyone's frustration, and magnify the underlying feeling: Something has to change.


As most of you who are at all interested in music-making are aware, COVID-19 has pretty much kicked the pins out from under us. No rehearsals or concerts with large ensembles; no private lessons or small ensemble rehearsals in cramped studios or practice rooms – all on hold for some other day. And classical music performances these days happen electronically over social media, mostly solo performers from their studios or parlors, or a small ensemble, standing or sitting far apart in over-generously empty spaces.


While composers have the luxury of doing pretty much what they’ve always done – alone in their workroom with their thoughts – composition has been radically altered by COVID, at least for the long interim from now until “herd immunity,” and possibly even permanently. It’s altered the market. Demand for large ensemble pieces is on hold until all of this goes away. Chamber music is at present pretty much the rule.


For the moment, I don’t mind. I have always thought public taste - even the taste of that part of the public supposedly informed about good music – has been focused too much on large ensemble and big sounds. The intimacy and intricacy of chamber music, whether it be for solo performer or a small group, has taken an undeserved back seat.


Fellow composers, if the moment is giving us only lemons, let’s make lemonade. Write some really well-crafted chamber music. The medium can sustain a level of complexity and profundity that might amaze you if you’re willing to give it a shot. Or take an extended period of time to plan and execute a really quality piece for a large ensemble. They will come back someday. In the meantime, let’s take advantage of the gift of time away from the hustle-bustle. Let’s wrest something good out of all the tragedy and sadness. Let’s honor those who have suffered and died, and take this long moment to step back, think/feel through, and create something wonderful.

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