• COVID-19 and Music
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This is the 10th (and penultimate!) story in a series on Southwestern faculty perspectives on severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Part 1 focused on biology, part 2 on mathematics, part 3 on economics, part 4 on sociology, part 5 on political science, part 6 on psychology, part 7 on history, part 8 on religion, and part 9 on art.

During especially the early months of the pandemic, as lockdowns kept us safe in our homes from the roving virus, concert halls echoed only silence, with choirs, instrumentalists, and audiences alike bereft of that soaring, joyous experience of sharing music in person. Chamber and symphony orchestras could no longer practice or play together, some smaller music venues shuttered, and the fundraising departments of even internationally renowned opera houses went into high gear to avoid the same fate. Many musicians lost income from canceled festivals and tours, furloughs, layoffs, or salary cuts, as did the staff who help stage concerts at venues, from set designers and stage hands to box-office managers and publicists.

Still, many quarantined musicians have channeled their creativity toward innovating how they reach audiences. Instructors began offering remote private lessons and public tutorials on YouTube. Trumpeters on balconies and violinists on rooftops improvised public performances while vocalists belted out tunes, inviting passersby to join in, or serenaded their appreciative neighbors, recalling the troubadours of centuries past. Pianists livestreamed concerts from their living rooms, and guitarists shared new recorded material on their social-media platforms. Meanwhile, among audiences, to get through quieter remote work days (or to tune out distractions in home offices), many of us relied more on music-streaming services, which saw a 20% increase in usage. Some amateurs even took up learning an instrument themselves, much in the same way that others discovered woodworking or learned cooking skills: through newly available online lessons. Even scientists contributed to the making of music by transforming the structure of SARS-CoV-2 into a hauntingly beautiful but sometimes jarring melody of amino acids, a process called sonification that, depending on your musical preferences, belies or perfectly renders the deadly effects of this pernicious virus.

Although COVID-19 has had tremendous and sometimes deleterious effects on musicians, music still continues to buoy our spirits, allowing us to connect, even if remotely, through our appreciation of sound and song. But epidemics and pandemics past and present have also historically shaped the very composition of music, serving as inspiration—or perhaps the baleful muse—of, for example, Bach’s Cantata No. 25, “Es Ist Nichts Gesundes an Meinem Leibe,” or “There Is Nothing Healthy in My Body.”

As a professor of music at Southwestern, Michael Cooper has spent a lot of time thinking about the prolonged intermission COVID-19 has forced on many Professor of Music Michael CooperProfessor of Music Michael Coopercomposers, performers, and musicologists during the past year. Cooper himself was able to use the time for a prodigious amount of research and publication. Even while teaching his music literature courses, he published an unprecedented 49 editions of compositions in 2020, including 44 world-premiere source-critical editions of works by African-American composer Florence B. Price (1887–1953); new source-critical editions of the orchestral and piano–vocal versions of Felix Mendelssohn’s symphony-cantata Hymn of Praise; and three major masterpieces by African-American composer Margaret A. Bonds (1913–1972): her Montgomery Variations (1964), her setting of the W. E. B. Du Bois civil-rights manifesto “Credo” (1966–1967), and her Six Songs on Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay. In the Q&A that follows, Cooper shares his thoughts on how COVID-19 has shaped musical production and reception—and the essentiality of art and artists to the human experience even beyond the needs we might express during a pandemic.

How has remote teaching changed how you listen to music or edit compositions, if at all?

Most importantly, it’s made my appreciation for the magic of live musical performance even greater. As an erstwhile performer (and current member of [Professor of Music Lois] Ferrari’s orchestra and wind ensemble at SU) I already knew about this, but you never really understand how important something is to you until you no longer have it. And even though I love and greatly admire the resourcefulness and artistry of the thousands of musicians who have used technology and various other coping mechanisms to keep the music coming during the time of COVID-19, the sheer magic of having performers in the same room together, in the same room with listeners, to make music is never there outside live performance. 

In terms of editing, the mechanics and techniques are the same. But need and opportunity are just different sides of the same coin. So the deprivation (need) posed by the current crisis has helped me to realize that this is an opportunity for all of us—the world of musicians and music lovers—to break free of the constraints that kept us listening to the same old pieces, maintaining the status quo or just tinkering with it, in the world of making and consuming music. That’s only increased the urgency of my own project of editing unknown music in order to help make it a part of our world—to help those composers’ voices break their silence and be heard again.

[In case it’s helpful, Cooper has written a clear explanation of what it means “to edit” a piece of music on his website, which is included here with his permission: “‘To edit’ a piece of music means, in the broadest sense, to commit it to print and make it usable to modern performers. Composers’ manuscripts are often difficult to read, and many compositions survive in more than one manuscript and other printed sources that differ from one another. My editions are all source-critical editions, meaning that they compare all surviving sources, proceed from the one that in my estimation best reflects the composer’s wishes, and strictly differentiate between information provided by the composer and that provided by myself as editor, such as omitted accidentals or articulations, etc.”] 

“The impact has been something like that of the asteroid that led to the Cretaceous extinction.”

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected composers, performers, editors, or musicologists?

For composers and performers especially, the impact has been something like that of the asteroid that led to the Cretaceous extinction, except (and this is important) that composers and performers are smarter and more resourceful than the dinosaurs were. On the one hand, shelter-in-place and the closure of most public performance spaces have meant that performers saw many months’ worth of booked gigs, often representing many thousands of dollars’ worth of income, simply vanish into thin air—a financial cataclysm. The same is true of composers who write music for those performers and those audiences and editors who work on preparing editions for use in those now-canceled performances: barring some resourceful alternative, all that music has simply ceased to be. And musicologists, whose trade relies not least on being able to exchange ideas and discuss information and new findings and ideas in the company of other musical scholars, have found themselves with canceled conferences and papers that will now not be heard and discussed. Those of us who have ongoing archival research projects now find ourselves paralyzed, unable to access the millions of unpublished and not-yet-digitized resources that are the core of advancing knowledge of music, its history, and its relevance to our world. 

But again, we’re not dinosaurs. Some performers have given backyard concerts: my friend Lara Downes (who came to SU a couple of years ago, loves our community, and still has a strong relationship with our students) invited neighbors wearing personal protective equipment to socially distance and sit on the lawn along the street outside her house while she gave a “concert” on her piano next to the window that was also livecast on Facebook. Other performers have used technology to find ways to make music together across the miles and to post their Zoom-collaborative performances to YouTube and other online platforms. Others have been more light-hearted (e.g., a hornist using headphones and recording technology to give a never-before-seen rendition of part of a Mozart horn concerto while twirling a Hula-Hoop around her body). 

While the time of COVID-19 has seen plenty of big orchestras doing Zoom-assisted performances of big pieces such as symphonies, I think there is a new appreciation for the special intimacy of music-making that is most at home in chamber music—songs and other works for small ensembles. This crisis has helped many of us to place, perhaps, less emphasis on grandeur and bombast and more on close, intimate, deeply personal interaction that, before this crisis, always had to struggle to keep from being overshadowed by the BIG SHOWS. There’s real value in that, especially because it offers an opportunity (see my point about need and opportunity above) for the less established and often smaller performers and ensembles that previously were just dwarfed by the BIG SHOWS whose relevance now seems diminished. I’m astonished at some of the things these folks have come up with. 

“History teaches that the fine and performing arts are where the human creative imagination goes in times of crisis.”

How does this compare with the impact past epidemics and pandemics have had on music?

This is by far the biggest crisis of our lifetimes in this regard. But (as I argued in a blog post last March) history teaches that the fine and performing arts are where the human creative imagination goes in times of crisis—and maybe where it’s strongest in those times. While a vaccine or cure for COVID-19 will not be found in a painting or a song—that is for the heroes who are first responders and medical researchers—history’s lesson is clear that whatever new ideas artists come up with in response to this crisis will lead the way forward into a new worldview, a new way of doing things, and lasting innovation moving forward. The flu pandemic of 1918 is a great example (one of many): the ideas that opened up the way for much of the remainder of the 20th century in response to that pandemic came, for the most part, from the world of the arts and letters—everything from the artistic developments themselves to the civil-rights movement and new ideas in the natural and social sciences. So I think the impact of COVID-19, despite its initial cataclysm, will eventually yield constructive consequences: this, at the end of the day, is an opportunity (again, see above) for artists of every stripe, and the art they produce, to shine and lead. 

How have previous public-health crises been represented by or responded to by musicians in their compositions?

Composers always use their music to reflect on and respond to the world around them; it’s how they roll, how they converse with the world around them. And for them, music (as Felix Mendelssohn said) “expresses a thousand things better than words.” This is true also of epidemics and other public-health crises. 

What do you see as the most significant lasting effects of the pandemic on the world of music? 

First, an understanding of the centrality of the fine and performing arts as agents not just of a sort of empathy that is especially important in times of crisis, but also of creative energy that spills over into and often offers direction in other fields. Building on that, a broader public understanding of the fine and performing arts, artists, and those who teach and advocate for them not as “entertainment” and not just as “nice” accoutrements to “the real world” but as integral players. To ignore the arts in times of crisis is to deprive ourselves of what may well be our most valuable asset. 

“Everybody, everywhere, always has within themselves an artist—a creative imagination in word, in image, in sound.”

What lessons might we learn about the fine and performing arts as the pandemic stretches on?

The lessons that history teaches about times of crisis such as this also teach one other thing: that everybody, everywhere, always has within themselves an artist*—a creative imagination in word, in image, in sound. If we acknowledge that lesson, and if we embrace and lift up that inner artist, we are embracing a shared humanity that offers a strength, a community, a deep and preternatural bond that will prove to be vastly more powerful than the enforced isolation and reactive or defensive measures that this crisis has imposed on us. Acknowledging and embracing that is crucial. If we don’t do that, and to the extent that we don’t do that, then we will remain segmented, compartmentalized, and commensurately weaker, less able to address this challenge optimally. In this sense, the arts epitomize the culture of discovering and creating rich interdisciplinary connections that is SU’s stock-in-trade. 

* Please note that “art” as I’m discussing it here also includes literature of all varieties, oral storytelling (art is not only in literate cultures), and dance.