Composers and their collaborators move forward in isolation.
A lot of things came together — or came apart — at once,” says composer Lisa Bielawa, describing the genesis of her COVID-19-themed project Broadcast from Home. “A lot of things got canceled. My touring schedule was wiped out. I was stuck at home, and I wasn’t writing the pieces I thought I’d be writing.”
Rather than passively bemoaning her fate, Bielawa quickly went to work on Broadcast from Home. The unfolding, crowdsourced composition consists of three- to five-minute “chapters,” posted every Thursday on SoundCloud, using submitted testimonies about the quarantine. (“Somehow it feels like the world has simultaneously paused and begun to go twice as fast.”) The dense, polytonal music suggests the miasma of the pandemic experience.
At the beginning of each week’s process, Bielawa composes melodic fragments to these texts and delivers them to a diverse groups of musicians, including her own students and a chorus from the University of Souh Florida. The performers send back their fragmentary, sometimes improvised work, and Bielawa assembles each chapter in Pro Tools, with producer Ben Young putting together the final mix. “Usually you finish the score, then tell the performers what to do,” Bielawa says. “Now I’m going in the opposite direction.” Eventually, she plans to incorporate the recordings into a live version of Broadcast from Home.
“I can’t afford to get involved in compositional niceties right now,” says Bielawa. “I’ve got to respond to what people are feeling at the moment.”
Composer Kamala Sankaram’s all decisions will be made by consensus offers a more whimsical look at the impact of the coronavirus. The video opera, with text by Sankaram’s frequent collaborator Rob Handel, lampoons the ubiquity — and awkwardness — of Zoom meetings in our newly reconfigured culture. “In the first week of March, I started having things canceled,” says Sankaram. “It made me sad and upset, but my particular tendency when I’m facing emotions of this magnitude is to want to work more.”
In all decisions, six political radicals plan a demonstration via Zoom; as they fumble with the digital platform and yell over each other’s words, their aleatoric vocal lines clash in jarring but hilarious dissonances. Sankaram herself plays one of the participants, and grabs one of the piece’s funniest moments, her character shouting franticly but silently because she has forgotten to press “Unmute.” HERE Arts Center premiered the piece in real time on April 24 (it can now be streamed on Facebook); afterward, the singers and musicians made a pass-the-hat bid for donations and received contributions averaging five dollars a viewer: enough to offer some compensation to the project’s personnel.
“This could be a model for work going forward,” Sankaram says. “If you charged five dollars a ticket and got enough people to watch, you could pay singers a good fee. One of the things that made me happy about this project is that I made work for other people.”