Four Composers Speak on Surviving Crises

It is easier to talk – and to listen – at this moment than it is to write.

My beloved home in Jackson Heights, Queens is both too quiet and not quiet enough. Jackson Heights is one of the New York City neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID-19, and there is little noise outside except for sirens and the occasional helicopter passing overhead. Inside the confines of our apartment – where we spend all day, every day – I am too easily overwhelmed by the jabber from my daughter’s kindergarten classes on Zoom. My husband listens to music while writing obituaries. I rely on earplugs to be able to concentrate at all.

Sometimes I manage to slip into a rhythm of working much as I did before the virus cleaved time into a “before” and “after.” Life as we know it may never be the same again, but our present circumstances also cannot last forever. 

For those of us who need a reminder that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel, even if we can’t see it yet, I had conversations with four composers about past crises they faced as artists and human beings: Sarah Kirkland Snider spoke on Hurricane Sandy, John Corigliano on the AIDS crisis, Vijay Iyer on 9/11 and Tania León on the upheaval of migration. As their realities suddenly and permanently shifted, they grieved, endured and found purpose in making music. They generously share their perspectives with us in solidarity as we await a time when we can heal and brave new paths forward.

Sarah Kirkland Snider

In 2011, New Amsterdam Records had an awesome warehouse space in Red Hook, Brooklyn. It had an office. We kept all of our stock there – CDs and LPs – and our musical gear. It was fantastic because we could offer everyone on our roster a place to rehearse, helping to incubate their projects. And we could have concerts there every few weeks. 

Red Hook was having a moment. Hipster restaurants were cropping up, fancy graphic designers moved next door but we’d gotten in just early enough for our rent to be really low.

And then Hurricane Sandy hit. It changed everything for us in what felt like the blink of an eye.

We’d tried to get flood insurance, but we were too close to the water. When we heard there was going to be a storm, my colleagues Bill Brittelle, Michael Hammond and Curt LeClair put whatever they could up on shelves and tables. But we lost anything that hadn’t been placed above the four-foot mark – that’s how high the water was. All of our stock was ruined. Our synthesizers, electronics equipment and the piano were just gone. 

Virtually everything we had in the space – $60,000 worth of stuff – was lost. We’re a tiny organization operating on a shoestring, so that kind of hit was devastating.

When you take an honest inventory, you’ll see what you can still do and what is no longer feasible.

I’ve been thinking about how our experiences with Hurricane Sandy resonate with the current pandemic. When you suffer any tragedy like this, you’re anxious to rebuild. But I think you make a mistake by trying to get back to normal. In both of these situations, you can’t get back to the same normal. That was a big lesson for us – a very expensive one – that we’re still recovering from.

We thought that getting back to normal meant not just being a record label but having the performance and incubation space. That’s where we directed all of our energy, and it was a huge error. 

With the support of our amazing community, we’d been able to raise enough money to cover our losses. Our landlord waived the rent for a few months, but he nearly went bankrupt trying to deal with the situation. There was terrible mold damage. The electrical was beyond repair. There were carbon monoxide issues. The space was eventually deemed uninhabitable – and this was after we’d spent a lot of time and money trying to clean and rebuild it. The whole ordeal left us struggling to sustain our operations for a long time. 

After we got some distance from the situation, Bill said something that I thought was quite insightful: Tragedy changes the metrics for normal. It’s a great point. After a traumatic change, you need to look at your new circumstances, but you also have to contextualize them in your new environment and reevaluate everything with clear eyes. When you take an honest inventory, you’ll see what you can still do and what is no longer feasible. That’s a really scary undertaking, but a necessary one. It takes real maturity to say, “No, we have to lose that part of our organization,” to grieve it and let it go, so that we can optimize what we can still do well.

Non-profit arts organizations should always be ready for change: Our cultures and climates are constantly evolving. You can lose your capacity to be nimble if you try too hard to be something you once were.

John Corigliano

I know exactly where I was when I first learned about the virus: on a shuttle flight from New York City to Boston to hear a rehearsal of my “Promenade Overture” with the Boston Pops. The man next to me was reading The New York Times. I glanced over and saw a headline about a rare cancer that was killing gay people. My heart stopped. When he put the paper down to get up for a moment, I grabbed it. I was in complete shock. I remember thinking, This is the end of everything.

I catastrophized because I’m a catastrophizer. But the reality was even worse than what I’d imagined. 

There are parallels between the pandemic we are facing now and AIDS, but if you got AIDS in the 1980s, you never got better. The horror was that death sentence. After two years of suffering, you were going to die. And you were going to have many more illnesses before you died. There was absolutely nothing you could do.

The first person I knew who had AIDS was Paul Jacobs, the pianist of the New York Philharmonic. He’s in the quilt of names in the score of my Symphony No. 1., but that work was actually written for my dearest friend Sheldon Shkolnik, a fantastic pianist who lived in Chicago. I was then a composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and I was in his hospital room with him when he got the diagnosis. The doctor said, “I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that you have pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, and we can get you better. The bad news is that you have AIDS.” Can you imagine that? He said this to Shelly’s face. That was the attitude.

Everything comes to an end. AIDS still exists, but it’s controllable. The coronavirus will be controllable, too.

For years, the rest of the country didn’t know about the virus. The president never uttered a word. Congress did not act. People who had felt marginalized their whole lives now had this disease killing them, and nobody was paying any attention to it. 

Strangely, crises like these can bring people together. I volunteered for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis filing paperwork just so I could do something to help. AIDS may have forged the kind of gay unity that was needed to achieve gay marriage and other rights. 

I stopped counting after the number of people I knew who had died reached 100. You’d go to a memorial service every few days. Your life gets smaller. Performers work surrounded by people listening. Composers work when there’s no one around, which is fine when being alone is the safest thing to do. 

Everything comes to an end. AIDS still exists, but it’s controllable. The coronavirus will be controllable, too. I know it’s terrifying, but the majority of people will be okay. We will live through this.

I had COVID-19. I was at the last gala in New York City before everything shut down. A friend who said she wasn’t feeling well embraced me before we left. I went up to the country two days later, and I started to feel really sick. Because of my age – I’m 82 – the doctor said, “We’re going to give you a test.” I got better. I thought I didn’t have it. But they called eight days later and said, “No, your test was positive.”

It’s over. I’m totally fine. Hopefully, by the time it comes around again, scientists will have found something to fight it. I can’t believe they won’t because everybody in the world is working on this. I have a feeling that it will happen much faster than it did for AIDS.

The New York Times: The Searing Power of an AIDS Symphony
The New York Times: Sheldon Shkolnik, 52, A Concert Pianist, Dies

Vijay Iyer

I moved to New York City three years before September 11, 2001. My career was just getting started. I had an album coming out the week that it happened. I was touring. I remember what it felt like to be in an airport in the months that followed. It was like, “Wow, everything we know about our reality is changing.”

Rudresh Mahanthappa and I were going through security together at Newark Airport that November, and I had this sense of dread. Unpacking and disrobing hadn’t yet become a routine. The line was glacial, and we heard the woman working there patiently explain what to do 40 or 50 times, to the point where it became a running joke. She kept talking about all of the things that had to go “inside the machine.” That catch phrase became this strange musical refrain lodged in our memories forever – I later wrote a piece with that title.

Various projects that were already in motion acquired a stark new significance. One was “In What Language?” with Mike Ladd, which was about airports. It had been prompted by an incident involving Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi: Panahi was traveling through JFK on his way from Beijing to Buenos Aires when he was detained and shackled for not having a transit visa. That kind of treatment was already the reality for a certain category of brown person in the U.S. After 9/11, a larger set of people found themselves caught in a wave of intolerance, paranoia and surveillance. It’s not that different from the wave of anti-Asian hysteria we are seeing now. 

My album “Blood Sutra” was a meditation on 9/11, and what it felt like to be a New Yorker in close proximity to it. To breathe the air knowing that we were inhaling dust and carnage. To see wreckage being hauled up Broadway. A landscape so charged and so tragic – it’s going to find a way into whatever you’re doing, whether you take it up willingly or not. Your body is starting from that place of pain, sorrow and confusion. When I listen back to the album, it still carries all of that. Someone else might read it as complexity or dissonance, but I’m brought back to that affective register, to that particular tangled knot of emotions.

We’ve not yet caught up to the cumulative emotional impact. It’s going to take time to figure out what just happened.

9/11 was also a global moment experienced simultaneously around the planet. That’s what’s happening with this pandemic and the lockdown, though it’s at another level. 

You look at the death tolls and you don’t even know what to do with these numbers. How many thousands of people died today? It’s unfathomable. It’s like that day when a few thousand people died on the island of Manhattan all at once – but now it’s every day. We’ve not yet caught up to the cumulative emotional impact. It’s going to take time to figure out what just happened.

Art can channel those emotions. We might use it as a means to console people, to grieve together, to hold each other through the worst times. But I think we as artists also have to ask ourselves what we can offer to this moment that might be received as some kind of invitation to act, that can mobilize us to bring about a change in consciousness. After 9/11, I remember the shocking power grab at the highest levels of government, which included going to war under false pretenses and disaster capitalism that caused mass suffering. We’re witnessing that again in the ways that critical resources are being redirected to create channels of profit for a small number of people. 

Those of us who are fortunate enough not to be directly impacted by illness are left with quiet and solitude – plus trauma. In the best of times, stillness can bring about creativity. Right now, I’m not in a rush to do anything. If I do, it will be small. I made a tiny piece for Jennifer Koh – she’s commissioning 30-second solo violin compositions – which she played on Instagram. My perspective was that not much needs to happen in this music except a kind of holding of one’s self. I had felt listless and frozen. Having this gentle task was just what I needed. 

Prompted by this conversation, Vijay Iyer released the instrumental tracks from “In What Language?” as a benefit for communities of color disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Tania León

In Cuba, my neighborhood was my world. I never ventured far. I got out of the neighborhood because I was among the women who got married – that was the thing to do – and I moved to my husband’s neighborhood in my early 20s. That was it. I don’t know that much about Cuba. When I go there, I try to visit places I have never seen, but most of the time I just stay with my family. 

We grew up apart. We live in different countries. Many children were born and now have their own kids. We are all housebound right now because of the virus. We talk to each other on WhatsApp. Not being together is so hard.

Maybe for other people it’s not that bad, but the separation from my primary family was absolutely devastating for me. Because of my personal decision to leave Cuba, I experienced a cataclysm. I had to follow travel regulations that didn’t have anything to do with me in place of my freedom. As a migrant, I became a number. I became a statistic. I became a non-entity. 

I had always believed I could do something as a musician, and I could earn money to help my people. My grandmother, a seamstress, would be up until three o’clock in the morning on her Singer sewing machine, making things for which she was paid pennies. She didn’t know how much I suffered seeing her do that.

I left the country because I wanted to study. I didn’t know anything about politics or regulations, which were getting more and more severe. I was given a seat on a plane to get out of the island through a program called Freedom Flights. I found out minutes before I boarded that I would not be able to return. I had to stay in the United States for five years and apply for citizenship before I could have a passport to travel. I didn’t have anyone here – only the people who were sponsoring me. There was a friend from Havana – a musician and copyist – and her husband, who were here in New York. But none of these people were my family.

I don’t think that the virus is a disruption. I feel that it is a moment of reckoning from individual to individual, having the realization that we are not so separate.

And the realities of this society were very dissimilar to the place where I was born – not that the place where I was born was perfect. I learned more about racial disparities when I started working with the Dance Theater of Harlem in the 1970s. Every time I would try to integrate into a new community, it was like, “Who is this person?” I was seen as a stranger. We codify people by the tonality of their dermis.

I don’t think that the virus is a disruption. I feel that it is a moment of reckoning from individual to individual, having the realization that we are not so separate. That we have to work to separate ourselves constantly. I’ve never believed in borders. I’ve never believed in countries. For me, countries are like neighborhoods. If we study mankind, people started walking from Africa to different points of the world thousands and thousands of years ago.

Now that we’re afraid of something that we can’t see, we are all in the same boat. Everywhere on the planet. All of a sudden, we love each other. We want to be with each other. We want to know, “Do you have a Zoom account?” This is the way it should be. That we’re helping each other. That we’re compassionate with each other. And we feel for each other. That every time we see those numbers of people passing by, it is something that is happening to us. It is confirmation that this is the way we are, not the way that we pretend to be. 

The New York Times: A Composer Puts Her Life in Music, Beyond Labels

Lara Pellegrinelli

Lara Pellegrinelli is an arts journalist and scholar. She produces on-air stories for National Public Radio, and her prose has appeared in numerous publications, …more 

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