Lisa Bielawa Broadcasts From Home
By Lou Fancher
On April 24, multidisciplinary composer Lisa Bielawa was sheltering-in-place in her Manhattan apartment. One block from Presbyterian Hospital, the San Francisco native living in the East Coast city since 1990 found it impossible to distance herself from the Covid-19 crisis. Isolated in her apartment, she mourned the loss of life and worried about six months of touring canceled — and postponed projects that have decimated her income by tens of thousands of dollars. Financial recovery remained a huge question mark.
Venturing outside to escape loneliness and obsessive, fearful thoughts, ambulances rushed past constantly with sirens screaming. The daily habit of popping into a corner shop to pick up dinner supplies and chat with other people had become a solo, stress-filled, 35–45 block trek in search of hard-to-find groceries. “There’s no way for me to escape the very real consequences of what’s happening,” she said, in a phone interview.
Among the canceled or postponed projects are a second residency as a performer/composer at John Zorn’s venue The Stone; the Cathedral Choral Society’s celebration marking the centennial of the 19th Amendment, a premiere that was to have happened in March at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.; and an evening of works by various composers presented by Sun Dog Collabs with Unheard-of//Ensemble and Parhelion Trio.
Finding herself left with only three things — time, a need for income, and making herself useful to a community in pain — Bielawa teamed up with NYC’s Kaufman Music Center to develop Broadcast from Home. The large-scale, multiphase project originates in Phase One with community testimonies provided in responses to prompts asking people about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Compositions by Bielawa integrate selected text with an original score. Uploaded on her website as Guide Tracks, anyone can log on to learn the music for singalong rehearsals held online. In Phase Two students from Bielawa’s classes at the Mannes School of Music at The New School participate as instrumentalists and vocalists, blending their talents with authentic voice recordings contributed by the pubic and uploaded throughout the time of quarantine. Already on the Broadcast website, the testimonies and compositions for several early chapters can be heard. Phase Three is an online performance of the new work.
Before we talk about Broadcast, what steps have you taken to preserve or reframe canceled or postponed projects?
I have a great team so I don’t have to make these decisions alone. My manager, publishing manager, collaborators, and partners hash this out with me. It’s either encouraging presenters to postpone rather than cancel or adapting a project so it can have a life in this current environment. A third model are things like Broadcast at Home, launching projects that are realizable in this time.
Are you hearing from colleagues about their situations? Are they hopeful, pessimistic, too varied to classify?
I guess it ranges from not even being able to think about it, because everybody’s scrambling. The sheer time on the phone with airlines, trying to clean up and pay for plane tickets from the canceled tours is immense. When we are able to talk about the future, there’s an understanding that things are changed. Everybody’s taking a deep breath and trying to figure out how they can contribute to the field, given how it’s changed for at least the next couple of years.
About Broadcast from Home: Let’s do the numbers first: as of today, April 24, how many musicians from the Kaufman Center will be involved?
Counting only artists, the number is somewhere around 80.
What number of written or recorded spoken-word testimonies have you received and what can you tell me about them? Are they all audio or do some people submit dance or performance-art testimonies?
So far, we have around 50 testimonies. We’re getting videos as well as audio submissions, but we haven’t actually asked for dance because I’m looking for text to set. We have video submissions, people speaking their testimonies.
Are the submissions increasingly global?
Yes. We have four continents now. The submissions from the United States are from all over the country. People in various networks that are separated two steps from me are affiliated with educational institutions and that means they have students who have gone back home to China, Israel, and Spain. The project got spread early to various places in that way. I love that, because it means the richness of the testimonies reflects circumstances that are quite different ... but the experiences might be quite similar. Someone in Kenya might record something that rings true when you look at it next to somebody in Florida or Tennessee. I also have ages [ranging] from 14 to people who are 79.
What digital platforms or other methods are you using to spread the word and gather more testimonies?
This is my fourth interview. I’ve had three radio interviews, including NPR early on, and then I’ve done recruiting with educators and colleagues of mine. Universities and colleges are seeking ways to create remote learning tools that integrated some awareness of COVID into their teaching. A lot of students had to go home and then had to be in hotels for 14-day quarantines before they could go home. Anxiety is very high: People are losing people, experiencing income distress.
From the submissions you are selecting, what criteria determine your composition choices and are they different or similar to your previous crowd-sourced projects?
In some ways it’s the same. Mundane things like, when you sing text, it slows it down. If there are multisyllabic words or the text is full of long descriptions, it’s less powerful if it’s sung. So I’m looking for things like “kindness leads to courage” [in Chapter One]. It’s pithy. The words are only one or two syllables long and the entire thought is expressed in six syllables. It’s thought-provoking, meaning it leaves some things open. It leaves room for people’s own associations. I’m not interested in making art at people, as one of my students said. It’s always like this for me when I’m setting text from crowd-sourcing. There’s nothing like beautiful language.
Tell me about the process and parameters that define or direct the compositions: Do you establish guide rules or follow instinct — or both?
Exactly. It’s not undefinable, it’s just a variety. I want certain moods and certain moods beg for certain instrumentation. I was lucky for Chapter Three. One of the students at Kaplan Music Center had a xylophone at home. With the school semester ending in three weeks, I have to find the most enthusiastic, rough-and-ready instrumentalists that I can. It’s about the people: people who will embrace this and give something to it. Knowing the instrumentation I have helps me in some cases decide which mood to pursue.
Speaking about three of the earliest submissions, what are the general trends or implications you draw about the impact of Covid-19?
About Chapter Three:
It was a surprising departure from the first two. I started to see testimonies reflecting irritability and disgruntled feelings. I feel it too. In some cases, it’s fear. Social distance creates anxiety because we want to be close to people. Or people in one case were not respecting social distancing, and that produces anxiety. It’s not the individual gripes, it’s the general mood that people are crabby that is interesting.
Emotional states that arrive from disparate places tell us about human nature and make me feel affectionate, compassionate for human beings. I wanted to create something that blew off steam. Chapter Three also integrates a field recording made at 7 p.m. on my fire escape. Every day, we [hundreds of New Yorkers] express appreciation to heath care workers and front-line workers by going on our fire escapes and clapping, yelling, banging, screaming — people in cars honk. It’s quite moving, actually.
About Chapter One:
It came about with the whole project hatching, meaning it was early on. People I knew were writing things that struck me. They were resonant with the way other people were feeling. This first chapter came after shelter-in-place orders came, but before it happened in New York City. It [represents] the shift in orientation in being home but not recognizing yourself. It’s the idea we were in the process of giving in to. It’s a process that would mean disorientation. The instrumentation for Chapter One was an opportunity to continue the work I’d been doing in a residency and continuing with the students I had been working with right up to the shutdown.
Testimony for Broadcast from Home — Chapter One: “That Other You Still Exists”
Text: Anonymous, Westchester, NY, March 23
“After more than a week, of being at sixes and sevens, not caring about all the inside things I love to do. Where was music? Where was reading? Why wasn’t I cleaning closets? I finally succumbed to days of staying in bed ... fearing that this lassitude might never end. And remembering my advice: Give in to what your spirit is telling you. It’s not forever! That other you still exists.”
Was there a section for which composing the music was particularly emotional? Perhaps Chapter Two?
Testimony for Broadcast from Home — Chapter Two: “Tiny, Powerful (for A.S.)”
Text: Excerpt from testimony by Christina Jensen, Beacon, NY, April 6, 2020
“…small, even tiny, acts of service (giving a ride, bringing a book, cooking a meal, lifting a spoon, fixing a pillow) ... Kindness leads to courage ... tiny, powerful, and often final, exquisite experiences of love.”
It was hard to write. I lost somebody to the virus. Someone I’d known many years ago and we were close at one time. I had to go through a process of mourning by myself. It was quite healing to have this testimony come in: She [the subject who provided the testimony] lost her parents in a non-COVID time. She was able to be bedside with the loved, ill ones. I found it heartbreaking that the family of the man I knew was not able to be with him. I spent time with him and paid tribute to him with this piece.
Are there also broader portraits or insights emerging about music and the role it plays in people’s lives?
People are singing at home and sending it to me. Every morning, it’s like Christmas. Since I can’t have a hug or be in the presence of another person, having voices come to me is so healing. Just to hear the grain of their voices — it’s their bodies, you know? I get people saying thank you for doing this. They want to be part of something. There are online streamed concerts they can watch, but this makes broad participation be at the fore. People are aching to do more than just hear music. They are wanting to feel it in them. People are yelling in Chapter Three. They shout to Guide Track No. 5. There’s something therapeutic about that. I’m aware that Chapter Two is difficult to listen to, but the role of music in this project is to partner our experience, see where it goes; not to distract from it by entertaining, although that’s fine too. Music can partner the soul and that’s what I’m interested in doing.
What are key project features that will allow the virtual Broadcast from Home to be presented in live performances in concert settings or public spaces in the future?
The importance of the project is to minister to the community now, even though yes, live performances in the future are hoped for. I’m not concerned that I’m eventually going to end up with a problem, because each chapter uses only four to six instrumentalists. But this last one had 50 singers, so I’ve decided future performances in the real world will have the audio playing in it. I never want the (authentic) sheltered voices of people to be replaced by other live voices. It’s too powerful an element of the project. It will mean reworking the piece to make the score. There will be new pieces woven into the larger thing. I work that way anyway. I’m always writing something — even on a small commission — that’s going to be a part of a larger piece I’m going to write someday.
Let’s finish by talking about music and where you see the momentum heading.
I feel very fortunate in some areas. I feel a strong sense of purpose with this project. I’ve always built works with an eye to community. Some composers are inspired by nature or visual things. I’ve always found people. I’m sort of in love with people. I really love people. I can’t stand that people are isolated and suffering right now. So that’s what I’m doing: doing this. Where it’s going, it’s too early to tell, but my sense of the impact on music, how it’s made and how people define excellence, we’re going to see a lot of changes. I’m looking at that and I want to help. It’s going to be a long journey.