The pandemic has affected our sensory contact with the world— not only touch, but all the elements of a live, in person performance. Dale Hudson (NYU Abu Dhabi) and Patricia R. Zimmermann (Ithaca College) explore how music and musicians have responded by not denying but embracing alternative connections of media, time, and experience.
First Wave COVID-19 Playlist: Music
In the pre-COVID-19 world, live music was sensory, people sat close together in concert halls, community congealed around shared experiences of performance, and sound infiltrated our bodies, minds, and hearts. The pandemic stripped music of its liveness and embodiedness—but not of its urgency.
Amidst the endless rapid information of news and social media with their emphasis on logos, facts, evidence, and science, music offers the opposite: pathos. If news depends on words, music explores and opens up that which cannot be said and that for which there are no words at all. In contrast to the rapid temporalities of the news cycle and press conferences, music offers slow time.
As the pandemic removes touch as a sensory connection to the world, music amplifies the sensorium of the aural. It slows us down, and demands we stay in the moment. Music functions as the antidote to words, graphs, data visualizations, and sensory deprivation.
This playlist emphasizes music that responds to the pandemic, not denying it and then pretending that deploying digital interfaces can simply recreate musical experiences, but instead by using any technology necessary: drones, Skype, Zoom, OBS (Open Broadcaster Software), digital editing, sound files. They migrate across the better and larger home television screens with their elaborate sound systems to tablets and mobile phones with headphones.
The sense of spectacle of opera and stadium rock concerts shifts to the perhaps more impressive spectacle of pulling off a large global collaboration. While some of these projects represent global productions by major cultural institutions or celebrities, they are in fact small scale, with musicians performing from their homes in everyday clothes, not costumes, with computer or mobile phone cameras, not expensive gear.
Rather than merely rebroadcasting recorded pre-COVID-19 live performances, these projects break open new ways to consider socially distanced collaboration. They present a mix of professional singers, working musicians, rock bands, students, and amateurs. They redefine chamber music: these pieces offer a new form of chamber music for those at home on lockdown.
Musicians in every form and genre are livestreaming concerts. Deejays livestream to people dancing all night in their homes in front of their laptops. Ithaca College has developed a project called Fine Artists @5 where solo musicians from its internationally well-known School of Music play pieces on Zoom for a 30-minute session at the end of the work day. Live events assume new meanings as a place to gather together for viewing parties with friends in different time zones.
Celebrities mobilize their power to convene new collaborations, though sometimes without the desired outcome. A period of questioning has also emerged, as celebrities sometimes focus on “raising awareness” about particular issues while amplifying larger problems. By contrast, others engage sustained social commitment through collaboration with nongovernmental organizations and state agencies dedicated to public health. This contrast reveals the faulty performances of empathy by celebrities as more opportunistic than altruistic. Others work with experts, insuring their contributions make an impact and go viral.
These pieces exemplify this period of experimenting with what might work and what will not work. The Metropolitan Opera’s focus on streamlining lavish performances, which would seem insensitive and privileged when so many people are unemployed, has transitioned into opera stars singing arias in their kitchens and living rooms. On the other end of the spectrum, the Ithaca College Choir mobilized free software to offer a world premiere of a new commissioned piece online, its student members singing into their laptops while in their homes across the United States.
During a period marked by a profound sense of loss for life before COVID-19 and mourning and melancholy over the dead whose numbers mount daily, music moves us away from fear, paranoia, sadness, and terror for a few minutes. Despite all odds, these pieces assert collectivity from performers and active listeners or center us within productive emotions that spur understanding the situation and empathizing with others. The pieces offer a way to renew, to fortify, and to go somewhere else with others.
Covid Cello Project (Tony Rogers, United States, 2020)
The Covid Cello Project brings cellists from around the world together to play one piece of music together, remotely. The music is sent to cellists the week before. All six projects completed to date can be found on this website, with more added each week.
The project is significant as a highly original example of using music as an organizing tool across state borders to test the limits of collaboration during social distancing and isolation. Further, the project shows a way forward through leveraging technology, providing a spectacle of many cellists playing together that would be almost impossible to render in the concert hall given the logistics of so many different countries and locations.
The project was spearheaded by Austin, Texas-based cellist Tony Rogers, an educator, performer, composer, and arranger, who plays with the Austin Piazzolla Quartet, The Waterloo Trio, Strings Attached, and Austin Cello Choir. He plays classical, modern folk, rock, and electronics both acoustic and amplified, which influences the pieces in this project. Rogers had arranged over one hundred pieces for the Austin Cellor Choir, which no one beyond the group ever heard. He selects pieces from for the Covid Cello Project from these arrangements.
The project started as Roger’s invitation to a few cellist friends to play together remotely. As Rogers explains in the comments below the YouTube link, “I created this project during this global pandemic to connect with other cellists across the world, and give us something to collaborate on.”
The first video was posted through word of mouth and on cello community Facebook groups, which brought more cellists into the weekly project. Each week, the number of participating cellists grows, as does the social media circulation through posting and forwarding.
COVID Cello Project #1, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata in G minor” had 17 cellists from the United States. With each week, more cellists from more countries joined in. COVID Cello Project #6, Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” features 161 cellists from 23 countries.
Rogers uses Logic Pro to mix the audio, and Final Cut Pro arrange the videos on a single screen. The audio is edited together first, and then the video. The compilation of so many cellists is challenging and time consuming on the technical backend: each file is made into three different files consisting of a small video file for the composite image, an audio file for mixing, and a larger file to draw from for close-ups. Rogers does all of the production and editing himself, insuring the highest audio quality.
Ghen Cô Vy/Jealous Coronavirus (Vietnamese Institute of Occupational and Environmental Health, Viet Nam, 2020)
#GhenCoVyChallenge (Quang Đăng, Viet Nam, 2020)
Commissioned by the Vietnamese Institute of Occupational and Environmental Health, “Ghen Cô Vy” (Jealous Coronavirus) is a three-minute song that was produced as a public heath announcement on handwashing but became a global viral media phenomenon on TikTok. With music and lyrics are by Khac Hung, the song is performed pop stars Min and Erik. The song was conceived to encourage social responsibility and boost morale of the country, especially frontline healthcare workers, dealing with COVID-19.
The animated official video shows a representation of the virus coming between a heterosexual couple. The lyrics say “push back this virus, Corona, Corona” to urge people to wash their hands and stay away from crowded places.
Quang Đăng’s TikTok video sets the song to his dance choreography, earning him half a million followers, 8.2 million likes, 5.8 million views of the video. The video has been shared by major organizations, such as UNICEF. Dressed in bright yellow, Đăng and his dance partner demonstrate the proper technique for handwashing while performing a choreographer dance on the street.
The video launched a challenge. Amateur response videos with the catchy song, dance, and handwashing moves have exploded on the video sharing platform TikTok, produced by youth, office workers, and Hmong with the hashtag #GhenCoVyChallenge.
Imagine (Gal Gadot, Israel, 2020)
Gal Gadot’s video is a stunning example of missteps during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In one of the most shocking instances of insensitive celebrity responses to the pandemic, she rallied fellow Hollywood elites to make a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” (1971) to “lift spirits” of Westerners being asked to respect public health protocols, many for the first time in their entire lives. The video is for over-privileged people by over-privileged people.
Gadot is best known in the United States for portraying Wonder Woman on screen. She also played the sexy Israeli woman in one of the Fast and Furious films. In Israel, she was known for her career as a model, including on the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) calendar.
Alongside her star persona, she is also known for her more candid expressions of her personal politics on social media, notably her selective concern for the suffering of others. She horrified much of the world when she supported the 2014 siege on Gaza, lending her celebrity to state-sponsored collective punishment in disproportionate Israeli response to makeshift Kassam rockets launched from Gaza. Her support was visualized in an image of her clutching children. Feminists around the world questioned her support violence against Palestinian mothers and their children.
Not one to learn from her mistakes, Gadot opens “Imagine” with a brief monologue about “day six in self-quarantine,” claiming that she was “feeling a bit philosophical” since the virus has affected “the entire world.” Seemingly oblivious to global disparities, her musings ring as insincere as corporate and institutional leaders waxing that “we’re all in this together.”
Gadot then attempts to sing the first line, followed by Kristen Wiig, whose parodies of socially awkward characters on the comedy show Saturday Night Live (SNL) initially suggest that the entire video might be a parody of the vacuous self-indulgences of celebrities. The song however continues with other oblivious celebrities including Jamie Dornan, Will Ferrell, Zoë Kravitz, James Marsden, Chris O’Dowd and wife Dawn, Natalie Portman, Mark Ruffalo, and Sarah Silverman, and A few singers—Eddie Benjamin, Norah Jones, Labrinth, Leslie Odom Jr., Sia—are also conscripted.
The New York Times described the video as the pandemic’s “multi-celebrity car-crash pop anthem” and a “clusterclump of hyperfamous people with five seconds’ too much time on their hands.” Unlike collective efforts by musicians to fundraise for relief efforts, such as Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (1984) and USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” (1985), Gadot’s video lacks social purpose. It reads as an opportunistic means to sustain brand recognition by Hollywood celebrities during the COVID-19 crisis. Gadot admits that she stole the idea for performing the song by “this guy in Italy playing the trumpet on his balcony.”
The video was almost universally condemned. Ruffalo, identified with progressive politics that generally go against the grain of Hollywood’s liberalism, apologized. He explained he did not fully understand Gadot’s request. John Mayer posted a “Current Mood Mini” on why he would not appear in the video. He inserts lyrics from Adrianna Grande’s “Imagine” (2012) about romantic love in isolation with bathtub bubble and “bubbles” (champagne), trolling Gadot’s superficiality.
Godot’s “Imagine” subsequently stands as a benchmark for other insensitive videos by Hollywood celebrities, such as the notorious “I Take Responsibility” public service announcement in which A-list stars read scripted promises not to ignore racism any longer. Inadvertently foregrounding the self-interested performative allyship, the cast of Dear White People quickly satirized the video. Audiences asked: why was racism previously not an issue? The video has been dubbed “Gal Gadot’s ‘Imagine’ 2.0.”
Music for Hope: Live from Duomo di Milano (Andrea Bocelli, Italy, 2020)
On (Catholic) Easter Sunday (12 April 2020), the operatic tenor Andrea Bocelli livestreamed 24-minute concert entitled “Music for Hope: Live from Duomo di Milano” without an audience. His program was comprised of classical pieces, such as “Panis Angelicus,” “Ave Maria,” “Sancta Maria,” “Domine Deus,” and concluded outside the cathedral with the US folk song “Amazing Grace.”
The mayor of Milan had the idea of a concert. Italy is one of the most-affected European counties by COVID-19. Bocelli stood alone in the cathedral, the largest in Italy and fourth largest in the world, engulfed by architecture devoid of worshippers. The cathedral stands for the endurance of history and religion, built over six centuries starting in 1386. Drones flew through the cathedral as he sang.
Then cutaways to drone shots of Milan and other Italian cities, then Paris and London. The drone shots emblematize Easter: Christ has risen, drones have risen.
Here, aerial drone images inside the cathedral and outside double the high range of the operatic tenor, both condensing ideas of rising, higher registers. The cathedral was one of the few buildings to survive British bombing between 1940 and 1944. It survived when Italy was fascist and tens of thousands died in the city.
According to Variety, three million viewers logged on for the live stream, breaking all records, and another 32 million watched on YouTube in less than 24 hours.
As scholar Caren Kaplan has pointed out, Boccelli is a problematic figure to say the least, as his public statements have supported pro-life politics, apologies for Silvio Berlusconi’s arch conservative and scandal-ridden administration, and Luciano Pavarotti’s sexual abuse.
No Pata Pata (UNICEF, 2020)
Angélique Kidjo moves people to their feet to dance whilst also moving them to stay home, wash their hands, and maintain social distancing.
The legendary singer sings and dances in a blue dress with a red and white design and a maroon and white headwrap against a pink backdrop of fabric printed with a red-and-white pattern. Around her neck, a simple gold necklace with a gorgeous gold pendant. Her performance energizes the patterns and bright colors to remind audiences that the necessary public health precautions of the day will not quell the spirit of community.
Between the catchy verses, she explains what we need to do. “Pata Pata means to touch and feel,” she says, “which we should not do.” After another chorus, she continues: “The virus can be beaten by us, and soon the course will be clear.”
The song and video are part of a project to make public health protocols go viral by inviting viewers to participate in a hashtag challenge: “‘Pata Pata’ makes everyone want to show off their dance moves! So please film yourself dancing tagging @unicefafrica on Instagram or @1unicefafrica on TikTok with #nopatapata please. The best dance clips will make it into a UNICEF music video coming mid-May!”
Kidjo has served as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2002. She has also worked with other NGOs and established The Batonga Foundation, a charity that helps educate women and girls, as well as encourage and prepare them to be agents of social changes in their communities.
One World: Together at Home (curated by Lady Gaga for World Health Organization, 18 April 2020)
Lady Gaga curated a mega-rock show featuring over 100 rock, R&B, soul, pop, rap, and other musicians to honor and celebrate healthcare workers on the frontlines of care during COVID-19. Performers included The Killers, Billie Elish, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Rita Ora, Adam Lambert, Kesh, Lizzo, Jennifer Lopez, John Legend, Sam Smith, and many more.
The musicians performed from their homes, providing viewers with a look into their private spaces. The show was hosted by late-night talk show hosts Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, and Jimmy Kimmel.
The event raised US$127 million to support the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund of the World Health Organization (WHO).
The livestream and broadcast were significant for many reasons.
First, the event happened days after US President Donald Trump defunded the WHO. The event not only saluted healthcare workers, but also supported the WHO as a fundraiser.
Second, the event drew inspiration from the emerging genre of online gigs that less well-known musicians, who offered to bring their work to audiences when clubs and venues were shuttered.
Third, the event combined media: six hours of livestreaming and then two hours of broadcast across four free-to-air broadcast networks—ABC, CBS, NBC, and The CW—and many cable outlets. According to Hollywood Reporter, the event drew 20.74 million viewers in the United States, the largest audience for any Saturday-night program, excluding the National Football League (NFL) playoffs, during this season.
Four pieces in the eight-hour mega-event stand out as emblematic of how digital technologies combined with music and the pandemic for innovative results. Now in their 70s, The Rolling Stones played “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” a song that the Trump campaigned obtained under a blanket license in 2016. IIn a Zoom-like set up with four quadrants, the band reclaimed its song. Charlie Watts air drummed.
Keith Urban created a one-man band by digitally cloning himself in a cover of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love.” Jimmy Fallon and the Roots performed “Safety Dance” with first responders joining by dancing in separate video screens in a socially distanced cover of Men without Hats song, where people fashioned instruments from household items.
Rather than singing one of her many hit songs, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter delivered a strong message about race and coronavirus: “Black Americans disproportionately belong to these essential parts of the workforce that do not have the luxury of working from home. And African American communities at large have been severely affected in this crisis. Those with preexisting conditions are at an even higher risk. This virus is killing black people in an alarmingly high rate here in America. A recent report from my home city Houston, Texas it showed that COVID-19 deaths within Houston city limits, 57 percent of fatal cases are African American.”
The Voice Must Be Heard (Metropolitan Opera, United States, 2020)
New York’s Metropolitan Opera is one of the great opera companies of the world. On Saturday, 25 April 2020, it launched an ambitious project for its annual gala entitled “The Voice Must Be Heard,” where 43 leading singers from across the globe—Germany, Malta, Russia, United States—sang arias and duets in lockdown in front of computers on Skype.
The performance marked a contrast with the regular practices of the company’s performances, which are known for their large scale, visual spectacle, and elaborate costumes. Some of the most accomplished virtuoso voices in the world performed in small scale of laptop and mobile screens. They worked from home. They wore everyday outfits. All underscored the power of the operatic voice. Moreover, the intimate setting and scale of the performance doubled the shelter-in place of its audiences, creating a chamber music effect that countered the spectacle of opera houses.
Well-known opera stars such as Roberto Alagna, Joyce DiDonato, Michael Fabiano, Renée Fleming, Aleksandra Kurzak, Peter Matthei, Erin Morely, Lisette Oropesa, and Anita Rachvelishvili, sang their favorite arias in their living rooms, kitchens, and practice rooms, for their laptops.
During the pandemic, the Met also offered recordings of its productions for free daily, each opera available for 23 hours. This initiative brought opera into the homes of many around the globe who might not have even listened or been interested before, with over four million viewers.
The Met has positioned itself as innovator in streaming and digital innovations, with its Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcasts via satellite into movie theaters which started in 2006. The contrast between the high definition theatrical transmissions and this project’s low-tech, low end, laptop operation underscores the impact of the pandemic on large scale musical productions.
But, as the title suggests, this project also underscores that, in the end, opera is about the complexities and power of the highly trained, passionate voice that in and of itself subverts the limitations of the video-streaming onto laptops and mobiles, a reminder that the human body has the power to exceed and go beyond almost anything, technology, pandemics, and isolation.
This World, The Wall, and Me (Michael Bussewitz-Quarm, Ithaca College Choir, and Janet Galvan, United States, May 2020)
On 11 May 2020, the Ithaca College Choir sang the world premiere of “This World, The Wall, and Me” via an online video system that combined singers, who performed individually for the recording, into a grid of singers, and then added digital effects for musical emphasis.
The Ithaca College School of Music had extended a commission to composer Michael Bussewitz-Quarm, a Long-Island based composer specializing in choral works and an advocate for the transgender community. The piece is seven minutes long and describes a personal journey of change where walls function dialectically as confining a person but also as a protection.
Janet Galvan, Director of Choirs at Ithaca College, conducted the forty-eight student singers in the choir. Working remotely during the pandemic after the college closed its doors, the students decided that they wanted the chance to participate in the world premiere and urged Galvan to do the concert, termed a “virtual premiere performance.” Matthew Clauhs, another faculty member, worked with his students in a course called “Contemporary Ensembles in the Public Schools” to undertake the digital production via a software system called Soundtrap, offered for free during the pandemic.
The piece represents a compelling example of the ways in which the entire concept of a choir is reinventing itself in the era of COVID-19. Singing is now a dangerous enterprise as droplet particles spread farther when singing than speaking. But it also shows some new unexpected potentials in audience engagement: over 2,400 people attended the premiere, the largest Ithaca College School of Music livestream concert to date.
“This World, the Wall and Me” is an example of a contemporary choral composition. It features an ostinato chant underneath parts, with solos emerging throughout. The voices are in four parts with three soloists, sustaining complex variation in vocal texture where different voices pop out at different times.
The text of the lyrics is as important as the music because its meanings are also complex and varied, suggesting transgendered identities, journeys to self-awareness, and feelings of isolation and being heard which resonate with the pandemic and sheltering in place.
The opening lyrics establish these multivalent, complex, emancipatory meanings: “She called to me in dreams realized. I tried, but never forgot her. She danced behind my waking eyes and kissed the fish out of water. And she said, Start from where you are… This wall between the world and me. Keeps me safe, keeps me strong. I hear the silence call me. This is who I am, and where I belong. But I can’t see you in all your wondrous colors. I can’t feel your warm embrace. This wall protects me, and I am okay Yet I’m not fully in this space.”
Dale Hudson is Associate Professor of Film and New Media at New York University Abu Dhabi and Digital Curator for the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF). He is author of Vampires, Race, and Transnational Hollywoods (2017) and co-author of Thinking through Digital Media: Transnational Environments and Locative Places (2015 with Patricia R. Zimmermann). His essays appear in Afterimage, American Quarterly, Cinema Journal, Jadaliyya, Media and Environment, Screen, Studies in Documentary Film, Studies in South Asian Film and Media, and elsewhere.
Patricia R. Zimmermann is Professor of Screen Studies at Ithaca College and Codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF). Her most recent books include Thinking Through Digital Media: Transnational Environments and Locative Places (with Dale Hudson, 2015), Open Spaces: Openings, Closings, and Thresholds of Independent Public Media (2016), The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Film (with Scott MacDonald, 2017), Open Space New Media Documentary: A Toolkit for Theory and Practice (with Helen De Michiel, 2018), and Documentary Across Platforms: Reverse Engineering Media, Place, and Politics (2019).