Bedroom Composers All: Musicians Are Making Art in a Pandemic

Many classical artists have had barely a week off in their careers. But with performances now on hold worldwide for months to come, what creative projects are they working on? These are edited excerpts from conversations with The New York Times.

Bedroom Composers All: Musicians Are Making Art in a Pandemic

Mitsuko Uchida, pianist

When I play music, I can forget about the virus. I am continuing with Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations, which I was meant to record at the end of April; every day, I do a run-through so I can keep it close to me. I am also making programs for the next seasons: Mozart, Kurtag, late Schumann.

The other day, I read through Janacek and Bartok. If this goes on for a long time, I will go back to Chopin that I haven’t done in years. Composers are very jealous. I have been too involved with German music, and Chopin was very cross the last time I tried to play his music. So I will try to take some effort and love with him.

I am perfectly happy just playing alone. Most people need the public; I am actually very happy without. And I love to be able to play badly.

Barbra Streisand, performer

I’ve been writing my memoir for five years. Usually I do everything to postpone it. But this is a good time to work on it. There is so much quiet. The phones hardly ring. That’s the only part I like. I hate what’s happening to the world, the country, the people.

I’ve written maybe 300 pages, and I’m not even half-done. I sent it to the editor, and he likes it. But I really want criticism. I like constructive criticism. It’s funny, because I skipped around. I did my childhood in one fell swoop, because I’d written it in my journals years ago. I like to discuss my movies, the creative process that led to them. And I completely forgot about my music career. So now I’m just catching up on some of my albums.

I haven’t been singing, but I can think of several albums I have in me that I want to do. One I’ll probably call “Songs I Forgot to Sing.” Oh, and I’m going to have a Zoom Passover, with my friends Alan and Marilyn Bergman.

Daniil Trifonov, pianist

I started learning JavaScript. It has been interesting for me to learn a completely new idiom — to be able to look at code and see what it does, in a similar way to looking at a music score and being able to hear how it sounds.

Jennifer Koh, violinist

I feel I’ve gained wisdom from my parents about what it was like to be refugees. But I don’t have the wisdom for this. It feels like everything’s changed.

I came up with this project, “Alone Together.” A lot of composer colleagues have salaried positions. Others are freelance, and vulnerable. I started calling colleagues with positions and asking them for help with our community, asking them to recommend freelance composers to write solo violin pieces. I guaranteed the money personally: $500 per 30 seconds of music, a respectable rate.

I’m going to play the 16 pieces from my apartment, over Instagram, and I’m donating my time and work. All the money is going to these composers.

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John Adams, composer

My wife and I, we’re in our 70s; we’re hunkered down. I’m just so humbled by these stories of the health care workers. A friend of mine sent me a photo of tents going up in Central Park, and said how it reminded him of my setting of Walt Whitman’s “The Wound-Dresser” — since that memory Whitman had was of tents that were erected on the National Mall.

In terms of any potential artistic response, what comes to mind is a quote from Wordsworth, about poetry being “emotion recollected in tranquillity.” I think people imagine that artists are combing the headlines for an idea. But I think, at least in my case, if I have a response, it would have to come at a time when I feel that tranquillity.

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Wynton Marsalis, trumpeter and director, Jazz at Lincoln Center

We developed a digital season. Every Wednesday morning, we’re going to pull from our vault a show that has not been seen since the concert, available on YouTube. And we are posting musicians’ concert streams, and reading through government funding to advise clubs and jazz organizations of where there may perhaps be some desperately needed funding.

Our orchestra wrote a blues last week. The working title is “Collaborative Blues.” We have a whole score now, with each of us writing a chorus. We announced that our April 15 gala would be a streaming “Worldwide Concert for Culture.” I called the greatest musicians I know around the world: Chano Dominguez in Spain, the WDR Big Band in Germany, Cecile McLorin Salvant. Everyone said: We’re going to do this recording, with appropriate distance.

Ashley Fure, composer

I have a stack of things I should or could be doing. But I just couldn’t do that stuff. For the first eight days I was in a daze. Once that cleared, I was trying to ask what it meant for my practice and what I had to offer the world right now. So much of what I do is full-body listening experience, so I started doing these experiments.

It’s been really exploratory, but I’ve made full-body listening recipes for objects around the house. There’s one where I do this very slowly evolving physical choreography with two big glass jars, like classic Mason jars, around my ears. I’m just about to finish the video score of it now. The sound piece is made for computer speakers. The artist Leah Wulfman is working on the videos, abstracting them and denaturing them a bit. I’d like the turnaround to be fast, so it might be a little lo-fi.

Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor and composer

This week, I’m trying to finish a happy song. I’ve got this song in progress, which is based on one my father and I used to perform as a duet when I was 5 or 6. When either of us were feeling down, we could play this. It didn’t have words; you’d whistle it. I’ve tried to add encouraging words. We’re in the “home, home on the range” period: “where seldom is heard a discouraging word.”

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Julia Bullock, singer

I’m just starting to read up on Ethel Smythe — the writer and composer — and thinking about programming around her and Virginia Woolf with Alice Sara Ott, a pianist. I’m making music at random points of the day with my husband, Christian Reif — it’s a privilege to have a piano in the house and someone who loves to make music. He and I so rarely get to just play through things. We are either working on material together, or assisting each other as we prep for an engagement. So it’s so nice to just enjoy the time without external pressure or purpose.

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Emanuel Ax, pianist

About four years ago, I played Schubert’s Opus 42 A minor Sonata, and not very well. So I’m trying again. The notes are unbearably difficult, and the concept, too. And Yo-Yo Ma and I are hoping that in the next few weeks we might have the possibility of doing some streaming of Beethoven sonatas. My wife, Yoko, and I are big opera buffs, so we are really taking advantage of this wonderful Met Opera streaming initiative they are doing every night. It takes three hours of liberation from the newspaper and the news. People die in opera, but never of coronavirus.

Nadia Sirota, violist and host

What do I get out of being a performer, host or curator? Yes, it is the music. But another thing is community: bringing people together in a joyful way surrounding art. That was missing all the sudden.

How can we still provide that for people? We ended up doing “Living Music” (which was originally planned as a podcast, then debuted early as a Facebook Live series). Just having this event and having people talk to one another, and playing and having drinks at the computer — every time we’ve done of these shows, I have been given that community-based high that I crave and love. So we’re going to do “Living Music” for as long as this quarantine goes on.

Jaap van Zweden, music director, New York Philharmonic

It is wonderful to have all the time in the world for new scores. One I am learning is the Kurtag opera, “Fin de Partie,” that we are giving the American premiere of next season. And then I picked up a violin somebody loaned me. I’m planning this week to practice and get a little bit in shape again and play the Bach partitas. Not only is it incredible music, and fantastic for your technique, but the healing factor is there. Whenever I play Bach, he makes me the most happy person in the world. Somehow he has the ability to clean you inside.

The third thing is that I am starting, very carefully, to write a piece myself. If the piece is ready, maybe I can call it composing. Before that I want to be extremely modest: I first want to see if what comes out is OK.

Philip Glass, composer

I’m staying home and writing music and not doing anything. I’m working on a piece called “Circus Days and Nights,” an evening of opera, theater and circus. It doesn’t connect very much with what’s going on the streets of New York or elsewhere. We don’t need any more of that.

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Lang Lang, pianist

I am learning a lot of new repertoire. I am looking into the whole collection of Beethoven sonatas; I just play one after the other. With Debussy also, I have a three-volume collection, and I am trying to learn it all. I never had the time to practice weeks and weeks without being pushed to play the repertoire that I’m supposed to perform. Now I can just read through everything with no time pressure.

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Davóne Tines, singer

A thing that’s been keeping me busy is collaborating with Zack Winokur to create something for the digital space centered around our show “The Black Clown.” The development is being supported by the Lincoln Center at Home platform. There will be conversations between myself, creative team and cast members and various literary and artistic guests. There will be footage from the show, live performances by myself and cast members, and a living library offering a multifaceted look at the production research, archive materials and resources that expand our conversation.

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Benjamin Hochman, pianist

I’m making music more than ever. It was so unexpected to have all this free time on my hands. I’ve been spending a lot with Bach and Beethoven. Bach, because everything starts and ends there, so I’ve been playing the “Goldberg” Variations; the toccatas; a beautiful Busoni piece, “Fantasia on J.S. Bach.” And Beethoven, reading through all the piano sonatas, especially spending time with the “Hammerklavier” and Opus 111. I’ve been getting to know more recent music, too: works by Rebecca Saunders, Unsuk Chin, Enno Poppe. I’m learning Berio’s Sequenza, which I’m scheduled to play at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival this summer, if it happens. I’ve also been studying the Brahms symphonies, and the Wagner operas — the “Ring,” “Tristan” — partly through the Met broadcasts. I played through the score to “Das Rheingold” at the piano. How great is that?

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Meredith Monk, composer and singer

It did take me a while to settle down and get my routine and discipline. Little by little I’m quieting down, working on material. I’m vocalizing every day; I’m doing physical exercises every day.

I’m working on a gigantic new piece, so it’s giving me some time. in a way it’s the third piece of a trilogy about our relationship to nature. The working title is “Indra’s Net”; it’s concert music slash music theater and also an installation.

Once I got over having my meltdown about being all alone, I was grateful. Even if you’re grieving, you can create — and there can be moments of joy in the grief.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times .

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