So suffice it to say that the past month hasn’t been great for composers, who have seen premieres canceled, commissions stall, income evaporate and — like anyone else quarantined in their homes — time lose its texture.
“It was like every day was a month, so much transformation was happening in a short period of time,” she says. “There’s a kind of intensity in that.”
Koh, 43, also remembers well what her early days as an independent artist in New York were like, even just 10 years ago, living from gig to gig with an income tight enough to have her buying dried beans over the canned ones.
Since then, Koh has become one of the more acclaimed violinists of our time. (Will I be able to suggest her May 27 program of Bach solo sonatas and partitas at the National Museum of Women in the Arts? Stay tuned.) In 2014, she founded the artist-driven nonprofit Arco Collaborative, whose mission is to promote diversity and inclusivity in classical music and advance the work of artists of color and female composers.
And now, a few weeks into the coronavirus chaos, Koh has gotten a better handle on uncertain time in uncertain times.
“I thought, I could spend this period of time being scared, curled up in a ball in the corner of the apartment,” she says. “Or I could spend this time only thinking about my own survival. Or I could spend this time and try to help as many people as I can.”
So Koh got to work on Alone Together, an online performance series for which she hyper-compressed her usual process of discovering composers by asking 21 of them with some level of financial security (be it from salary or grants) to donate a new work between 30 seconds and one minute long, as well as to nominate 21 freelance composers for new commissions funded by Arco.
“Of course, there are things like relief funds,” Koh says. “But for me I wanted to offer everyone and these younger composers a space to do what they love to do and what they’ve dedicated their lives to doing.”
Saturday’s program will feature composer Wang Lu’s “Hover and Recede” (which Koh likens to a “microtonal ambulance”) and Wang’s nominee Joungbum Lee’s “Hovering Green”(which Koh describes as, appropriately enough, “a distorted version of the Spring Sonata”). Also premiering Saturday is jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer’s “For Violin Alone” and his nominee Morgan Guerin’s “Together, but Alone (in Quarantine).”
For Iyer, who also teaches at Harvard, a moral responsibility accompanies the mounting financial pressures faced by artists.
“People are finding themselves in almost immediate financial ruin — artists of every caliber and every stripe and from every community,” he says. “A lot of us who are fortunate to have means right now wanted to try to do something for somebody. This was a nice, very focused and targeted way to do that.”
Iyer was eager to help Guerin — an extremely versatile young multi-instrumentalist and composer — but also wanted to nudge him into writing his first solo work for violin. Koh says both Iyer’s and Guerin’s contributions share a meditative quality, and for his part, Iyer says his “For Violin Alone” was conceived as a soliloquy for this moment: “Not even for an audience, but just for someone to play to themselves.”
“I think all of us are just kind of reeling from the ongoing calamity and trauma and fire hose of really [bad] news,” Iyer says. “Which makes it really hard to focus on anything. Having a task like this, that I could do in a day, there’s something so compact about it. It felt like — okay, here’s something I can do right now, because I don’t know what else I can do.”
Although Koh knew from her own experience that she’d be helping out young composers with the series, she was surprised at the thanks she received even from those who were donating their work — and their time — for simply providing a chance to focus on one thing.
“Our brains are jumping around like crazy trying to find some kind of balance and adjustment to this new situation,” she says. “So what I was also thinking about that length of 30 seconds, it’s about sitting and trying to make your mind steady.”
And for the composers she’s amplifying, it was a way to get some of that control back, even if just for a moment at a time.
“I barely know what can be accomplished right now,” Iyer says, “but I think I can write a piece that’s a minute long.”