In times of crisis, it’s tempting to turn to music as a means of escape. When I make a pandemic playlist, it’s to tunnel out of the here and now and into, well, virtually anywhere else.
'Protect Yourself From Infection,' David Lang/the Crossing
About this time last year, the Crossing, a Grammy-winning new music choir led by Donald Nally, was collaborating with composer David Lang on an unusual commission. The Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia had asked the composer for a piece to coincide with “Spit Spreads Death,” an exhibition and parade marking the centennial of the 1918 flu pandemic. It also commemorates Philly’s ill-fated Liberty Loan Parade, a wartime gathering that flouted public health warnings and attracted hundreds of thousands to the streets in the midst of the pandemic. That 1918 parade was intended to boost morale, but instead boosted Philadelphia’s death rate to the highest of any major American city, filling the city’s 31 hospitals within three days and leading to nearly 14,000 deaths over six weeks.
Lang’s choral work lifts lines of text (as well as its title) from a 1918 government health manual, and stretches them into ghostly melodic drifts, intermingled with the sung names of Phildelphians who perished in the epidemic (including health-care workers). The piece was haunting enough on its own, a full century removed from its original context. But now, experienced in the midst of the current covid-19 crisis — and newly set to a film by Brett Snodgrass based on founding Crossing tenor Steven Bradshaw’s artwork — it attains a new gravitas, as though voices from the past could mourn the mistakes of the future. Listen at crossingchoir.org/protect.
'For Our Courageous Workers,' Frank London, Hajnal Pivnick, Dorian Wallace
New Yorkers, still beset by runaway rates of covid-19 cases and fatalities, have established their own socially distanced approach to celebrating the efforts of health-care workers — cheering them every evening at 7 from their windows and rooftops with a clamor of pots, pans, songs and applause. Composers Frank London, of the Klezmatics, and Hajnal Pivnick and Dorian Wallace, of Tenth Intervention, have taken it one step further, releasing a “symphonic fanfare” titled “For Our Courageous Workers,” due for its first performance on Wednesday at 7. The publicly available score is intended to unite more than 1,000 musicians and non-musicians in song (if you can clap and sing an “ahhh,” you can join the chorus) across four movements — cheering, reflecting, catharsis, gratitude — and five boroughs. Think of it as a citywide musical group hug, just without the hugging part. Download a printable score at tenthintervention.com/workers.html.
'Broadcast From Home,' Lisa Bielawa
Elsewhere in team efforts, on Thursday, composer and vocalist Lisa Bielawa will release the fourth installment in her ongoing “Broadcast From Home” series. Released in “chapters,” it’s a large-scale collaborative work that enlists listeners to submit their own written testimonials about life in quarantine, and submit recordings of their own voices singing lines from those testimonials as set to melodies for every vocal range by Bielawa. The collected lines (“I want to sit across from you,” “I don’t want to meet you for happy hour online”) are then layered and formed by Bielawa into spellbinding, sparsely accompanied socially distanced choral pieces that play with absence and presence, isolation and community, fear and solace — and sound an awful lot like the voices in your head. Find recordings and instructions for participation at lisabielawa.net/broadcast-from-home.
If the name Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis fails to ring any bells, that’s fine. What’s important is that you continue to follow his advice for at least 20 seconds, multiple times a day. In 1846, the Hungarian obstetrician made an important discovery when mothers at the hospital where he worked in Vienna were dying at an unusually high rate. Turns out they were getting infected by the filthy hands of their own doctors. Semmelweis’s simple conclusion — that hand-washing was essential to stemming the spread of disease — would come to be understood as a contribution that revolutionized medicine, but not before he was ridiculed, fired and committed to an asylum — where he died in 1865.
Covid-19 has sparked a resurgent interest in his work — he was even the subject of a recent Google Doodle — but in “Semmelweis,” New York-based composer Raymond J. Lustig tells his story as a musical “death dream” of sorts, with compelling beauty and eerie prescience. Co-produced by Budapest Operetta Theatre and Bartók Plusz Opera Festival in 2018, the production’s world premiere will be available for steaming beginning Saturday for the month of May. “It ends up being a story of course about our incredible human capacity for denial, about our most stubborn blind spots,” says Lustig, whose wife is a doctor. “What urgent truth is out there right now, looming, just out of our capacity to accept it?” Watch at doctor-semmelweis.com.