The arts don’t exist in isolation.

David Byrne, musician

Musicians, like writers and artists, need quiet time and solitude to pursue their work. The desire to withdraw, often for hours on end, is not necessarily a sign of unsociability nor introvertedness but rather a signifier of deliberate intent and purpose. We choose to withdraw into our work spaces – whether it is a purpose-built music room or studio, or simply a corner of the home which is designated as one’s “creative space” – in order to get on with our work. For those who live with musicians, artists and writers, appreciating and respecting this need, and the creative space, is both important and supportive.

The lockdown in response to coronavirus is seen by many as an opportunity to “get creative” and in the first days of the UK lockdown, my Twitter feed was full of tweets by well-meaning people urging us to “learn a new language”, “finish that novel you always wanted to write”, “take up art” and make use of all this new-found “spare time”. Musicians were told they should think themselves “very lucky” to have all this “extra time to practice”, but while amateur musicians are relishing this time, professional musicians are more ambivalent, and some are quite hostile to the idea that they should welcome this grand fermata in their busy lives.

The trouble is, we didn’t choose this period of isolation; it was imposed upon us. And that affects inspiration, because in normal circumstances when we take ourselves off to our creative space, we control that intent, we have autonomy over our own time and how much of it we choose to spend alone.

It may be true that inspiration is about 80% solitary graft, day in day out, and that most inspiration comes from a regular routine rather than “lightbulb moments”, but the lockdown has, for many of us, caused a massive rupture in our routine. Musicians, for example, are not able to attend rehearsals, where regular interactions with colleagues fuel creativity – and if there’s one truism about creativity, it is that one must “feed the muse”. Interactions and experiences are the staple diet of the Muse, and the richer our experience, the better fed and healthy the Muse will be. For the musician, experiences are not only musical ones (listening to music, going to concerts, collaborating with other musicians), but life experiences in general – relationships, travel, sights and smells, interactions with others, events large and small. Unfortunately, almost all of these experiences are impossible at present, and this physical confinement can seriously limit the imagination.

Another important factor is motivation. Several musician friends have commented to me that without the focus of concerts to prepare for, they see little point in practising. And without regular practising or rehearsals, one slips out of a daily routine, leaving one feeling disoriented, out of sorts, and in some instances, depressed.

In addition, music, art, words need an audience – and this is what I think David Byrne means in his quote at the head of this article. The arts and creativity cannot really thrive in isolation: the musician needs the performance to work towards, the artist the exhibition, the writer the deadline. This is not attention-seeking but rather a significant motivator, and more fuel for the muse.

Of course many creative people are finding inspiration in isolation (and it remains to be seen how many Requiems for the Victims of Coronavirus are premiered when the concert halls reopen, or Lockdown Diaries published!), and for some of my musician colleagues, this pause has been a reminder of just how hard they work in normal times – rehearsing, teaching, performing, travelling, plus all the other admin and minutiae of daily life. If nothing else, the lockdown is an opportunity for a much-needed rest.


(Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash)

noun

Music

noun: fermata; plural noun: fermatas

  • a pause of unspecified length on a note or rest.
  • a sign indicating a prolonged note or rest.

“It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.” – Miles Davis

John Cage’s 4’33” may be the most infamous example of the use of silence in music (or rather the use of silence to create music), but composers have always recognised the power of silence and musical silence is as meaningful as interruptions and pauses in the language we speak. And because music is also a language, we recognise and understand the significance of those silences in music – a momentary breath, a witty or rhetorical stop-start, a pregnant, portentous pause, false cadences, an interruption to the flow of music which has you guessing before the composer strikes off in another direction. All these devices add meaning, drama, humour and emotion to the music. They also sharpen our attention and keep us listening, for the ear is constantly asking “what comes next?”.

5f4abe3691cbefc5214a04dcca372ff6
Fermata marking in music

A fermata marking above a note is generally understood to mean a longer pause – i.e. longer than the note value. Exactly how long to wait is at the discretion of the performer and there is a fine line to tread between creating dramatic, meaningful silence or suggesting that you might have forgotten what comes next in the music!

There is an even greater fermata at work at present, thanks to the global coronavirus pandemic. It has created an unprecedented, in peacetime at least, rupture to normal daily and cultural life. Concert halls and opera houses are closed, those places which until a few weeks ago resounded with music, and silence – not just the silences between the notes but that special hush of anticipation before the music begins or that magical concentrated, almost inexplicable silence which occurs during a particularly intense performance when it seems as if the audience is listening, and breathing, as one, or that special quiet at the end of a particularly arresting performance before the applause comes.

For those of us who love live music, the closure of the venues and its effect on our cultural life, has come as a huge blow, and not just in the absence of live music but also the social aspect of attending concerts. I had tickets to hear Chick Corea and Yuja Wang at the Barbican in March; both concerts were cancelled, and I do not anticipate returning to the London venues which I love (especially Wigmore Hall) until the autumn now, at the earliest. Summer music and opera festivals are now being postponed or cancelled (sadly, it seems highly likely that the BBC Proms will be cancelled), and one wonders how venues will cope when they are eventually permitted to reopen while audiences must continue to observe social/physical distancing. Auditoriums are not really designed to observe a 1- or 2-metre apart rule, and in older halls such as London’s Wigmore, audiences sit hugger mugger in tightly-packed rows. How will venues square this tricky circle? Will they perhaps sell only every other seat to ensure some distance between people? And how will orchestras, ensembles and choirs, for example, observe appropriate physical distancing on stage?

And there’s another conundrum for the venue managers – managing the social spaces where people meet and congregate before and during a performance, spaces which are often crowded, especially at a sold-out concert or the opening night at the Royal Opera House. It will be a challenge for sure – but I have a feeling that when the venues begin to reopen, music lovers and keen concert-goers like me will flock back to them. And some of us may take a gamble with our health in doing so.

image
Wigmore Hall, London

In the meantime, while coronavirus has forced the closure of the places where musicians and audiences come together to share in the experience of live music-making, it has not silenced the musicians who are determined to play on, their music broadcast via YouTube, Zoom and similar platforms, often with interesting and innovative results, and, it would appear, large audiences. Classic FM reports that a recent “living room” concert by their Artist-in-Residence violinist Maxim Vengerov has been viewed by more than 20,000 people, with 1,500 peak live viewers – more than can fit comfortably into a medium-sized concert hall. Such performances also bring the musicians closer to their audiences and break down the traditional barriers and notions of elitism associated with classical music and the rituals of its performance and presentation. Audiences see musicians at work in their own homes and discover that away from the formality of the concert stage, these people are normal – they live in normal homes, not Lisztian salons, wear normal clothes, have kids and pets. By the same token, musicians can forge stronger connections with audiences by bringing their music to the living rooms of their fans and supporters. If these online viewers translate into paying concert-goers when the venues eventually reopen, this could signal a marvellous resurgence for classical music and perhaps even encourage new audiences, a perennial issue for the artform. So maybe the coronavirus could have a positive impact on the way music is presented and enjoyed – we can but hope….

As a postscript, readers may be amused to learn that an alternative Italian word for fermata is corona…. And fermata is also the Italian word for bus stop.

 

 

Like many other cultural venues across the UK, the London concert hall St John’s Smith Square is currently closed to the public due to the Coronavirus pandemic.  Closed doors means a drastic reduction in income.  One way of helping to ease the immediate financial pressures of lockdown is the ‘pay it forward’ model, where customers are invited to purchase goods or services in advance, to be redeemed when lockdown has ended.

Inspired by the ‘clap for our carers’ initiative and with a desire to look ahead to life after lockdown, St John’s has launched a ‘pay it forward’ campaign with a difference.  Supporters are invited to give to the campaign to fund free concert tickets for NHS staff.

With an initial target of 500 tickets, gifts received during the 4-week campaign will be used to create an NHS free tickets fund.  When St John’s is able to reopen to the public, NHS workers will be invited to register for the free tickets scheme and redeem their tickets for a concert of their choice at St John’s.

St John’s Smith Square Director Richard Heason comments:

“The current situation has left many of us feeling quite helpless yet wanting to do something positive to let NHS staff know how much we appreciate all that they are doing for us.  As an organisation that lives and breathes music, we wanted to give people a way of saying thank you through music”. 

For further information and to give to the campaign, please visit the Crowdfunder page here:

https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/free-concert-tickets-for-nhs-staff

www.sjss.org.uk

#NHSThankyou

 


Source: press release

Image: audience applauding at St John’s Smith Square. Photo by Matthew Andrews