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A New Library Of Congress Project Commissions Music Of The Coronavirus Pandemic

Jun 12, 2020
Originally published on June 12, 2020 5:24 pm

The shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic hit musicians hard, with concert halls and rehearsal spaces shuttered and silent. But a new music initiative from the Library of Congress embraces the constraints of COVID-19. The series is a collection of 10 videos of 10 different original compositions that will premiere online starting Monday, June 15. It's called the Boccaccio Project.

David Plylar is a senior music specialist at the Library of Congress and the person who spearheaded the project; it's named after the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, who saw the Black Death devastate Europe during the 14th century. Boccaccio's The Decameron follows 10 people who flee the plague in Florence and tell each other stories in a remote refuge. Pylar says that story feels very modern.

"You can take people out of what they know about society and they still have this compulsion to tell a story," he says. "And I felt that Boccaccio exemplifies that. And while we are much more connected now than they were in his time, we are isolated and we still have this desire to reach out to each other."

Luciano Chessa, one of the composers commissioned by the Library of Congress, meant to stay only a week in San Francisco. Chessa flew out from New York for a concert in March. From there he had events scheduled in Colorado, in Ohio and around the country. But then, like so many other musicians, the coronavirus pandemic changed his plans.

"The world changed," he says. "So I ended up staying in San Francisco for two months instead of just a week."

He worried about his parents in Italy as that country felt the worst of COVID-19.

"I think the most vivid images were basically caskets in piles outside of hospitals or retirement homes," Chessa says. "And my aunt died in March. We don't know whether exactly [if] it was COVID-19 or not because at the time, there were no tests."

The composer Luciano Chessa.
Melesio Núñez / Courtesy of the artist

In April, he got a commission from the Library of Congress for the Boccaccio project. The instructions were simple: Write a work responding to the pandemic — just a couple minutes long — for a single performer to videotape at home. Chessa says the commission was more than welcome.

"After two months making fresh pasta and wearing the same shirt you probably kind of are ready for a change," he says.

Chessa wrote a piece called "1462 Willard Street," named after the address where he spent the early months of the pandemic, uprooted and uncertain. The video opens on a length of twine looped around the lower strings of a viola. It scrapes the instrument and obscures a melody. The violist is Charlton Lee of the Del Sol Quartet, and as he plays he glides through the room. Eventually, the twine falls away and the melody becomes clearer

"I find it to be nostalgic," Lee says. "Somehow there's hope and sadness and joy all wrapped together."

Chessa says the video captures the feeling of composing while isolated during a pandemic.

"The player is set free halfway through the piece," he says. "In my opinion it was supposed to be a way of staging this process between constraint and freedom."

Damien Sneed, another composer commissioned by the Boccaccio Project, wrote a piece called "Sequestered Thoughts." Jeremy Jordan, who performed it, says that the limitations of the project forced composers to test their creativity.

"Talented composers sometimes have the ability to create wonderful works with great creative restraints placed upon them," he says. "You have to not only write a piece between one and three minutes, but then it has to be meaningful."

Jordan learned the piece in a day or two.

"In some ways it was kind of a pure experience because I just received the music and learned it and played it," he says.

Jordan's attention to detail impressed the composer.

"I was mesmerized and amazed by how he personally interpreted what was on the page and brought it to life," Sneed says.

The pandemic was a jolt for Sneed. He had just finished a 40-city tour when he began sheltering in place, alone. He means for his piece to evoke confinement, hope, the will to survive — and says all that resonates now with protests against police violence.

"At the end of 'Sequestered Thoughts,' it moves up the scale of the piano, so to speak," he says. "And it ends up looking upward and that's really the object of protest and reconciliation. Music allows us, these protests allow us, to hopefully get to a place where we are elevated."

Another piece comes from Flutronix — composed of flautists and composers Allison Loggins-Hull and Nathalie Joachim. In response to COVID-19, Loggins-Hull wrote "Have and Hold."

"I was really craving just the feeling of having companionship and being near people and just physical contact," she says.

Loggins-Hull says her craving only intensified as news of police killings arrived.

"Whenever these shootings happen, I still have that desire to hold people that I love, even to hold people that I don't know who share this common experience we all share as black people in this country," she says.

Nathalie Joachim says that when she recorded the piece, it felt less like a performance and more like mourning.

"It's not these killings happening in abstraction, or all of these bodies that are having to take to the streets to fight for what we deserve, which is humanity," she says. "I claim each of these people as my own family."

David Plylar, at the Library of Congress, says composers and performers are reacting to this moment, and as listeners we need to grab on to what they're saying.

"I think that these artists were already doing this and that this is just another outlet for them," he says. "But it's a way of documenting what is happening, taking an artistic stance and then trying to preserve that so that other people can benefit from it down the road."

The Boccaccio Project premieres Monday on the Library of Congress' website.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The pandemic lockdown hit musicians hard. Concert halls and rehearsal spaces fell silent. A new music series from the Library of Congress embraces the constraints of COVID-19, and it takes inspiration from a pandemic from centuries ago. Here's NPR's Taylor Haney.

TAYLOR HANEY, BYLINE: Luciano Chessa meant to stay only a week in San Francisco. The composer flew out from New York for a concert in March. From there, he had events in Colorado, Ohio...

LUCIANO CHESSA: But the world changed (laughter). So I ended up staying in San Francisco two months instead of just a week.

HANEY: Chessa sheltered in place. He worried about his parents in Italy as that country felt the worst of COVID-19.

CHESSA: I think the most vivid images were basically caskets in piles outside of hospitals or retirement homes. And my aunt died in March. We don't know exactly whether it was COVID-19 or not because at the time there were no tests. And so it was a little bit like funeral on Zoom. That was very hard. I was close to her.

HANEY: Then he got a commission from the Library of Congress - write a work responding to the pandemic, just a couple of minutes long for a single performer to record at home on video.

CHESSA: After two months making fresh pasta and wearing the same shirt (laughter), I mean, you probably kind of are ready for a change.

HANEY: Chessa wrote a piece called "1462 Willard Street," named after the address where he spent the early months of the pandemic, uprooted and uncertain.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLTON LEE PERFORMANCE OF LUCIANO CHESSA'S "1462 WILLARD STREET")

HANEY: The video opens on a length of twine looped around the lower strings of a viola. It scrapes the instrument and obscures a melody.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLTON LEE PERFORMANCE OF LUCIANO CHESSA'S "1462 WILLARD STREET")

CHARLTON LEE: I find it to be nostalgic, and somehow there is hope and sadness and joy all wrapped together.

HANEY: Charlton Lee of the Del Sol String Quartet plays the viola. The piece requires him to pull away from the twine while he's playing. It eventually falls off, and the melody becomes clearer.

CHESSA: In my opinion, it was supposed to be a way of staging this process between constraints and freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLTON LEE PERFORMANCE OF LUCIANO CHESSA'S "1462 WILLARD STREET")

DAVID PLYLAR: We've never asked people to write this quickly.

HANEY: David Plylar is a senior music specialist at the Library of Congress. He says composers only had a couple of weeks.

PLYLAR: Everybody has been adapting in different ways in terms of technology, and people are making do with what they have at their house.

HANEY: The result is the Boccaccio Project. The 10-part video series premieres Monday online. It was inspired by a work of 14th-century literature by the Italian writer Boccaccio. He saw the Black Death devastate Europe, and he wrote that "The Decameron" in which 10 people flee the plague and tell stories in a remote refuge. Kind of modern, Plylar says.

PLYLAR: You can take people out of what they know of society, and they still have this compulsion to tell a story. And I felt that Boccaccio exemplifies that. And while we are much more connected now than they were in his time, we are isolated, and we still have this desire to reach out to each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEREMY JORDAN PERFORMANCE OF DAMIEN SNEED'S "SEQUESTERED THOUGHTS")

HANEY: This piece from composer Damien Sneed is called "Sequestered Thoughts." It's performed by Jeremy Jordan.

JEREMY JORDAN: Talented composers sometimes have the ability to create wonderful works with great creative restraints placed upon them. You know, you have to not only write a piece between one and three minutes, but then it has to be meaningful.

HANEY: Jordan learned the piece in a day or two.

JORDAN: In some ways, it was kind of a pure experience because I just received the music and learned it and played it.

DAMIEN SNEED: I was mesmerized and amazed by how he personally interpreted what was on the page and brought it to life.

HANEY: That's the composer, Damien Sneed. For him, the pandemic was a jolt. He had just finished a 40-city tour when he began sheltering in place alone. He means for his piece to evoke confinement, hope, the will to survive. And all that resonates now with protests against police violence.

SNEED: At the end of "Sequestered Thoughts," it moves up the scale of the piano, so to speak, and it ends looking upward. And that's really the object of protest and reconciliation.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEREMY JORDAN PERFORMANCE OF DAMIEN SNEED'S "SEQUESTERED THOUGHTS")

SNEED: Music allows us, these protests allow us to hopefully get to a place where we are elevated.

HANEY: Another piece comes from Alison Loggins-Hull and Nathalie Joachim, the duo Flutronix. This is called "Have And Hold."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE AND HOLD")

FLUTRONIX: (Singing) Have, hold.

ALLISON LOGGINS-HULL: I was really craving just the feeling of having companionship and being near people and just physical contact.

HANEY: Loggins-Hull was thinking of the pandemic. But the craving for close contact also applies to news of police killings.

LOGGINS-HULL: Whenever these shootings happen, I still have that desire to hold people that I love, even to hold people who I don't know who share this common experience that we all share as black people in this country.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLUTRONIX SONG, "HAVE AND HOLD")

HANEY: When Nathalie Joachim recorded the piece, she says it felt less like a performance and more like mourning.

NATHALIE JOACHIM: It's not these killings happening in abstraction or all of these bodies that are having to take to the streets to fight for what we deserve, which is humanity. I claim each of these people as my own family.

HANEY: David Plylar at the Library of Congress says composers and performers are reacting to this moment. We need to grab on to what they're saying.

PLYLAR: I think that these artists were already doing this and that this is just another outlet for them. But it's a way of documenting what is happening, taking an artistic stance and then trying to preserve that so that other people can benefit from it down the road.

(SOUNDBITE OF JENNY LIN AND CLIFF EIDELMAN'S "BRIDGES")

HANEY: The Boccaccio Project premieres Monday at loc.gov. Taylor Haney, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JENNY LIN AND CLIFF EIDELMAN'S "BRIDGES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.