The Big City

”The more susbtantial an individual’s aesthetic experience is, the sounder his taste, the sharper his moral focus, the freer—though not necessarily the happier—he is.."

Everybody’s hurting. In music, jazz musicians are really hurting because for the most part they make their money with live gigs and teaching, so yeah no work (and that work is wage-based, you do the work then you get paid, we’re a long way from when Duke Ellington could keep a band on salary and have them available when he wanted).

Thursday, May 14, 8pm EST, the Jazz Foundation of America is putting up an online show for the COVID-19 Musicians Emergency Concert Fund. It’s a benefit show, so your donations go to the fund. And why donate? Because here’s some of the people who will be playing:

  • John Batiste
  • Elvis Costello
  • Robert Cray
  • Bootsy Collins
  • Cheryl Crow
  • Mark Ribot
  • Angelique Kidjo

Keegan-Michael Key hosts. The show will stream at the link above of the Foundation’s YouTube page, and once it opens it will be rebroadcast at 10pm the same night then be available for 24 hours. Tune in.

“I ate your book.”

Bernhard Lang

“George Grella understood exactly.”

Robert Ashley

The Metropolitan Opera is not coming back.

Not for a long time, anyway. They’re not alone—none of the big outposts of opera will be able to reopen until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19 that has been administered across a wide swath of the population, and that won’t be available for the usual early fall season openings.

Opera houses and concert halls, in New York City, fall under last of the four-phase plan that Governor Andrew Cuomo announced last week. Once a locale meets specific criteria for health care capacity, infection rates, testing, and contact tracing capabilities, they can reopen parts of society in those four phases, and live music comes last. But live music stretches from a duo playing in the basement space of the Downtown Music Gallery to up to 4,000 people in the audience at the Met. Live music also covers a huge variety of ensembles and configurations, instrumentation and means of production. And in COVID-19 terms, opera is one of the most dangerous kinds of music making.

This is not about the audience, which is already a daunting problem—will capacity be limited to 50% for all venues? Will there be a hard number of patrons allowed, meaning 2,000 will be too many? How do you handle social distancing when seats are bolted to the floors in rows, and when seat dimensions diminish as the ticket cost drops? How do you get people to their seats in a safe way (the amount of confused and aimless wandering and drifting in the aisles and squeezing into each other in rows at the Met, David Geffen Hall, Carnegie, etc., would amaze anyone who’s never seen it).

Forget the audience though, how do you manage what happens on stage (for a look at what smaller venues are already thinking about, and thinking through, these same problems and possibilties, see my article “Live, From New York” in VAN magazine). The breaking point is that you can’t have people singing to each other if you want to keep them safe.

Chances of picking up a COVID-19 infection depend on total exposure, and that is a combination of the amount of virus the duration of that exposure. Put those two things together, and it’s easy to see why being inside with a group of people is a real problem, and that’s just people talking and breathing, each of which action expels drops containing the virus. What happens once people start singing, breathing in deep, expressing a focussed column of air, pushing everything out of their lungs with far greater force and velocity than talking? You get what happened with this choir in Washington State.

In opera, the performers are singing to and at each other, as solo voices and as a chorus (and that pit into which the orchestra is crammed is pretty small). Even with no audience, a streamed live performance where everyone listening and watching is at home, the singers are up there, pushing what’s in their lungs out at each other with maximum force—and the Met, which is far too big, demands the most forceful singing of any opera house on the planet.

The singers will not be safe, performing opera with each other will not be safe, until there’s a vaccine and a reliable treatment for those who might catch the virus even with a vaccination—it happens. Yes, test the singers and if they have the virus they can’t perform. But this isn’t pick-up basketball, this is something that requires hundreds of hours of preparation and rehearsal. As even the White House might be able to understand (not a sure thing), you can test someone and they can still get the virus, and you won’t know that until you manage to test them after they’ve caught it. If they’ve been rehearsing already, it’s too late, and I don’t mean in terms of bringing up the understudy. Contact tracing alone will shut down the production.

So when we get back to live music, even streamed with no audience, or a tiny audience with masks listening to a pianist, or maybe, maybe a quartet—only looking at classical music, I have no idea how the jazz clubs, which have to pack people in at the density of a rush hour subway car, make this work—there won’t be opera. Not for awhile. With no vaccine on the horizon, much less a working national health care infrastructure that can deliver it nationwide, I can’t imagine that there will be a new season at the Met until fall of 2021. At the earliest.

That leaves a giant hole in classical music culture. I dearly hope people see this hole, and recognize that COVID-19 is responsible for only half of it. The other half is due to the effect of non-musical/non-aesthetic considerations in decadent late capitalism: social prestige, money and the admiration and worship of same, the way the board model and philanthropic organizations pat each other on the back, the latter rewarding the former for existing and for being really fucking big. The Met has an annual operating budget of around $300 million, which will produce absolutely nothing for a year. Just think what that money could do for small venues and organizations. In the current environment, donating to and sustaining the Met will be like bailing out the airlines and cruise ships, it’s making sure the wealthy still get to enjoy their toys while the rest of us are on our own.

“I ate your book.”

Bernhard Lang

“George Grella understood exactly.”

Robert Ashley

Live-streaming music was only supposed to be a stopgap—it seems musicians were eager to jump into it, thinking it was only temporary.

Well, now it’s the new normal, and its unsustainable. There are so many factors that make live streaming jejune, at best, and aggravation is the normal effect. The poor sound quality of most acoustic performances, which depend on the musician’s transducer and then yours, the disconnect from the listener, the lack of spontaneity and interaction. It’s all dispiriting, and though there are continued critical swoons for it, that seems a product of gratitude—understandable!—and not for the actual music itself.

What does work is archives of live performances. They are more alive, because an audience feeling is captured, then any digital thing happening in real time. So yes check out those opera and classical music performances, those jazz gigs, those Radiohead shows.

Also check out the NYC Ballet’s YouTube page. They are presenting a digital spring season, showing archived performances on a set schedule. I’m not technically knowledgeable about the ballet, but I have always loved it, and it translates extremely well to the small screen.

The other thing about the ballet is you get great music. In the case of the above, you also get the Stravinsky-Balanchine collaborations, and what those two men produced is at the pinnacle of what Western culture has achieved.

“I ate your book.”

Bernhard Lang

“George Grella understood exactly.”

Robert Ashley

Ain’t no finer band for the times than Sleaford Mods.

Rough Trade is putting out a tight little collection of singles and B-sides next week, and it really belongs in your library. Seriously, what else do you want to listen to while the powers that be scheme to fuck you over?

“I ate your book.”

Bernhard Lang

“George Grella understood exactly.”

Robert Ashley

The streaming music phenomenon has, for me, quickly grown stale. A musician playing alone in a room through my screen is a wan and tiresome experience, no sense of touch of course but also no sense of live tension. The mediation of the computer and internet renders everything artificial. A few ensemble performances have been better, just for having musicians playing together in person, and archival stuff always works because there’s the inherent knowledge and expectations of a concert/opera film.

Still, give this Conrad Tao set, going up live 7pm EST, May 7, a try. He’s an exciting and imaginative musician, he throws himself into what he’s doing, he’s full of surprises, AND he knows his way around digital technology. The program promises “acoustic and electroacoustic” elements, and he’s going to be improvising and playing off music by the likes of Mompou and Ruth Crawford Seeger. So, why not, you got other plans?

“I ate your book.”

Bernhard Lang

“George Grella understood exactly.”

Robert Ashley

About all this: I started this blog (not my first) in 2008, during one national emergency, and am back at it in earnest in the midst of a new one.

In the intervening years I was fortunate to move from writing about music and culture to keep myself from going insane to writing about music and culture as a freelance professional. Not that the work was enough to support my life on my own, but it was something.

Now, there’s no more work. That’s what happens when live music shuts down. So this post sits at the top, asking for help, because there’s nothing left to do.

You can hit the button below and place a modest monthly contribution, or even hit another button for a one time tip. No amount too small, my thanks great to all.


Donation

Be an angel and toss something in the hat, fill in the number that works for you. Donations of $15 and above get a random CD plucked from my collection, sent to you via media mail at no additional cost.

$5.00


“I ate your book.”

Bernhard Lang

“George Grella understood exactly.”

Robert Ashley