Music as non-essential?

When the world shut down in 2020, health care workers battled perpetual over-exhaustion and sick patients fought for their lives. Live music everywhere came to a halt and everyone in our industry was at a loss as to what do do with ourselves and our ‘forced sabbatical.’ Many artists I know had some form of existential crisis: as we weren’t essential workers, that meant we were non-essential workers, which followed that what we do is non-essential?

through violin…

With so much suffering and anxiety in the world I couldn’t permit myself to play the violin for almost a month. It seemed selfish to play music to myself and to be enjoying something in the midst of worldwide calamity. When I finally decided to take my violin out of my case, I justified my playing as giving a gift of music to my neighbours, offering something beautiful. As many during the pandemic, I chose Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas, which returned easily to my rusty fingers. I have had the pleasure of discovering and re-discovering these works since my teenage years, and the richness and expressivity in his music offered some solace and outlet for all the complex emotions I felt.

If music could bring emotional and psychological healing, then maybe music is more essential than we thought.

through composition…

I had felt a similar artists’ block in regards to my composition: it seemed so frivolous to write notes onto paper when so many were struggling. Composing is normally a very solitary activity and fitting for lockdown conditions, but composers are also ‘listeners’ and very much influenced by what is around us. 

At the time, I had a commission from Arte Musica in connection with Montreal Museum of Fine Art’s Riopelle: The Call of Northern Landscapes and Indigenous Cultures exhibition for Quatuor Bozzini. Part of the commission was to choose a painting as a point of departure or inspiration for my piece. I was taken by Riopelle’s depictions of nature and obsession with birds and chose Matinée au Cap Tourmente (see blogpost). I seldom write socially-motivated or programmatic music, but my subconscious craved something of a symbolic and uplifting nature. A combination of Oesterle-Frey-Glass compositional methods, the piece that materialized, du nord, is one of the most optimistic and minimalist pieces I have ever written. Retrospectively, I realized it was a call to simplicity, to solidarity and to experience joy.

[world premiere of du nord 19 March, 2021; Salle Bourgie, Museum of Fine Arts, Montréal, QC available online March 27 until April 10]

Alissa Cheung

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