In the teeth of it

What to say what to say

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I’ve had a mailer in progress for a minute, but every time I’m poised to click send things get worse. If you’re talking about anything except Big Rona are you really talking about anything?

We haven’t seen something like this before. H1N1, SARS? 9/11? The Great Recession, the … dot-com crash? No. Not really. These are uncharted waters.

Below I’ll offer you stories and updates only on this theme. (Hey: it beats watching celebs sing a John Lennon song.) Afterwards we can wish each other well and be off to do our best hand-washing.

Thanks for reading,


Music to wash your hands to

Even in ideal circumstances most people's hand-washing routines are lacking. How many of us scrub away like maniacs to get hands as clean as a pre-op surgeon's? Attention to detail is one key. Longevity is another: the longer you wash, the better chance of getting rid of undesirable stuff.

This has never been more important than now. In the middle of a pandemic, survival means access to quality healthcare (lol), social distancing, and of course hand-washing.

To that end, composer Isaac Schankler held an open call for 20-second pieces -- 20 seconds being the minimum length of time the CDC recommends to effectively soap, scrub and rinse your hands — with the idea that the resulting music will encourage people to spend more time on their ablutions. I talked with Schankler via email about their crafty plan.

How did you come up with the idea?

Isaac Schankler: It felt like a pretty natural outgrowth of the CDC's recommendation to sing "Happy Birthday" while washing your hands, and all the song suggestions floating around after that. Why not write our own songs?

Last year when the US started putting immigrant kids in cages, my friend Jen Wang, also a composer, organized a project where, if you donated to an org like RAICES [Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services] that provided advocacy and legal representation for immigrants, a composer would write you a one-minute piece. It was a great way to do something positive and feel a little less helpless as artists. I don't know if I would have had this idea if I hadn't had that experience as well.

Were there any 20-second (ish) songs or pieces out there that already fit the definition? Or are we really lacking?

I know of a handful of minute-length music projects (60x60 comes to mind) but nothing specifically for 20 seconds! It seems like an area rife for exploration.

From what I understand the end result will end up on bandcamp. How much will it cost to download? Does the money go to the composers?

It will be free, with the option to pay what you want. I will be donating the proceeds (if there are any) to the Medicare Rights Center, a non-profit that works to ensure access to affordable health care for older adults and people with disabilities. It was important to me to find something that helped those populations since they are more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Do you have any 20-second pieces you're contributing?

I will be contributing a piece!

You're a composer, music professor, and rhythm game designer among other things. How much have things changed for you because of COVID-19? Can you still work?

As a professor, I am in the process of moving my courses online, which is a lot of extra work and an imperfect solution in many ways. But I am extremely lucky in that I have a stable teaching job and that as a composer, I can do work from home. Many of my friends, especially freelance musicians, are not so lucky, and their income has been decimated by this crisis. Right now I'm looking into live-streaming as a way to help tide things over for these musicians.

All the news is pretty gloomy right now. Are there any positive things to take away from all this, for musicians and others? I see a lot of online collaboration beginning — resource sharing, artists commiserating, calls for support.

It's heartening to see people set up things like relief funds for struggling artists in the wake of this. My hope for this is that people come out of this with a more community-minded approach to things, and realize that we have the ability to help each other in times of need. Maybe that's naive. I hope not!


Note: Schankler's call for submissions closed yesterday, but I encourage you to head to Twitter and give Schankler's TL a good scroll-through — they’re working on lots of interesting collaborative projects right now.

vln_prof_ac99 just entered the chat

COVID-19 is a nightmare, and musicians are affected like everybody else. Concerts and tours have been postponed and canceled, musicians detained or quarantined, conservatories shuttered. Everything has ground to a halt.

There are still things to cheer for in the middle of this: easy-to-understand public health directives. Competent leadership. Non-perishable foods. And obviously acts of heroism both large and small. To cherry-pick one of the latter: the story of violinist Anthea Creston, and her student Kevin Tang [$]. Tang has been sheltering in place in Chengdu. Since Tang’s family had been in self-imposed lockdown during the worst of the outbreak, Creston — who normally coaches Tang via Skype — offered to switch from a weekly lesson to daily check-ins, and to load up his practice schedule to fill the draggy hours of the day.

The teacher-student bond is a tight one in normal circumstances. In this case it’s a lifeline for a kid bored to tears and desperate for diversion. There are only so many hours you can play Call of Duty. At least this way Tang will have something tangible to show for it: sharper chops, and with luck a good handle on Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole.

(Side note: if the groceries, drug stores, delivery and streaming services ever needed to conjure a scenario that would 10 or 100x their business, this <<gestures broadly>> is it. This is the scenario.)

Scoring a live-music fix during the shutdown

When communicable diseases sail through the air like roses at the end of a stirring performance, it seems everybody except Post Malone agrees it’s better we don’t have public concerts. This presents a challenge for the concert-going public. How the hell can we hear live music?

Luckily the internet exists. For example, the Berliner Philharmoniker just opened up their Digital Concert Hall for a 30-day free trial. The Metropolitan Opera has a free encore performance every night until they re-open (but have a look at this before you sing their praises). The Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam has a respectable selection of performances and ephemera. The redoubtable VAN has a list of current and upcoming livestreams (headline “Sonic Distancing” damn it that’s good). And this page claims to be a classical streaming database but seems to have lost some steam in recent days. (Relatable.) Meanwhile, you can pull up for some free Live from Lincoln Center performances, pay 12.99 USD for the trusty Medici TV, or just do what everybody else does and swan-dive into a concrete ocean of Youtube content.

Okay, that’s it! If you’re satisfied with these suggestions then please log off now.


<craning neck to make sure coast is clear>

All right, they gone? Good. Just go on TikTok, Snapchat or IG stories. There’s enough weirdo music content to last a lifetime. There’s never been a better time to open a device and make, watch or hear music online. Witness what’s happened in China as performance spaces close and musicians naturally want to keep doing what they do best: perform and entertain.

Finally, if you’re a musician who’s losing gigs and income, David Taylor’s series “How to be an online musician and work from home” presents at least a couple work-arounds for uncertain times. More on this in the next mailer.

Tweet of the times

How much context would this tweet require six months ago?

Pathogen-free links, fresh out the autoclave

🌎 Alex Ross profiles John Luther Adams

😕 Let the debates begin: Beethoven’s ten worst joints

💀 Plot thickens: official quits amid Plácido Domingo investigation

💸 David Roth on the vagaries of mfing scrolling news sites

💿 Ready for CDs yet? Fire threatens vinyl supply chain

Dark thoughts

  • We’re snugly isolated here in Berlin except for grocery shopping and neighborhood walks to make sure things don’t get too repetitive. Not ideal, but it’s something. Boredom beats sickness. Radio is a godsend.

  • Seriously. In addition to the usual programming (steady measures of RBB Kulturradio, a few puffs here & there of Cosmo FM) we've been playing a lotttt of pop radio. Expect 2,500 words in the next mailer on Pop in the Time of Ava Max and Dua Lipa. And a comprehensive ranking of Deutschtrap MCs.

  • My German is now at a level where talking on the phone isn’t a total nightmare. So, if phone calls are possible, then so are …. prank phone calls? Oh hell yes baby. (See “boredom” above.)

  • Call your family, call your friends. Matter of fact, spam the whole contact list. Let chaos reign. We need the diversion.