Performing Arts COVID-19 Response Collection

The following is a guest post from Music Division Archivist Janet McKinney.

By their very nature, the performing arts depend on the key element of live interaction. But what happens to this art when that component is taken away?

In March 2020, concert halls, theaters, and other live performance venues were forced to close their doors to protect people from the coronavirus disease. As a result, ensembles, organizations, and individuals were unable to rehearse or perform in person. Losing the means to create their art was devastating—emotionally as well as financially. Yet, while these abnormal circumstances have negatively impacted the security and livelihood of performing artists, many artists also devised innovative ways to conceive art and share it with audiences.

The Music Division has undertaken a thoughtful strategy to capture this unprecedented time by establishing the Performing Arts COVID-19 Response Collection. This carefully curated collection amasses artistic works and supporting primary source materials that document the performing arts’ creative response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

These original works by nationally recognized artists either addressed or were created in response to the coronavirus disease, social distancing, or life in quarantine. The collection encompasses works in music, dance, and theater, and includes materials that document the creative process: scores, scripts, sketches, drafts, audio and video files, promotional and design materials, and correspondence. Unique to this collection are oral histories conducted with some of the creators, as well as COVID safety protocols and procedures for some theater and dance acquisitions.

Many of the titles found in the collection are evocative of what all of humankind has experienced during this pandemic: Distance Canon for solo violin, by Ted Hearne; “When We Are Together Again” for jazz ensemble, by Dave Douglas; Stir Crazy for flute and violin, by Carlos Simon; Alone for violin and electronica, by John Christopher Wineglass; Chronos, a ballet by Xiomara Reyes; or “Stuck” from A Killer Party: Murder Mystery Musical, by Jason Howland and Nathan Tysen.

Koh holding violin

Jennifer Koh, credit Jürgen Frank.

In some instances, the works were commissioned by an ensemble, consortium, or other organization intentionally to support creative artists during the pandemic, similar to the Library’s Boccaccio Project. One such example is Play at Home, a conglomerate of established theater companies from across the country that commissioned short plays specifically for performance in isolation. Creators such as playwright Regina Taylor and Tony award-winning composer Michael R. Jackson provided new plays to be performed by anyone with internet access. Another inspiring example is Alone Together, a project conceived and organized by Jennifer Koh, artistic director of ARCO Collaborative. Koh asked twenty composers with institutional support to donate new micro-works written for solo violin. Each composer also recommended a fellow freelance colleague to write micro-works on paid commission from ARCO Collaborative. Koh initially premiered the works in pairs on YouTube over several weeks in the spring of 2020; she later recorded them and received a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Solo.

Other works were inspired by the virus itself. Markus Buehler’s Viral Counterpoint of the Coronavirus Spike Protein (2019-nCoV) is a musical representation of the amino acid sequence and structure of the spike protein of the pathogen of COVID-19. Lauren Gunderson’s play The Catastrophist tells the true story of virologist Nathan Wolfe, who proposed pandemic insurance years before the COVID-19 crisis. More abstract in nature, Christopher Cerrone’s orchestral work A Body, Moving is a response to how the virus made people acutely aware of air’s flow and its ability to spread illness.

Pencil notation on staff page.

Lisa Bielawa. Sketch from Broadcast from Home, 2020. Box 1, Performing Arts COVID-19 Response Collection, Music Division.

Despite the limitations of a forced quarantine, it is somewhat surprising how many of these works are extremely collaborative. Composer Lisa Bielawa asked the public to submit testimonies about their own experiences during the pandemic. She then selected parts of these stories and set them to music, after which she invited the public as well as some frequent collaborators to perform the music from their homes and submit recordings. Finally, Bielawa mixed them and released the composition, Broadcast from Home, in fifteen chapters online. Each chapter included an animated video created by Cynthia Flaxman Frank and students from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. That an interactive collaboration could happen among so many strangers in such an isolated time is incredibly moving.

These are just a few examples of the diversity of voices and genres represented in the Performing Arts COVID-19 Response Collection, which continues to grow as the Music Division acquires new material. We are grateful to all of the artists who have agreed to include their work in this important collection, and we hope it will be beneficial to future historians and artists for generations to come.

Originally published in December 2021, the finding aid is periodically updated as acquisitions are made available for research. Additional resources on the impact of COVID-19 on performing arts can be found in the Library’s Coronavirus Web Archive. For other COVID-19-related collections at the Library, please read this press release.

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