Library of Congress commissions 10 music pieces inspired by COVID-19

Nathalie Joachim performs for the Library of Congress. (Erin Patrice O’Brien)
WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Library of Congress 10-day series

The coronavirus pandemic has shaped our lives like few world events ever have.

Starting Monday, the Library of Congress will premiere 10 commissions of new music on its website as well as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube on weekdays from June 15-26.

“How do you present music at a time when nobody can get together?” music specialist David Plylar told WTOP. “We thought we might be able to produce short-scale works of one to three minutes each from a variety of composers from around the country and pair them up with a different performer and have them do this socially-distanced music.”

It’s presented by The Boccaccio Project, named after Giovanni Boccaccio, who wrote the 14th-century “Decameron” of 100 stories by 10 folks quarantined during the plague.

“It involved 10 people who left the cities to be together in the countryside and they would tell each other stories,” Plylar said. “It’s surprisingly modern. It’s a very interesting thing to read nowadays, especially in light of what’s going on, so it seemed a perfect match.”

Here are the musicians who will participate.

Monday, June 15, 8 p.m.

“Sequestered Thoughts” by Jeremy Jordan (piano) and Damien Sneed (composer)

“‘Sequestered Thoughts’ was a most wonderful piece of music to study and record. Mr. Sneed displayed a good deal of harmonic and thematic ingenuity and managed to craft all of it into a work that expertly captures the spirit of this project. The circumstances under which this project was created make it that much more remarkable, and it served as a creative inspiration for my own continued artistic endeavors.” -Jeremy Jordan

“Sequestered Thoughts’ was inspired by spending many days alone in solitude during the COVID-19 pandemic of Spring 2020. It opens with a virtuosic fluttering in the right hand juxtaposed against a strong and determined left-hand motif,======= speaking to the many meandering thoughts that come to one when they find themselves devoid of human interaction and fellowship.

Then a motif comes out of the left hand representing the inquisitive longing for things to shift to a new normal while the right hand plays octaves mirroring the monotony of days running together and weeks running into months. Then with the feeling of inward searching of the soul, a chromatic scale cascades downward into a strong-willed determination to survive in resilient hope for the future upward into keys effervescently peering upward in expectation.” -Damien Sneed

Tuesday, June 16, 8 p.m.

“shadow of a difference / falling” by Andrew Nogal (oboe) of the Grossman Ensemble and Richard Drehoff, Jr. (composer)

“‘shadow of a difference / falling’ is a series of moments based around the idea of the proverbial bird beating its wings against its newfound cage in trepidation. Each impulse provides insight into its fragile disposition, venturing from moments of cautious curiosity, through forlorn wails and futile exertions, to a melancholy resignation of its confinement.

The work exposes the bird’s vulnerability by exploring blurred inflections of pitch, unsteady and ever-wavering sweeps across registers, and sharp juxtapositions between timid and rash gestures.” -Richard Drehoff Jr.

Wednesday, June 17, 8 p.m.

“Intuit” by Kathryn Bates (cello) of the Del Sol String Quartet and Miya Masaoka (composer)

“This piece begins to push at the liminality of microtonal ways of playing within underlying tonal centers. How to balance dynamic range and tone color/timbre within a contemporary practice? What is sacrificed, what is gained in such a scenario? In this piece, there are limited modalities for the performer to control and negotiate the suggested and indicated delicate balance of these parameters in the score.

Just as this musical balance is negotiated, so is the balance of our lives in lockdown. This piece is a positive and optimistic hope for a way to be present in the outside world of lockdown, and a wish to find a healthy balance between our own interiority and the outside world, which, under such extraordinary circumstances, we seek relief.” -Miya Masaoka

Thursday, June 18, 8 p.m.

“Bridges” by Jenny Lin (piano) and Cliff Eidelman (composer)

“In the spirit of ‘The Boccaccio Project,’ I reflected on the times we are all collectively living through and with this music, I found myself yearning toward a day when the world could all cross the bridge back into life. ‘Bridges’ went through several incarnations before I started to see the shape and the themes more clearly. I wanted to create a piano work worthy of virtuoso Jenny Lin, and that is partly what kept me going back to the drawing board. After trying so many possibilities, the piece took shape. Upon finishing, I looked back on it and realized that the work crossed over four bridges into different contrasting scenes to be interpreted by the listener.” -Cliff Eidelman

Friday, June 19, 8 p.m.

“Hello World” by Erin Lesser (flute) of the Wet Ink Ensemble and Erin Rogers (composer)

“Orbiting a sonic portal to the outer world, a flutist self-arranges within a mirrored video frame. The face-to-face encounter sets the scene for introduction, reintroduction, and exploration.” -Erin Rogers

Monday, June 22, 8 p.m.

“1462 Willard Street” by Charlton Lee (viola) of the Del Sol String Quartet and Luciano Chessa (composer)

“Written for Charlton Lee, a fearless performer I much admire, ‘1462 Willard Street’ is a piece for unaccompanied viola. 1462 Willard Street is the address of a hilltop San Francisco house I was visiting when, on March 16, 2020, the City of San Francisco lowered the boom with a shelter-in-place order to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

What was supposed to be a pleasant, week-long California visit bizarrely lasted two full months. My flagging spirits, a result of uncertainty, fear, and dread, were lifted by daily meals and storytelling sessions with my two hosts John and Zane; heartfelt telephone calls to my anguished parents in Italy; as well as to friends throughout a dislocated world.

‘1462 Willard Street’ reflects the emotions of this lockdown, expressed through a counterpoint, often found in my music, of sweetness and grit. May this piece then capture my days in isolation. May it recall our storytelling and the endless strands of pleasure that resulted. And may the kindness of the two angels who sheltered me always be remembered.” -Luciano Chessa

Tuesday, June 23, 8 p.m.

“Olcott Park” by Daniel Pesca (piano) of the Grossman Ensemble and Aaron Travers (composer)

“Olcott Park is a place in Bloomington, Indiana, not far from where I live. I used to enjoy going there with my children, who would play soccer or run around on the many paths. I would also take my camera and look for birds to photograph, especially in the spring when prairie warblers, parulas and other migrants would come to visit.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, I have made a few excursions there, but not in recent weeks. There are too many people around, most without masks, most in close proximity to one another. It is not the safe place it had once been. Even the less trodden paths are choked with people, so that there is little peace left there. But I still care for it, and I still hope to return again soon.

This solo piano piece is a remembrance of that place, with its forests and birds, its many paths, and that sense of peace I once felt. It is dedicated to my dear friend, Daniel Pesca, with deepest admiration.” -Aaron Travers

Wednesday, June 24, 8 p.m.

“Lobelia” by Mariel Roberts (cello) of the Wet Ink Ensemble and Ashkan Behzadi (composer)

“In ‘Lobelia,’ we are observing the fragile and solitude expressivity of the performer ‘singing to herself,’ in searching for a forgotten melody of a past collective memory.” -Ashkan Behzadi​

Thursday, June 25, 8 p.m.

“A Shared Solitary” by Jannina Norpoth (violin) of PUBLIQuartet and Niloufar Nourbakhsh (composer)

“Over the course of the piece, a delay line becomes less and less distant as the texture becomes fuller, culminating into a collective sound. ‘A Shared Solitary’ attempts to resurface the fact that we are all going through this together all over the world even though we might not be able to physically see it.” -Niloufar Nourbakhsh

Friday, June 26, 8 p.m.

“Have and Hold” by Nathalie Joachim (flute) and Allison Loggins-Hull (composer), both of Flutronix

“‘Have and Hold’ was commissioned by The Library of Congress as part of the ‘Boccaccio Project.’ Inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century work The Decameron, a written piece about escaping the deadly effects of the Black Plague, the Boccaccio Project is a collection of micro-commissions responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

‘Have and Hold’ reflects the desire to be near others during an extended period of social distancing and isolation. Personally, I have realized that being around people and experiencing life with them not only brings me great joy, but fuels my energy, creativity and spirit. This piece is truly dedicated to all of the people in my life who I miss dearly and long to be near again.” -Allison Loggins-Hull

After the performances, the manuscripts will join the Library’s official music collection.

In total, the Library of Congress has commissioned more than 600 works since 1925.

“All of these pieces are deeply personal and not the same as every other piece that these composers have written before,” Plylar said. “It’s going to be quite fascinating to see just in this short span of time, these different journeys that these composers and performers have taken.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with David Plylar (Full Interview)

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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