I am, once and for all, the eternal beginner. – Gustav Mahler, 1909
I read this sentence over a century after it was written, six months after leaving an abusive relationship and trying to begin my life, in general and as a composer, again. At that time, everything felt new and nigh impossible; going outside, now ironic, talking, composing, teaching. The quote, later misremembered to “each day I must begin again,” helped reframe my efforts. It helped address the fudge ripple swirl of PTSD running through the classic combo of anxiety and depression and got me to breathe. It gave each day a chance to be another start, without carrying over the baggage from the days prior. Each beginning grew from the foundations of the previous. Life was rebuilt.
When the pandemic arrived, the practice of being an eternal beginner again held particular relevance.
Train to return to attention whenever you become aware that you are lost. And then just do it. Place attention and rest. Return and rest. Again and again. – Ken McLeod, “Forget About Consistency”
As a composer and artist, there is the perpetual problem of the blank page and how to go about filling it. The creative life is one nonstop beginning and the only way to learn your unique way of addressing that blank page is to practice, practice, and practice. And then do it again. I approach a blank page as an architect. An elaborately constructed structure lays out a guideline for the notes so when I become lost, I know where to come back to.
As in music, as in life; in March I returned to structure.
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game
– Joni Mitchell, “The Circle Game”
On March 9, I returned from the Darkwater Women in Music Festival. On March 11, the schools I contracted with closed. On March 13, I began again. My schedule was reconstructed to divide the day into manageable chunks, the to-do lists were divided by day, week, and month, and that became the framework to adjust as work from home orders came in, restaurants closed, schools closed for the remainder of the year, concerts and festivals were canceled or moved online.
The arts and artists have all started offering new support in the face of the closures. In my base of Seattle, funds were immediately set up and continue to support local artists. The Artist Trust website currently lists 20 links for funding or resources, many of them new. Live Music Project, an organization which normally posts all local live concerts in the area switched gears mid-March and started focusing on livestreaming concerts worldwide. Where before there was an endless fount of places to look, the search for events started from scratch with an empty Google doc. Two weeks later there were over 100 concerts listed. Further away, LA harp and cello duo and current collaborators, Strange Interlude, have joined in the livestreaming concerts and like many artists friends, local and across the world, have started new projects and posted messages of hope, continuance, and support for each other in the face of uncertainty and loss.
Life has abruptly divebombed into new and unfamiliar territory in this time of corona and we all have beginnings to confront and come up with. We are bombarded with contrasting messages: use this time to create a masterpiece; to do nothing and grieve; to connect with everyone; to meditate alone; the list goes on. Despite all that, begin in a way that makes sense for you. Know what works and if you don’t, experiment. Read all the articles about working from home and try some. Then adjust and retry. Start a weekly brunch and connect with people if that’s your jam but don’t feel pressured. Start a new project addressing the fear of the unknown future. Or, give yourself a weekly laugh by featuring every dinosaur-themed piece of clothing you own on Fridays. Treat each day as a new start or if struggling, every hour. Figure out what you need to carry yourself through the next few months and try again.
In the message of the Joni Mitchell song I heard every night as a child, there is no going back, only forward, and so I look ahead, create my structure, and begin.
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Jessi Harvey, also known by George, is a Montana-born, Seattle-based, freelance composer and teacher. Her work has a wellspring of inspiration based in the natural world and has been performed throughout the United States and Canada, including at the Waterloo Contemporary Music Sessions, Music By Women Festival, and the Montréal Contemporary Music Lab. Works have been commissioned by the Art Song Collaborative Project, the Onomatopoeia Trio, Karin Stevens Dance, among others. You can find her at jessiharveymusic.com.