For Our Courageous Workers is a 4-movement, 11-minute long graphic piece I conceived which was composed together with Hajnal Pivnick and Dorian Wallace, realized by musicians of all levels in New York City and beyond, and performed at 7pm—the time of the daily “Cheer for Front-Line Workers”—on April 29, 2020, during the period of our COVID-19 virus “stay-at-home quarantine”.
It was intended to fulfill many purposes. To call attention to the risks that front-line essential workers face, doing the jobs that allow us to live and survive through this virus period, and to celebrate them and their work. To inspire the people of the city, isolated by necessity and decree, and bring them together through music. And to allow musicians to do what we do—make music! (For many New York musicians, accustomed to playing with others on an almost daily basis, this was the first time they had played live with others in almost two months.) Hajnal Pivnick, Dorian Wallace, and I saw our roles as being both composers and directors of a ritual, spectacle performance.
The composition presented a number of challenges. We had to ensure that it was not only playable by all levels of performers, from amateurs, students, and rank beginners to the world’s finest professional, performing musicians, but would also be enjoyable to perform. To this end, we chose instructions that anyone could achieve at their own level.
It needed to both grow out of and function as an extension of the daily “Cheer for Front-Line Workers” ritual that takes place in NYC. Michael Brodeur, in the Washington Post described it as follows:
New Yorkers have established their own socially distanced approach to celebrating the efforts of health-care workers—cheering them every evening at 7 from their windows and rooftops with a clamor of pots, pans, songs and applause.
We began the piece with this clamor of pots, pans and applause, and added a jubilant major fanfare. The drummers used only cymbals, reminiscent of the explosive percussion in Chinese New Year’s celebrations. Then, instead of ending at around the time the cheer would normally subside, we went into a contrasting section.
We chose a four-section structure to give it both musical shape and a narrative focus:
1) CHEERING (for the workers);
2) REFLECTING (on the devastation and loss);
3) CATHARSIS (“a full-blown play anything, glorious, jubilant, ecstatic, cacophonic, sonic catharsis” to release pent in feelings, be they anger, grief, rage, frustration); and
4) GRATITUDE (for the workers, for our lives, families, loved ones, health, community).
Any attempt to have a synchronized rhythm or pulse would have failed, as would having the length determined by a number of bars. We defined the four movements through clock time not metronomic time. (Although, in order to give a sense of slowness, the 2nd movement has the instruction to the drummers: “Quarter note pulse = 60 bpm”. This was meant to be taken either literally or figuratively.)
A hypothetical listener hovering above the city would hear 3 minutes of Bb major, with an emphasis on the Bb major seventh chord (Bb-D-F-A), fast and explosive; morphing into 3 minutes of slow pensive D minor; a sudden eruption of 3 minutes of total noise and chaos; and a final coming together into one unified pitch and sound. E Pluribus Unum, out of many, one. In determining the home pitch for the fourth section, we debated using D (easy for the string player) or Bb (for the winds). Bb was chosen because I remembered reading somewhere that New York City vibrated to a fundamental bass tone of Bb (possibly from the electrical grid or subway vibrations).
Limiting the pitch sets for the 1st, 2nd, and 4th movements ensured that it would work as an ensemble piece (if the performer heard others playing it), while allowing players to treat it as a solo performance (if they did not).
My personal performance went thus: 3 minutes of free blowing Bb major jubilant energy, reminiscent of Albert Ayler’s “Bells,” accompanied by Tony Geballe’s Frithian guitar feedback drones on the next roof. 3 minutes of spiritual, meditative D minor melodies reflecting the sadness of losing so many greats to this virus. Then chaos and release! Allowing myself to vent the frustration of being led through this crisis by a mendacious, self-serving national leader, I ended up screaming uncontrollably while playing the ratchet as fast and loudly as possible—my personal catharsis. The last few minutes of unison brought me down to earth, and I realized that dozens of people in adjacent buildings, hungry for live music, were applauding.
We don’t know exactly how many people participated, but we have received almost 100 performance videos of For Our Courageous Workers. Weaving these together videos affirms that our compositional choices play out: it is a coherent work performed by musicians who for the most part could not hear each other.
I suspect that we will create a number of iterations of For Our Courageous Workers using the submitted material. But it’s going to be a while before we have something complete to share with the world. In the meanwhile, here’s a sneak peek at the first 30 seconds.
For Our Courageous Workers could not have been successful without having many participants. As the entire project went from its initial conceptualization to the performance in 10 days, we relied upon our co-sponsoring organizations—each with a wide reach into diverse New York musical communities—to get the word out to the public. We feel a deep gratitude. All of them, along with the hundreds of people who performed the piece, brought together undzer kleyn shtetl New York (our ‘little village of New York’) through sound.
[Ed. Note: To access the single-page, text-based score for the composition For Our Courageous Workers, click here.]