Compared to many people, I don’t listen to much music, and while I see a fair amount of theater, including musicals—thanks to my husband Jamie, who’s great about getting tickets—I wouldn’t say that I’m a big fan of musicals.
But the other night, I finally understood the art form of the musical, and perhaps opera, in a profound way.
These days, I’m very restless, so along with socially-distanced walking or otherwise exercising once a day, I often add a second walk in the afternoon or evening (which is still permitted where I live).
The other day, I was out for a walk during what would ordinarily be rush hour in New York City. And rush hour in New York City is a very obvious time. I was nearing home, and I crossed Lexington Avenue against the light—something that’s impossible, unthinkable to do under normal circumstances. But now, although the traffic signals flashed through their usual colors, nothing changed, nothing moved.
As I stood still in the middle of the avenue, with the light fading and the sound of sirens faintly in the background, I felt: This is the moment when I should begin to sing.
Right now, we’re in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, and it will continue and change for a long time. While everyone across the globe is affected, it’s hitting people differently in different places. Countries are experiencing it at different times, and within the United States, states are being hit at different times. The crisis affects individuals very differently, too; people’s fears and challenges vary dramatically. Wherever we are, we’re all so grateful for the healthcare workers and other essential workers who are doing such important work, so courageously, during this time.
I’m writing from my own experience, at this moment, in New York City.
I would sing about this eerie silence, this unnatural calm, this deceptive peace.
All over New York City, others would be singing something different—the doctors and nurses in the hospitals, the clerks in the grocery stores, the police and fire-fighters, the owners outside their shuttered stores and restaurants, the gig and freelance workers, the teachers, the single people, the bus drivers, the children, the people in the assisted-living places…on and on.
I can imagine the hopeful song when we all cheer at 7 p.m. for the essential workers; the mournful song of the ambulance drivers; the lament of the people who love someone who died.
My song is the song of the uncanny, of absence, of waiting.
I may not recall it correctly, because I saw the movie The Devil’s Advocate years ago, but one scene stuck in my memory. Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) is a Florida lawyer who was hired by John Milton (Al Pacino) to join a big New York City law firm. Spoiler alert: Milton is the Devil. At one point, Kevin leaves his office building to walk out onto 57th Street, which is one of the widest, biggest, most crowded thoroughfares in Manhattan. It’s jammed with people and cars, always. But as Kevin walks onto the street in midday, it’s deserted. No cars. No people.
When I saw the movie, I remember noting the elegance of this image. Nothing could make the point clearer: What power could accomplish this impossibility? (See the scene here.)
Maybe my impulse to sing was also sparked by the fact that I recently saw the finale of the TV show Transparent—I was startled and moved by the opening scene, when Sarah starts singing the beautiful “Sepulveda Boulevard” in her car.
How can I rise to the tragic simplicity of the times? How do I grapple with the public catastrophe, private calamity, and public loss? What would my song sound like?
Ignore the lyrics, but perhaps music like…
- “Morning After” Ariel Pink and Weyes Blood
- “The Ballad of Floyd Collins” Adam Guettel, from the musical Floyd Collins
- “The Promise” Michael Nyman, from the movie The Piano
I imagine myself pulling my face mask down to my chin, I imagine the bike-delivery guys circling around in careful choreography, I imagine neighbors joining the chorus from their windows and balconies.
I’m grappling for the words that could express what I feel; I wish I could sing them.
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