Stunned by the recent NY Times front page acknowledging, as of the date of the issue, the nearly 100,000 Americans killed by the coronavirus, I wanted to do something. Reaching out to the poet Richard Leach, with whom I had collaborated previously, he promptly sent me Missing Voices, which I set to music the following day. Somehow, a duet between voice and cello seemed right for his moving words. These are not statistics but individual humans with all of their connected friends and family – and this must be acknowledged, even as we struggle to fathom the depth of such loss.
Then another poet I had reached out to put me in touch with Norman Fischer, who had posted a series of coronavirus poems on his website. Reaching out to him, I was thrilled when he gave permission for me to use his poems for this cycle of songs.
As I write this, the world in slow steps is attempting to return to normal – but nothing has really changed. The virus remains as transmissible and deadly as before governments attempted to halt its spread by implementing social distancing measures. For those at risk, me included, the time to safely venture out and resume a normal life remains out of reach.
This morning, just as I finished the song cycle, now entitled “An Incalculable Loss” from the NY Times headline, I received a video recording of a performance of the first poem, Missing Voices, by Kyle Engler and Stephen Framil, recorded yesterday in the empty Church of the Holy Trinity in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. Their performance was so beautiful and heartfelt, I wanted to cry while watching it. It will be released as part of Camerata Philadelphia’s upcoming Port City Music Festival, now to be a virtual concert.
Since seeing that devastating NY Times front page a week ago, the world has turned uglier still. Coming of age in the 1960s, I naively imagined that the battles for racial equality which marked the decade would have been largely won by the time I was a senior citizen. It is so terribly depressing to see that so little has changed. Reading the pleas by numerous white governmental officials for calm as protests against the murder of yet another black man by those who are sworn to protect us turn violent, I can only think, where were they for the past several decades? They had the authority and power to do something about it, but did nothing but sustain the status quo. Now, they want everyone to just calm down, so they can wait for this latest incident to age in the news cycle, and then go back to the way things were before. It is exactly the same card politicians play after every mass shooting. Perhaps this time will be different, but given past history, that is depressingly hard to imagine.
Some poignant, pointed lines from Langston Hughes, pertinent as when they were written:
American am I, none can deny:
He who oppresses me, him I defy!
I am Dark Youth
Seeking the truth
Of a free life beneath our great sky.