What It’s Like to Be a Composer During a Pandemic
First she needed a piano. Then she had to find a quiet, private location and tote along cables, mics, and her computer, now stuffed with recording software. She managed to book the Rose Recital Hall inside Fisher-Bennett for five days over winter break—piano included—and spent the first four days practicing. On the fifth, she filmed herself, in the highest possible resolution, with the best sound quality she could manage. “It took me three hours just to place the mics correctly,” she remembers. She spent a long day leaping back and forth from piano to computer. Next came editing both the video and audio herself. Start to finish, “it was very exhausting,” she says.
But necessary these days, when you’re a young composer who had just started to break through at the same time the world broke down. Vu’s work had been appearing on larger and larger stages right before Covid-19 began ripping through the country. Suddenly “everything was cancelled,” she remembers, including scheduled performances of her pieces at the University of South Florida and Penn’s Annenberg Center.
As of today, her music hasn’t been performed in person since March 7, 2020, when she played two of her own works (Against Time and Dark Whims) at the College Music Society’s 2020 Northeast Conference.
“Ups and downs” is how she describes this past year. “It’s been hard to compose on a regular basis,” she says. “Being stuck at home all day, it’s hard to find the inspiration and motivation to work.”
But her calendar has stayed busy. Everything is just a little—or maybe a lot—different from how it would have been. Her acceptance to the prestigious Tanglewood Music Center as a composing fellow, for one. Participants usually spend two months meeting and making music together in person. Last summer’s collaborations happened via Zoom, and Vu’s piece for double bass, Sept Vignettes, premiered online. It was the first piece she wrote during the pandemic, after taking several months away from composing. Each of the seven vignettes highlights a specific playing technique and sound on the instrument:
October brought a virtual presentation on her music at the University of South Florida’s New Music Consortium (available to watch here), and in December, her newest work, Dance Variations on a Theme by J.S. Bach, premiered at the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival’s Winter Baroque streamed concert. A cellist and violinist, both fully masked, performed the multi-movement work, which turns a theme from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 6 into dance-inspired variations including Irish step, tango and waltz:
Vu says both Dance Variations and Sept Vignettes reflect one of the major challenges that composers are grappling with in the time of Covid-19. “A lot of composers have been turning to writing pieces for solo or as few musicians as possible,” she says. “Having a lot of people come together to rehearse is, of course, not safe. Now people are writing for just one or two people because—if they really want to write for more—each person has to record themselves [individually] and it’s a whole other process.”
The past year has also forced composers to develop serious tech chops, she says. They’ve had to figure out video recording equipment, DIY sound production and, if they perform their own work as Vu sometimes does, figure out how to put on an engaging show without ever seeing their audience.
All of those challenges converged when Vu filmed herself inside Rose Recital Hall last winter for this virtual concert of her three pieces for piano, presented at Illuminate Women’s Music:
Vu says one of the toughest parts about Covid-era composing is not having access to all the instruments she needs to try out in order to write for them. Right now, for instance, she’s working on a new piece for piano and percussion. “But it’s not like I can go out to a percussion space and try out the instruments and hear the sounds myself,” she says. “So I’m reading a book about how to write for percussion and listening to a lot of videos of people playing these instruments—but it’s not the same.”
“One thing the pandemic has taught us is to have all the equipment, or as much equipment as you need, so you can be working remotely,” she adds. “Many musicians have invested a lot in technology equipment—things I don’t think they would have bought if life were normal. I think this pandemic has made everybody more dependent on technology.”
Vu herself had been leaning further into technology well before the pandemic started. She was already auditing a computer science course at Columbia last spring when Covid-19 swept in. “I took it because I believe that these days, no matter what you do, you need a little background in computer science,” she says. “There are more and more composers now who know how to operate software and write music with technology.”
Right now she’s auditing a course at Penn on composing with electronics (MUSC 530), and this summer she’ll plunge deeper with a full scholarship to the Splice Institute—a five-day intensive centered on live performance with electronics.
“I think this is kind of where the future of contemporary music is,” Vu says. “Musicians are becoming increasingly sophisticated with their use and knowledge of software. Technology can offer so many possibilities. I’m really hoping that very soon I’ll be writing my first piece with live electronics.”
Last week, almost exactly a year after the last in-person performance of her work at CMS, the same conference streamed a video of her piece Tik-Tak for its 2021 online version. Vu ranks it as one of her favorites among the pieces she’s written (the other is I yearn, therefore I am). Composed for soprano, flute, clarinet, violin and percussion, Tik-Tak sets a poem Vu wrote in her native Polish to music.
The piece “reminds us of the relentless flow of time with the incessant sounds of a ticking clock,” Vu wrote in the program notes, adding that, “I chose to write in Polish because the clock’s ‘tik-tak’ contains the word ‘tak,’ which has a number of meanings in this language—yes, such as, as if, as much—all of them being used in the poem.”
CMS attendees heard the piece as it was recorded at Penn in 2019, performed by the TAK Ensemble:
When we spoke recently, Vu was working on an opera, preparing for a monthlong artist residency at the I-Park Foundation this fall, and anticipating a one-hour recital of her piano works—including the premiere of a new piece—at the Wolf Humanities Center on Nov. 10. (The Wolf program may end up being her first live performance since early 2020.)
“I can’t wait to be hearing music live again,” Vu says, optimistic that all these months without it will make people realize how vital live performance is. “At a performance, you’re much more present,” she adds. “The acoustics feel different. And just the act of listening with other people in the same space—it’s a very different experience. You feel more connected to the space, to the musicians, to the people around you sharing that experience with you.”
—Molly Petrilla C’06