The Library Of Congress' Boccaccio Project Preserves History Through Music The Library of Congress is debuting 10 works of new music about the COVID-19 pandemic. The project takes inspiration from Giovanni Boccaccio, a writer who collected stories about the Black Death.
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A New Library Of Congress Project Commissions Music Of The Coronavirus Pandemic

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A New Library Of Congress Project Commissions Music Of The Coronavirus Pandemic

A New Library Of Congress Project Commissions Music Of The Coronavirus Pandemic

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The pandemic lockdown hit musicians hard. Concert halls and rehearsal spaces fell silent. A new music series from the Library of Congress embraces the constraints of COVID-19, and it takes inspiration from a pandemic from centuries ago. Here's NPR's Taylor Haney.

TAYLOR HANEY, BYLINE: Luciano Chessa meant to stay only a week in San Francisco. The composer flew out from New York for a concert in March. From there, he had events in Colorado, Ohio...

LUCIANO CHESSA: But the world changed (laughter). So I ended up staying in San Francisco two months instead of just a week.

HANEY: Chessa sheltered in place. He worried about his parents in Italy as that country felt the worst of COVID-19.

CHESSA: I think the most vivid images were basically caskets in piles outside of hospitals or retirement homes. And my aunt died in March. We don't know exactly whether it was COVID-19 or not because at the time there were no tests. And so it was a little bit like funeral on Zoom. That was very hard. I was close to her.

HANEY: Then he got a commission from the Library of Congress - write a work responding to the pandemic, just a couple of minutes long for a single performer to record at home on video.

CHESSA: After two months making fresh pasta and wearing the same shirt (laughter), I mean, you probably kind of are ready for a change.

HANEY: Chessa wrote a piece called "1462 Willard Street," named after the address where he spent the early months of the pandemic, uprooted and uncertain.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLTON LEE PERFORMANCE OF LUCIANO CHESSA'S "1462 WILLARD STREET")

HANEY: The video opens on a length of twine looped around the lower strings of a viola. It scrapes the instrument and obscures a melody.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLTON LEE PERFORMANCE OF LUCIANO CHESSA'S "1462 WILLARD STREET")

CHARLTON LEE: I find it to be nostalgic, and somehow there is hope and sadness and joy all wrapped together.

HANEY: Charlton Lee of the Del Sol String Quartet plays the viola. The piece requires him to pull away from the twine while he's playing. It eventually falls off, and the melody becomes clearer.

CHESSA: In my opinion, it was supposed to be a way of staging this process between constraints and freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLTON LEE PERFORMANCE OF LUCIANO CHESSA'S "1462 WILLARD STREET")

DAVID PLYLAR: We've never asked people to write this quickly.

HANEY: David Plylar is a senior music specialist at the Library of Congress. He says composers only had a couple of weeks.

PLYLAR: Everybody has been adapting in different ways in terms of technology, and people are making do with what they have at their house.

HANEY: The result is the Boccaccio Project. The 10-part video series premieres Monday online. It was inspired by a work of 14th-century literature by the Italian writer Boccaccio. He saw the Black Death devastate Europe, and he wrote that "The Decameron" in which 10 people flee the plague and tell stories in a remote refuge. Kind of modern, Plylar says.

PLYLAR: You can take people out of what they know of society, and they still have this compulsion to tell a story. And I felt that Boccaccio exemplifies that. And while we are much more connected now than they were in his time, we are isolated, and we still have this desire to reach out to each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEREMY JORDAN PERFORMANCE OF DAMIEN SNEED'S "SEQUESTERED THOUGHTS")

HANEY: This piece from composer Damien Sneed is called "Sequestered Thoughts." It's performed by Jeremy Jordan.

JEREMY JORDAN: Talented composers sometimes have the ability to create wonderful works with great creative restraints placed upon them. You know, you have to not only write a piece between one and three minutes, but then it has to be meaningful.

HANEY: Jordan learned the piece in a day or two.

JORDAN: In some ways, it was kind of a pure experience because I just received the music and learned it and played it.

DAMIEN SNEED: I was mesmerized and amazed by how he personally interpreted what was on the page and brought it to life.

HANEY: That's the composer, Damien Sneed. For him, the pandemic was a jolt. He had just finished a 40-city tour when he began sheltering in place alone. He means for his piece to evoke confinement, hope, the will to survive. And all that resonates now with protests against police violence.

SNEED: At the end of "Sequestered Thoughts," it moves up the scale of the piano, so to speak, and it ends looking upward. And that's really the object of protest and reconciliation.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEREMY JORDAN PERFORMANCE OF DAMIEN SNEED'S "SEQUESTERED THOUGHTS")

SNEED: Music allows us, these protests allow us to hopefully get to a place where we are elevated.

HANEY: Another piece comes from Alison Loggins-Hull and Nathalie Joachim, the duo Flutronix. This is called "Have And Hold."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE AND HOLD")

FLUTRONIX: (Singing) Have, hold.

ALLISON LOGGINS-HULL: I was really craving just the feeling of having companionship and being near people and just physical contact.

HANEY: Loggins-Hull was thinking of the pandemic. But the craving for close contact also applies to news of police killings.

LOGGINS-HULL: Whenever these shootings happen, I still have that desire to hold people that I love, even to hold people who I don't know who share this common experience that we all share as black people in this country.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLUTRONIX SONG, "HAVE AND HOLD")

HANEY: When Nathalie Joachim recorded the piece, she says it felt less like a performance and more like mourning.

NATHALIE JOACHIM: It's not these killings happening in abstraction or all of these bodies that are having to take to the streets to fight for what we deserve, which is humanity. I claim each of these people as my own family.

HANEY: David Plylar at the Library of Congress says composers and performers are reacting to this moment. We need to grab on to what they're saying.

PLYLAR: I think that these artists were already doing this and that this is just another outlet for them. But it's a way of documenting what is happening, taking an artistic stance and then trying to preserve that so that other people can benefit from it down the road.

(SOUNDBITE OF JENNY LIN AND CLIFF EIDELMAN'S "BRIDGES")

HANEY: The Boccaccio Project premieres Monday at loc.gov. Taylor Haney, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JENNY LIN AND CLIFF EIDELMAN'S "BRIDGES")

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