New Song Cycle Gives Snapshot of How 17 Composers Experience the Pandemic

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Mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke records the title track of her album 'how do I find you' at Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas. (James Zura)

Like so many creative people, California-born mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke found herself struggling to make sense of her life during those first disorienting few months of the pandemic.

"There was just this loss of identity," Cooke says. "Like, who am I? I don't have a job anymore. I don't have shows anymore. And I don't, most of all, have that outlet for expression."

So in the summer of 2020, the singer decided to channel these feelings into art.

She commissioned a bunch of composers to write songs reflecting on their state of mind at that time.

how do i find you album cover (Courtesy of the artists)

The collection, titled how do i find you, provides a snapshot of the lives of 17 composers, all of them in their 40s or younger, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The new work receives its world premiere Sunday, Jan. 30, under the auspices of the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall, with Cooke performing alongside pianist Kirill Kuzmin.  It's also being released as an album.

"'how do i find you' felt like a question mark," says Cooke. "How are you really? How do I find you right now in this time of isolation? What do you want to write a song about?"

The composers' responses to this question are as diverse as their backgrounds and musical interests. Some songs are poetic, some prosaic; some are downbeat and others comic. There are those that stay within the realms of familiar keys and steady tempi, while others foreground atonality and wild, offbeat rhythms. But they all offer a glimpse into the minds and hearts of the creative forces behind them.

When Cooke approached Joel Thompson with a commission for the project in the summer of 2020, the composer says he was in a negative place.

Composer Joel Thompson (Rachel Summer Cheong)

"From my perspective, it was not only getting COVID and everything shutting down, but also the racial reckoning that was happening across the country in the wake of George Floyd's murder," says the 33-year-old composer.

Thompson says composing music seemed like a futile activity at that time.

"I was getting a little disillusioned that I'm dedicating my life to this art form that doesn't seem to be changing hearts and minds to make the world a more equitable place," Thompson says.

He was excited to get the commission, though, and initially planned to write a song that would provide a sense of relief.

"I had wanted to do something that was not connected to the tragedy that was surrounding me," says Thompson. "And I also felt like I was being pigeonholed a little bit into sort of a Black trauma box. As a composer not really wanting to dwell there, I wanted to explore the other aspects of my humanity."

Nevertheless, lyricist Gene Scheer persuaded Thompson to write a song about one of the most tragic of topics: a school shooting.

"He convinced me of it with the strength of his words and the beautiful construction of his lyrics," Thompson says.

The song, titled "Still Waiting," explores a mother's reaction to a shooting at her daughter's school. There's a bittersweet lullaby at its heart.

"The tune that the mother sings to comfort her daughter, I just was humming to myself during the pandemic," Thompson says. "It ended up being a sort of lilting, calming thing in the song."

Eventually, the lullaby is interrupted with chaotic chords and uneven tonality.

"By the end of the song, when we're faced with this reality of an actual shooting, there's not much the mother can do," Thompson says. "The song is not able to be sung, and it's sort of fragmented and embedded into the piano part to the point that it's really unrecognizable."  

Composer Gabriel Kahane (Josh Goleman)

The how do i find you project found Gabriel Kahane in a somewhat different mental space. The composer was nearing the end of a year-long abstinence from digital technology when Cooke approached him about contributing a song.

"My experience of the pandemic was colored by the fact that I had removed myself in November 2019 from email, social media, smartphone, web browsing and binge watching, you know, season 371 of Top Chef," Kahane says. "I was doing none of that."

The composer's moody waltz, titled "The Hazelnut Tree," captures an evening stroll with his family against the backdrop of the run-up to the 2020 election and surrounding media frenzy. Kahane says it was Sept. 29, 2020, and his neighbors were watching the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden on TV. Out walking with his loved ones, he wanted to block all of that out.

"Seeing these television screens beaming these two old men into the homes of all of our neighbors inspired a line in the song: 'It's more information than I need.'"

Kahane, who grew up in part in Santa Rosa and lives in Oregon these days, writes a lot of political and ideological music. (His 2018 album Book of Travelers, for instance, chronicles political and cultural conversations he had with fellow train passengers as he traveled around the country in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.)

But "The Hazelnut Tree" shows the 40-year-old composer trying to re-focus his attention. "It finds me trying to hold on to smaller things," he says. "Trying to hold on to family, to the tree in our front yard."

Rene Orth's contribution to how do i find you, "Dear Colleagues," also evaluates family ties. But the composer and her lyricist, Colleen Murphy, are coming at the topic from an entirely different emotional place.

Composer Rene Orth (Andrew Bogard)

"Dear Colleagues" begins with a monotonous, repeated single note on the piano as a working mom attempts to compose an email.

“So fix the damn Xbox and find the hamster so I can finish this auto-reply and relish the joy of having two seconds to myself!" yelps Cooke at one point in the middle of the song.

"The song is about this mother who's trying to work and do her thing, but just keeps getting interruptions from her kids and family life," Orth says.

Orth has been working from home during the pandemic and has a toddler. She says she hasn’t had a solid night’s sleep in two years.

"I feel like my life has just been a series of interruptions," the 36-year-old composer says. "And my brain, it's just a cloud of dense fog."

"Dear Colleagues" takes its inspiration from a July 2020 Washington Post article to which the composer could easily relate—about parenting in the pandemic. Her tragicomic song includes direct quotes from the article, including: "The average length of an uninterrupted stretch of work time for parents working at home during the pandemic was three minutes, 24 seconds."

Orth says she wanted to inject humor into her song as a way to look forward to a time when the pandemic is finally behind us.

"We'll look back on it and be like, 'Remember how crazy it was?' and just laugh about it," she says. "What else can you do?"

But for now, she’s still focused on getting anything approaching three minutes and 24 seconds to herself.

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"My gosh," she says. "I mean, during the day, I don't even try."