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Tuesday, April 7, 2020

MUSIC OF THE SPANISH FLU, AND SOCIAL ISOLATION

During these days of social distancing, one wonders how the year 2020 will be looked upon in the history books. For musicians, it’s an unpredictable time as to when live music will be enjoyed, and what changes will come to the live music setting. History shows that music has flourished through pandemics and isolation can lead to inspiration.

SPANISH FLU, 1918

With the onset of the Spanish Flu, a pandemic that killed 27% of the world’s population, New York City kept theaters open. Nationwide radio programming was still two years away and with no television to hear the latest discoveries, the theater was looked at as a means to spread healthy information. Regulations were enforced meticulously in schools and theaters; even anti-spitting regulations were in effect and could be punished as misdemeanors.

With all this in place, music was able to prosper. The careers of Al Jolsen (not our best example) and George Greshwin were on an upward trajectory, and E.F. Goldman formed his wind ensemble, which served the NYC area for 87 years.

If history repeats itself, as it often does, music will blossom again.. What music will be made during this time of social distancing? We can’t tell the future; we can only look at history to see what has happened before.

ISOLATED MUSICIANS THROUGH THE AGES

Beethoven would constantly seek isolation to rest his ears and to deal with his increasing loss of hearing. From October 6-10 1802, Beethoven wrote a letter to his brothers now referred to as the “Heiligenstadt Testament.“ Without transcribing the whole document here (the writing is widely available online and Beethoven fans should not hesitate to find a translation), the writing gives insight to Beethoven's mental state at the time. Those of us who feel journaling is therapeutic should listen to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 to hear the fruits of this isolation. Beethoven started composing Symphony No. 3 at the time of the Heiligenstadt testament and eventually premiered his work in 1805. The example below is the third movement. This "Scherzo"(translated loosely as "joke") is fast and fun. Although not as popular as the first movement, this was a significant change in the symphonic form replacing the minuet that would normally occur at this time.



Igor Stravinsky worked on his opera “The Nightingale” while battling typhoid. Shortly afterward his wife gave birth and contracted tuberculosis. This was during the same time as the Spanish Flu.

In 1964, Glenn Gould gave his last public performance. This was not the end of Gould’s career and he began his “love affair with the microphone.” This isolation from the stage led him to control every aspect of his late recordings. Before his death in 1982, Gould re-recorded Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” The original recording made him an international star at 22, the later recording strips away the flash of youth and shows how interpretations of Bach’s music changes as a musician ages with their instrument. Below is the original recording, those who wish to dive deeper should compare his later version. (Fun fact: In "The Silence of the Lambs," Hannibal Lecter listens to this recording while in captivity. Given the popularity of Gould and Lecter being a psychiatrist.)



In 1966, Bob Dylan left the public eye after a motorcycle accident. Although Dylan and The Band's “The Basement Tapes" are a stellar example of recording collaboration. Many of the songs were composed on Dylan's hiatus.  Dive into the The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete and you will find cover tunes and traditional songs, but one could argue that Dylan’s isolation led him to what became the beginning of the alt-country sound.



After much research (Google-ing at home in isolation), I can still find no modern master of musical isolation than John Frusciante. Frusciante left the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1992 in the middle of a grueling tour to support the mega-platinum Blood Sugar Sex Magik album. His first hiatus saw Frusciante descend into drug addiction and release two solo records. He rejoined the band in 1998 to release Californicaion to the masses.

Frusciante recorded many solo records in between tours, but ultimately left the band again in 2009. Frusciante’s second isolation's focus has been primarily on electronic music. In late 2019, an announcement that Frusciante is back with his bandmates has fans in high anticipation of his next moves. 



Claude Monet stated, “My work is always better when I am alone and follow my own impressions.” Though it is not always necessary to isolate, isolaton can lead to artistic breakthroughs. Here’s hoping that these breakthroughs will make their way to the live stage in the near future. 

Jonathan Nolan wrote this while trying to come up with original music during social isolation.

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