Reimaging musical performance with
social distancing in Britain and United States

In times of mourning, crisis, trauma, and loss, music is a way to bring people together in a single place, providing a shared space for experiencing unresolved emotions beyond words. It sustains a space to move past the self into the realm of the collective, the transitory, ineffable, and sublime.

Music moves beyond the quotidian predictability of daily life into ritual’s slower, more layered temporality. The pandemic is a crisis with massive loss and death, and social distancing means that music cannot be experienced in shared spaces. Amusing innovations have developed, such as The Flaming Lips performing to a crowd of people, each of whom is safely contained inside a plastic bubble. Oxygen inside the bubbles lasts only about an hour.[16] [open endotes in new window]

The Flaming Lips concert in individual bubbles, 2021.

As a result of the pandemic, musicians have reconceived performance, moving it from the big spaces of concert halls to the small spaces of homes, for performer and audience alike, on small screens and over small speakers.

Italian operatic tenor Andrea Bocelli emerged as a de-facto pandemic superstar of classical European music. His “Music for Hope: Live from Il Duomo di Milano” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huTUOek4LgU ) Easter Sunday concert on 12 April 2020, exemplifies how “big and high” melded together, not as spectacle, but into contemplation. Bocelli performed alone in the cathedral as drones moved through the empty space. He sang a series of religious songs such as “Ave Maria,” “Domine Deus,” and “Sancta Maria,” while drone videos over Beijing, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Florence, London, New York, Paris, São Paulo, Venice, Warsaw, and other cities under lockdown were intercut, suggesting the grandeur of one person speaking for the entire globe. Three million viewers logged on for the livestream, and another thirty-two million accessed it on YouTube within twenty-four hours.[17] The performance instantiated individual longing, loss, disconnection, emptiness in large spaces, and supplication to a higher power.

Andrea Bocelli, Music for Hope Concert drone shot. [Forte dei Marmi: Andrea Bocelli, 2020] Andrea Bocelli, Music for Hope Concert, last scene outside cathedral singing “Amazing Grace.” [Forte dei Marmi: Andrea Bocelli, 2020]

For Christmas 2020, Bocelli continued this same aesthetic and political strategy with an online concert entitled “Believe in Christmas.” Staged by Franco Dragone from Cirque du Soleil, it was livestreamed and billed as a “one-off live event” available for U.S.$25 on Ticketmaster, a contrast to the viral group music videos that circulate on social media networks by less renowned musicians.

As a teaser for this concert, Bocelli staged a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” with his daughter in the Teatro Regio di Parma in Assisi. They performed on a large stage in an empty theater with a full orchestra in the pit below them. They sat on the stage illuminated by LED lights in lanterns. The dark emptiness of the theater contrasted with the lighting of the father and daughter as they sang a duet, partly in Italian, partly in English. Drone shots were intercut with a two shot of father and daughter, emphasizing familialism. The camera moved around them in a languorous tracking shot that contrasted with the drone shots of the theater space. Like the first concert, the affect is loss, emptiness, mourning, isolation, and of course, celebrity and paternalism.

Andrea Bocelli and eight-year old daughter Virginia Bocelli, singing “Hallelujah” at Il Teatro Regio di Parma. [Forte dei Marmi: Andrea Bocelli, 2020] Reverse shot of concert hall where Andrea Bocelli and eight-year old daughter Virginia Bocelli sing “Hallelujah” at Il Teatro Regio di Parma. [Forte dei Marmi: Andrea Bocelli, 2020]

In contrast, Scottish pop singer Annie Lennox, of the Eurythmics, produced a rendition of “Dido’s Lament,” the final aria from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1689), to support Greenpeace in November 2020. The aria is also known as “When I Am Laid in Earth” and is a melancholy part of the operatic tragedy, evoking in this instance the entwined collective losses of global climate disruption and the pandemic.

Annie Lennox and the London City Voices in group shot, performing “Dido’s Lament.”

The aria is almost always sung as a solo, with videos abounding of well-known sopranos such as Fiona Campbell, Joyce Di Donato, and Jessye Norman, singing the baroque aria, delivered by Dido, Queen of Carthage, who is dying of a broken heart on learning her fiancé Aeneas, a hero of the Trojan war, plans to abandon her. The lyrics elaborate death and finality:

“When I am laid, am laid in earth/May my wrongs create no trouble, no trouble in thy breast/Remember me, Remember me but ah forget my fate/Remember me, but ah, Forget my fate.”

Lennox inverts this norm, taking an aria for one person and transforming it into a choral piece, and then translating classical opera’s high art into a pop-music vocal style. She collaborated with the non-audition community London City Voices Choir. Wearing concert-black clothing against home-made white backgrounds, 276 members participated, singing “Dido’s Lament” from their homes with Lennox performing the minimalist piano accompaniment herself. Although generally accompanied by full orchestra, here, the aria emphasizes the amateur, accessible, and small.

The video places Lennox in the middle of the screen, surrounded by the square images of the choir in a large group shot and later in individual portraits. Rather than the deeply nuanced and highly trained voices of classical opera singers, Lennox and the choir combine pop-music and amateur styles. The aria takes the lament for a lost lover and translates it into a much larger and less romantic lament for those lost to COVID-19—and for the dying planet. The concert black that the performers wear is also the black of mourning; the singers’ white backgrounds suggest clouds, or perhaps apocalypse.

Annie Lennox and the London City Voices in large group shot at the conclusion of “Dido’s Lament.”

As choral director and music scholar Janet Galvan has noted, “Dido’s Lament” is considered one of the saddest melodies in the western opera repertoire, as it is a farewell to the world. The melody constitutes a form of sighing, with the notes descending on the scale. Baroque vocal music is noted for its cleanliness and purity of sound, without vocal excess or ornamentation and space between the musical notes, in contrast to opera like that of Verdi, with a wider range of vibrato and more vocal ornamentation.

Galvan identifies baroque vocal music as “clean, mean, lean,” attributes that Lennox translates in a more democratic way through her style and use of the choir. According to Galvan, baroque vocal music is not loud and bombastic; rather, it has a softer, cleaner, and clearer tone.[18] Lennox resolutely does not imitate operatic style, but instead renders it into pop music, creating a sense of the aria as malleable to the different kinds of trained and untrained voices and adaptable to the technological and social/political context. Lennox has reimagined the solo as a chorale collective piece, which suggests solidarity and activism rather than the isolation of melancholy.

Lennox produced two videos for “Dido’s Lament,” one with the choir in Zoom squares (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3DFaIovZxc ), and one with archival footage of the larger climate crisis in a circle on the screen (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3yWda4RJ0OI ] The archival version moves from animals and landscapes to human-built environments and extraction of natural resources. It is a history of the destruction of living habitats. In this version, there is a circular shape in the middle of the black screen that suggests the earth and evokes early cinema’s masking of the rectangular frame. The images migrate from mountains, waterfalls, rivers, into cities, factories, streets, buildings, oil wells, coal mines, airplanes, appliances, streets, roads, highways, birds, tigers, and turtles. It ends with images of wild fires, plastic bags in the water, garbage on a beach, clouds, and then the earth. Single phrases from the lament are laced throughout as text, such as “May my wrongs create,” “when I am laid,” “Remember me,” “forget my fate,” always in superimposition on the archival images.

Annie Lennox and London City Voices, singing over archival material of destruction from development and extraction industries in version two of “Dido’s Lament.”

The images are presented in a continual fluctuation of different colors from pink to blue to green. This video chronicles a history of the Anthropocene’s destruction, emphasizing that “remember me” in the lament refers to the Earth, nonhuman animals, nature, and landscapes before capitalist destruction. Both videos enact the modalities of “small,” taking big issues like tragedy in operatic arias and the end of the earth and rendering them scalable. Both videos marshal tactics of “low” as well, bringing the high culture of opera to a more democratic, untrained, collective enterprise where the act of singing matters more than judgements about its execution. Finally, it brings the high tragedy derived from Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid on which the opera is based, down to the earth and voices of the amateur choir.

Ithaca College’s “Amazing Grace” video (https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=_weuC6FLyJ8 ) features over 300 students in the School of Music, singing and playing. It aligns with Lennox’s “Dido’s Lament” videos as a collaborative project that confronts the politics and emotions of isolation during the pandemic, especially poignant, since musicians depend on being in close proximity to each other when they play to hear and experience more deeply. The video has garnered nearly 20,000 views in less than a month, circulating in social media. Like “Dido’s Lament,” it operates as an inversion of “big and high” modalities into “small and low” ones. Taking the U.S. folk song “Amazing Grace,” the video stages a socially distanced performance that inserts more voices and instrumentation. It is in stark contrast with Andrea Bocelli’s Easter concert with its drones flying over head the tenor’s head as he sings in front of an empty cathedral.

In the Ithaca College video, hundreds of students sing and play together in Zoom. They take something that is small and make it big in small ways. Each person sings or plays at home. They are not uniformly dressed, as in the Lennox-Greenpeace video; instead, they wear a panoply of styles, from concert-black formal wear, to plaid shirts, and from Ithaca College sweatshirts to nice blouses as they sing and play their instruments, each in their own square. The style of the video with each student playing or singing inside an individual square on the screen offers multiple visualizations of the students, most of whom are framed in medium close-up. They are not identical—different, yet all grounded in their homes, literally and figuratively. They do not perform in one of the campus’s big concert halls with perfect acoustics, but in small bedrooms and dining rooms in their homes with low-tech recording equipment against all sort of ambient noise that their audience might or might not hear.

As Ithaca College decided to make the fall 2020 semester fully remote, Aaron Witek, an assistant professor of trumpet and a professional performer, felt it was important to generate positive news about the college and, even more urgently, to create performance experiences and a sense of community among students in the School of Music.

With a miniscule budget, he chose “Amazing Grace” because it is in the public domain. Witek used his limited funds to commission an alumnus to arrange the piece for a large ensemble. He wanted the music to be identifiable to anyone who heard it. He felt that the song reflected the pandemic and decided to dedicate the performance to COVID-19 victims and frontline workers in remembrance and support. Serving as artistic director and producer, Witek storyboarded the song and provided shooting directions to student performers, alerting them to pay attention to backgrounds and to shoot in landscape, rather than portrait format, whether from their phones or better digital cameras.[19]

Sean Lindfors, assistant professor of music education at Ithaca College and a specialist in choral music education, was brought in as conductor. In another inversion for the virtual performance, the conductor is invisible to the audience. Lindfors pointed out that the project was designed “to just have a moment together” during the pandemic that evokes the strong feeling of togethernesswhen musicians perform in a shared space. Lindfors is fascinated with how the pandemic pushes artists to innovate—and audiences to reimagine their responses to art.

Connecting to pandemic experience, Lindfors points out that John Newton, the song’s lyricist, wrote about lost family members, of loneliness, separation, anxiety, and loss that are often not spoken or discussed. During production, Lindfors and Witek stressed the importance of doing something collaborative, together as a large group of students in a music school, with vocalists and instrumentalists. Students were not required to participate, but most did.

Students collaborate in online performance of “Amazing Grace.”

Lindfors underscores how the pandemic requires reorienting music pedagogy, where listening becomes more important than being in embodied settings. Texture, dynamics, interpretation, and phrasing is also much more difficult remotely, requiring a move to very small breakdowns, not only of the phrases in the music, but also the process.[20]

Witek saw that virtual concerts could reach wider audiences than traditional on-site ones and offer the affordances of collaboration. He wanted to foreground the positive aspects of the Zoom experience. He wanted students to feel “a mission or a purpose” beyond their own isolation in support of the victims and frontline workers. Like the “Dido’s Lament” project, Ithaca College’s “Amazing Grace” rejects big solos and instead focuses on small collaborations among many people. In a fascinating torqueing of “big and high” versus “small and low,” the project takes a folk song, arranging and performing it with properties adopted from classical music. It amplifies the quotidian performance history of folk songs in churches, demonstrations, and funerals with formally trained players who are just starting out in their careers.

Both videos counter a culture of melancholic individualism exemplified in Andrea Bocelli’s staged spectacles. They democratize the content and multiply the number of voices within a participatory model that focuses on repositioning and transforming something small into something big while simultaneously remaining small and short for file-sharing and social media platforms.

Rather than hovering high above vacant structures that are inaccessible to most of us, performing for high-end cameras strapped to remote-controlled drones, these videos move down low to the level of our laptops. By streaming images from inside individual homes, they create a multi-directional penetration of private spaces that converge in a created and mediated semipublic space.

Rather than dazzling us with the big budget needed to stage a professional performance, they reward us with insights into what can be achieved with relatively little. They ask us to ponder, not only what is useful during the pandemic, but what is achievable when we work together towards causes that are bigger than ourselves—and bigger than celebrity egos.  

Recollecting the pandemic’s origins
in documentaries on China

One of the most iconic images of the first-wave of the COVID-19 pandemic was aerial drone footage of Wuhan during the lockdown. Streets, highways, and bridges were relatively empty of pedestrian and car traffic. In the footage, cars move in relative isolation, suggesting the collapse of a world system of transportation. Connections to the world suddenly shifted from advantages for global business to disadvantages in vulnerability.

Wuhan was placed under lockdown at 10:00 on 23 January 2020, 24 days after the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported deaths eventually related to the novel coronavirus.[21] Drone images of the airport seems like a camera panning over a still photograph since the airplanes remain static, tethered to tarmacs or connected to jetways. In some ways, the images conjure memories of the still images on the jetty at the Orly Airport in Chris Marker’s La Jetée (France, 1962), which included aerial photography of Paris devastated by bombardment.

Remarkably, there are no signs of movement in drone videos over Wuhan’s airport that serves more than 20 million passengers annually. China Southern Airlines connects Wuhan to major cities and transfer airports, including Bangkok, Dubai, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Moscow, New York, Seoul, Taipei, and Tokyo. The images from Wuhan of empty streets and an inert airport are all the more unnerving since the city was placed on lockdown just days before Chinese New Year, which fell on 25 January 2020. Typically, people would be returning home for the holiday with a travel rush that starts 15 days before the New Year and continues for 40 days. The roadways and airports would ordinarily have been full of people. Instead, the people were inside, not airport terminals, shopping malls, or office building, but homes and also hospitals. The “big and high” images partly obscure what is happening in the city, but the “small and low” images stay at ground level to move inside ambulances, ERs, and ICUs.

With the passing of time, documentary filmmakers have gathered footage and edited it into some of the first analyses of the pandemic’s origins in Wuhan. Shot in four hospitals in Wuhan, 76 Days (United States/China, 2020; dir. Weixi Chen and Hao Wu) opens with the chaos of hospitals trying to cope with unprecedented demands. Handheld cameras try to keep up. Hospital workers in full gowns sleep on benches in corridors. Hospital staff interpret phone calls for intubated ICU patients. Staff queue to have tape applied to seal their gowns in hopes of blocking the virus. Because of their PPE, hospital staff are all but unrecognizable, so they write names on the gowns, so that they can identify one another. There are boxes filled with bags that contain the ID cards and mobile phones of the deceased. One phone rings and flashes, indicating unread messages. Nurses perform affective labor to calm frightened patients. They spoon-feed patients too weak to eat by themselves. A Party member’s son tries to shame his demanding father to stop complaining so much to doctors and other staff. A baby is born. A son is afraid to collect his father from the hospital, fearing he is not cured. By 16 February 2020, there are 50 patients. 

Hospital gowns are labeled to identify doctors and nurses. Newborn in Wuhan hospital.

Outside, announcements enjoin citizens to obey recommendations and refrain from spreading rumors. On empty streets, banners recommend: “Staying Home Makes A Happy Family.” People disinfect the streets. Nurses disinfect the people. The film concludes with head nurse Yang Li, phoning families to return belongings of the deceased. On 04 April 2020, air-raid sirens mark a day of remembrance for everyone who died. Four days later, the lockdown was lifted after 76 days. The film focuses on the visceral experiences of the pandemic without making any connections to the causes of the virus or its symptoms beyond lung function. It presents the pandemic in Wuhan much differently than the drone footage.

Sterilizing inside of the hospital. Every room in ICU is full.
Patients are invisible under equipment and staff. Medical staff work under layers of PPE to safeguard themselves while treating their patients.

Coronation (Germany/China, 2020; dir. Ai Weiwei) makes a less observational and more critical analysis of the events in December 2019, suggesting that China suppressed information by preventing people from leaving Wuhan. The film opens with a man returning to Wuhan in Hubei province by car during lockdown. A woman at a petrol station reports him for his car’s Hubei plates, but police allow him pass after his temperature is recorded. In a contrast to the opening, taken from down low, the film then offers a view from high up as drone footage shows the snow-covered city. From the human noises of conversation and breathing of the scene down low, the soundtrack shifts to an electronic beat. The footage then returns to down low, and shots of patients in the sanitary white spaces of ICUs reveal a diametrically different sense of white space. Rather than a detachment from the earth, the camera’s perspective seems tethered to the doctors and nurses who navigate tight overwhelmed spaces, and patients who seem trapped beneath the life-support systems.

The film continues this disorienting movement from “big and high” to “small and low” and back again with more techno music over images of the rapid construction of emergency hospitals. The emotional cues of the music are starkly different from the optimistic tones of a time-lapse video posted by China Global Television Network.[22] Ai layers music over video images that are shared with him in exile in Germany by citizen journalists back in China, and his musical choices are unnerving. In an interview, a construction worker who came to Wuhan to help build the hospital, discloses that he is not allowed to leave. He lives inside a truck that is parked in a parking garage. He and other construction workers are forced to use toilets at petrol stations. State officials tell them not to give interviews or “something bad” will happen. Despite China’s impressive response in constructing emergency hospitals seemingly overnight, many involved in this spectacular labor and enormous task are trapped in a bigger bureaucratic machine. While the government produced time-lapse videos of the construction from drone-level, residents of Wuhan gathered images of construction workers and recorded their statements as they waited for permission to return home.

In addition to his exhibitions in art museums and biennales, Ai came to international attention beyond art aficionados for his blog and Student Name List of 5,212 child-victims of 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. Many were killed when cheaply constructed schools collapsed. The earthquake disaster, as Zhang Zhen argues,

“ignited the explosion of ‘citizen journalism’ in its aftermath and seems to have played a cataclysmic role in consolidating and rapidly expanding an emerging ‘citizen documentation’ movement in the digital era.”[23]

Ai believes that information belongs to the public, but China does not always share this belief. After his Sina Weibo blog was shut down by the state, he switched to twitter. He has made over twenty documentaries, which he often distributes freely on DVD or online. He co-curated the Uncooperative Attitude (titled Fuck Off in English) art exhibition in 2000. He was detained in 2011 for 81 days, then fined CN¥15.5 million (U.S.$2.4 million) for taxes.

Ai produced and directed Coronation remotely from Berlin, working with residents of Wuhan. As one review notes, their cameras offer perspectives on the city strikingly different from those of the state’s ubiquitous surveillance camera work.[24] Perched atop street lights and buildings, the government’s elevated points-of-view through the lenses of top-quality cameras differs significantly from the street-level shots on mobile phones by ordinary residents. Their devices gaze back at the state, not only for trying to divert their attention from the virus in the early days, but also to China’s Social Credit System, which rates citizens based on a variety of information, including video evidence of violations of the law such as jaywalking or playing music too loudly on public transportation.[25] The interplay of the state’s invisible mechanisms of power are resisted by the hypervisibility of Wuhan residents, documenting with their mobiles in gestures that lacks the iconicity of the high-angle image. “Tank Man” is an iconic image of an unarmed and unprotected citizen who blocked an advancing column of army tanks on Tiananmen Square in June 1989. The video images in Ai’s film are no less powerful.

Coronation emphasizes what happens on the ground. As nurses arrive in the city, a woman asks them not to say anything about the virus. She informs them simply to wave and directs them to buses. Inside the hospital, another story emerges. Doctors and nurses follow a careful process of wearing two gowns, one over the other. They check for possible air leaks. Since everyone looks the same under the protective equipment, they write names on their apparel, so that people can be identified. CCTV monitors on 16 January 2020 show one doctor following protocols through a series of three changing rooms. He must dispose of one layer of PPE, then wash his gloved hands before preceding to next room. His blood oxygen level is measured afterwards. 

The film also shows the effects of the lockdown on the city’s residents. Home deliveries of groceries are among the few signs of movement in otherwise empty streets. Deliverers and recipients seem unsure how to interact. Others do not have the financial means for home delivery. Supplies from Tibet, including mineral water and yak meat, are sent to help people in Wuhan live under such circumstances. Other scenes show people who must work during the lockdown, for instance, workers disinfecting streets. Ai’s editing of the film, however, gradually begins to erode viewers’ trust in official reports and images. An older woman and her son chat during lockdown. As a former union leader who received awards, she says that he speaks like Party member. They hear news reports on infection rates in New York and California, and her son tells the woman that China uses GPS on phones to track spread. People get codes on smartphones; otherwise quarantine and pay.

The film makes its critique more directly toward the end. Rather than shocking images inside ERs and ICUs, it shows images, even more shocking in a different way, of efforts to suppress the transmission of information about the virus. Workers must swear allegiance to the Party and its secrets. Women perform the gesture of proper handwashing techniques to songs that seems more political than medical in their intent. A woman explains how people were unable to get treatment and died and how some were listed as dying from other causes. Images of massive amounts of medical waste suggest the resources needed to contain the virus’s spread. Other resources are allocated to marking the lockdown’s end, including official portraits and dazzling light shows on buildings. Images of this spectacle are records of the official staging of state propaganda and promotion.

These public views from “big and high” are undercut by interviews taken on the ground. A man complains about inaccurate information from government, such as assuring people that there was no human-to-human spread. He shows video on his mobile of his father Zhang Lifa on a ventilator at the hospital. The man also complains about being closely monitored like others who have lost family to coronavirus. He wonders why the state spends money on watching them rather than allocating it to more urgent purposes. Ai’s collaborators’ cameras later follow the man as he navigates the bureaucracy in order to collect his father’s ashes. Ai follows with images of men compressing bags with the ashes of the deceased to cram into wooden boxes that are wrapped in red cloth and given to family.

The film ends with sorrowful acoustic music over people praying. It closes with this text:

"The first case of Covid-19 appeared in Wuhan on December 1st, 2019. For several weeks officials concealed information about the virus’ human-to-human transmission and its infection and mortality rates. On January 23rd, 2020, Wuhan was put under lockdown. By August 2020, Covid-19 has spread to over 200 countries with more than 17 million confirmed cases and 700,000 deaths worldwide.”

The film does not mention Dr. Li Wenliang, who died at age 34 from COVID-19 in February 2020 after attempting to warn the WTO. It mentions people whose stories were ignored by big media, but there are others that the film does not report—stories that were ignored by both Chinese state media and also by non-Chinese media, eager to make Li a celebrity as a political jab at China.

What is striking is that most English-language reviews of the film are illustrated with an aerial drone shot of the city under lockdown, as is Ai’s website. It might be that news editors and Ai’s web designer fail to notice how the film uses low-level shots as a counterpoint to traditional narrative cinema’s establishing shots. But it could also be that many of us are afraid to see what is actually happening. The preference for professional quality views from “big and high” to imperfect ones from “small and low” enters into the film’s reception by the international film festival and film distribution community. “According to organisers of the Venice festival, censorship had nothing to do with their decision [to reject Coronation], dictated instead by aesthetic and cinematographic considerations,” reports Cecilia Dardana. Venice was not alone is making the film harder for audiences to find. Regarding its future on the streaming services, she explains:

“Netflix, instead, has stated that it is working on its own documentary about the pandemic.”[26]

It is difficult to determine which of these “big and high” decisions is more counterproductive. Netflix’s protection of its own financial investment in a competing documentary seems to contradict its supply-driven business model of subscription VOD to offer as much content as possible. Venice’s decision, allegedly based on production values and artistic preferences, demonstrates why the A-list western festivals started to become antiquated in an increasingly globalized world long before the pandemic made in-person festival experiences unsafe.

Aesthetic judgment is always a political statement, and politics are located in social practices. Hollywood’s Oscars are often the benchmark for conservative politics, but Coronation reveals that Venice, like Berlin, Cannes, and Sundance, reject what they cannot understand. They are other brands of “big and high.” Coronation, however, is more complicated than its nonwestern “aesthetics and cinematography” that challenge the gatekeepers of western film festivals with evidence that there is a limit to their knowledge. While Ai is a highly respected and well-known filmmaker, this film is compiled of footage by nonprofessionals whose concern for the urgency of documenting what is happening exceeds formal concerns, thus pointing to Venice’s failure to acknowledge the urgency of the moment.