Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.
Brett William Kull (guitar, bass, keyboards, percussion): I’ve been impacted with irony. The horrible irony of a pandemic that kills people, divides social discourse and normative behavior, and slows the wheels of daily economic endeavors—yet positively provides and enormous amount of time, context and creative impetus for making music (and other artistic expressions). Thankfully my introverted self and creative fecundity has thrived in this scenario—as well as my basic economic means. All this seems ironic to me.
So what are we, Rise Twain, doing? While normal live performances have ceased for safety reasons, Jeremy (J.D. Beck) and I have found an outlet for our songs via livestreaming concerts. These shows remind me of television performances in that you are playing to a virtually empty room while the unblinking eye of a camera stares back at you. Weird, yes, but certainly not out of the realm of what a musician/performer can and would do. It kinda fun performing like this because it allows a different energy and mindset. The streaming scenario keeps one sharp and adds a bit of excitement to a performance.
What else? Jeremy and I, as Rise Twain, paired up with another Philadelphia songwriter, Katie Barbato, and made two live in-house concerts in video form. The first was back in May, the second in late July. It was highly creative and way beyond the ubiquitous smartphone performance. The videos are couched in a cohesive style that I just love; making them proved a joyous distraction! It’s funny, the videos probably would not have “happened” if the deterministic universe ricocheted another way. Or maybe it would have? We’ll never know, because time is a forward-moving river.
In other musical undertakings, I have made—in these past 11 months—music videos for a multitude of artists and produced/engineered music for many fellow songwriters, including projects I am intimately part of. All of this pragmatically done in an environment of safety—masks and social distancing—in professional studios and elsewhere.
I think and know that many musicians and other artistically inclined folks are trying to tip the scales toward positivity through creative outlets to counter the overwhelming negativity wrought by this pandemic, the insane news cycles we are addicted to and the politics of division fanned by the worst aspects of our behavior. Our lyrics and songs notate these struggles in a journalistic way, yet also emotionally frame them—as our art encourages and facilitates.
I think music is a force of light against the societal swamps that invariably lead into nothing but darkness. Yet music is also a reaction to these abysmal circumstances and portents of idiocy. The affect and effect of music is something we musicians should know, wield and allow. It’s a good thing to try and recognize as well as enable the positivity of music during this very strange and polarizing time. Jeremy and I have tried our best.
J.D. Beck (vocals, piano): “Art is a useless thing.” An old professor of composition once told me in one of our first lessons, as he sits back proud of himself for “something.” I thought he couldn’t be more wrong. In studies we often ponder the obstacles presented and hone our own understanding from such things. His words at first spread through me like a virus. “If it is useless,” I thought, “then why am I here?” I was young and impressionable, so absolution was the main crayon color in my box.
But as the weeks and years of dredging through the conservatory ensued, I began to navigate around ephemeral obstacles such presented to me. I learned how to make the best of everything and use the hard lessons, right or wrong, as means to reinvent, as well as use them to improvise, so my craft and belief in my expression could grow.
I try and look at the positives of a bad event, too which either impacts my life or others in a grand scale. The greatest impact this pandemic had to offer was the reassessment of one’s artistic integrity and willingness to improvise in the given landscape as to continue their prolific nature and to keep feeding the primordial fires of expression, that to some are a natural necessity to express and create for themselves and others.
To others this “halt of the norm” may have been a huge wall in their art highway. Maybe this gives them the light they need to find what truly matters in their efforts—be it questioning social acceptance, dreams of accolades or otherwise? However, this is not myself or the present “pod” of like-hearted musicians and artists I have kept in the kiln with—if I can speak witnessing their output since this all began.
How you roll with the punch is how you win the fight. In a way, this challenged us to finally break down the barriers and needs for the physical fourth-wall between us and onlooker, there in the hall or club, and invent ourselves anew, pushing the stage into the igniting virtual education of the myriad of software available while unlocking the potential of even our phones—uniting with the broadband of tools a construct of stage and club in one’s home.
Also, we cannot deny the outpouring of inspiration this hard time offers, locked away, overseeing the chaotic churning of the world, formulating new translatable expressions with our eyes as to make up for the masking of our faces and plethora of losses and longings. Walking a safe space between, we break through the boundaries and thus have created new ways to continue onwards and upwards just as we created new ways to embrace one another. Where there is music in the chord struck lives music in the space between.
This time has shown me it is a time to grow, filled with hope as much as loss. It has been the falling of the ashes and a rebirth of something good. Most of all, it is a time to garden and prepare to hit the ground running when, finally, this pandemic and our trust to destroy a safe social distance once and for all ensues.
And so, for those stunned souls who sat nose to wall upon that highway, for the pugilist who dodged the hook, for the dancer who found a phone tripod and a roof top, the poet who created a pandemic chronicle, the songwriter who found the gem of an elegy from a soul who succumbed, harmonizing over livestream, or the painter who exhibits new understandings cast from the mind of the paralyzed world, daring strokes never seen, our cartography is without bounds. The artist’s mind is a reacting mind. The fleeting desires and the unwavering “must do” hone our muse to share our souls. This is indeed the good of the downside.
We will carry on sharing our witness of the world. Nothing could be more useful. Nor death, nor destruction, love and birth, or all the goings on of our kind, can mar that voice of the artist and the embrace of those who chance it.
I want to give a tremendous thanks to all the folks who continued their support for Rise Twain and Beck-Fields, and wonderful people like Katie Barbato, Katherine Crockett, East By North Dance Company, the great William Fields, My First Composition Teacher (who shall remain anonymous) and, most of all, Brett William Kull—all for their undying artistry. You are a true light to which a path has been shown.