MOOT thoughts under lockdown

It’s now just over two months since I left Brighton with a single suitcase for a trustees meeting in East Anglia. My schedule meant that immediately after the meeting I would drive two and a half hours south-east to Aldeburgh for a week-long “creative retreat”; the hire car was collected the next day since I would return home by train. That was the plan.

An hour after arriving at the Suffolk cottage formerly occupied by the composer Imogen Holst (daughter of Gustav, who wrote “The Planets”), news came of the government’s “advice” to the public not to attend large-size events. Brighton Fringe was postponed the following day until the autumn and I found myself having to cancel 24 events in the next three months.

My personal attitude has always been to say when there are problems, always ensure that they are good problems rather than bad ones. Limitations can be liberating. This has been shown clearly in how musicians and performers have responded to the state of being in lockdown, professionals whose lifework is usually before live audiences and with other performers. This morning a couple of friends from different parts of the world shared a film made by and featuring one man taking on Patrick Swayze’s role (and several other parts) in the final scene from ‘Dirty Dancing’. The juxtaposition onscreen of the two films is a delight even though the female lead dance partner replaced by a lampshade attached to a broom handle is most questionable…

In challenging times substitutions have to be made. Sense seems to have been one of the first casualties. I am not fond of the wartime analogies that have been made, particularly in the UK with all the “Blitz” and recent VE Day connections. They are tenuous and self-deceiving. This was highlighted during an army high command officer’s interview on Radio 4’s PM when he opined that, just like in a war, he was currently applying his intelligence to consider what the enemy – the virus – was thinking. This was a blatant absurdity. Covid-19 may have a name but viruses don’t have the capacity to think any more than they have the need to buy tickets for riding on public transport or sit exams before visiting schools.

If we really want to find parallels in history it might be better to look to new art and music waves in Europe after the First World War. Disorientation, disenchantment and disgust at what had happened led to the aesthetic responses Dada and Surrealism, placing the absurd and Freudian insights into the unconscious at the centre of new self-expression and social reflection.

Suddenly now (and I mean ‘now’) the absurd appears less frivolous or infantile than it may sometimes seem. Nothing and everything has changed. In order to survive we can carry on as before – in a stoical naivety – or adapt to the present circumstances. This requires intelligence and with it a degree of humour in order to carry on in this global existential crisis and the incompetence, buffoonery and prestidigitation that transmit across many chambers at this time. There is an enormous difference between absurdity and wilful stupidity.

My self-isolation has borne various fruit that may have some currency or none at all: a performance of the Etude Coronavirus on Holst’s piano, a piece for piano (one of over 40 and counting) commissioned by the pianist Rolf Hind, piano lessons via Zoom and a series of twelve one-page pieces each one exploring a different musical interval. However long this interval – this period of containment and expression – lasts, let us all enjoy the refreshments that are on offer, but remember that the third act is yet to come.

Stay safe, CB folks!

Norman Jacobs is the artistic director and producer for MOOT – music of our time
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