Back in March, most of the world retreated to the relative safety of their homes, peering out from behind curtains, tutting at their neighbours. As the global fatality rate rose, as did the alarm and despair of the population. But like water in a stream when faced with an obstacle, humanity will invariably find a way to work around it. The rooftop concerts, windowsill serenades and balcony concertos that materialised across the world filled the silence of empty roads and streets. Puncturing the monotony of isolation, there have been moments of purity; of unrivalled human social beauty.
Scientifically, it is abnormal for us as human beings to be forced to live in isolation. This has become painfully evident in the physiological and psychological effects that are being witnessed as a result of the lockdown. But this deprivation from normal social interaction catalyses our motivation to connect with others in atypical ways. Put simply, the social element of the brain needs to be stimulated, and if forced into isolation, it will find new ways to adapt and connect. Research has shown that when we listen to or produce music, our brain produces the hormone oxytocin – the same hormone that is released during face-to-face interactions. Music therefore is filling the void engendered by social isolation – we are subconsciously responding to the necessities of our body.
Josephine Shaw (@josephineshawofficial) is a 17-year-old busker and musician from Esher in the UK, who performed for her neighbours during England’s first lockdown over the spring months. “Music has been so important during the pandemic because I feel like it’s something that truly connects us together,” Josephine says. “Despite the physical distance, being able to share in a musical experience from afar or online brings out such emotion in people, and particularly, inspires hope.” The potential that music has to offer companionship and a sense of solidarity has acted as a chink of light through the darkness of an inundation of distressing news headlines, proffering that despite the desperation generated by the pandemic, hope and optimism will persevere.
Perhaps most poignant of all Josephine’s performances was her interpretation of Dame Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’ on V-E day, a song that’s sentiment perfectly encapsulates the hope of the British public past and present. Josephine stands in her driveway, her busking equipment set rather haphazardly on a tattered chair to her side. The song ends to the rapturous applause of her fellow neighbours who stand listening from their driveways in a street adorned with fluttering Union Jacks. “It was incredible to see that when I started singing, many neighbours had arrived to listen, and that they really enjoyed it” she says. “I’ve also formed a much closer relationship with my lovely neighbours since.”
Fabio Marziali (@fmarzialisax) has been playing the saxophone from the window of his apartment block in Rome, Italy since March 2020. His daughter often accompanies him, lovingly twirling around their balcony or bouncing on the sofa to the rich melodies of her father’s saxophone. Fabio played songs for his neighbours throughout Rome’s 72-day lockdown, catering for the entire audience of his neighbouring apartment blocks with a myriad of genres, performing beloved anthems such as ‘Over the Rainbow’ (17th day), ‘Imagine’ (19th day), ‘Amazing Grace’ (22nd day), and ‘La Vie En Rose’ (32nd day). Fabio even played a rendition of Baby Shark from his apartment window, allowing his daughter and her friend to dance together from their respective rooftops, a moment of ingenuity and blissful normalcy despite the anomalous situation. “It felt amazing of course and it gave my family and I a moment during the day to vent the stress and the fears out,” he explains; “people reacted in a much warmer way than I expected.”
But Fabio also rather soberingly reminded me that despite the fact that music has brought dynamism to a period of stasis, many musicians have lost their jobs, and many have “stopped music all together.” “Music was both a great source of pleasure entertainment and inspiration for people during lockdown, but I think as a community it was devastated.”
Singer/songwriter Tori Sparks (@torisparksmusic) has been performing her galvanising blend of blues, flamenco and rock sung in both English and Spanish from her apartment rooftop in Barcelona, Spain. The floor lamp from her living room stands beside her, projecting a spotlight under which Tori performs, the pink and blue hues of the Spanish sunset illuminating her silhouette. When I asked Tori why she believed music had flourished despite the constraints of the coronavirus, she responded, “though we need to eat and pay bills just like anyone else, musicians are motivated by something that goes way beyond simply earning a living. Music is a vocation, it’s something you feel compelled to do. It’s who you are, whether you’re getting paid or not. So of course musicians will continue to make music, even when their concerts are all cancelled. And in times of crisis, writing a song or singing to your neighbours is a way to make something beautiful and positive come out of the darkness.”
Tori sang from her rooftop every Saturday at 8pm for eleven weeks during Spain’s lockdown. “I think it made a really positive impact on my neighbourhood, which was the idea. People felt like they were a part of something every Saturday evening, that they weren’t alone.” The power of music, or more specifically of unexpected and innovative endeavours towards fellowship in order to strengthen a community have been staggering in recent months, unifying neighbourhoods across the globe. “The neighbours were great. They were incredibly positive and even promised to defend me if the police came! (The police did come once, but it wasn’t a big deal). I tried to learn one song a week that was a request from one of them, and I think they appreciated the effort.” With regards to the online community, it was the same kind of super-positive reaction, but via email and message — after each show I usually spent until around 2 am answering everyone’s messages and comments, and I still get people writing to say thank you for doing them, all these months later.”
I think perhaps what has made these outpourings of music all the more enchanting, is the prevalence of artificially fabricated connections in our day-to-day lives. Most of our communication, even before the pandemic seemed to be accompanied by the luminescent blue glow of a phone screen; be it online dating, mindlessly browsing social media, texting, or emailing. But this disconnection, albeit still physically enforced by imposed restrictions, seems to have been splintered by these pockets of melodic salvation. Music has acted as an antidote to the fear, isolation, and loneliness that the pandemic has brutally elicited. To hope for a cultural reset in terms of forging connections more organically may be too much to hope for, but these musical interventions have undoubtedly demonstrated that in times of desperation and uncertainty humanity will set aside their phones in favour of a more primal form of social camaraderie.
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