Jennifer Koh Champions New Works From Isolation with “Alone Together”

On Saturday, June 6, 2020, New York-based violinist Jennifer Koh took to the internet to present the ninth consecutive week of world premieres in her ongoing “Alone Together” project. The project goes live each Saturday at 7:00PM EDT via Instagram TV or Facebook Live, and is subsequently archived on YouTube. It was created in reaction to the spontaneous evolution of societal norms due to the arrival of Covid-19, which has gripped the United States for at least as many weeks, critically wounded the performing arts, and conjured varying prophecies of things yet to change irreparably. “Alone Together” is supported by ARCO Collaborative, which was established by Koh in 2014 to commission, develop, and produce new musical works with a special emphasis on women and artists of color. Needless to say, in light of more recent events all but overshadowing Covid-19 with global demonstrations and community action demanding social justice and racial equity, Koh’s mission and project profoundly illuminate a constellation of changes that are broadly needed in and outside the microcosm of the classical music community. It is apparent that their relevance will not wane anytime soon.

In the early weeks of the coronavirus lockdown, many performers, venues, and ensembles immediately teleported from the concert hall to various online platforms as the community struggled to make sense of what was going on. Streaming sessions from bedrooms and other private spaces via Instagram, Facebook, and Twitch took hold while the short and long-term implications of the greater crisis continued to come into focus. Despite the enthusiasm for meeting the challenges and limitations of sanctioned isolation, concerns over live performance being abandoned entirely in favor of a (free) digital option, or that composers and performers require no compensation for their work, continue to be noisily expressed. In a newly forged world where the desire to get a haircut supersedes the safety of public health, it seems that some concern over the fate of arts and culture may be warranted.

Jennifer Koh's "Alone Together" commissioning project--Photo courtesy

Jennifer Koh’s “Alone Together” commissioning project–Photo courtesy

“Alone Together” addresses both the need to connect with audiences by any means possible and the need to remind them that concerts patched together on Zoom or streamed from the dining room on Instagram will not adequately substitute for the real thing in the long run. Koh reminds us in particular that there is a robust community of freelance artists whose work is continuing through (and in response to) both the pandemic and mounting civil unrest, but requires financial support and a platform for exposure.

In harmony with the present climate of general isolation, the repertoire Koh has championed consists of forty-two short works for solo violin, prepared and performed by Koh alone from her home. Half of these new works have been commissioned by ARCO Collaborative, while the other half were donated by composers whose livelihood has not been compromised by the pandemic crisis thanks to existing institutional support or salaried positions. Additionally, each commissioned composer has been selected at the recommendation of a donating composer, which gives the project a particularly inspiring community building dimension and emphasizes the theme of coming together despite being in isolation.

Week Nine’s premieres consisted of four brief works including Du Yun’s Windowsills, George Lewis’ un petit brouillard cérébral, Lester St. Louis’ Ultraviolet, Effervescent, and Shayna Dunkelman’s Afterglow. While the show went live promptly at 7:00PM EDT, it did not appear to be a live performance but was instead a pre-recorded video posted simultaneously to Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. Excluding Koh’s brief opening comments, the performance of all four works lasted less than ten minutes, and while it did not feel rushed per se, its brevity and unceremonious efficiency emphasized the absence of the intangibles that live performances provide. Not the least of these are of course elements that individual performers cannot entirely be expected to control or manage, such as the acoustic of their surroundings or the lighting, not to mention possible limitations in sound or video equipment. These issues crop up on both sides of the screen, as the viewer is left wondering (as it was in my case) if they should watch and listen on their computer with high end monitor speakers, or just lie in bed and bring up the video on their phone. I admit, I went with the latter and the experience was just fine.

Jennifer Koh--Photo by Juergen Frank

Jennifer Koh–Photo by Juergen Frank

Streaming the performance live and allowing for participation or interaction with those who set aside time to tune-in might have provided a more engaging dynamic akin to the fun of going to the concert hall. Instagram’s comment feed could be seen as a sort of abstract substitute for the rustling of programs, mutter and chatter of a reactive audience, and even applause. Taking time between pieces to react to scrolling comments and answer questions might have provided further depth and insight into the program, and act as a barrier between the works normally created by performers entering and exiting the stage.

Koh’s performance was excellent, but the rapid-fire pace (in the absence of the above mentioned elements) combined with the brevity of the pieces led to an unintentional blending of the four works. By the conclusion, it felt as though only one piece had been performed, and I found myself scrubbing back through the video to separate them in my memory.

With loosening social restrictions grinding up against warnings of a second wave and a worsening global pandemic situation, the course toward some semblance of so-called normalcy remains unclear. In this newly dominant virtual world, the semantics of presentation and interactivity will continue to develop as a new performance ritual emerges, whether temporary or with unforeseen longevity. Certainly this new normal is developing, and projects like “Alone Together” are establishing a critical platform for its evolution.

The complete archive of Alone Together is available on YouTube, with additional video conversations with many of the composers.