Published May 26, 2020
Nicholas Emmanuel writes about music’s role in building community, specializing in the difficulties of making music in “extremely restrictive environments.”
Now the UB doctoral student who won over the Fulbright judges with his proposal to study modernist music in Hungary during the Cold War of the 1970s and 1980s faces the restrictive environment of the COVID-19 era.
At best, he starts a shortened version of the Fulbright in January, at least a five-month delay. At worst, his months of Fulbright limbo come up empty. His fellowship could be canceled. He might need to re-apply for the following year, and the deadline to reapply could come before he finds out if his existing fellowship is cancelled.
So in a cruel, fitting and ironic way, Emmanuel’s passion for studying how music answers repression offers insight into this age of social distancing. His Fulbright research will ─ eventually, he hopes ─ study how Hungarian composers negotiated questions of cultural and national identity through their music amid regimes intent on stifling this voice.
Instead of writing about how music can claim and foster an identity in a repressive government, Emmanuel faces a different obstacle to artistic expression: a worldwide pandemic.
“I write about the difficulties of making music in extremely restrictive climates,” says Emmanuel. “Generally, these restrictions include things like censorship, oppression, discrimination and exile. They are the sorts of problems that not only materially obstruct artistic work, but also overwhelm it psychologically.
“They are the sorts of problems that music cannot resolve,” he says. “It either finds a way to persist in spite of them, or it falls silent.”
The pandemic has, through entirely different means, created similar problems, according to Emmanuel. A recent New Yorker essay by Masha Gessen frames the current COVID-19 situation through Hannah Arendt’s formulations of isolation, loneliness and solitude.
“Arendt writes about life under totalitarian rule, but Gessen suggests that some of the existential consequences of quarantine are eerily comparable,” Emmanuel says.
“Isolation prevents people from acting in concert, but the isolated person can still make things and put them out in the world. Loneliness, however, is the complete inability to act, a kind of non-relation to the world at large.
“Solitude, as Gessen summarizes it, is ‘the opportunity to work alone while still being able to feed on human connection.’ Whereas loneliness makes us ‘sad and stupid,’ solitude makes us think and helps us to keep others in mind,” Emmanuel says.
During times like these pandemic days, artists and audiences have a strong but misplaced tendency to regard music as “some transcendent spiritual force,” he says.
“When Leonard Bernstein conducted the finale of ‘Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony’ in East Berlin on Christmas Day 1989, the message was one of triumphant joy, of freedom and reunification,” he says. “The Berlin Wall had just come down, and music was made to symbolize that spiritual coming together.
“In retrospect, Bernstein may as well have unfurled a giant banner proclaiming ‘Mission Accomplished.’ The truth of the matter is that reunification, particularly for East Germans, was a slow and painful process with many lingering consequences. We cannot magic our way out of isolation, by way of music or other artistic endeavors,” he says.
Emmanuel says Zoom concerts and other similar online musical expressions “feel more like vehicles for sitting in our loneliness together than moments of genuine communion.”
“And in any case, the loneliness cannot be muted entirely in these experiences,” he says. “For one, we have to listen past the degraded audio and video quality. Then there is the lost dynamic between musicians and ‘audience’ members, who are not able to pick up on one another’s subtle body language and emotional cues.
“And then, in these virtual experiences, there is the sound of music reverberating in a space different from your own, or stranger still, reverberating throughout a number of different spaces simultaneously. All of these differences contribute to feelings of distance and alienation,” he says.
The time for communal expression will probably emerge “slowly and haltingly,” he says.
Meanwhile, “it may be worthwhile for us to make peace with our isolation, since it is necessary. It might be more constructive, in other words, to work on making the subtle shift from loneliness to solitude.
“Music, I would suggest, still has a role to play here; it is a wonderful companion in solitude,” he says.