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  • by Judy Coder

Composing and Quarantine

10 days of isolation, and counting.

“To survive, you must tell stories.” ~ Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before

Sometimes it’s easy being a composer. Sometimes the melodies play in my head so clearly, writing lyrics or notating instrumentation feels like taking dictation. On those days, all I have to do is walk into my studio and shut the door. By the time I’ve fired up my laptop and played through the music I wrote in the previous session, I’m back in the zone and ready to keep writing. On those days, I am confident I am doing what I was put on this earth to do.

Sometimes, though, it’s not that simple. Sometimes, I’m just not so sure.

Self-doubt is probably understandable when writing a major work without a commission. I’m writing this piece because I think it needs to be written. Toni Morrison once said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” The subject of my opera is a story that needs to be told, in this way, from my perspective. I believe I’m doing something important. This masterwork will take a huge amount of time, maybe several years. Over that expanse of time, things will come up that challenge my resolve to complete the project.

Distractions and excuses are legion.

I have been contemplating this opera for a long time, but far less time actually working and writing it. I made the decision to undertake this masterwork about 3 years ago. I spent a year in search of a librettist who might provide the lyrics for my music, before I took that bold leap of faith to do it myself. I spent just a few months writing that libretto, then allowed myself to be distracted by pursuit of material income, until the studio habit was no longer habit at all. For the next year, I made pitiful progress. When lyrics popped into my head, I recorded them. When melodies popped into my head, I recorded them. When I finally returned to a routine of daily studio time devoted solely to opera composition, a year had passed. I am disappointed in myself, for allowing that time to pass.

I don’t know who Epictetus was, but he is often credited with saying, “If you wish to be a writer, write.” I am writing an opera. Sometimes I am led by inspired thought. Sometimes I show up and get to work, and inspiration follows. Distractions, both large and small, global and mundane, must not interfere with that work. Whether the piece I’ve undertaken is timely or timeless, I need to trust those instincts that have driven me so far.

As the world folds in on itself, bracing for the full impact of a global pandemic, I feel a tugging at my sleeve. We will all get through the days and months ahead by making the most of the gifts we have, and sharing with one another. What should I be doing right now? What do I need to contribute right now? Is this opera the most important thing I do today?

Yes, it is.

Composing my opera might not be the only thing I do today. I might spend some time developing online income streams, such as online lessons and livestreaming concerts. I might spend some time at the sewing machine, making masks for some future trip to the store. These are important things. My most important work, however, is creating and sharing music that only I can make.

When I sing and when I write music, people smile. It is my job to keep doing that, no matter what might be happening today, around the world and in my neighborhood, no matter what tomorrow brings.

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