In my old life — well, who cares anymore. But in my old life, I used to travel pretty extensively. I play in a bluegrass band that does a lot of air-travel gigs. Fly in for a weekend, play a bunch of concerts, festivals, fly home. Two-three times a month. Sometimes more, sometimes less. Now I can’t think of those shows without imagining all the airplanes and unwashed hands touching tray tables and overhead luggage racks, service glasses; hotels with questionable surfaces everywhere, dirty rental cars… And of course at the concerts, shaking hands with everyone before and after, playing around a single microphone and stepping into it to play a solo and smelling the corona of the band leader’s breath in the air still, the chicken vindaloo I watched him eat hours ago before soundcheck; and then at the merch table of course shaking hands, more and more hands, handling product, swiping Visa cards, signing CDs, shaking hands again, giving back-slapping hugs to old friends, the mist of everyone’s halitosis and perfume and sweat and soap hanging in the air around us.
What were we thinking? How did we even do that?
So for a while, earlier on in this time of isolation, to placate myself I imagined all the outdoor venues, the upcoming summer festivals. Surely these would be doable. By July or August? Spread the blankets a little farther apart on the grassy areas around the stage. Sanitize microphones between sets. Don’t share mics at all. Don’t accidentally drink from the wrong water bottle or dip your hand in an open bowl of nuts or pretzels backstage. Don’t eat at all backstage. Stand farther apart on stage. It could be done. The great outdoors — the virus wouldn’t stand a chance in all that sun and breezy fresh air. Yes. But then I pictured the food trucks. The lines of people waiting to buy lunch or dinner or snacks or coffee, inhaling, exhaling on top of each other, and the stink of the porta-potties in a row under the trees, or worse the funk of the campground outhouses or bathrooms and showers covered in everyone else’s COVID fecal splatter and nowhere to actually wash your hands.
Here’s what I’ve come to accept: there will be no such thing as a tour or road-trip playing music with the people I’ve been in a band with for the last 20-plus years of my life. That way of playing music is on hold. My bandmates — people with whom I’ve spent endless hours of drive-time, shared life stories and meals and hotel rooms, played with through sickness and heath, divorces, deaths, births, marriages, award ceremonies — they all live between six hundred and sixteen-hundred miles from me. An impossible distance to bridge safely for now. I won’t see them or play music with them in real life for … well, as long as anyone knows, really.
So every night around sunset my wife, Caridwen, and I go for our daily walk around the neighborhood. I remind myself that in many regards this is what I’d always go back to and imagine most intensely when I was on the road with the band and feeling most homesick: these familiar streets and no deadline, no flight to catch, no rushing off to the next and the next and the next thing. Just walking after dinner or before dinner and talking. Just paying attention to being here, right now, and even though it’s forced by the sheltering in and hunkering down, it’s still pretty much exactly what I’d have to say I always imagined and longed for with the most nostalgia when I was on the road and scrambling between missed nights of sleep and keeping up with work from my other life as a professor and a writer, and trying to keep in mind all the moving parts of travel and performance. When I was that other person, traveling around the country, here’s what took up my imaginative bandwidth: being home. Being off the clock and off the road and never leaving the house at all. So maybe it’s not so bad. If I could just forget all the other stuff that keeps my imagination on such high alert against the contagion itself, the worry and anxieties, it’s all right. It’s better than all right.
A few nights ago I had the first cigar of the summer season in our backyard which Caridwen is in the midst of transforming with new raised beds and other DIY projects involving concrete and bricks. It was a superb spring night, and the scotch and cigar only made it more so. The sunset light, the warm air. The barbecue fired up for the first time. I could almost forget. For a while, a few hours, I did forget.
Then the next day we got word from one of our closest friends in town that he has a fever. Nothing else, just a fever. He’s been out of his house exactly once in the last two weeks — to go to the store. To go to multiple stores because he lives pretty far out of town, so if he’s doing errands, if he’s making a supply run, he hits a lot of stores. Did he wear a mask? We don’t know. Did he disinfect his hands after ever stop? We don’t know, didn’t want to ask because what’s the point of asking. Did he stand back from other people? Unknown. We do these things, but maybe because we’re paranoid. Is he paranoid? Is he paranoid enough? Are we? We don’t know. But we know that he now has a fever, out of nowhere, and that consequently he won’t be able to see his wife again — he’s barricaded in a separate room in their rambling old house — until … we don’t know. She’s extremely immune-compromised. There’s no room for any error or misstep or possible contamination. If he’s as sick as he might be, he could kill her. So he can’t be anywhere near the air she breathes or any surface she might touch. Instead they talk on the phone. Like Caridwen and I do when I’m on the road. If he has to be rushed to the hospital, his wife won’t be the one to drive him. She won’t be able to go with him at all. He doesn’t even have a smartphone, so they won’t be able to Facetime or Zoom a goodbye.
The night we got this news it was all we talked about on our walk — our friend and what will happen, what might happen, what the odds are. Pretty good odds that he’ll be OK. Reasonable chance he doesn’t even have CV19. Who knows? But if he does… well, the odds get worse. Not dire necessarily. He’s older. He’s out of town. He’s stoical. He may not notice how short of breath he’s getting until it’s too late. He’s strong. He’s pretty healthy. But does any of that matter? No one knows.
The more we talked the more we felt like ghosts. Which is pretty normal these days — walking, staying as far as possible from anyone we encounter, waving sometimes, and talking about all the friends and family who aren’t here and who we can’t see in person anymore or hug or play music with, can only conjure spectrally in memories or on the phone or computer. Parents, aunts, uncles, friends, kids, cousins, siblings… We know about them in the way ghosts probably know and keep track of us and what’s going on in our corporeal world — if ghosts exist, that is, which I mostly never believed, until I started feeling so much like one. Maybe this is how they see us? Like they’re on a phone call or bad video call. Can’t touch, can’t move anything, impose themselves in any physical way. Which leaves us wondering, of course, why we’re here at all anymore, or if we are. How we can be sure that we are…
After the walk, after dinner, after the crossword or whatever mindless puzzle can give you respite, we’ve learned that it’s pretty easy to hit a hard downward spiral. The light fades, the house feels smaller and more closed in. The worries loom larger. They’re not outside the door anymore in a wash of sunlight or rain, they’re right here with us in the living room, the kitchen. Everywhere.
So what we do, what we did last night and what we’ve done every night since the beginning of isolation: we pick a song or a tune we know or want to learn; we play it a bunch and then we record it. Each one, like it’s a digital entry in a sonic diary we’re keeping from this weird time in our lives. Caridwen sings and plays fiddle and some banjo. I don’t sing. I play fiddle and octave mandolin. And between the two of us there are at least a hundred hours of music we’ve already played together or shown each other, and a hundred more we can adapt easily enough — mainly Celtic flavored, given the instrumentation and our backgrounds. But not always. Caridwen is fluent in French and German and almost fluent in Italian and can sing in Yiddish and Ladino and probably other tongues I’m forgetting or don’t even know about. At a push, I can learn a bunch of jazz chords. The band I play in is a bluegrass band so there’s a little flavor of that to add too, but not as much. Point is, we try to mix it up in order not to be bored or in order not to get too settled in any one musical silo and to feel like we’re embracing a little more of the world.
Anyway, we pick a song. We play and play and play it.
What we’ve learned, in addition to learning how to be our best selves as musical partners in this shut-in blinkered time — as well as learning to be our best possible selves (or trying anyway) as walking partners and cooking partners and cat-parents and (in the more imagined zone again) parents and grandparents and trans-supportive parents — what we’ve learned is that it’s all about time. Not just the time that we take up in the evenings playing — which can be hours or only quarters of an hour, depending on the challenge we feel like giving ourselves — but the effects of music on time and the different ways in which people experience time within music. Music after all is just some random minutes isolated from the rest of experience and reconfigured into beats and melody. It’s time transubstantiated into feeling and color and memory and vibrancy and interior pictorial projections in such a way that the ordinary passage of time shifts course or even disappears or just becomes something else entirely. The listener is here and not here at the same time. The player is lost in the groove. The minutes go on passing. And, interestingly, as part of our nightly routine, this is the one thing Caridwen and I have realized we experience pretty differently: time in music. Or maybe we’ve always known this, but here in isolation, we’re forced to focus on it and give it that much more care. Like all of time in its many forms through isolation, it needs a different quality of attention. So we’ve learned: Caridwen is sometimes a little relaxed with the beat, especially at the ends of phrases where feelings get most lush or lavish; I’m always leaning forward through the beats. Like I’m on the road and going to the next and the next and the next thing, undercutting or understating the emotion at the ends of phrases because, hey, it’s time to move on already.
I’m always leaning forward through the beats. Like I’m on the road and going to the next and the next and the next thing...
So we’ve been giving this more attention and have learned that the only way through is to consult the moderator. That most unimaginative of all forces: the metronome. Or maybe it’s not unimaginative at all. Maybe it’s the imagination’s impetus and trigger, that click. Turn it on, it’s just a click. Start playing over it and damn if that click doesn’t turn three-dimensional and feel like it moves and swerves and surges out from under you. Of course, that’s all just perceptual. And we’re nothing, all of us, if we’re not flawed in our perceptions, another all too apparent fact in this weirdest of weird times.
But what happens as we give ourselves over to that fixed point, that exact, uncompromising measuring of time into beats, and try to weave our sounds around it as musically as possible: we forget ourselves. We forget kind of everything, except for the sound and being in the groove together. The moment. And once we’re there, or close enough, once the feeling can come back into it but maybe in a more cogent, accurate way, then we record the song on a phone. We record it a few times and continue the parsing of time as we play it back to figure out which version’s best, which one hangs together most, which conveys what we want it to say. None of it’s perfect. Ever. Not even close. We’d have to edit takes together if we wanted that, like in the recording studio, but this is not that — not a permanent or perfect record. What we want is more like what I said — a log or a journal. A sonic diary. Halfway personal, halfway not. It’s not meant for us, but of course without us it doesn’t exist. This isn’t something I want to think about too long either. It’s actually the point of doing it at all, is to not think about that or the temporariness of any record, formal or informal, and the fact that one of us, both of us, either of us, might not be here tomorrow. We’re doing this precisely to ward away such thoughts and feelings for another day. Music has some talismanic power in that regard and we’re just hanging out under its sign I guess, for cover — for as long as we can. For as long as it works.
When we’re done we post the recording to our friends on social media.
This routine began as kind of a lark, kind of a joke, a blind reach through the dark to connect with everyone far-flung who we love and miss; a stab at connecting with them and sharing a feeling. It was a few days before St. Pat’s, so we picked a moody Irish tune we love particularly — the all-too-aptly titled "Splendid Isolation." I can’t remember if it was my idea or Caridwen’s to play and record, but we grabbed onto it like a lifeline and have been doing it nightly ever since. And now, well into month two of nightly song postings, I guess you can’t really say it’s any kind of lark or joke anymore. It’s intentional, habitual and more and more integrated with what our lives have become. I don’t know why. Obviously, it takes the place of something for us — some kind of social connectedness from face-to-face contact and concerts and jam sessions and drunk nights of playing tunes until all hours.
Once it’s posted we’re just ghosts in the screen to anyone who knows us, but the feeling coming back at us from everyone seems so much more immediate than that. Neither of us grew up in Spokane so our friends and family are everywhere around the world, some right here, but mainly they’re all across the U.S. and Canada and connected with times in our lives spanning vanished decades, and these are the people who start writing back to us from early in the morning until late at night, having heard and shared those minutes of metered and reconfigured time with us; having felt something from it or been reminded of something connected with us (or not). And it matters because… I don’t know why. Ghostly or not, it feels as real as anything in our “real” day-to-day lives anymore, which has always been the case, I guess, just more so or more noticeably so now that we’re all shut in and isolated from each other. Eventually we’ll have to lay it aside, pick up some new project. Or maybe not. As long as it works, it’s the best way I know to keep sane: hunker down, blinker my imagination to everything but the beat, the pitch, the blending of our disparate sounds with some fixed sense of time and then the lacing of those sounds with emotion, and of the emotions with some kind of truth and mirth and affection and longing because we miss everyone so damn much and hope for their health and safety and there’s really no other way of saying it. ♦
Gregory Spatz's most recent book publications are What Could Be Saved (novellas and stories), Half as Happy (stories) and Inukshuk (novel). Recipient of a WA State Book award and NEA Literature Fellowship, he teaches in and directs the MFA program at EWU. He also plays fiddle in the twice Juno-nominated bluegrass band John Reischman and the Jaybirds.