2020/2021 CREATIVE REACTIONS CONTEST Dedicated to the memory of Vera Sharpe Kohn
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY CONCERTS CREATIVE REACTIONS CONTEST
First Place Cassandra A. James ’23 Kerem Oktar • Graduate Student
Second Place Emily V. Mesev • Graduate Student
Honorable Mention Maya Keren ’22 Alexander Kim ’21 Konstantinos Konstantinou ’22
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THE 2020-2021 CREATIVE REACTIONS CONTEST A contest designed to capture the impact of music, as perceived by Princeton University undergraduate and graduate students.
SINCE 2015, Princeton University Concerts has offered all Princeton University students a way to harness their creative talents in engaging with music through an annual contest, alternating each academic year between creative writing and visual arts entries. The 2020-2021 contest, limited to writing entries only, asked participants to respond to the prompt: “WHAT HAS MUSIC MEANT TO YOU DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC?” Students were encouraged to use a specific musical work as a point of reference. From a total of 30 entries, six students were selected as winners after two rounds of judging. Princeton University Concerts Director Marna Seltzer, Communications Manager Dasha Koltunyuk, and
Outreach Program Coordinator Lou Chen judged the first round of submissions; Department of Music Chair Professor Wendy Heller, Religion, African American Studies, and Gender and Sexuality Studies Professor Wallace Best, and Labyrinth Books Owner Dorothea von Moltke served as judges in the final round of review. The Creative Reactions Contest is dedicated to the memory of Vera Sharpe Kohn, a loyal member of the Princeton University Concerts Committee. This year’s contest was organized in collaboration with the Princeton University Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Studies.
Sponsored by Princeton University Concerts
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2020-2021 CREATIVE REACTIONS CONTEST
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Hummingbirds: A Pandemic Survival Guide Cassandra A. James ’23 INTRODUCTORY NOTE
were the bars of a cage. We rammed against the roof and stared
voicemail he’d left me for my nineteenth birthday; I memorized
badly? Why had I exchanged my arms for wings, when everything
This creative nonfiction essay was inspired by the song “Dust and Ashes”
wistfully out the windows. Each day bled into the next, hazy and
and murmured the words to myself, like a prayer, like music.
was here, here, here?
colorless, as if we were sleepwalking, half-awake, through the
Would I forget what he sounded like, when he was gone?
from the Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, by Dave Malloy.
nebulous swamps of a dream. I thought: this is a nightmare. I thought: wake me up.
Music, for me, is no longer an escape—it is a reminder. It reminds Sometime in the Days Before, on a train ride to New York City, I
me that life didn’t end when the pandemic began, that it’s here,
fell in love with a Broadway musical called Natasha, Pierre, and
now, in all of its glorious color. I don’t want to go back to the
place, never landing; we were everywhere and nowhere at once.
In music, we found our escape hatch. A bluetooth speaker doubled
the Great Comet of 1812. More specifically, I fell in love with the
person I was in the Days Before, that untethered girl who was
We homeschooled from minivans and U-Hauls and even, once, a
as our time machine, and we traveled to destinations constructed
titular Pierre’s solo number, “Dust and Ashes.” I didn’t know what,
tossed by every wind—I love the feet I am growing. And maybe
boat, and kept time by the year we lived here, or there, or didn’t
from memory, to that theater in New York or that blues bar
exactly, I liked about it. But those lyrics wouldn’t leave me: How
I’m tired of mourning what I’ve lost. Maybe I want to turn on my
have a real home, at all. If you asked me for my hometown, I had
in Memphis or that one jazz club in New Orleans. Remember
did I live? / Was I kind enough and good enough? / Did I love
favorite song—maybe I want to crank up the volume—maybe I
an answer for every day of the week, and if you asked me where
when? we asked each other. Yes, yes, we answered, securing our
enough? / Did I ever look up and see the moon and the stars and
want to dance, just to dance, because feet are built for dancing…
I was from, well, “Narnia” was as accurate as “Florida.” All that
own sanity. We remember. Sitting on the floor of my childhood
the sky? / Oh, why have I been sleeping? When I heard them,
really mattered was our next ETD—Estimated Time of Departure.
bedroom, I pulled out my guitar and wrote songs about the Days
something twisted beneath my ribs—something thawed, unfurled.
Last night, when the moon was full, I sat in my bedroom window. I
I grew up in a family of hummingbirds. We zipped from place to
Before—pre-masks, pre-lockdowns, pre-Zoom. I wrote: we took
But then the train doors opened, and my family stepped into the
looked up at the sky, at the pinprick stars. Perhaps, for a moment,
So I learned to love the way concrete flies beneath car wheels at
a drive right up to Charleston / we could see each other’s smiles
whirlwind of Penn Station, and the feeling was forgotten. I don’t
my wingless arms ached. But then I heard my sister’s laugh in
70 miles an hour, and to crave the stale saltiness of cheap airline
then / what I’d do just to see your smile again. So we survived.
remember where it was that we were flying off to. Where were we
the room next door; I heard my little brother racing up the stairs;
pretzels. I learned to make “Road Trip” playlists and speed-Google
We coped. We blasted Ed Sheeran ballads, binge-watched House
ever flying off to?
and I put my headphones in; and I sang softly, under my breath, to
“Closest Gas Stations,” and I mastered my mother’s delicate
Hunters International, and told ourselves it would all be over
art of Colombian packing (lay your clothes down flat, without
soon. Maybe, just maybe, we believed our own lie.
“Dust and Ashes.” Holding my grandfather after he came home from the hospital, I felt his bones poke through his shirt. I felt his hands shake, his
folding them, to fit everyone into one suitcase). When we stayed anywhere for a moment too long, my arms—which were actually
The call came sometime in the evening, when the sky over
laugh rattle in his chest; his eyes were tired and dull. I realized
wings—began to itch, to burn. Time to go. Time to fly.
Orlando, our newest primary residence, was blood-red and
that I had never seen my grandfather weak. I realized that I
swollen: my grandfather had been hospitalized for coronavirus.
had included him in all of my well-crafted plans for the future—
Here’s a fun fact: hummingbirds don’t know how to walk. Their
He had fluid in his lungs. He had a thirty-percent chance of
graduating, getting married, having children—and had never once
feet just aren’t built for the ground; they’re made for flight. So
survival. Of course, there was nothing we could do to help him.
considered that he might not be there. So I held him. I stored the
when COVID-19 shot my family from the sky, we felt the pain in our
We simply had to wait. How r u, we texted him. Okay. Love you all,
sound of his voice, the smell of his cologne in the back of my mind.
untrained feet. We pushed against the walls of our house like they
he answered. For three nights in a row, I played and replayed a
I held him, and I cried, and I wondered: why had I longed to fly so
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God, don’t let me die while I’m like this! I’m ready. I’m ready To wake up.
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Everywhere, at the End of Time Kerem Oktar • Graduate Student
progresses, the reverb slowly creeps in, individual notes start
the drummer off, the rest of the band inevitably falls. Think,
me analyze data. Often, music is a lever I pull to feel, like when
losing their distinction, echoes resonating metallically.
sleep, salmon, write, oats, experiment, data. You miss a day, and
Marc Aryan’s spotty Turkish precipitates nostalgia. On singular
painstakingly regular, nine to five, feathered so as to be felt,
the motivation is gone. Oats, regret, insomnia. And without a
occasions, however, music takes on a much loftier function. It
but not heard. A rhythm peppered with syncopation — today a
My days, too, started blending. In the boundless freedom of my
grammar of life, thoughts grow cloudy. Drifting away like lines
reveals aspects of my life that were previously hidden from me
burning sunset, tomorrow a newborn’s first laugh.
time, I found myself either eating oats, reading, cooking salmon,
in the sand, only to come back haphazardly. You try to battle it
- unearthing buried emotions, reflecting unpleasant realities,
or thinking, with increasing sporadicity. The sun would rise as
of course, reject it, but as the title of A losing battle is raging
manifesting untaken perspectives.
In sum, consistent enough to comprehend, diverse enough to
my day set, and vice versa. The language of my life kept the
reminds us, there is no point in denial.
same words, but now, a few months in, the grammar was fading.
There’s a language of life; a structure we all speak and hear, experience and create. Like a four-on-the-floor, its grammar
During most of the pandemic, music did not mean much to me Broken rearrangements of samples from prior albums
besides its usual function. A filler-of-voids, a vessel of mood. That was until I was utterly destroyed by Everywhere at the
Having chased freedom my entire life, first by leaving my
In Stage 2, Kirby focuses on the meta-cognitive acceptance
dominate Stage 3, and the overall sound grows further distant.
motherland, then seeking out the alluring autonomy of academia,
and rejection of mental disorder. The sampled tunes are
Manipulated voices sound like drowning ghosts, desperate and
end of time. Then, music meant much more. Call it whatever:
I must confess that working from home due to the pandemic
reminiscent of those in the previous album, but at times somber,
confused. Resonating music boxes remind us of what we have
catharsis, liberation, sublimation. As far as I am concerned, then
seemed like a fine prospect. I can structure my life however I
at times confusing. Sounds grow increasingly distant and
lost in brief moments of lucidity. An oppressive atmosphere of
and there, music was everything I had felt and could ever feel
want, wear anything I wish, sleep whenever (and wherever) I
distorted, often played through a phonograph cylinder rather
loneliness and terror pervade the album. Chaos reigns.
about the past year.
feel the need? Count me in.
than vinyl, the crackling warmth of the past now overdriven beyond recognition. The intense use of delay and compression
Here is where my journey and that of Everywhere at the end of
We aren’t violins in the void, but a symphony.
Everywhere at the end of time, a series of six ambient albums by
drastically exaggerate otherwise harmless scratches and
time diverge. Whereas the rest of the project delves further into
James Leyland Kirby, is a deeply scarring, hauntingly beautiful
crackles into foreboding mistakes, but the songs remain
confusion, noise, and horror, my life regains structure as I visit
six-hour exploration of dementia. It kicks off with It’s just a
loved ones and take a break after many months.
with analog warmth, looping and oozing with upbeat nostalgia.
It is in the nature of things that repeat and recurse to amplify
As for most people, music plays many roles in my life. Some
Stage 1, the first album, is comprised of such tracks, full of
error and noise. Entropy and degradation are the norm, our
of those roles are quotidian: Radiohead wakes me up, Moses
harmony and melody, pattern and consistency. Yet as Stage 1
language of life a frail bulwark. And once a beat is missed and
Sumney serenades me in the shower, and Tame Impala helps
burning memory, a 30s big-band tune slowed-down and infused
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So they believe us now?
So they believe us now?
The house is on fire.
Means they need us more than ever. So we go to lab
Like normal, run experiments like normal
When the last pandemic hit
(Except we’re on our own now, isn’t everyone)
Have to keep working
How long until people chose to ignore
Because we know there’s more than
So they believe us now?
One virus out there
What the scientists had been telling them?
Took them long enough. One hundred
And so much we don’t understand
And let the music
Thousand, two hundred thousand, five hundred thousand
About the Body
When the dust settled, how many
Went back to their lives
And claimed science was a waste of money
Like a lullaby.
And viruses were a hoax
Apocalypse Lullaby Emily V. Mesev • Graduate Student
Before they admit there’s a problem.
Don’t think about the last one Don’t think about those people They believe what they want to believe
And vaccines were killing their children?
But we’ve been telling them for years
And when lab gets too quiet
There’s a problem.
Fill the space with Enter Sandman
So they believe us now?
And La Campanella
So they believe us now?
To think about something other than
Wish they’d believed us sooner.
The Next Pandemic.
To the music, like a sedative
been confusing as ever. People have both revered scientists and resented
them. Many have called for vaccines while refusing to wear masks. We
Maybe if things hadn’t gotten so bad
Don’t think about them, just
PERSONAL STATEMENT: As a scientist who studies immune responses to viruses, it has always been frustrating to witness many people’s unwillingness to listen to science. During the pandemic, the public’s attitude towards science has
We wouldn’t be so nervous
So they believe us now?
A bluegrass cadenza
can never really know who does trust science, which is why the refrain
Just to go to work
The ones who cut funding for science
Heavy metal caprice
“So they believe us now?” is posed as a question throughout this piece. But
That we listen to Apocalypse Lullaby
Paganini would have liked Metallica
And the Wailin’ Jennys.
Like children listening to their mother sing
The ones who spread rumors and lies
While the house is on fire
And didn’t trust vaccines when it was measles
Waiting for the flames to die
But now they want a vaccine?
Because it won’t help to be scared.
They’re singing a new song, aren’t they—
To forget about
So we overwhelm ourselves with music
Or is it an old one
Instead of news
That we taught them
And we breathe.
And they forgot?
towards the end, this question is drowned out by the feelings of serenity that come with powerful music. Throughout the chaos and uncertainty of the pandemic, I have found
Play symphonies to drown out reality
solace in music that overwhelms me. From dramatic classical pieces (ex. La Campanella by Niccolò Paganini) to heartwrenching folk (ex. Apocalypse Lullaby by The Wailin’ Jennys) to grandiose heavy metal (ex. Enter Sandman by Metallica), I’ve craved music in its most unrestrained forms. I’ve been soothed by music that is intuitive, complex, loud, and messy. The more intense the piece, the more it fills my brain. And with that comes peace, if only for a moment – a small reprieve from the
And we sing.
isolation we all face, the horrors of the pandemic, and the reality of our
And we work.
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Reminder to Self: Maya Keren ’22 enough, not connecting enough! She not only offered a pathway
and downs in ego, feeling guilt, narcissism, indignation, and
I always come back to this story, and it feels especially relevant
visceral shock of sound rushing through your face, your limbs.
into the lower frequencies, but she was also keenly aware of the
imposter syndrome (not to mention hanger!) in the same 24 hours.
during this long and cold winter. I think that ultimately what I
The sense of warmth, and awe, and a shakiness inside. Zoom has
pacing and emotional resonance of her sound; she was
And I’ve been finding solace in radically different music than I
heard in Val’s music was trust. Trust that the music would reveal
trouble matching the smack of live music. But on a lazy summer’s
breathing in this power, letting it course through her. That
did in the past five years, relying on mostly tonal songs with
itself, trust that this force would find a way to touch us through
day last August, I remember sitting outside with my laptop,
offering stuck with me, through the slow turn of fall and the dead
higher voices (Adrienne Lenker, Haley Heynderickx, Erykah Badu,
our devices even during the era of constant Zoom fatigue. And so,
of winter. You know your power.
Lianne La Havas) for the healing I desperately need.
as spring slowly emerges, I’m trying to trust the slow whir of
In what I imagine is a common experience for many throughout
Before the pandemic, I would have listened to Val play and
always be there. Trying to let my body loosen, head up, rising.
The velvety silence right before the musicians start to play. The
listening to turntablist and improviser Val Jeanty conjure up
the universe. Trying to trust that the light that feels faint will
something so potent it hit me as if I were right there with her, soaking up her sound like all this intoxicating afternoon light.
this pandemic, I feel I have lost sight of my power: my sense of
thought, “Man, I need to get to work!” I found my fire in clear
I was gathering virtually with eleven other women and nonbinary
inner assurance, my direction, my fire. These past couple months
direction — in to-do lists, deadlines, gigs. I felt (and still often
creative musicians and improvisers to share our work. After
have felt especially hard. Maybe it’s that I’m only socializing
feel) like I am thriving the most with a sense of semi-chaotic
PERSONAL STATEMENT: From June to this past December, I had the chance to meet virtually every two weeks with eleven other women and nonbinary musicians for
most folks shared beautiful prerecorded projects, Val casually
with the few people I live with in my Covid bubble as I finish up a
momentum. But recently, I’ve had to place trust in slowness. The
offered to improvise live. As she started to play I felt like I was in
semester at Zoom University. Maybe it’s that I haven’t felt that
most honest way I can find my power right now is by following
a dream, hearing voices from the corners of my vision while also
electrifying rush that comes with playing and listening to live
what feels resonant and compassionate at this moment, and then
consciously feeling like I needed to get up and dance. Her music
music in too many months. I think perhaps I’m realizing my well-
the next, and the next. A couple years ago, a dear mentor and I
was both mystical and grounded in this loose, magnetic beat. She
being relies on a communal web far more expansive than I ever
met briefly during an exhausting month in both of our lives. She
proceeded to provoke enough “Oh my God!”s and “WOOO!”s that
imagined. I’m familiar with the amounts of time I need with close
recalled how at the times in her life when she wanted to exercise
musicians of color. This essay focuses on a specific moment of artistic
my mom asked what I was listening to and could I please be a
friends and by myself, but maybe I need the embarrassed thrill of
the most control, sometimes doing the opposite was the only way
offering from one of my fellow M3-ers, Val Jeanty, that has framed what
little quieter about it!? Once Val finished playing, the rest of the
meeting new people; the same conversation about our
to move forward.
music has meant to me during this tumultuous year.
group matched my exclamatory zeal. How did she do that?
casual hair cutting businesses with that one friend I had class with every Wednesday; the hellos and nods and gossip and flirtation and animosity. All these invisible threads holding us in
a strong wave? You’re flipped upside down and you’re thrashing
moving about Val’s performance: “You know your power.” Val
silent trembling equilibrium.
and there’s sand in your mouth and salt in your eyes and the
working group grounded me at a time where it felt like all structure was evaporating and when I felt I most needed the support of fellow queer
more you struggle the more you can’t find your way up. The only
seemed to have an effortless sense of self-assurance that lacked In any case, I’ve found myself flailing. Usually playing piano is a
way to get out is by going limp and letting your body rise to the
that focuses the energy of the room on the improviser’s virtuosity
crucial part of my day — this semester sometimes I don’t feel like
surface. That’s how I feel sometimes. You have to let go and
nor the niggling voice that maybe this music is not compelling
playing piano for weeks on end. I spiral through intense ups
slowly float to the air above.”
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Sara Serpa and Jen Shyu, this intergenerational, mostly BIPOC and queer
“Have you ever been swimming in the ocean and gotten caught in
Vocalist and composer Sara Serpa pinpointed what was so
any sort of ego; there was no trace of the kind of self-indulgence
an initiative called Mutual Mentorship for Musicians, (M3). Created by
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Dancing about Architecture Some Selections From, and Commentary On, My Music Listening Diary Alexander Kim ’21
On August 26, 2020, we were months into the pandemic, a vaccine still seemed like too
muted trombone does this sort of rapid vibrato, like it’s shaking, like it’s trying to
much to hope for, we were wildly uncertain about our futures, we were tired of being
keep in an outpouring of tears, and failing.
uncertain for so long, we’d gotten used to it, we were never getting used to it. And for the
first time in my life, I started keeping a diary. I opened up a document. I wrote down the
-“Osamu’s Theme: Kyoko’s House.”
date, and the words “Last night I discovered Bach’s Goldberg Variations for the first time,
Currently Philip Glass’s score for Mishima is my all-time favorite film score, and
specifically the Glenn Gould 1981 recording. I’m 21 years old. I’ve been missing out.” And
this is one of my favorite moments in it, where the primary motif is transformed
that was how I started the journal in which, from that time up to now, I’ve kept a record of
by a steel guitar into the sound of stars streaking down, hitting a beach, and
every¹ song I’ve listened to.
dancing in its low tide.
from August 27, 2020²
also from August 27, 2020
Went for a walk this afternoon. There was a hard beautiful romantic rain, the whole
sky a lit gray. Walked across Harvard Bridge and watched the rain hit the Charles
River with an effect like a rapid flipping of dimes. My feet got all wet inside my shoes
-“Contempt” (a cover of Georges Delerue’s “Theme de Camille”)
and it made me miss Princeton, the way its sidewalks flood.
And the score for Contempt may be my second-favorite film score of all time.
God, that desperate, screaming, scrabbling, heartbreaking horn in this version.
-“LOVE.” (ft. Zacari)
A personal favorite for listening to in the rain.
-Thelonious Monk: Solo Monk—
-“Dinah (Take 2)” through “Ruby, My Dear”
You know that quote—I don’t think anyone’s really sure who said it first—“writing about music is like dancing about architecture”? I moved back home, to California, and that’s what I was doing, I was listening to more new music every day than I ever had in my life, I was
-“Mood Indigo” (Masterpieces By Ellington version)
writing about it, I was dancing about architecture. It was absurd, it was hopeless, there was
There’s a part in “Mood Indigo,” between around 11:06 and 11:16, where the
no way I could put into words what I wanted to. I tried anyway. On Charlie Parker’s “Ko-Ko,”
1. Well, not exactly “every,” that would be impractical. But at least every song that I listened to with the intention of listening to it, and many others as well. 2. At this time I was sharing an apartment in Boston with some friends.
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Dancing about Architecture Some Selections From, and Commentary On, My Music Listening Diary Continued I wrote: “Parker’s creating melody after melody in his solo, and he’s sending them flying
out like it’s nothing, like he’s releasing a hundred genies from Aladdin’s lamp” (August
-John Adams: -“The Dharma at Big Sur” (2006 BBC Symphony Orchestra Recording) —
29). On Cocteau Twins’ “Heaven or Las Vegas”: “There’s this gorgeous guitar at the end
which I just heard about, and I thought that it would make a fitting listen for
of the song, which sounds like a motorcycle ride up in the aurora borealis” (October 11).
my last night in California. (It was written for the opening of the Walt Disney
I wrote of Messiaen’s “Apparition de l’église éternelle”: “At the midpoint of this song,
Concert Hall.) In “Pt. I: A New Day,” there were moments where I thought
where it’s loudest, you can almost hear angels at the edges” (December 27). And of the
the violin’s bow was piercing right through my heart...But it’s “Pt. II: Sri
metal band Liturgy’s cover of that same song: “Liturgy transform this song into a piece
Moonshine” that overwhelmed me with its magic. The whole gamut of human
for loud, feedback-laden, face-shredding guitar, skull-pulverizing drumming, and some
emotions—it’s all right here, in this piece. Over the course of it, the violin
heavily distorted howling: the sound of those angels I was just talking about now melting
sings in every voice it has at its disposal, some of which I had no idea it had
at its disposal. Like it’ll do anything, it’ll learn any tongue, to communicate with you in a real way. The patterns on the ceiling above me looked like
All this listening was a way of continuing to go places, to see things, when to do so
they were rippling, and it was probably just my eyes in the low light, but it
physically was no longer an option. All this writing was a way of saying to myself, “Look,
could be that this music actually brought to my room a handful of the Pacific
really look: there’s something here worth holding on to.” So I held on.
Ocean: the same vast ocean that inspired Adams.
And on January 16, I flew from home back to Princeton University, to begin the in-person
So then I left one home. I returned to another. All the while, I never stopped listening to
spring semester that I hadn’t dared to hope for. This last entry is from the night before.
music, I’ll never stop listening to music.
from January 15, 2021
Later at night. [My sister] and I imagined lives we’d love to be living. I said I’d love to
be one of those monks in the monasteries of Meteora, Greece, that live on towering
rock formations and that travel between incredible heights by way of gondola lifts.
She said she wished she could be tiny, like in The Secret Life of Arrietty, and a crumb
of food would be a whole meal. I’m going to miss these talks. I told her so, and I cried
a little—we both did. Before going to bed, I listened to—
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home?) I am writing some scattered thoughts in my diary, about the moments we are living. But logos won’t do. Spotify’s
Little Fugue On Covid-19 Konstantinos Konstantinou ’22
the coherence of a melody can help in such situations. I am listening to a fugue: it is well-composed, imposing, but also ‘little’. me; I do not cry, I do not lose control. That is why I am listening to Bach now. I do not need lyrics, or romanticizing tendencies. playlist feeds Bach’s “Little Fugue” to my ears. Good choice, algorithm: an austere beauty. Stability is all I need right now. Human. Its mathematical beauty makes me feel. “Cerebral emotion” some call it. It helps. I don’t know how, but it helps.
I just let my intellect entertain abstractness, lost in a contrapuntal nexus, a universe of form. Forgetting meaning altogether.
Meanings collapse. The world well-ordered is now the world in flux. Or, it has always been in flux; we just
Middle Entries couldn’t see it. Neither can we see the thing that threatens, governs us: a tiny life-form that is reproduced through us.
Meanings collapse and yet they survive. They are constantly transformed, just like a fugue’s subject: once stated, it comes
Meanings collapse. The world well-ordered is now a world in flux. It has always been in flux; we knew it. But
What is peculiar about a fugue is that it is a form that is strict and free at the same time. There are rules that characterize that Melodies do not have meanings; that is why they capture us. Meanings collapse; textures and timbres reveal themselves to
The new God. Once again, invisible. Still there, but invisible. Hidden behind collapsing meanings. Could I
back as a tonal answer, in a different key. The same subject is reiterated throughout the piece; but whenever it returns, it is
we believed that our polyphony was a harmonious one; like the texture of Bach’s fugues. Fragments in unity:
musical form, but in every fugue one of these standard rules is violated. (The rules collapse.) A fugue, then, is like life: govern-
Meanings collapse. Where is the world well-ordered? Lost in vast multiplicity, lost in translation. We talk past
the ear. It is the reality of conscious experience that has the power to move us. That is why a phrase sung by a voice is more
hide behind anything at this point? No; I am leaving like a fugitive. My hopes betrayed? Did they ever exist?
never the same. Just like experiences. Once we have lived something, any similar future situation is –purportedly– ‘known’.
the myth of our modernity. That is precisely why meanings collapse. They are lost in a translation we cannot
ed by logical principles that are constantly violated. Nonetheless, they remain valid: ready to be cancelled by creative freedom.
each other, without any real understanding. The meanings of words collapse. The meanings of worlds are
powerful than a philosophical treatise. And when many voices sing simultaneously, the listener’s psyche pulsates even more.
They, too, might have collapsed — like meaning. find; for it is invisible, like the virus. yet waiting to be found.
Episode 1: Newark Liberty International Airport, March 14, 2020 I am sitting in Newark Liberty’s waiting room. Meanings – arrivals; collapse. A closed campus. Going back home. (What is No masks in the store. I am traveling exposed. In space-time, in the imagination; trying to make sense of everything. Only I said my goodbyes, pretending I did not care much. After all, I will be back in September. (Is it certain?) Stoicism defines
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Episode 2: Maroussi, Attica, November 20, 2020
I have taken up running. The winter is very mild here, I run outside to let my eyes and mind rest. Sometimes I listen to music My first fully-online semester. I know it will not be the last. Until now, life in my home-country has been quite pleasant. But Living in Athens again, just like three years ago. It is as if I reached adulthood and went back to adolescence, to my highwhile running. Suddenly, I remembered the Little Fugue from Newark’s waiting room. I am listening to it again. How different now, another lockdown. Things unstable once again. (World in flux.) That is probably the reason why I instinctively revisited school years. A long drone note – quarantine – life paused. A long drone note – quarantine – life paused. A long drone note
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Little Fugue On Covid-19 Continued everything sounds now – to my ears, eyes. No “cerebral emotion” anymore; the fugue’s complexity is that of our lives today.
the Little Fugue. The subject is inexhaustibly reiterated; you can’t know when things will end. This year has been a fugue.
My submission is an experimental piece of writing: I have attempted to convey my thoughts through a musical form. A fugue (from “fugare”
– quarantine – life paused. A long drone note – quarantine – life paused. A long drone note – quarantine – life must go on.
meaning “to chase”) is a polyphonic form of composition which is based on the imitation of the same musical theme, the subject, in usually 3 or 4 voices. Such a composition consists of the exposition, episodes, and middle and final entries of the subject, which is variated
Final Entries – Coda
melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically throughout the composition. The unusual fugue I present here is scored for three voices, each of which is in a different typeface. The text of each of these voices can be read both separately from the other two (just read the text of each typeface continuously), but also simultaneously with them. I have chosen the fugal form for two reasons: (i) for me, its inherent complexity
We are close to an end. Meanings collapse. So what? Life is still here. (I am.) Virtue, love, beauty remain here. Polyphony is
reflects the complex reality of living amid this pandemic, and (ii) the musical work I refer to is itself a fugue: J. S. Bach’s “Little” Fugue in G
Our times are fugal. Meanings collapse. Is there some sort of fate, a definite point waiting for us at the end? Every fugue has
Minor, BWV 578.
Meanings collapse. The world well-ordered is now the world in flux. The key to surviving that is to embrace the flow. In the In the last year, I immersed myself in two significant moments of self-reflection while listening to that piece. The first of them was during
both anxiety and hope. Even if others seem distant, we are all voices singing in parallel, within the same fugue. The maxim a conclusion: a point where all tensions are resolved. But reaching that final harmony is the composer’s responsibility. And same way one enjoys the constant tensions and oppositions of Bach’s counterpoint, one can also accept the anomalies of life.
the outbreak of the pandemic. Back in March2020, after the closure of the Princeton campus, I had to fly back to my home country. In the airport’s waiting room, my Spotify’s auto-shuffle randomly played the Little Fugue; in a world that was collapsing, Bach’s vivid and perfectly balanced contrapuntal synthesis was irenically consolatory. The second experience was last November, when Greece had its second lockdown. Having gotten used to living back home with my family, I was running outside and suddenly remembered the fugue’s subject. I re-listened to it, but with a totally different attitude. Now it was not its balance but its complexity that struck me; I saw the whole
for living through this pandemic has become clear: find other voices, join them in singing in a world of collapsing meanings. it is the same with composing one’s life; it is we that should resolve our tensions. Meanings collapse. Let’s re-invent them. Integrate them within a new form of life that is distinctive, admirable, authentic. Live a life of intensity; for meanings collapse.
chaos of our epoch and human life reflected on that complexity. This textual fugue is my attempt to reconcile these two different insights. Its two episodes stand for the above experiences of listening to Bach. These episodes are framed by the exposition, middle, and final entries, which negotiate the questions of meaning, stability, and knowledge amid this pandemic from a philosophical perspective. The fugue ends with a coda of how our epoch’s fugal complexity can be seen not only through a lens of anxiety, but also through a lens of hope for our future.
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Cassandra A. James
Emily V. Mesev
Sophomore Cassandra A. James, Class of 2023, from Kissimmee,
Kerem Oktar, a second-year graduate student in the Psychology
Emily V. Mesev, a fourth-year graduate student in the Molecular Biology
Florida, has been singing for as long as she can remember. Her
Department from Istanbul, Turkey, had never written creatively in
Department from Coleraine, Northern Ireland, researches immune
recent decision to concentrate in the English Department, also
English prior to his winning entry for the Creative Reactions Contest.
responses to viral infection. Her poem, Apocalypse Lullaby, was a way
pursuing certificates in Creative Writing, Theater, and Music
“Passionate about being able to be passionate about many things,”
to process how music has helped her lab work during the pandemic
Theater, is reflective of her combined passion for writing and music
he enjoys listening to and producing music, trying to understand how
and reflect on the public’s attitude towards science and vaccines. Used
— playing guitar and piano for the past seven years, writing her
the human mind works, reading literature, hanging out with friends
to being constantly surrounded by fellow researchers, Emily turned to
own songs, and writing her first novel as a self-described “painfully
on a Saturday night, and eating oats and salmon. He had not engaged
music to fill the silence of the pandemic’s quiet and loneliness. “While
geeky twelve-year-old.” Music continued to be an essential part of
in creative writing since winning a couple of short-story competitions
I knew the music helped,” she shares, “I didn’t truly appreciate how
her life during the pandemic, and in drafting her response to the
in high school—though he enjoyed being an associate editor for a
therapeutic it was until I wrote my piece for this contest.” Music has
contest prompt, Cassandra interviewed members of her family to
creative writing magazine in college. Kerem decided to participate
always been a huge part of Emily’s life, having played the piano for
gather their experiences of music during the pandemic as well. She
in the Creative Reactions Contest after a transformative experience
over twenty years, constantly listened to a wide range of genres while
believes passionately in bridging divides between people through
listening to James Leyland Kirby’s Everywhere at the end of time, a
in the lab, and explored the evolution of musical genres by creating
the healing power of storytelling, and hopes to attend a Creative
series of six albums musically charting the evolution of dementia.
chronological playlists. She has also written creatively ever since she can remember, double-majoring in Biochemistry and English in
Writing MFA program after her time at Princeton (and perhaps, one day, fulfilling her secret dream of performing as a Disney princess at Walt Disney World). Cassandra’s winning entry, Hummingbirds: A Pandemic Survival Guide, was inspired by the song “Dust and Ashes” from Dave Malloy’s Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.
During most of the pandemic, music did not mean much to me besides its
college (where she wrote the first draft of a science-fiction novel!).
usual function. A filler-of- voids, a vessel of mood. That was until I was
Now working towards a PhD, Emily finds that writing gives her both
utterly destroyed by [James Leyland Kirby’s album] Everywhere at the end of time. Then, music meant much more. Call it whatever: catharsis, liberation, sublimation. As far as I am concerned, then and there, music was everything
a creative outlet, and a space to reflect on her experiences and perspectives as a scientist.
I had felt and could ever feel about the past year.” Throughout the chaos and uncertainty of the pandemic, I have found solace in
Music, for me, is no longer an escape—it is a reminder. It reminds me
music that overwhelms me. From dramatic classical pieces (ex. La Campanella
that life didn’t end when the pandemic began, that it’s here, now, in all of
by Niccolò Paganini) to heart-wrenching folk (ex. Apocalypse Lullaby by The
its glorious color. I don’t want to go back to the person I was in the Days
Wailin’ Jennys) to grandiose heavy metal (ex. Enter Sandman by Metallica), I’ve
Before, that untethered girl who was tossed by every wind—I love the feet
craved music in its most unrestrained forms. I’ve been soothed by music that is
I am growing. And maybe I’m tired of mourning what I’ve lost. Maybe I
intuitive, complex, loud, and messy. The more intense the piece, the more it fills
want to turn on my favorite song—maybe I want to crank up the volume—
my brain. And with that comes peace, if only for a moment – a small reprieve
maybe I want to dance, just to dance, because feet are built for dancing…”
from the isolation we all face, the horrors of the pandemic, and the reality of our broken world.”
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Junior Maya Keren, Class of 2022, from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,
Senior Alexander Kim, Class of 2021, from San Jose, California,
Junior Konstantinos Konstantinou, Class of 2022, from Athens,
entered the Creative Reactions Contest because her relationship
began keeping a Music Listening Diary at the start of the pandemic.
Greece, designed his reflection as a textual, polyphonic fugue,
with music felt more fraught during the pandemic than usual.
He has been in love with music ever since his father introduced
inspired by J.S. Bach’s “Little” Fugue in G Minor, BWV 578—music
Concentrating in the Music Department as a pianist, vocalist, and
him to his vinyl record collection when he was a kid, getting him
that came up on his Spotify auto-shuffle as he waited in the
composer (and with the rare talent of being able to whistle and sing
“hooked on the sleek new wave of The Cars and the arena rock
airport to go back to Greece at the beginning of the pandemic.
simultaneously) while pursuing a certificate in African American
thrill of Rush.” While pursuing a concentration in Mathematics,
Concentrating in Philosophy, with certificates in Cognitive Science
Studies, she wanted to process through this unexpected time
Alexander also has a keen interest in “playing with words,” as he
and Hellenic Studies, Konstantinos found that composing a literary
and connect with others who may feel the same way. Passionate
describes it. Recently this has included learning and recording new
piece on the model of a musical piece gave him new insights about
about creating a more expansive and equitable artistic community,
words in a dedicated journal, writing a collection of poems inspired
the nature of thought and language. Specifically, this project is
Maya met virtually every two weeks with other musicians of
by his love of film for his Creative Writing Certificate, and writing
tied to his aspiration “to embed his individuality into philosophical
underrepresented gender identities for the Mutual Mentorship for
and performing poetry as the president of the Songline Slam
practice, combining analytic rigor with personal expression.” The
Musicians initiative created by Sara Serpa and Jen Shyu, from June
Poetry team on campus. Alexander’s leadership also extends to a
choice of a musical form was not accidental: having played the
through December 2020. Through this majority BIPOC and queer
wonderfully wacky campus group: he is the president of Princeton’s
piano since he was eight years old (particularly loving to play late
working group, she encountered Val Jeanty, whose performed
Cheese and Bad Movies Club. Above all else, however, he is
at night), Konstantinos considers improvising and composing music
improvisation inspired her contest submission, Reminder to Self.
most passionate about his love for his family—and especially the
to be two of the main ways in which he discovers, and invents, his
Maya hopes that looking back on this essay about a difficult year
awesomeness of his little brother and little sister, who, he has no
identity. He dedicates his Little Fugue on Covid-19 to his dad, from
will be healing, reinforcing that “this moment, as all moments, are
doubt, are going to be doing amazing things in the future.
whom he first heard the word fugue many years ago.
On August 26, 2020, we were months into the pandemic, a vaccine still
In a world that was collapsing, Bach’s vivid and perfectly balanced
I think that ultimately what I heard in Val [Jeanty’s] music was trust. Trust
seemed like too much to hope for, we were wildly uncertain about our
contrapuntal synthesis was irenically consolatory...I saw the whole chaos of
that the music would reveal itself, trust that this force would find a way to
futures, we were tired of being uncertain for so long, we’d gotten used to it,
our epoch and human life reflected on that complexity.”
touch us through our devices even during the era of constant Zoom fatigue.
we were never getting used to it. And for the first time in my life, I started
And so, as spring slowly emerges, I’m trying to trust the slow whir of the
keeping a diary. I opened up a document. I wrote down the date, and the
universe. Trying to trust that the light that feels faint will always be there.
words Last night I discovered Bach’s Goldberg Variations for the first time,
Trying to let my body loosen, head up, rising.”
specifically the Glenn Gould 1981 recording. I’m 21 years old. I’ve been
temporary and yet always shaping us.”
Call it whatever: catharsis, liberation, sublimation. As far as I am concerned, then and there, music was everything I had felt and could ever feel about the past year.” Kerem Oktar Graduate Student
missing out. And that was how I started the journal in which, from that time up to now, I’ve kept a record of every song I’ve listened to.”
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SINCE 1894, the music of history’s most revered composers has been performed by the world’s most celebrated artists at Princeton University. In its 127-year history the series has presented many of the classical music world’s most important musicians, including violinist Isaac Stern, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Budapest String Quartet and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy. Today, an extraordinary roster of musicians make their Princeton debuts each season and join this pantheon. Among them are some of the most highly regarded artists of our time...young musicians on the cusp of sensational careers...and riveting performers pioneering new forms of expression.
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