Saleema Nawaz’s most recent novel is Songs for the End of the World.
When people imagine the soundtrack of the apocalypse, they may well expect sirens, gunshots, screaming. There’s a trope in Hollywood disaster movies and dystopian fiction of society breaking down in a crisis – something bad happens, systems start failing and suddenly people begin turning on each other.
Reality, however, has turned out rather differently – at least as far as the soundtrack goes. As this pandemic continues to unfold, I have taken comfort in the fact that music still brings people together. The songs we sing in our darkest hours may be the consolation that keeps us from feeling alone.
I recently published a novel, which I began writing years ago, in which a novel coronavirus spreads across the globe. In my novel, I imagined songs becoming a touchstone for people in important ways during a pandemic. After all, music unites us across borders, politics, even language. It connects us across time and place, in rituals both sacred and profane. People throughout history have turned to music during plague times, and I embedded this notion in my book by way of an indie rock band that releases a song that becomes an unofficial anthem for the people living through my fictional pandemic. And yet, I was taken aback by how moved I would be by the videos that started going viral during the COVID-19 lockdowns, showing Italians joining in song from their balconies, orchestras across the globe performing separately but together via the magic of technology. I was also unprepared for just how essential music would become for me personally.
I sing with a neighbourhood choir in Montreal – the aptly and unpretentiously named Monday Night Choir – and our director made the early decision to continue practices at a distance. The first time we convened virtually on Zoom, just a few days into the lockdown, I felt tears unexpectedly welling up. I was blindsided by the emotion and fumbled to momentarily flick off my video feed. The physical distancing I felt I ought to be so prepared for – I’d spent seven years imagining and writing about it, after all – was taking a toll I hadn’t yet admitted or even detected. It seemed that no amount of research and imagination could prepare me for the visceral realities of living through physical distancing, for the emotions that would take up residence in my bones.
Like many of us, the entirety of my former schedule – meals, sleep, work – has been upended. I can’t seem to make one day resemble the next. Now choir practice is the only hour of my life that endures from before the pandemic. Thirty-odd familiar faces on my screen remind me I’m not alone. The director’s calm encouragement and good humour provide a much-needed sense of normalcy, as does my usual impatience to hurry through the (important and necessary) warm-ups and start singing. Every part of it, even my impatience itself, is a privilege. As a choir, we don’t discuss what, if anything, we are now working toward. The inevitable lag means we even have to mute our microphones. But it is enough to be together.
These days, the sustained concentration of reading and writing has mostly eluded me, so I’ve been working on a different project: a musical. For me, this work feels essential and therapeutic – a blessed break from what journalist Karen K. Ho has dubbed “doom-scrolling.” Kind and talented friends are helping me put together demos – a pianist in Toronto, a tenor in Cowichan Bay, B.C. We send recordings back and forth, and I piece everything together in Garageband, as amateur as you can get. I’m learning the program as I go; therefore: slowly. Every day the work feels more like a heavy-handed metaphor for the way that we will get through this – bit by bit, with sustaining hope, together.
As the singing in Italy went viral, I read several online debates about which song could bring Montreal – a city divided by language, but united by pride in its music and unique civic spirit – together. A Facebook event circulating for a collective balcony droning of the note C registered 1,500 attendees, but a more melodic proposal came from POP Montreal and singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright, who led a virtual singalong of Leonard Cohen’s So Long, Marianne and Le coeur est un oiseau by Richard Desjardins from the balcony of Ursa, her community art, café and event space. (These streamed performances have continued throughout the month of April under the title Alone Ensemble.) The night of the first singalong, at the end of March, it was cold and nearly dark at seven in the evening. My five-year-old daughter gamely donned her winter coat and boots to go out with me onto our back balcony, where, as we waited for the live feed to begin, she immediately began belting out Into the Unknown from Frozen 2. Though she has been singing the song constantly for months, this time it felt strangely appropriate.
When Ms. Wainwright began playing, my daughter drew close to the glow of the screen, and though she didn’t really know the words, she joined in and we sang out together into the night, clapping and stamping our feet to stay warm, comforted by the thought that there were many other people out there raising their voices to sing along.
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