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Community catharsis: Local composer uses our words to create music for processing the pandemic

Index cards are stuck to a bright yellow wall, attached by strips of blue tape. On the cards are written reflections about the pandemic created by Twin Cities youth.
Eddie Breitweiser
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A workshop earlier this year captured young people's experiences during the pandemic. They were used to form six themes composer Eddie Breitweiser used to form a sound score that will presented live in concert Friday at the McLean County Museum of History.

Local composer Eddie Breitweiser premieres his latest work on Friday at the McLean County Museum of History. Breitweiser’s organization — pt.fwd — has become a mainstay presenter of experimental music at the museum. Here, he offers his own piece, “Six Words,” devised from community members’ written responses to the pandemic and part of a statewide initiative called "Viral Silence: Community Portraits in Response to COVID-19."

The Chicago-based arts collective called NON:op Open Opera Works commissioned Breitweiser to create “Six Words,” a community-culled sonic exploration from collected local experiences during COVID-19.

Like most arts organizations, Christophe Preissing, founder and artistic director of NON:op, said the model for presenting work dramatically shifted during the pandemic.

“We started doing things online and they became much more research-based," he said. "They also became much less hierarchical in the sense that we were not interested in making a piece and going someplace and performing it for an audience that we thought should see or hear it, which didn’t seem to make much sense beginning with the summer of 2020. Our goal since then has been to establish relationships — with an organization, a neighborhood, a town — to see if there’s something there, and then to make something together. 'Viral Silence' fits into that.”

Preissing said it “feels good” to work on these kinds of projects: “I feel like this is a really creative outlet for me, producing, curating, and bringing people together to make things happen.”

Under the umbrella of “Viral Silence,” “Six Words” is one of six projects to take place across the state over the past two years. Each selected artist was charged with capturing the pandemic experience in their respective Illinois communities, from Chicago to Carbondale.

“I was pretty daunted about the idea of being a representative of a pandemic experience,” Breitweiser said. “That’ll stop you in your tracks. It took me awhile to think about what I could contribute.”

Breitweiser_03.jpg
Eddie Breitweiser
Eddie Breitweiser

One of the first things that came to mind was a joint effort between community organizers and the McLean County Museum of History to document the pandemic in real time. The project, called "COVID-19: The McLean County Experience," was a repository for written reflections and other ephemera similar to the museum's oral history project that could be contributed by folks from their homes.

Breitweiser first noticed the initiative on social media.

Included in the archive was an array of experiences responding to prompts posted on the museum’s website, detailing everything from non-stop Zoom calls to the trauma surrounding the death of a loved one. Breitweiser hosted a youth workshop building on the idea and, collectively, that group identified six overarching themes used to construct Breitweiser's sonic landscape. Aspects of the piece will be composed in real time during Friday’s concert based on input from the audience.

“The intent of the listening is to create a sensory space for people to reflect,” said Breitweiser, adding in that way, the project itself functions as a cathartic way to process the pandemic — together.

But what is it going to sound like? You’ll have to come to find out, he said.

‘“Moving On” is the final movement of the piece,” Breitweiser said, “and that will be an opportunity to hear from people. Where do they think we’re going next? I have some guesses, but I want to hear what others have to say.”

“Six Words” takes place online and in person on Friday, June 24 at the McLean County Museum of History. Free tickets can be reserved online at nonopera.org.

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Lauren Warnecke is a part-time reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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