Canadians Are Commissioning Musicians to Perform from Isolation. Listen to the Results

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For most of us, isolation has meant restricting some of life’s greatest pleasures⁠—music, art, movies⁠—to what we can enjoy at home. For artists who produce and perform these works as their passion and, often, sole source of income, this isolation has quickly become a real hardship.

The artistic director of Little Chamber Music and composer in residence at Mountain View Cemetery, Mark Haney was quick to look for ways to support his fellow local musicians when the COVID-19 crisis hit.

“The impact on our industry was so fast,” he notes. “Everything got turned off like a light switch.”

In response, Haney devised the Isolation Commissions—a series of videos of local artists performing in their own homes. Each video is commissioned by a member of the public who pays $200 to have the work dedicated in their name. Smaller donations can also be made, with each $200 collected put toward a new piece. All money goes directly to the featured artist.

“It’s going great—much better than expected,” Haney says. “We have close to 45 confirmed commissions, with 16 currently online.”

The pieces are uploaded a few at a time, in order, Haney explains, to allow each musician a moment in the spotlight. Donors can request a particular artist, or simply an instrument, and Haney will organize the rest.

“No one has refused to take part so far,” he says. “People are really game for it. The general reaction is one of feeling quite touched that someone has asked for their work.”

Though the process has mostly been smooth, the pandemic has caused some delays. “There are people who have become quite sick since being commissioned,” Haney explains. “And there was also a family emergency that required a musician to leave the province, and they then had to self-quarantine for two weeks on their return.”

The artists choose the piece of music themselves, which may be their own work or that of another composer. “Bach seems to be cropping up quite a bit right now,” Haney says, when I ask him if the music choices are changing as physical distancing goes on.

The effects of isolation show up in other ways, too: one musician prefaces his performance with a note that he has polished his piano and put on pants instead of pajamas; another’s piece is interrupted by the 7 p.m. show of support for frontline workers.

With no immediate end to isolation in sight, Haney says he is happy to continue to coordinate the commissions indefinitely, while continuing to look forward to a time when we emerge ready and able to enjoy art together again.

“Performing music has been part of my artistic life for decades,” he says with a sigh. “I don’t know when we are going to get back to a place of being able to bring people together into a small space to share it with, but I think it’s going to be quite a while.”


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April 16, 2020