Very well, I'd never actually heard of Yo-Yo Ma before he took to Twitter this week to post a video of himself performing a piece of music which has since gone viral with 35,000 likes. He plays the cello. He has recorded more than 90 albums and received 18 Grammy Awards - no, wait, the other way around. The music he performs on Twitter is Bach's Prelude to Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major. The video is one minute, one second long. He gave it a hashtag: #songsofcomfort, to underline this was a very special, very timely performance in our age of the virus and all its tragedy, its grief, its death.
He wrote on his post, "This music has been with me for 60 years. It's seen me through times of stress, loss, joy, and transition. It's connected me to others all over the world and helped me to understand life in new ways."
This music has been with me for 60 years. It's seen me through times of stress, loss, joy, and transition. It's connected me to others all over the world and helped me to understand life in new ways.— Yo-Yo Ma (@YoYo_Ma) April 12, 2020
Bach: Prelude to Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major #songsofcomfort pic.twitter.com/w6P148DmKS
God it was boring. He sawed this way and that, raising a low, dull moan from his instrument for the longest one minute, one second I've ever heard. I was hoping for a masterpiece, something that would resonate with these times of woe and dread, work its way into a universal yet private zone of distress deep within our hearts and then find a way out, reach for the stars, offer a message of beauty – I felt a bit let down, really.
We need music more than ever right now. The world has gone mighty quiet: too quiet. It's the silence in the supermarket, that dismal experience of avoiding everyone while staring at empty shelves. It's the silence in the city, that one-horse town without a horse. It's the silence on the streets, at the playgrounds, I guess at the airports.
Music, like everything else, has gone indoors. Everyone is making Spotify lists and sharing their musical favourites as a kind of soundtrack to Covid-19. The playlists are made from the heart; for the people who do the making and the sharing, they're seeing them through this time of stress, loss, transition and joylessness. I'm actually playing some of my favourite songs on the radio today as a guest on Jesse Mulligan's programme on National Radio. You should listen. He's got a really nice voice, and I'll be spinning some real toe-tappers.
But the only music that's available to everyone right now is old music. Even the incredible 16-minute, 57-second Murder Most Foul by Bob Dylan was "recorded a while back", as he said.
It hardly matters. As the greatest song and dance man of the 20th century, Dylan has always been either one step ahead or one step behind. His chant about the 1963 assassination of JFK reaches right on into our contemporary zone of woe and dread; nothing about it seems dated, the weird musical backing is less from another time than another planet, and the playfulness and mysteries of the lyrics even withstand the dreary attentions of that Bono for hipsters, Nick Cave, who has analysed the song on his Red Hands File blog thing with his trademark humourlessness and faux Old Testamentese: "Dylan weaves a litany of loved things that reach into the darkness, in deliverance", etc.
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Anyway, great song. But where is the piece of music made now, for now? There are a few impediments. No one can book a studio and work with other musicians, a producer, someone to fetch cups of tea. "I miss people," Jacinda Ardern said at her press conference at Easter; we're all missing new music, the thrill of hearing something for the first time, the whole exciting machinery of pop.
Someone, somewhere is composing a masterpiece that will capture or sweep up this moment in history. It might be escapist happy nonsense, it might be some soaring melodramatic ballad –"Strange how potent cheap music is," as Noel Coward said. The perfect song that gets to the way we feel about life during the plague – an imperfect song would do just as nicely – is surely coming soon. It might be Taylor Swift, it might be Yo-Yo Ma. I gather he's very highly regarded.