What it’s like to be a composer during a pandemic

Graduate student Ania Vu found creative ways to compose music during a pandemic, despite the challenge of finding inspiration while being stuck at home.

When Ania Vu prepared for a concert of her work last month, her to-do list was unlike any she would have made before March 11, 2020.

Ania Vu at the piano.
Graduate student, composer and pianist Ania Vu. (Image: The Pennsylvania Gazette)

First she needed a piano. Then she had to find a quiet, private location and tote along cables, mics, and her computer, now stuffed with recording software. She managed to book the Rose Recital Hall inside Fisher-Bennett for five days over winter break—piano included—and spent the first four days practicing. On the fifth, she filmed herself, in the highest possible resolution, with the best sound quality she could manage. “It took me three hours just to place the mics correctly,” she remembers. She spent a long day leaping back and forth from piano to computer. Next came editing both the video and audio herself. Start to finish, “it was very exhausting,” she says.

But necessary these days, when you’re a young composer who had just started to break through at the same time the world broke down. Vu’s work had been appearing on larger and larger stages right before COVID-19 began ripping through the country. Suddenly “everything was cancelled,” she remembers, including scheduled performances of her pieces at the University of South Florida and Penn’s Annenberg Center.

As of today, her music hasn’t been performed in person since March 7, 2020, when she played two of her own works (“Against Time” and “Dark Whims”) at the College Music Society’s 2020 Northeast Conference.

“Ups and downs” is how she describes this past year. “It’s been hard to compose on a regular basis,” she says. “Being stuck at home all day, it’s hard to find the inspiration and motivation to work.”

But her calendar has stayed busy. Everything is just a little—or maybe a lot—different from how it would have been. Her acceptance to the prestigious Tanglewood Music Center as a composing fellow, for one. Participants usually spend two months meeting and making music together in person. Last summer’s collaborations happened via Zoom, and Vu’s piece for double bass, “Sept Vignettes,” premiered online. It was the first piece she wrote during the pandemic, after taking several months away from composing.

This story is by Molly Petrilla. Read more at The Pennsylvania Gazette.