On the first evening of spring, and a few days into self-quarantine, I sat in the kitchen of my west Eugene home, watching stand-up comedians perform to no audience through a live stream at Sessions Music Hall downtown.
At this moment, the strangest feeling came over me, difficult to describe, full of complexity and contradiction, and a little like existential vertigo. It was the sense that, all at once, something big had changed — something that prior to this point moved at an imperceptible pace.
Streams like these are increasingly common, as artists all over the world — Ben Gibbard, Neil Young and Willie Nelson, to name a few — take to live streaming platforms amid calls for self-quarantine and social distancing. They do it to stay financially liquid, in some cases, but also to share their art or spread comfort and connection.
It’s no different in Eugene. For instance, in the wake of COVID-19, Eugene rock duo The Critical Shakes hope to launch their own live stream. Ministering to shock, trauma and grief suits the band, says Critical Shakes singer and drummer Jordan Blaisdell via, of course, email.
“The root of our music is the cathartic release of negative feelings,” he says. “We spent the first six months of the band in a room by ourselves, resisting playing shows until we were ready.” While it feels reductive to go back to that space of straight creation, it’s also liberating, he says.
Before the novel coronavirus, most discourse around the use of social media had it dividing us more than uniting us. This, too, seems to be changing, as if overnight. Now that platforms like Facebook are all that’s left, I ask Blaisdell if these channels could just now be coming into their own.
“The magic of live music is in its temporariness,” Blaisdell responds. Live streaming, he says, is antithetical to that. But if even just a little bit of the negative stimulus we’re all experiencing can be transformed into communal catharsis, it’s worth it, he says.
Max Miller, bassist with Eugene indie rock band Fools, isn’t so sure.
“This isn’t some new model that’s going to reinfuse music into listener’s lives in some novel way,” he says. “It’s still little sterile boxes of sound and color with no actual human element.” That’s the same stuff that’s been eroding the value of music for a solid couple of decades now, he says.
Nevertheless, live streaming has Eugene singer-songwriter Halie Loren rethinking her entire relationship with the internet.
In the past, Loren found herself resenting social media. That, too, is beginning to change. This could be a tipping point, she says, redefining our relationship to social media and the internet, but also our relationship to art itself.
In addition to music live streams, Calysta Cheyenne, singer with Eugene band Fortune’s Folly, has been streaming body-strengthening and mindfulness exercises.
“Going live on social media gives me an opportunity to show up in the world,” she says. “It’s inspiring to see what other creatives are coming up with to endure the isolation and how they continue to express themselves.” She expects live stream-style concerts to become more and more popular in the coming months.
To me, the rise of live streaming during coronavirus recalls what I know of Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century collection of tales, The Decameron. The work follows 10 young people as they hide out in Italy during the height of the Black Plague, telling each other tales to pass the time and stay sane.
In 2020, we do the same, from artists live streaming a performance to someone Zooming with a friend — faces stacked in neat and orderly boxes or side-by-side, lit up by the warm blue of our computer monitors.
“It seems that as people are finding that they truly need art as a source of comfort,” Loren says, “musicians and artists are taking up the mantle.”
Back at the Sessions comedy stream, one comic said to the home audience, after landing a punchline, “I don’t know how you’ll clap with your phone in your hand.”
Thumbs-ups and hearts fluttered across my computer screen. Downtown, Sessions Music Hall remained silent.
Find Sessions live streaming at SessionsMusicHall.com/live-streaming.