When future generations ask what day-to-day life was like during the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ll have plenty of journalistic accounts to read, along with images of crowded hospital wards and empty streets. Thanks to Sasha Cooke, they’ll also have access to a sort of artistic time capsule — a real-time reflection of our fears, hopes, and consolations.
Cooke’s new CD how do I find you is made up of 17 new songs she commissioned in 2020. All were composed during the pandemic; each reflects, in one way or another, the heightened stress and anxiety that has been a part of our everyday lives for the past two years. Quarantines, political polarization, social justice issues, social media madness — all find their way into these small gems.
Several of them, it must be added, are hilarious.
The process of assembling the project “was organic and spontaneous,” the versatile, critically acclaimed mezzo-soprano said in an interview from her Houston-area home. “The realization that we were capturing a moment in time was a beautiful surprise. It’s a self-portrait of all of these composers and what they’re feeling right now.”
Cooke was scheduled to give the first public performance of the song cycle Jan. 30 at Davies Symphony Hall as part of the San Francisco Symphony’s Great Performers Series. In advance of that event, she spoke about its goals and its genesis. Our conversation was lightly edited for length and clarity.
How and when did the idea of a COVID-themed song cycle occur to you? Were you frustrated by the inability to perform and itching to do something?
Mark Campbell [a prominent lyricist who has written librettos for operas by William Bolcom and Mason Bates, among many others] had the original idea. He wrote this lyric in response to George Floyd’s death, and he sent it to me. When I told him it was fabulous, he asked, “Why don’t we find a composer [to set it to music]?” He gave me a couple of names, one of which was Kamala Sankaram. I had heard of her, but I hadn’t worked with her before.
I had an LA Opera virtual recital scheduled, so I thought, “This is perfect — I can premiere it from home.” Which I did. Afterwards, I said, “I want to do more of this — perform music that was written in response to what we’re going through.”
Where did you turn for funding?
His name is Laurence Corash. He has supported new works by Mason Bates, among others. He thought this could be a surprise gift to his wife. I had met him a few times, and at some point he said “I’d like to commission something for you.” So, after I performed Kamala and Mark’s song, I talked to him. I suggested that, instead of commissioning one composer to write a song cycle, we asked multiple composers to write one song each. He thought it was a great idea. He was a huge part of the whole process — every step. We became even closer friends through this process.
The CD includes songs by such prominent young composers as Caroline Shaw, Nico Muhly, Missy Mazzoli, Huang Ruo, and Gabriel Kahane. You had not worked with any of them prior to this project. Did you simply cold call them and ask, “Do you want to write a song for me?” Was that difficult to do?
It was kind of weird. Sometimes it was an email; sometimes I asked someone who knew the composer if they would forward my request. Most people were thrilled. I decided to work exclusively with composers age 40 or under. A lot of my composer friends are older. I wanted to work with people I hadn’t worked with before. There were only two people who were too busy to participate, including Esperanza Spaulding. Everyone else said “Absolutely.”
I had a short list in my head of composers I had taken notice of. There are great composers, and there are great song composers. I was trying to pick the latter. Who knows how to set a lyric? Who knows how to write for voice? Who has a distinct sound that you hear within a couple of bars? That’s how I chose. I listened to music by a bunch of people, and if I had a visceral reaction, I asked them to participate. Some had a lyricist they wanted to work with. Some were open to some of the lyricists I suggested. That’s how it evolved.
Tell me about what your life was like in spring of 2020. You had a full schedule, and then suddenly there was nothing. It must have been jarring, emotionally as well as financially.
It was tough. Fortunately, many things fell in line for us, such as getting a loan and my mortgage being paused. So we didn’t have to freak out entirely. What made it worse was the period [of inactivity] kept growing longer. First, I realized I was losing the spring. Then I was losing the summer. Then the fall. I lost three shows at San Francisco Opera.
The uncertainty was the worst part, along with all the opportunities that vanished. Putting a score I had been working on back on the shelf was painful. Every time I got another cancellation phone call, I’d pour myself a glass of wine and have a little mourning session.
Luckily, I had my family. I have two daughters. They were the silver lining. I got so many bedtimes, so many picnics, so many bike rides with them. Frederica von Stade called me out of the blue. We talked about being moms. She said something I held onto the whole pandemic. She said, “When I was in my 30s with two young girls, I would have given a million dollars to have a break and just be with them.” I thought, “Yes. This is a break, and I’m going to enjoy it — even though it’s hard, and I miss music immensely.”
In addition, Michael Tilson Thomas called me every couple of months to say, “How are you? I’m thinking of you.” That helped me feel connected.
What kind of guidelines did you give the composers you commissioned?
I didn’t want to limit them. I didn’t want to say, “Here’s the theme.” Instead, I asked them: “What do you want to write about?” I’ve always believed that only the composer knows what will speak to their soul.
The song I found the most moving wasn’t about the pandemic at all, but rather a portrait of a mother who is terrified when learning there has been a shooting incident at her daughter’s school.
[Lyricist] Gene Scheer lives in Connecticut, not far from Newtown [where 28 people, mostly young children, died in a 2012 shooting]. That was something he wanted to create art about. It wasn’t specific to 2020, but gun violence is a part of our environment.
I was surprised by the amount of humor on the disc. The lyrics of “#MasksUsedToBeFun” are a distillation of one writer’s social-media feed. Could you relate the feeling of being assaulted by a jumble of contrasting, sometimes contradictory headlines?
Definitely. That’s the wackiest song on the album. There’s a huge range of emotion. Lyricist Emily Roller, who is married to the composer Frances Pollock, is from this very conservative community in the Ozarks, but she went to school in the Northeast. So she has both liberal and right-leaning people on her Facebook feed. One line that gets repeated is “They’re mandating masks in Missouri.” That’s because it conveyed different emotions in different posts. Fox News might be annoyed by this, while CNN might have been happy.
One composer was going to write a comedic piece, but ultimately decided to write a serious one. I still wanted to use the comedic lyric — it has a line about Tony Fauci in it, which is so funny — so I looked for a composer who wanted to set it. It’s “(A Bad Case of) Kids,” with a lyric by Todd Boss. I had come across a fabulous song by Andrew Marshall on social media. I realized he could write comedy. So that’s how that great jazzy, cabaret-type-song ended up on the album.
Then there’s “Dear Colleagues,” in which a woman attempts to describe the difficulties of working from home and dealing with unruly children.
[Composer] Rene Orth is a new mother. Her lyricist, Colleen Murphy, found an article in The Washington Post stating that 3 minutes and 42 seconds is the average amount of time parents who are working from home get before being interrupted. Somehow, Rene made that the actual length of the song.
I remember we’d be practicing that song, and the kids would interrupt. It was art imitating life imitating art.
Speaking of children, Caroline Shaw’s title song is a subtle, poetic piece that uses gardening as a metaphor for parenting.
Her song was the last one I received. She is very in demand. We were in the same class at Rice University. She played on my recitals there 20 years ago. She told me, “I like the idea of you singing to your children.” I started learning her song, and my youngest came in and said, “This is my favorite one.”
How old are your kids?
Now they’re 5 and 10.
When did you make the recording?
About 6o percent of it in January 2021. Then I started to get jobs — a lot of virtual projects. So I put off the last recording date until September 2021.
What was the recording process like? Were you and the pianist in the same room?
We were going to record in the Bay Area, but at the time there were restrictions at the facilities we were looking at. The singer couldn’t be in the same space as the pianist. The San Francisco Conservatory has a sophisticated sound system, and [they] proposed we could record it while being in two different rooms. But it would have been very hard to do contemporary music in two different rooms. So I decided to do it in Texas. That way, I didn’t have to travel or quarantine.
Pianist Kirill Kuzmin was my other pandemic discovery. Houston Grand Opera asked me to do a recital for them, which I did with Kirill, who is on their staff. I had such a great time with him that, afterwards, I asked if he wanted to work on this project with me. He was 100 percent on board. We discovered these pieces together in an unhurried way. We found a church in Houston that very generously offered us its space. It had a very nice acoustic.
I’ve done a lot of recording, and often it’s stressful. This was the opposite. It was relaxed and lovely. The only down side of the process was that, normally, we’d want to premiere new songs before we record them. A lot of the songs have changed for us. We do them faster, or we understand them better, or just perform them better. That’s to be expected, but it would have been nice to record them once we’ve gotten to this point. Except I probably couldn’t do it now because I’m too busy!
When did you finally perform in public again?
It was in May 2021 with the Cincinnati Symphony, as part of their May Festival. I was supposed to sing in February with the Houston Symphony, but then we had the freeze, and half of the orchestra lost their power. The orchestra called me two days before and said they had to cancel. I’m going to perform there right after San Francisco. It’ll be almost exactly one year after when I was supposed to be singing with them.
How busy is your schedule now? What are you doing next?
With the Houston Symphony, I’m doing a rarely performed but beautiful cantata by Lili Boulanger. Then I’m going back to the Met, for The Marriage of Figaro. I haven’t sung on the Met stage for about a dozen years, so I’m excited about that. I’m going to Europe to sing Berlioz in the Netherlands. I’ll be performing with the Minnesota Orchestra. And I’m really excited to spend two weeks in the summer at the Music Academy of the West, where I’ll have a teaching residency. It’ll be exactly 20 years after I was there as a student. I had the most amazing experience working with Marilyn Horne.
Has this project inspired you to be more proactive going forward? Do you hope to create more projects for yourself?
That’s exactly what I want to do. I want to premiere something every time we do this program. When we do it in Baltimore in March, we’re going to premiere a piece by a Baltimore-based composer. My hope it to keep commissioning. I want to keep this project going.