As told to Greg Cahill
Keep Connected chronicles the ways in which string players and organizations are supporting and keeping in touch with their audiences or students throughout the global coronavirus pandemic. Even as society reopens, virtual concerts and social-media outreach programs are a phenomenon that have kept performers in the public sphere, since concerts, festivals, and other large gatherings remain largely restricted.
This Russian-born violist moved to New York with his parents, composer Alexander Zhurbin and writer Irena Ginzburg, in 1990. He divides his time between composing for the concert stage, contemporary dance and film, leading his own ensemble Ljova and the Kontraband, as well as a busy career as a freelance violist, fadolínist, and musical arranger. Among recent projects are commissions from the City of London Sinfonia, the Louisville Orchestra, new works for Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, string quartets for Kronos Quartet and Brooklyn Rider, and works for the Knights, Sybarite5, and A Far Cry, as well as arrangements for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, and Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In 2018, he was a visiting lecturer at Princeton University’s atelier program, co-teaching a course on collaboration with puppeteer Basil Twist. Ljova, his wife, Inna, and their two sons, Benjy and Yosif are in quarantine in the family’s apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City.
Tell me about your daily routine while quarantined.
I get up, shower, and have coffee––that’s where anything routine ends. Every day can be quite different. We live in a very cozy apartment with two school-age kids, in a city with temperamental weather. My wife works full time, the kids have school assignments, online playdates. We go to the park to bike, play soccer, basketball. I’m lucky to have a mostly flexible schedule centered around independent work, such as commissions, collaborations, and a little teaching. I can be flexible around our family’s needs, but my day doesn’t feel complete unless I go for a long walk, practice, and hopefully compose something.
What have you learned about yourself as a person and as a player while working and living in solitude?
Prior to the pandemic, my wife would go to work, the kids would go to school, and I would be home alone, working in solitude. Now we are all home—constantly interacting, sharing meals, learning things together. It’s a very special time and I will miss it.
What are your thoughts about how the pandemic has changed the string world?
I’m really enjoying playing concerts from home—in sweatpants during the spring and shorts in the summer. On one hand, I’m savoring the comforts of washing dishes five minutes before getting on a stage, and seeing our kids minutes after signing off. I’m enjoying not going anywhere. On the other hand, I’m not enjoying the fact that all of the world’s stages have been reduced to, essentially, YouTube and Facebook/Instagram. I have yet to succeed in watching any concert videos for longer than 20 minutes. The level of engagement is not the same—a video may have a lot of views, but digging deeper into the stats you’d see that only 2 percent watched it to the end, and 95 percent dropped off within the first two minutes. This is unthinkable in a live situation—can you imagine going to a concert and tuning out in the first two minutes? I wrote more about this online.
How are you staying connected with your audience and/or students during the quarantine?
Since the very first days of the shutdown, I’ve been trying to engage with my musician community. To begin, I created something called “NetLicks,” an open-form composition that invited anyone on any instrument or voice to play or sing something I composed, or improvise on top of it. “NetLicks” now features 17 musicians from the United States and Mexico—some as young as six years old—and could still very much use your participation. Around that time, I also started composing pieces for my colleagues to play together in real-time over Zoom and JackTrip, and also continued to write new music for the fadolín, commissioned through my Patreon campaign. Most of the work I’ve released since mid-March can be accessed via this YouTube playlist. There are a few pieces that have been composed, but not yet released, so keep an eye out for updates!
In the last few weeks, I’ve been enjoying performing outdoors in our neighborhood, in front of the Symphony Space concert hall, where I used to perform many years ago as a student, and where I hosted a monthly family-friendly performance series before the pandemic, and also in Riverside park. I try not to leave home without my fadolín—you never know where a few spare minutes (or an hour) may make themselves available for practicing or entertaining. Even in pre-pandemic years, I’ve considered busking to be a good way to practice and attract an audience, and this year it seems particularly potent and meaningful.
How have you selected your internet programming?
I’m a performer-composer and most of what I play are works-in-progress or pieces I’ve composed recently. I’m grateful to have inspiration to write new music in this time—though sadly much of this inspiration comes from great suffering around the world.
What is the response like?
On countless occasions, I’ve been told, “Thank you, I needed that today.” This phrase is something I hear over and over from our friends and fans. I need it, too.
Why is it important to stay connected on social media?
Though it may appear to the contrary, I try to stay off social media. I post—yes—but almost exclusively about my own music. I hardly ever engage in any social-media discussions. I try my very best not to read any social-media feeds, knowing that they’ve been selected and arranged by an algorithm to keep me engaged longer—instead I prefer to manually visit my friends’ pages, see what they’re up to and engage with them privately.
What have you learned about your audience?
We’re all in this together. We’re all home, hoping for a breath of fresh air without a mask, for a moment of unity, for patience, safety, understanding, justice, and eventually travel. Though external pressures may try to divide us, deep down we all want the best for our families and our communities, and the more we can see each other as people and share experiences, the clearer this becomes.
Is this something you will continue even as venues reopen?
Certainly the possibility of virtual performance and collaboration will always now be on the table—there is no turning back! Whether it remains the dominant venue remains to be seen. I believe the return to terrestrial venues will be tempered by so many external factors—testing, ventilation, travel restrictions, budget realities, and, frankly, nightmares of catching COVID during a concert—that we have a lot of time to continue developing virtual performances still.
Any tips for other string players considering this path?
Be patient! So much of our musical education comes from practicing, rehearsing, and studying scores—and so much of COVID-era learning (like how to develop online concerts) comes from watching YouTube-based video tutorials. It often feels like a disorganized quest, but you learn, a nugget here or a nugget there, and make your own way. Specifically to the technical side of getting things going, the pianist Dan Tepfer wrote a lovely article about all the technical things he’s learned so far.
What are your goals going forward as performance venues reopen?
I’m not thinking that far. I’m trying to focus on responding to the present moment by creating new music and engaging with my community.
How will you continue going forward as a player? Will the quarantine or limitations of the virus change your path?
Hard to predict the answer with any certainty—who knows—trying to stay focused on the present task.
What projects are you working on?
My dad, Alexander Zhurbin, who is also a wonderful composer celebrating his 75th birthday this year, has a long-held superstition about divulging upcoming projects, to which I’ve mostly adhered to throughout my work as well. There are some that I will share in due time.
Is there a message you’d like to share?
Be patient and forgiving with yourself and others. We are all going through this challenging moment together as a society, and individually in parallel. In these times I try to focus not on things that make for good social-media posts but on the little voice that asks a lot of questions. Not every thought is clear or coherent, and it is OK to take time to process. Perhaps for Strings readers especially—keep practicing! Keep digging. Whatever troubles the world may bring, music never fails to heal.