An unusual thing has been happening to David Evan Thomas.
The Minneapolis composer usually puts his pen down around 4 in the afternoon, and practices the piano until 6. Lately, though, he has not been doing this alone.
Small crowds gather outside his apartment window, attracted by a sound that COVID-19 has all but eliminated these past few months — a performer playing live music on something other than a computer screen.
"I found myself playing pieces that had to do with solace and comfort, like Bach's 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring,' " Thomas said.
"One girl comes down every day with her book and reads while I play. The people two apartments down have had gatherings while I'm practicing, and they handed me a hamburger afterwards as a thank-you."
The 4 p.m. "recital" is one of several small epiphanies that coronavirus has brought to Thomas' daily life as a composer. For one thing, he finally read Tolstoy's bulky novel "War and Peace" — "and watched Russian director Sergei Bondarchuk's seven-hour movie version," he added, smiling.
Mostly, though, Thomas has carried on composing, and — perhaps surprisingly — has even found it easier than under "normal," pre-COVID conditions.
"When I wake up in the morning I haven't needed to worry about an event or social gathering later in the day," he said. "All the usual stressors have been removed, and I can just basically do my work of composing."
Facing an uncertain future
For Jocelyn Hagen, another Minnesota composer, composing during the coronavirus has not been quite so seamless.
"I'm used to six hours or so every day when my two children are at school, to be able to compose," she says.
With schools shut down since March, things have been different.
"I just don't have that quiet in my life to compose right now, and I'm struggling with that."
For both Hagen and Thomas, coronavirus has also brought financial repercussions. These could eventually become serious, unless live concerts come back soon.
"Performances of my music which were lined up have been canceled," Thomas says. "That doesn't mean a cut in income right now, but it will in 18 months' time when the royalties would have come in."
For Hagen, a lack of performances also means that sales of her sheet music have plummeted. And she wonders whether commissions to write new pieces will continue to flow as freely in the post-COVID future.
"I'm worried about what's going to happen in about a year or two, when organizations are trying to get back on their feet," Hagen says.
"Commissioning may be hard to do when you're just trying to keep an organization alive."
Their music is changing
Both Thomas and Hagen agree that the type of music they compose is being affected by the COVID crisis, and by the social and political issues roiling America.
For Thomas, a set of piano variations he was writing on "America the Beautiful" unexpectedly expanded to include a section "about Russia meddling in the American election."
Hagen has three choral commissions to compose at present, and feels her choice of texts skewing toward poems that address "the general state of fear we're living in," and advocate "connection, proximity, being near other people."
The music for these pieces will be different from what she's done before, Hagen feels — slower in pacing, perhaps, more tentative in development.
"I've written a lot of music that's empowering and powerful, heavy on drums and bass, quite popular in impact," she said. "But I feel I'm not going to write anything like that this year."
St. Paul composer Steve Heitzeg is renowned for the ecological agenda of his music, and its sense of social conscience. But he, too, has found his style changing amid the uncertainties of the current period.
"Right after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis I was approached by the violinist Ariana Kim to do a piece about him," Heitzeg said.
"So I wrote a work for solo violin, and that was a little more avant-garde and edgy than usual, with more fierceness about wanting change."
One thing that has not changed, however, is Heitzeg's attitude toward what music is for, and the role that a composer should play in society.
"I'm very committed to the idea that music can bring positive change in the world, and this recent period has reinforced that. Music and the arts always make humans better."
'An act of service'
Hagen agrees that composing is "basically an act of service," and will stay that way when musical life eventually returns to normal.
But what will that "new normal" look like for classical composers and performers? Will it be substantially the same as the old?
Hagen thinks not. "When I was young and studying, it was always about my personal relationship with the music, not so much my relationship with the performers making the music," she says.
"But now that that component's gone, I realize how important it is. When this is all over, the outpouring of joy and love which comes from making music is going to be incredible."
That day is but a dim flicker on the horizon at present. In the meantime, Thomas is looking to history for an indicator of what might happen.
"After World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, nobody was writing big, heroic symphonies anymore and smaller ensembles became the focus," he says. "I think we may be in for a time when big statements and large professional ensembles will have trouble financially, and I fear for choruses.
"But the versatile composer today is going to be somebody that's very media-savvy, able to work with both audio and visual elements, and collaborate with others — not somebody who sits at a desk and writes abstract music."
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.