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What Kafka, COVID, and Music Have in Common

What Kafka, COVID, and Music Have in Common

The last orchestral performance I went to was shortly after our local orchestra resumed limited, socially distanced performances after the initial shutdown. That was in November 2020, nearly two full months after Governor DeSantis had removed any official statewide restrictions. It was a Kafkaesque experience.

At the dawn of the night, I felt really good about it. I was going to support people I knew, support the arts, and listen to a rare performance of an Arensky string quartet that was composed for two cellos. Child care was arranged, my wife was ready, and off to date night we went.

Upon our arrival, we put on our black surgical masks. They wouldn’t let us in without wearing one, and the color black felt right, both for the overall occasion, and because black is typically worn by orchestral musicians during performances. Our temperatures were taken at the door, normal of course, and with the guidance of a black-masked usher, we followed a one-way, yellow-taped road to the performance hall, and our seats.

The hall had four rows of seats evenly spaced out, with paper “X’s” on the seats that the Covid virus and some, but not all, of the authorities deemed were unsafe. The black-masked usher took us to our two seats that were safely not marked. Because I am a subversive, before the black-masked usher could leave us and either be safe, or exposed to another patron, I asked where the bathroom was. The black-masked face raised a finger to point to my left, but then started saying something about how I couldn’t go that way because of one-way aisles or something. The finger was enough, and I just started walking in that direction. I guess a pursuit and argument with a young, well-built man, was too risky, so the black-masked usher turned and went back to assist another patron to their safe-seats.

An elderly couple was placed next to us. Next, in this context, means at a distance greater than six feet. It was probably closer to twelve. The old man’s wife had trouble seeing the short stage over the couple in the row directly in front of her, and so, she moved. The paper “X” was removed off of the unsafe seat, and it was placed on the previously unmarked safe seat. It was an unforgivable rules violation by a frail, elderly woman, and now the pursuit and argument was worthwhile. After all, everyone else in the hall was now at risk of catching this woman’s asymptomatic respiratory disease. In a different time, she would have been known simply as healthy.

The black-masked usher and her pointed finger appeared again; this time with finger pointing not for direction, but in admonishment. The old woman was forced to move back to her original seat. Her husband and her then switched seats.

That interaction ruined the rest of the night of music for me. I no longer wanted to be at the performance. I wasn’t sure if my wife felt the same, so we stayed through it.

We went out to dinner afterward. The restaurant was completely normal. The servers were not masked and the tables were not socially-distanced. It was just fancy food served in a normal way. My wife soon brought up the interaction with the black-masked usher and the elderly couple, and asked if I had seen it, because she too thought it was ridiculous. We both laughed at it, but I also resolved that I wouldn’t go back to an orchestral performance any time soon.

Indeed, the restrictions — despite there being none mandated by the State of Florida — only got worse. Masking and social-distancing remained a theme of in-person orchestra performances until late 2023. The arrival of the vaccines led to vaccine segregation and the ultimate banishment of all the non-vaccinated. Otherwise pleasurable nights filled with the beauty and complexity of the human condition were transformed into a horror show of rule following and forced compliance.

This Mother’s Day, my wife purchased tickets for our family to a small classical music ensemble’s Parisienne themed event. The theme was related to our recent family vacation to Paris and the Netherlands. Despite my hesitations, I could not say no on Mother’s Day, and the idea was, at least, inimitable. It was a Kafkaesque experience.

The performance was for solo violin and soprano. The soprano sang excerpts from Franz Kafka’s diary, set against the lone violin in a composition by György Kurtág titled Kafka Fragments. The audience was only limited by the number of seats in the theater, and I only observed a single blue mask in the very small audience.

Rather than take our temperatures, insist we wear masks, and ban us for not wanting to show our vaccine cards, this time, the ushers saw that our seats were not very good. They upgraded us to the orchestra box directly in front of the stage.

The audience was still sparse, limited maybe by the obscurity of the piece rather than the desire to avoid disease. We received the seat upgrade because there were so very few people there. It was a dignity not bestowed on the previously mentioned elderly couple.

The composition itself was exactly what one might expect from an author who opened his famous book, The Metamorphosiswith the line:

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.

Kafka’s story is a mirror into lockdown. Gregor’s transformation into a horrible vermin leads to financial instability and even his own family essentially banishing him to his room. His sister finds compassion for him at first, but even she grows tired of it and Gregor eventually starves to death abandoned by everyone.

The highlight of the day was a comment from my ten-year-old son during the performance. He plays the piano and has a friend who also plays the piano and is quite good. My son leaned over and whispered into my ear that his ten-year-old friend could play Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”and it would be far more entertaining and interesting than the Kafkaesque fragments of screeching violin, and long, drawn out soprano words sung about how often life is miserable and humans are vermin.

What my son did not know is that “Piano Man” is also a song about how often life is miserable and melancholic, and how all of that can be impacted by a simple melody. The patrons of a bar beg the piano man to sing them a song; play them a memory, one they don’t even remember all that well.

So as not to overcomplicate things. Sometimes, we’re just in the mood for a melody. One that gets us feeling alright.

This article is reprinted from Brownstone Institute where it appeared under a Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0) license. It first appeared on the author’s Substack.

Image credit: Unsplash 

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