Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Covid Arts – Resisting Pandemics: Balconies, Musicians and Contemporary Lockdowns in Contemporary Spain
Kerman Calvo, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Department of Sociology and Communication, Universidad de Salamanca.
Ester Bejarano, Lecturer in Sociology, Department of Sociology and Communication, Universidad de Salamanca.
If someone had asked us during the first days of confinement about our plans to cope with the crisis, we doubt that ‘writing a paper about musicians’ would had been our quick answer. We felt very distracted at first, unable to do research work, frantically checking out our body temperatures while exploring the uncharted waters – at least for us – of online teaching. In all honesty, the task of trying to give sociological sense to mandatory social distancing dwarfed us, at least during the early stages. For us the lockdown effectively began on March 12th and the Spanish Government formally declared a state of emergency on March 14th. If only we had paid more attention to debates on moral panics or public health crises. We questioned our own skills and standing as sociologists. It was discomforting, and humbling, to realise that we, as academics, are not a vital profession.
Days passed, however, and we decided to run a little research project on ‘music at the balconies’. Let’s try work, we thought. The death toll was mounting; soldiers watched us as we bought groceries; rumours forecast months of confinement. We were anxiously missing our families. Music, why not? Our news feeds in social media were full of stories, videos and posts about people playing music in windows, balconies and rooftops. And the sociology of music was growing on us as a line of research. In confinement, we learnt that our first paper on indie musicians had just been accepted for publication. We limited our ambition to just a handful of interviews, perhaps naively agreeing with those who were calling for a slowing down of the pace of academia. Perhaps this could simply be an experience to be shared with future students, a reflective exercise to question sociological work while living in confinement.
Things have turn out quite differently in the end. So far, we have done more than 50 interviews with professional as well as amateur musicians, DJs, music teachers, and students of all kinds of instruments, via Skype, Zoom and over the phone. This amounts roughly to 30 hours of recorded – but still only partially transcribed –interview material. Our informers play music and instruments, sometimes on their own, sometimes in impromptu duos or trios. Many of them are classical singers. Some play traditional instruments, such as txistus – a hybrid between a flute and a clarinet, typical of the Basque country, or the Galician gaita bagpipe. In spite of playing music, some felt uneasy when called ‘musicians’ (including many of the music teachers). Most of our interviewees began to play their music during the first weekend of confinement, roughly at 20:10 (right after what a national newspaper bizarrely described as the “noisy scenes of gratitude that were organized to pay tribute to everyone working while the country is in lockdown”).
How did a little experiment with social responses to lockdown develop into a legitimate research project? Perhaps we were simply carried away by snowballing inertia: each person that we spoke to knew some else who played from their windows or balconies. However, after some consideration, we are coming to terms with the idea of this particular piece of research as a soothing, and even a healing, experience. Our questions were straightforward and positive: ‘what music do you play’, ‘how do you decide what instrument to play in case you are proficient in more than one’, ‘do you switch off the lights when playing or singing’. Assuming a positive answer in most cases, we asked if these spontaneous serenades helped communities. And, of course, we asked about their first times, about what motivates people to transform their balconies and windows into spaces of public creativity, social interaction, and, as we are learning the more we go through the transcripts, as spaces for vindication of music in particular, and the arts in general. These led to beautiful narratives about solidarity, self-esteem, empowerment, and optimism; narratives that we needed to hear.
Our research attempts to contribute to a larger conversation about practices of cultural resistance in times of pandemics. As Cohn argues, pandemics hardly ignite collective violence; instead, they are likely to provoke “waves of compassion and volunteerism” . Evidence about this abounds. As lockdown is extended in Spain, balconies are consolidating as spaces for hyper-cultural productivity. Initiatives include cultural festivals – such as the ‘la quedaeta’ project in Valencia – joint poetry writing, banner and dancing competitions, and, of course, music playing. New forms of solidarity are trying to cater for the socially vulnerable. Writing this during the fourth week of confinement, a greater number of people are playing music in public, particularly as our holy week is approaching and devotional music will have to be played from home. Local councils, NGOS, and cultural associations are promoting public expressions of music, using catchy hashtags –such as “#Getxokobalkoiak” – while a greater number of well-known professional musicians are broadcasting their music while they play from home. A first glimpse at our data reveals the role of music making in promoting community sentiments. In some cases, musicians seem to be seizing the opportunity to vindicate traditional forms of culture such as opera or music played on traditional instruments. In other cases, music helps coping with isolation, silence and fear. Pandemics, tradition, identity, and community appear to be intertwined in ways that we will need to disentangle.
As Lee argued quite a while ago, investigating sensitive topics usually introduces into the research process “contingencies less commonly found in other kind of studies” . Before concluding, we wanted to comment on two such contingencies.
The first one relates to the trade-off between depth – that usually comes with longer interviews, a well-reasoned sampling strategy, etc. - and ‘catching the moment’. During acute crises, the quotidian can become the site of many extraordinary but fragile decisions, the more so when our lives are halted by mandatory lockdowns and we have too much time to fear about the future. Bringing your music to the streets might be a good example. Our view is that these extraordinary events must be interpreted in the precise context where they were made, synchronizing social action and research as much as possible, even if that implies a certain lack of depth in the approach. We feared, for instance, that for some informers, a worsening of the pandemic could shed a different light over individual recollections of ‘small’ personal decisions, such as singing iconic tunes like ‘resistiré’, a classic hit song from the 1960s that has become the soundtrack of confinement in Spain. As we are finalizing this piece, the decision to play public music is taking on an unexpected political profile, in reaction to the apparent insensitivity of the Spanish government to the plight of artists in times of lockdown.
The second comment relates to ethics. We would like our research to be viewed as inspired by an ethics of care, an approach that is particularly urgent while researching a pandemic while in a pandemic. Not only did we choose our questions with great care, we also went the extra mile to treat bonds of trust with the outmost delicacy. In truth, we have waived any objectivity, using our research also as a way to share appreciation of a practice of cultural expression that connects with the bright side of confinement. This is so important for us right now. We have consciously refrained from pushing informers to question their own actions, being very aware not only of the ethical implications associated with sensitive research, but also being determined not to allow informers to feel judged. Our informers wanted to make a point from the beginning: it had to be clear that they were not doing this for their own sakes. We give full credit to our informers’ point of view, never looking for hidden narratives, restricting our role as academics as a platform to further disseminate what many citizens define as one of the few things they we can do ‘to defeat the virus’.
 Cohn Jr, Samuel (2018): Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 Lee, Raymond (1993). Doing Research on Sensitive Topics. London: Sage.
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