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The human voice is vital to the creation of rituals around important and existential life events: to celebrate, to mourn, to commemorate, to protest. Speeches, chants, singing, intoning, shouting are all used to mark these events. What happens when the voice itself has become dangerous, instead of healing? How do we engage in healing ritual and vocal expression when the voice itself is the transmittor of a deadly virus? This explores the actions and sounding strategies taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Oslo, spring 2020.
Safe Passage was a solo improvisation that I undertook on April 11, 2020 as my way to commemorate New Yorkers who were dying of COVID-19 and being buried in mass unmarked graves on Hart Island, an island north of Manhattan. The people being buried had not been claimed by relatives or friends, and thus they were buried in the so-called potter´s fields on Hart Island, a public burial ground for poor New Yorkers. The history of the US can be seen in this one small place - colonial displacement of the original inhabitants - the Siwanoy - then a public cemetery, a prisoner-of-war camp, a quarantine site, a missile battery, and now mass graves where the bodies of those dying of COVID-19, disproportionately people of color, were being buried by NY Department of Corrections prisoners, also disproportionately people of color. There are so many aspects of this that have echos in the unresolved traumas of slavery and genocide. I felt a need to mourn these collective tragedies, and to express hope that we may come out of this crisis with new priorities that focus on what is life sustaining rather than destructive. The ethical challenge for me as a singer was the conflict between the call to commemorate the passing of these individuals and the wish to not create a health hazard for others. As a result of the lock-down, I immediately felt the need for human presence and contact in a much fiercer and urgent way, and I had been devising various “distanced improvisations” - solos from windows for passers-by, duo improvisations in public parks with a dancer colleague at a safe distance, and improvisations outside with other singers spaced far apart.
For this burial commemoration, I chose to sing outside in the gazebo in Birkelunden park accompanied by the bells of Pauluskirke which were sounding each Saturday at 5pm. Two colleagues joined me for a short time. We sang distanced, standing much more than 2 meters apart from each other at the edges of the pavilion. (Even though being outside reduces the risk of exposure to the COVID-19 virus, singing can project microdroplets much further than 2 meters.)
While we were singing two homeless men set up a disposable grill on the side of the gazebo and started grilling their dinner in the rain. When we were finished singing as a trio, I asked the men “Dont you want to come in under shelter?” And of course, they did. I sang two more solo improvisations, while they grilled on the other side of the gazebo. The last improvisation with them grilling, and the bells tolling, is this one - “Safe Passage”. When I was finished we spoke of those who had died, and they offered me some of their grill food. I thanked them for the gesture but said it was time for me to go. I wished them a good Easter.
If you listen carefully to the soundfile, you may hear the sounds of the grill in the background. The sounds of traffic and birds and passers-by are also present. I used a simple picture of the sky, taken from the gazebo, to create a video that could be posted to social media as an offering. (Audio files are not recognized.) That was my commemoration for those who had died without ceremony or identification.