What does it mean to get to 'the other side'? As we reflect on the past year and a half, it's safe to say we're not there yet.
In some senses, the other side is real, tangible, human: seeing loved ones without fear, existing in the ecstasy of a crowd, hospitals with vacant beds. Seen from another perspective, however, we're imagining that 'the other side' even exists leads us to some logical.
When the structure of the camp changed again this year -- with three groups of singers 18 and older meeting in relatively isolated ‘cohorts’ around the country for a week in July -- we were collectively presented with a new challenge. What does it look like to create a project for a group that will produce half of its work virtually and half in person?
This could have been simple enough, but when I met for the first time with Sean Patrick Riley and Tracy Robertson, we agreed that we had an opportunity to unpack the experiences of isolation and togetherness. How could we set up a framework for the project that would allow us to connect our music to the emotions we wanted and needed to share with each other?
By February of 2021, much of the novelty of the virtual choir had worn off. The impetus to pull off the massive operation that is the virtually-produced a cappella arrangement can, frankly, no longer be fueled by loneliness and boredom alone. What had felt exciting, scary, and of-the-moment in 2020 now felt like pulling teeth in 2021.
Coming together in person was an opportunity to inject some life into the virtual process: we decided to design a project with a missing puzzle piece, one that would click into place only when we were in each others’ presence.
The idea was an arrangement and video that would have a crucial in-person component -- something that we would record or film together. So we got to work.
I chose “The Other Side” (originally recorded by the LA neosoul band Moonchild) for its beautiful simplicity and open-ended lyrics. The song lent itself to us as a tool for our own contemplation and interpretation, a productive void within which we could start to connect Amber Navran’s lyrics to our own experiences of isolation and togetherness.
To help us do that, we created an interpretive project to kickstart the arranging process. Tracy, Sean, and I came up with questions that we posed to the group to help us think deeply about the song, its many possible meanings, and connect it to our own experiences of the pandemic:
What does ‘the other side’ mean to you?
What are you most excited for when in-person interaction is safe again?
Is there anything about post-pandemic life that makes you nervous, scared or anxious?
What does ‘going back to normal’ mean to you? What is the ‘normal’ you would like to return to? What about the old normal would you like to shed?
What did the past year reveal for you that you want, and what did it reveal for you that you don’t want?
What lessons have you / we learned over the past year?
We formed small groups that would meet, talk about these questions, and collectively bring something (anything!) creative back to the group. Some brought back unfiltered thoughts, thinking about their post-pandemic anxieties and excitement:
Some brought poetry:
One group even brought back a color palette:
After combing through the material, I chose some lyrical motifs that were compelling to me and began arranging -- half inspired by the original song, and half inspired by the group’s interpretive work. The last 45 seconds were reserved for the ‘missing piece.’
Through May and June, we pieced together the audio and the first three and a half minutes of the video, virtually. By the end of June, all we had left to do was to film the final 45 seconds of the music video.
In July, we finally met in person in Northbrook, IL. On Monday and Tuesday of cohort week, we filmed the very end of the video, together. On Friday, we showed it to the rest of the camp.
What does it mean to get to 'the other side'? Lately the idea that there will be 'another side' has felt more fantastical than anything else.
In some senses, what it would take to get there is tangible: the prospect of widespread vaccinations, safely seeing loved ones, existing in the ecstasy of a crowd, knowing there are vacant beds at the hospital. We've been getting pipette droplets of this feeling from "reopening" ceremonies, "Welcome Back" signs at schools, and showing our vaccination card at the door to a club.
Seen from another perspective, imagining that 'the other side' even exists leads us to a contradiction: where history by the book is periodized into discrete eras, our lived experience is continuous. Where historical inflection points help us make sense of the past, they rarely happen on the surface of society, in broad daylight, for everyone to see. The pandemic's worsening of existing crises has made clear that there will not be a 'grand reopening,' and, if there is, it will come with a gaping hole and an obvious asterisk.
Rather, for most of us, 'the other side' exists only in our imagination. And because of that, it can be whatever we want it to be. It should be whatever we want it to be. And if the other side exists for us in that way, it will be present in our actions and our words, in our communities and our music.
My 'other side' has reparations and legal abortions. It has universal healthcare and open borders. It has cooperatives and it doesn't have billionaires. It has parks and free time in the day to explore them. It has time to rest your mind, and time to use it to its fullest potential.
The funniest thing about the other side is that it's all around us. The other side is mutual aid. The other side is communities rooted in care and relationships built on trust. It's getting to know high school musicians who process the world through a lens that is fundamentally not about achievement, but about justice. The other side is seeing each other as whole humans. The other side is just us.
And that, to me, is what it means to get to the other side.
Love to Andris, Amber, and Max of Moonchild for bringing this song into existence.