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Our Daily Breather: Jonathan Biss Isn't Taking Music Or Food For Granted

Jonathan Biss
Benjamin Ealovega
Courtesy of the artist
Jonathan Biss

Our Daily Breather is a series where we ask writers and artists to recommend one thing that's helping them get through the days of isolation during the coronavirus pandemic.

Who: Jonathan Biss

Where: Philadelphia, Pa.

Recommendation: Music and food

We pianists tend to be obsessive, single-track creatures. Drawn to music's kaleidoscopic language from early childhood, and soon after enslaved by the instrument's ever-more onerous demands — the more you can do, the more you realize you can't do — we develop few other skills, marketable or otherwise.

So when the pandemic left me confined to my home, I did the only thing I really know to do: I played. I played to fill the time, to feel active, to be comforted. I played Beethoven, the relentless idealist. I played Schubert and Schumann, the poets of aloneness. I played Mozart, the laconic but endlessly profound chronicler of human frailty. However much I missed an audience — an audience of one would have sufficed, just one other person to experience music's transformative power with me, in real time — it was, and is, striking to me how much playing the music I love has been the key to surviving isolation.

If there's one thing that musicians are united in their obsession with, beyond music, it is surely food. And so it's not surprising that the other thing sustaining me has been cooking. It's been a daily activity, and aside from the pure pleasure that comes from feeding myself — I've yet to experience a day's practice with a result so tangible — I've learned a few things: I can now chop an onion without risking a career-ending injury and deviate from a recipe without first texting my entire contact list for advice. I've made a number of delicious things, including this recipe for roasted butternut squash with spiced chickpeas, which I plan to make again, even though the first go-around involved the activation of my smoke alarm in the middle of a zoom call; such is life in 2020.

Two months into this mess, it's been striking to see what I do and don't miss from my old life. Not traveling is not a problem; not feeling that I can be of some use to the world is, very much so. So I've been attempting to share music in all the imperfect, homespun ways we all are. And I've been donating to food banks, to do what I can for the mind-bending number of people in this country who don't have enough to eat. I have even, through the wonderful organization, been able to combine the two. Music and food, the group's motto notes, are both essential for human life and growth. While I don't yet have any sense of what the world will look like when we emerge from this crisis, or of what lessons I'll have learned, I'm grateful to have this occasion to think more deeply about what that means: about what gifts music and food are to my life, and about how I can make sure those two vital forms of nourishment are something every member of society can take for granted, as I once did and never will again.

Jonathan Biss recently released Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas. On May 20, he will perform a benefit recital in support of Artist Relief Tree, which will stream on his Facebook page.

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    Jonathan Biss