Abi Bernard '19, at work on her keyboard.

Courtesy of Abi Bernard '19

Abi Bernard '19, at work on her keyboard.

May 12, 2020

No Idle Hands: Mourning and Memorializing Through Music

Print More

For students who have gone back to their respective homes, the Spring semester can seem strangely bifurcated between the bustle of the earlier months and the more isolated but nonetheless busy present. For students who have remained on campus, the transition feels perhaps more poignant as each progressive week saw the exodus of more friends, classmates and mentors. Quarantine has been the catalyst for many students to pursue those passion projects that would have otherwise been put on the backburner from bread-baking and meme-making to crafting elaborate Zoom backgrounds. Abi Bernard ’19 is using her time to process this transition through music.

Bernard, a history major who stayed an additional semester to intern with the fellowship Cru, a caring community passionate about connecting people to Jesus Christ and the real and adventurous life that’s found in a personal relationship with Him, finds that her creativity thrives even in limited space. In her Westbourne Apartment she has claimed the living room as her artistic zone, her keyboard placed in the middle of the carpeted floor while various pages of sheet music lay about like a tapestry. In between episodes of the second season of Fruits Basket, This is Us and listening to film scores (she’s trying her best to ration her news intake), she has managed to create two songs about COVID-19, varying in tone, but laced with spiritual themes.

The first, “Hey There Corona,” is a parody of the Plain White T’s “Hey There Delilah.” Bernard shared how the idea for the song was spontaneous; her housemates were facetiously crafting a list of things to do in quarantine: Watch Oceans 11, collectively jump rope and start a band. As for the decision to cover the song itself, that too came randomly. “One night I couldn’t sleep, and I just began to think about parodies. In ‘Hey There Delilah’ the first line is ‘What’s it like in New York City?’… enough said there. Then we just kept on writing,” she says, laughing.

The spontaneity and randomness that defines much of their music video needs to be seen in order to be believed. While Bernard is on vocals, two of her housemates are barely able to stifle their laughter as they flash Lysol cans, hand sanitizer and various other cleaning items across the screen. The lyrics are humorous and poignant, ranging from informational (“Hey There Corona can you please just keep your distance / I’ll wash my hands for 20 seconds / Pray for Tom Hanks & Rita Wilson”), spiritual (“But our God was faithful throughout SARS), mournful (“But now I’m taking online classes / Saying goodbye to all my friends / Find me on Zoom”), to downright comic (“Oh what you did to Italy / Oh, and to NYC / Oh you won’t do it to me / Oh, listen to CDC and Ryan Lombardi”).

While “Hey There Corona” is more tongue-in-cheek, the second song, “Ecclesiastes,” based on the Biblical book of the same name, is a rearrangement of Audrey Assad, Madison Cunningham and Isaac Wardell’s track “Little Things with Great Love.” The book of Ecclesiastes at its core is a story: An autobiography by King Solomon, the wise, rich, yet lustful son of Israel’s King David. He desperately observes and prodigally searches the world for meaning, purpose, and pleasure, only to come up woefully empty. He ultimately concludes that the Earth and life itself is vanity of vanities, and therefore one can only find true purpose, pleasure, and satisfaction in God (in other words, a book fitting for these times). Fittingly, the track embodies themes of the book and this makes for a unique sound. Bernard’s track is somber in tone and minimalist in composition, characterized with a variety of interesting chord progressions and key changes. It’s a nearly six-minute-long epic that seems operatic in its ambitions.

Listening to the two songs back to back, you wouldn’t be the first to think that Bernard was someone who had been creating music for a long time. While she has experience as a worship leader for church and Cru, she humbly admits that these offerings were her first foray into not only recording and production, but also songwriting. “I don’t really have a knack for writing music,” she admitted. At the same time, she also shared how the abundance of free time allows her to put thoughts to paper and finally record.

Indeed, while this time has been disruptive, with few expectations for this year being met, Bernard sees it also as an opportunity. She said, “You can look at it as disruption for sure…but I also look at it as a kind of allowance. It gave me the time to finally work on song lyrics I had come up with from over two years ago and with ‘Hey There Corona,’ I was able to bond with my housemates. There’s an opening that happened too.”

Bernard hopes that the music she makes and shares allows her to still participate and foster a caring community — even across distances. With “Hey There Corona” in particular, Bernard’s desire is that it would be a “source of joy” for people. “I want to show people that God is still good and that it’s possible to live a full life even in this time. With the parody, I want to give something that people can laugh and smile about right now. This is definitely motivated by faith for me because I do believe that because of Jesus Christ I can have joy in any circumstance. And so there’s nothing in this world that can prevent me from living an abundant life because one’s abundant life is in Him.”

Courtesy of Abi Bernard '19

Courtesy of Abi Bernard ’19

 

While Bernard wants to point to hope, she also believes that art should and is able to capture lament and frustration, themes which course through “Ecclesiastes.”

“I really wanted the song to be a space for people to lament and feel discouraged because that’s what we’re all feeling; the Bible presses into that,” she said. The slower tempo of the song helps the listener meditate on the meaning of everything. Bernard continued: “I hope when people listen, they ask if they really want things to go back to the way they were? Or should we not be pushing for renewal after this season? What does being locked at home reveal to them about their heart condition?” Lyrics like “The wind it blows in circles above endless seas of blue” and “Is He the Son of Heaven? Is He the One I seek?” transforms the song from being merely a lamentation that documents woes, to an anthem that shows how hope can come from crying out to God.

For Bernard, this process of lament has influenced not only the lyrics but also the production of the song itself. Any music aficionado would hear her the nuances that accentuate the content. “There’s one chord progression that goes E to F# to F which is interesting because it’s this backwards chromatic type thing in a middle of a line,” she shares excitedly. Upon realizing my paucity of music knowledge, she laughs and shares how the theme of the unexpected defined a lot of the arrangement. “In the middle section of the song, the narrator is contemplating who or what their heart is actually longing for and if there’s a possibility that [thing] is God himself. And I really wanted there to be tension here that wasn’t present in the original song. ”

Toward the end there is a striking key change in the song. To this, Bernard shared that she“wanted the key change to represent realization. So many things in life just seem meaningless. So, you just do them over and over and over again for nothing. In the end, Solomon realizes that the only meaning that you can truly find in life is loving, fearing God. And so, I kind of turn over that stone because it tells a story.”

The student artist makes music to both mourn and memorialize; the pandemic has affected everyone at disproportionate levels — and while she will admit and acknowledge her present circumstances, she has a greater hope and knows that life as we know it is not all there is. Yes, “Hey There Corona” and “Ecclesiastes” are fun and meaningful side projects, but they are living testaments of her faith and belief in a good God. “This is a form of hospitality and welcome for people to step into that,” she says, “There are so many things I’m disappointed and sad that didn’t happen because of a virus. The list is too long to name honestly.” Over the phone, she pauses in quiet remembrance of the commencements, weddings and events that never came to pass. “But this suffering isn’t being wasted. And I can show I have hope through music.”

 

Listen to “Ecclesiastes” here

This is the first installment of a two-part series featuring students who are making music during quarantine. Stay tuned for part 2! 

Zachary Lee is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at zlee@cornellsun.com.