Choral music about 1918 flu resonates today

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A Naval Aircraft Factory float heads south on Broad Street in Philadelphia

A Naval Aircraft Factory float heads south on Broad Street in Philadelphia. This parade, with its associated dense gatherings of people, contributed significantly to the massive outbreak of influenza which struck Philadelphia a few days later. (NH 41730 courtesy of the Naval History & Heritage Command)

When “Spit Spreads Death” opened last year, it had all the hallmarks of an exhibition worthy of the Mütter Museum, an institution known for its creepy artifacts of sundry medical ailments. It is simultaneously engaging and disturbing.

The exhibition about how the 1918 flu pandemic hit Philadelphia has historic government pamphlets and posters about how to contain the infection (that’s where it got its title) and bizarre medical beliefs (children were given whiskey because it was believed to prevent infection).

A century removed from the worst public health crisis in city history, museum visitors were allowed to have fun with it. The museum created a database of the dead, compiled from various public records, searchable by neighborhood so you could see who died at which address on your block

“It feels different now. It didn’t have the weight that it does now,” said Donald Nally, director of The Crossing choir, which performed an original choral composition for the exhibition, “protect yourself from infection.”

The work, written and performed last year, was commissioned from Pulitzer-winning composer David Lang, and is one of the most eerily moving elements of the exhibition. The sung words were taken from government documents offering simple advice to the public about how to avoid the flu.

The official recommendations are both oddly old-fashioned — “Keep your feet dry,” “Avoid moving picture shows” — and completely contemporary: “Walk to the office if possible,” “Keep out of crowds.”

“Thousands of Philadelphians died when these words were being constructed,” said Nally. “Now we’re hoping that thousands and thousands of people don’t die.”

“Protect yourself from infection” intersperses those phrases with the names of Philadelphia dead. Last summer, the choir recorded themselves singing the phrases and 700 individual names, a fraction of the more than 17,500 Philadelphians who died from that global pandemic in just six months. The performance concept was to stream the elements out of hundreds of cell phones held by people marching in a mock parade, which happened in September 2019.

“It was originally intended to be 28 phrases with names swirling around in a harmonic cloud,” said Nally. “We went back and made a piece out of that, a piece with a beginning, middle, and an end.”

At the request of the public radio show “Performance Today,” The Crossing choir mixed the elements into a single 6 ½ minute track. It is being broadcast on the syndicated radio show and released online as an animated film.

The melancholy pacing of the piece and the haunting recitation of names of the dead make “protect yourself from infection” no longer a historical lamentation, but a tone poem for the way we live now.

The Crossing choir put itself on ice seven weeks ago when the pandemic shutdown began. The singers are neither performing nor rehearsing together, in compliance with social distancing requirements.

The singers, like many of us, find themselves at home watching the pandemic play out, taking note of the successes and failures of both public officials and regular citizens.

“We’re frustrated. We want to do something but there’s not a lot we can do,” said Nally. “We’re musicians: this is something we can do. We can make a piece that reminds us that history repeats itself, but it doesn’t have to. We can do better.”

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