Wendy Spitzer: Pieces of Grief

On a recent Saturday, I found myself walking along a wooded trail in a sonically overwhelmed state. I’d forgotten this feeling. I was listening to the audio project Pieces of Grief and had to stop and orient myself along several waves of sound: falling water, cascading piano, and an overlapping chorus of voices that distill to a single phrase: “How will I go on?” 

Pieces of Grief was created by the musician and multidisciplinary artist Wendy Spitzer, who makes meticulous art-pop and classical compositions as Felix Obelix. For this project, she orchestrated various sounds—voicemail excerpts, archival interviews, field recordings, and an original music score—into a set of seven audio works about grief. Released last week on Spitzer’s website, the work is freely accessible to anyone; Spitzer says that it was designed to be listened to in Raleigh’s Durant Nature Preserve, though she’s emphatic that any quiet outdoor space will do. 

Over Zoom, Spitzer and I discuss Pieces, which she composed during the pandemic. While the topic matches the world’s affective state, Spitzer originally pitched the project to Raleigh Arts’ site-specific series SEEK Raleigh in February. The project was green-lit; just a month later, everything changed. 

“We were an entire globe of grief,” she remembers. The whole world, she says, was figuring out how to process “loss on a colossal scale.” 

To take up that “how,” Spitzer leaned into her history of participatory art-making, which navigates trust and togetherness with strangers and close collaborators alike. In 2018, as part of Downtown Durham, Inc.’s Public Space Project, Spitzer and photographer Douglas Vuncannon invited people wandering the street to form pairs and find something unusual they had in common. Participants wrote the result on a whiteboard, and Vuncannon took their portraits—hence the project’s title, Portraits in Common

“It showed how profound the answers can be if you ask the right couple of really simple questions,” Spitzer says.

Similarly, her audio art aims to create conditions for honest disclosure. Last year, as part of another SEEK Raleigh project, she set up an anonymous hotline to collect reflections on mental health and mixed them with historical recordings for Dix in Sound in Situ, a “traveling audio installation” meant to be played at Dorothea Dix Park in Raleigh, which is located on the site of a former mental hospital. 

Inspired by the emotional power of the Dix materials and the effectiveness of a temporally collaged sonic world, Spitzer took a similar approach for Pieces of Grief. She set up another hotline with a few simple prompts. None of them directly invoked COVID-19—“What emotions have you felt regarding your loss?” was one—but, inevitably, it came up, surfacing among reflections on dissociation and raw renderings of long-ago losses.

Spitzer put these responses in context by sampling interviews from UNC-Chapel Hill’s Southern Oral History Program that were conducted in the 1970s with survivors of the 1918 Spanish flu. Alongside Spitzer’s soft keystrokes—in self-isolation, she not only composed but performed all the music for Pieces—a century-spanning conversation occurs. 

“COVID hit, and it all kind of just swept away,” one person says. Picking up the thread, another sighs, exhausted: “I’m killing myself trying to make a living.”

“I wanted to bring in these experiences from a long time ago to remind us that there were people who survived that time, and there will be people who survive this time,” Spitzer says. “And that things are cyclical. These are also universal, non-time-specific explorations.” 

Pieces begins with “Emotions,” which catalogs grief’s many embodiments. It ends with “The Big Picture,” which tracks how grief ripples outward, disrupting and regenerating our ideas about how to live. The latter sounds like the auditory equivalent of a forest clearing.  

The emotional distance of these aggregated recollections is both the anchor of the work and the site of its ethical thorniness: Listening to these pained voices, I felt like an eavesdropper, pulled into something heavy but unsure how to hold it. 

“There’s a dual danger,” Spitzer says of this sort of participatory project. “The first is that it just overwhelms you—it’s so sad that you cave before it. I certainly had some of those days. The secondary danger is that you listen to it so many times that it loses its content.” 

The project reflects bigger existential questions. How, as Spitzer puts it, do we not become “inured” to sorrow? The query is constant these days, whether listening to the voices in the audio installation or processing the daily deluge of deaths reported in the news. In the unconscionable absence of federal memorialization, where do we take our mourning? 

Maybe one answer lies in between the lines of grassroots exercises like this one. There’s a reason why Spitzer interspersed birdsong among the voices and why she stressed the importance of absorbing the material while walking outside. 

“There’s something about moving within the natural world,” Spitzer says. “You can feel very stuck in grief.” But in nature, which operates outside of the world of the pandemic, “you feel yourself moving forward,” she says, “even if you don’t feel like you’re moving forward.”

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