Art and Science Combine in Creation of COVID-19 Video Piece

January 28, 2021

Jeffrey Shaman, a professor of environmental health sciences, is well known for his computer models that forecast the spread of COVID-19, and for his regular appearances in the media where he shares his latest findings. He is also now the co-creator of a multimedia video that combines scientific insights on the pandemic with music that expresses the weighty emotions of living through a massive public health crisis. (Watch the video below.)

The 48-minute video titled “Transmission” was produced and edited by Sila Shaman, an award-winning composer and pianist, who recruited contributions from her scientist husband after the piece was commissioned by the Oregon-based arts organization Corvallis-OSU Piano International. She introduces the video saying it was created out of a collective need to “make sense of all the sudden changes that the pandemic brought to our lives.”

Over the course of the video, improvisations on a grand piano—intermittently elegiac and anxious—mix with video imagery. Footage collected by the Shamans and their friends captures New York City life during the pandemic: the eerie quiet, the yearning for normalcy, the 7 o’clock cheer. In one section titled “Duet with a Virus,” Sila Shaman’s piano accompanies sounds generated by an image of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

At several points, Professor Shaman speaks directly into the camera to address aspects of the pandemic, from its origins in China to its current enormous global toll. He explains how the virus spreads so quickly and why it is important to maintain physical distancing during the vaccine roll-out, and speaks to the failure of officials to adequately respond and how they can do better in the future. “This is not the last pandemic the human race is going to see,” he says.

In the longest section of the video, the professor reads messages he received from the public following media appearances. Alternately humorous and horrifying, these letters and emails convey the vulnerability and confusion felt by millions of Americans over the past year. Some are hostile and conspiratorial—for example, insisting the pandemic is a hoax or that doctors and scientists are willfully ignoring a silver-bullet solution. Others are desperate and fearful; in one, an anguished mother who fears dying from COVID-19 and leaving her children alone. Throughout, Sila Shaman improvises on piano, capturing the emotions with staccato phrases.

The professor says he chose to read these messages because they were “part of my experience of the pandemic, and they show where people’s attitudes are.” Thankfully, none contained threats. “I don’t wear them too heavily,” he says. Even so, they suggest to him the damage done by misinformation and lack of leadership. He replied to some, including one from a man forced to close his small business who questioned the necessity of economic harms brought about by physical distancing mandates. “I told him that we need to control the disease to reopen the economy. He was friendly and understood where I was coming from.”

Watch “Transmission”: