Masks off: pianist Alex Koo reveals his take on the corona crisis

Alex Koo© Saskia Vanderstichele

Every week, a Brussels-based artist shares their insights from the corona crisis. Pianist Alex Koo secretly hopes that the social lockdown gives people a renewed desire for real sensory experiences. “I have never been more productive.”


• Born in Waregem in 1990 as the son of a Belgian father and Japanese mother
• Trained to become a classical orchestra pianist, but opted for jazz
• After graduating with a Master's in New York, he immediately recorded his debut Appleblueseagreen
• Will release Kimono Garden on 22 July, a spacy solo album of soundscapes that is also his singing debut

How many mouth masks do you have, do you iron them, and do you like wearing them?
It feels strange to breathe in your own breath, it is physically exhausting, and when I walk into the refrigerated section of Colruyt with my glasses on, they steam up completely. But I always wear a mask when I am in public space. I considered it my civic responsibility even before they became obligatory. My wife Lorena and I now own seven masks, some of which we got free from the municipality of Etterbeek and the schools where we teach. We wash them at 60° once per week, but we don't iron them. It's crazy when I think that my mother used to iron everything. One day that will be a lost art because whenever I do iron anything – the odd shirt in the backstage of a performance – it usually makes me zen.

The past few months have led people to question many of their routines. How did you cope with the responsibility of reorganizing and rescheduling your life?
Very easily. I hadn't had seven “free” days in a row for years. So I had a readymade to-do list and it structured my day. When you suddenly have a lot of time, your priorities change. It is only now that I have finally managed to finish my album Kimono Garden. The melancholy “I Know, You Know, We Know” (Koo's debut as a singer, red.), a duet that I recorded with Lorena, exudes the lockdown. I wrote new pieces for IFO and for a project with pianist Craig Taborn, and I tinkered with my études. I have never been more productive. I have learned that by not biting off more than I can chew, I can get more done.

Have you started doing things that you never did before?
I am an indoor footballer, but when it was even forbidden to juggle a ball in the park by yourself, I started jogging. That helped to lose the kilos that I had gained from the extra glasses of wine that I drank in the evenings. But I still think it's incredibly boring. (Laughs)

What has the crisis made clear to you?
A number of the shortcomings of our society have been magnified. It has become much clearer who you can depend on. To policymakers, culture was always at the bottom of the list of priorities. The picture of people packed together in an aeroplane beside a half-empty concert hall in which everyone is socially distancing was pure Monty Python. We've lost our sense of proportion and logic, while the cultural sector does much more for the local economy than airlines do.

1717 Alex Kool
© Saskia Vanderstchele
| Alex Koo

Was it a major adjustment to wake up in the social distancing society?
I secretly hope that people have become so sick of social media that when normal life resumes, they will discover how much fun it is to do real things. Sensory experiences, like smelling books, having a drink, and attending live concerts. Perhaps corona will become the saviour of live music after all.

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