Author: Josh Armenta

The Aftermath

Girl with balloon, graffiti on concrete

People often say that your life and your experiences affect your art and your inner voice. I don’t know if that’s entirely true. I think it’s more accurate to say that your experiences connect the dots that had always been there. At least, for me, that was the case.

Out of everything that has transpired over the past three years as I have processed the end of an abusive marriage and rebuilt my life in music, the most important thing that happened for me was reconnecting with myself. It was in reconnecting with myself and learning to listen to my intuition, my inner voice, and my own vision that I was able to rediscover and accept who I was, who I am, and who I will become.

As a result, the control over my writing has become profound. I have started to value myself as an artist where before I only saw deadlines and assignments. I started turning down projects that I didn’t see value in as a citizen-artist. I started only taking projects that I felt connected to.

For the first time, I have started requesting compensation for work.

For the first time, I have willingly talked to the press when asked.

I have started to attend conferences, to network, to sell my work the way that I should have been doing for years.

All of these things have led to more opportunities in the past three years than I had ever hoped to obtain. I have come to realize that conservatories can teach counterpoint, orchestration, instrumentation, and style, but what they can’t teach is what life taught me in some of my lowest moments.

When your life falls apart, you learn to build a new one. Likewise, when your vision collapses, you learn to see things through a different lens. Having to get out of my own head required a change in my artistic vision. I’m not quite sure why this was. Maybe it is because I was not allowed to express myself for so long, maybe because as a queer victim of domestic violence I felt completely alone, maybe its nothing more than my old defiance, but I have begun to embrace citizen-artistry with a new found defiant zeal.

Being voiceless, being treated like a non-equal, and facing discrimination for so long has caused me to want to address these topics in my work: inequality, discrimination, interpersonal violence, and giving a voice to the voiceless. Including Fear no more, my work addressing domestic violence and consisting of Sháa Áko Dahjinileh (Remember the Things They Told Us), Sonetos del amor oscuro and Ice Shall Cover Nineveh; all of my latest works have dealt with “voiceless stories” in some way. Evocations, which will premiere this year in Baltimore and Mexico City, uses integrated film and chamber ensemble to speak to the rampant inequality in Latin American society. In remembrance of the 40th anniversary of the first diagnosis of HIV/AIDS in North America, I am working on three works which deal directly with texts by and about HIV+ artists and writers. Death Will Lift Me By The Hair, my concerto for harp and large ensemble is based on fragments by the poet Tim Dlugos. Lessons from Provincetown will seek to preserve the stories of queer leaders, drag queens, and activists who passed during the 1980s HIV crisis by setting their stories to music. Mise en croix, which is being written for Peabody Conservatory’s Electronic Music Department will also deal directly with this topic.

It was ironically in the wake of a tragedy that I rediscovered my artistic direction. While I had been able to regain my voice, I knew that I was lucky. People do not always escape domestic violence. I was fortunate to do so alive, and I felt a responsibility to use my art to bear witness, give a voice to the voiceless, and call towards justice and social action in the small way I can.

Rediscovering myself was not only artistic, but personal as well. I lost over 100 pounds. I found a healthy, loving relationship with a wonderful man. I’ve settled into my life in Mexico and planned out my next two seasons. I still have hard days, but they are becoming few and far between.

As with any move, six months after relocating to Mexico City I am still working my way through boxes. Just a few days ago I opened a box that hadn’t been opened since 2016 and I came across three notebooks that I used for sketching. By chance, two of them happened to be for Remember the Things They Told Us and Sonetos del amor oscuro. I flipped through them, expecting to laugh at the poor choices I’d made when my life was in chaos and to be self-congratulatory about ultimately rejecting the material. Instead, I was actually quite shocked to see what, even subconsciously, made it into the final versions of those two works.

Underneath these notebooks I found my treasured score for Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, which I hadn’t held since I was packing up my Baltimore apartment three years prior with a sheriff’s deputy standing guard to ensure my safety.

Appalachian Spring was the first work of symphonic music that I ever heard live, at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra when I was 7 or 8. I had known in that instant that I wanted to be a composer.

I reflected on these findings for a moment. Even before I became who I am today, even before the last three years, part of me always was artistically present, and that was visible to me in these works.

I put on my favorite recording of Appalachian Spring and read along with the score, reflecting on who I was, who I have become, and remembering the things this work had told me.

Admitting I Had A Problem

Pathway to sunset

When you know something is wrong but can’t figure out what it is, you try anything to fix the problem.

When you also suffer from crippling anxiety, then you may find yourself too scared to deal with the problem head-on. At least, that’s the vicious cycle I found myself in.

And most importantly, sometimes the problem that you think is the root cause is nothing more than a symptom.

I had not been able to make the moves or get the traction in my music career that I had wanted. I thought a change of scenery would do me good.

This was confirmed for me when, in August of 2018, I isolated myself in a hotel room in Billings, Montana, for a week to complete my oratorio for the Indianapolis Opera.

I was raised Roman Catholic but converted to Eastern Rite Catholicism in college, and when David Starkey at Indianapolis Opera had asked me for a piece, I had set a few guidelines for myself:

  1. I wanted to do a piece that reflected my Hoosier upbringing
  2. I wanted to reflect my love of Orthodox chant
  3. I wanted to use a Hoosier poet

I fell in love with the work of Kenneth Rexroth because of his innate spirituality, which I connected with on a very personal level. “Ice Shall Cover Nineveh” is particularly interesting to me. Morgan Gibson, Rexroth scholar, writes that “Ice Shall Cover Nineveh” is “more explicitly prophetic than the other cubist poems in this volume. The title alludes to a legend that the Gurgler Glacier once covered Nineveh because its citizens did not feed a hungry pilgrim who was said to be one of the Magi. The calm of mountain solitude is broken by the thought of the inevitability of death for both individuals and civilizations. In trying to make sense of such loss, the poet recommends the kind of natural piety that sustained him through periodic disillusionments. Thus the poems of In What Hour move agonizingly through historical struggles towards a transcendent view of humanity in and beyond perpetual cycles of nature.”

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It was this natural piety that gave me a cathartic week in the Montana backwoods and allowed me to finish this work. As I did, I reflected on how far I had come in my healing after the end of my abusive marriage and how far I had to go. I came to realize that I had to make more changes to deal with my depression and anxiety.

In January of 2019 I followed my gut on a two-year-long dream and decided to move to Mexico City. I was looking forward to starting over, new and anonymous, in a beautiful city that I love with all my heart. I naively imagined I would set up in my apartment, begin writing immediately, and life would fall into its place.

I was wrong.

While I had treated the symptoms of my PTSD and worked on accepting the loss of my marriage, I had never dealt with the underlying issues of depression in a medical way. I had lost weight and regularly exercised, but nothing else seemed to help.

“Me da una caja de sertralina, porfa.” One simple sentence completely changed my life. After a bad fight with my partner, and despite a previous terrible experience with psychiatric medication, I started taking Zoloft, an antidepressant, to help me regulate my moods and panic attacks.

A week later I sat down at my desk and began sketching my next work. I only got about ten seconds of music, but it was a victory beyond victories for me. For someone who was so tied up in and so consumed by anxious thoughts surrounding my writing and my work, being able to sit and focus seemed near impossible. And yet, I was able to sit and focus for a time, long enough to focus and complete sections of a work that I had been trying to write for close to nine months.

When I shared with a few people that I was starting this drug I was told a bunch of horror stories about how I’d never be able to write again, that I should find a “music counselor” (whatever that is), that Picasso/Seurat/Rexroth/Beethoven/Insert-name-of-an-artistic-juggernaut never medicated themselves, they turned their anguish into art, or any number of horrible things.

At first I responded.

“The truth is, many of the juggernauts of the past drowned themselves in opium and alcohol and every other substance under the sun trying to regulate themselves.”

“The truth is, I have to figure out a way for me to be okay.”

“The truth is…”

About two weeks after the anxiety started to fade, I realized I didn’t need to respond to other people. Responding to them didn’t do anything to change any minds, all it did was validate people’s own beliefs. I realized that I did not need to justify my medical decisions to anyone but myself.

For the first time in years, I could see that things would be okay. It became easier to tackle and take apart problems in front of me.

Most importantly, I realized relationships, work, school, art…indeed life, could be okay.

It will be okay. My life is becoming okay. Once I got help, I felt as if the last piece of the puzzle fell into place and I was able to finally move to where I needed to artistically.

Finding Myself in an Alternate Reality, or 12 months on Sand Hill Road

Two elevators

If you drive north from San Jose on I-280 towards San Francisco, you eventually pass the unassuming Exit 24 which takes you towards Sand Hill Road. Just past the Stanford Particle Acceleration Laboratory, Sand Hill Road is home to some of the most expensive corporate real estate in the world. (I was told a single 20×20 sq. ft. office in the same business park would rent for over $15,000 a month.) Here is the casino-laboratory where Silicon Valley’s unicorns are created: Apple, Uber, AirBnB, Lime Scooter. Some of the most ubiquitous names in our modern lexicon started on this road with funding.

During the process of my divorce, the assault trials, and the ensuing litigation which lasted approximately 20 months, I had decided for safety and financial reasons to move in with family in the Bay Area and had found a day job as a systems administrator for a local IT company. The job paid well enough that I was able to cover my bills, clear up some debt, and generally keep my head above water and start to save—something that I had never been able to do during my five-year-long partnership.

I was assigned to provide technical support three days a week to the largest and most successful venture firm in the business park. I was responsible for end-user support of computer and tablet devices used by some of the most elite of Silicon Valley’s elite.

In the beginning, I hated this world. It was everything I had grown to despise about Silicon Valley and the Bay Area: wealth in excess of anything one could possibly spend in a lifetime, a complete lack of creativity in my tasks, a boring routine, a lousy commute, and people who, on good days, were simply unpleasant, and on bad days were downright rude. Plus it had no connection to the arts and for the first time in my life I truly felt completely disconnected from my field and craft.

I hated this world until someone in my family reminded me of several things:

  1. Nothing is permanent, including this job.
  2. You are taking care of what you need to do so you can live the life you want to.
  3. Try to learn something from this job. You never know what might help you in the future.

So I opened up my mind to try to learn.

I took away three things from this place that would become incredibly important to moving my music career forward.

I knew I would never want to be a financial analyst or investor within about 30 seconds of working there, and that feeling continued. However, I did take away three things from this place that would become incredibly important to moving my music career forward, as I learned in the coming months.

Something that had always eluded me in the pursuit of music as a career was how to sell myself and my work, and now here I was standing in an office the entire purpose of which was to watch people sell themselves and then decide whether to invest in them or not.

“Sales is sales,” an old boss used to say to me when I worked for an audio firm, “and art, or audio, is nothing but sales,” and I took that to heart.

Because of the nature of my job, I sometimes had to sit in pitch meetings and provide whatever technical assistance was needed, and I came to love watching these investors in meetings. It gave me the unique opportunity to see what technical critics used to refer to as the “Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field” and allowed me to learn three valuable lessons:

Time (and Money) is Limited

Even in the world of Silicon Valley business where it seems money is endless, the reality is that time and money are in short supply. I noticed that these fund managers only invested in products or projects that spoke to them on some level. I decided to do the same, by only accepting commissions and only pursuing personal projects that I felt a true connection to in some way.

How to Construct an Elevator Pitch

I had the experience of chatting with a major investor for a few minutes. He had taken a liking to me, and we were chatting about what my life was like outside of my day job. He asked me what I did outside of work, and I had mentioned that I had gone to conservatory. Knowing this person had an interest in the Bay Area arts scene, I was hoping to chat about this for a time. Instead, he looked bored and changed the topic. It was another reminder to me how I had lost passion in my own work, and it showed. I decided to learn all I could about pitching and marketing my own work. If I didn’t believe in it myself, or show passion about what I had created, no one else would.

Passion is More Important

Time after time, I saw these products come in that (in my opinion) were not something I could see anyone in their right mind paying for, but the passion that these engineers, developers, and CEO’s brought to the table was what eventually caused the firm to, if not invest outright, advance them to the next round of decision making. It was the passion that got them continued meetings with higher and higher level employees.

My parents had hoped that by living surrounded by family I would be able to get more work done. What they believed I had come to Silicon Valley to do, make art, was not to be, but what I learned from what Silicon Valley does best—innovate—affected my work Sonetos del amor oscuro beyond what I had thought was possible.

This project, originally started after the mass shooting at Pulse, became an obsession for me. Creating something that I was passionate about was the breathing room I needed outside of my day job. By day I fixed tablet computers and by night I buried myself in this work. Building on what I had learned in my previous work Remember the Things They Told Us, I again wrote from the heart. I relied exclusively on craft and intuition without attempting to devise contrapuntal contraptions or other gimmicks to create some heady work of art as I used to do.

I lived the text that García Lorca had set down on those pages. I soaked them up, and it was in those words that I could come to terms with myself as queer. Though I had come out at the age of 22, I had not truly admitted it to myself until I began to devour this work. I always had this belief that I was more than my queer-ness and in order to fulfill that, I had always attempted to avoid trying to come off as “too queer” (whatever that meant) in my writing. The effect, however, was more like cutting my writing off at the knees. To quote the great Bill Watterson, it was almost as though I was saying to myself “you need a lobotomy, I’ll get the saw.”

Hearing this work performed live became extremely important for me because hearing the work live meant that for the first time, I would publicly acknowledge an aspect of myself that I never felt previously was important or relevant, but had come to understand in rediscovering myself that it was more integral to who I am as a composer than I realized. A recent trip to South Asia had also reminded me that it is not necessarily normal in the world to not go unpunished (if not be validated) as a queer artistic voice, and conversations with other queer friends in Mexico City reminded me that most Latinos, especially queer Latinos, do not even have a platform to bear witness in this way.

When I approached the Great Noise Ensemble with a concept recording and a partial score, Armando Bayolo graciously agreed to do the work on their “Four Freedoms” series, a series of four concerts each of which recalled one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Four Essential Freedoms”: freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Freedom of Expression was truly the epitome of what this work meant to me, and would begin to drive a need for me to become more of an activist citizen-artist then I had ever been before.

When your world falls apart, you learn to build a new one

A tunnel with a blue sky peeking out of the end

I’ve always been a bit of a defiant person.

When I was eight years old, I squared off with a soccer coach. “Who do you think is in charge?” he asked. “I am,” I replied. Next soccer season, my parents decided I should stick to music.

When I was in high school, I signed up to take the AP Music Theory test. The school told me no one in my district had ever passed, and they wouldn’t run a class nor offer me an independent study. So, I got myself a beat-up, out-of-print edition of Tonal Harmony and taught myself. I took that exam anyway, and passed.

When I was finishing my undergraduate work, I was told I was too young to write an opera. I did it anyway, and even took it to the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington, D.C. It got mixed reviews but taught me more than I ever learned in school about what Sondheim referred to as the “art of making art.”

When I applied to graduate school, a student colleague told me I’d never get into Peabody. My teacher died the day of my audition. My mom called to tell me and said she thought I should reschedule. “No, he’d want me to do this,” was my response. I was accepted.

In 2014, when I was applying for doctoral programs, however, I was told by my then-boyfriend that the school that had accepted me was too far, too cold, too “Midwestern.” I withdrew my application.

In 2015, I accidentally bounced a check at a Walmart outside of Baltimore. My partner had been taking money out of my account without my knowledge. When I confronted him about it, he slammed my head into a concrete wall. I didn’t confront him about money again.

In 2016, when I was in the emergency room with a concussion after a violent fight and a sexual assault, my then-husband told the doctor I had slipped and fell. They didn’t believe him. I was too delirious to confirm.

What I didn’t realize was that I had become so distracted by following the rules across my whole life that I had lost sight of who I was, artistically and as a human being.

It’s amazing to look at how much has changed since July 16, 2016, the 71st anniversary of the Trinity nuclear test at Alamogordo and also the day my ex was arrested and charged with domestic abuse. It’s interesting to me to see what has evolved and what has intensely remained the same.

Much of my work during graduate school was marked by an increasing interest in counterpoint. I wrote dense fugues, long structures, much of which was heavily derived from set theory and mathematics—ironic, as that was a subject I had always hated in high school. I had once despised following rules, but now, during graduate work, as it was in my home life, rules were providing me with the structure I relied on to stay alive, both literally and artistically.

To me, my writing became nothing more than an experiment, a scientific proof. I would postulate that a line could be spun out over five minutes, or that a Chebychev polynomial sequence could be used to synthesize long flowing lines of multilayer synthesis, and then I would do it. I would work late at night, after at least two jobs, and the work that I created at the time I see as nothing more than a distraction in retrospect. A night spent at an analog synthesizer until three in the morning was a night that I didn’t have to go home to verbal or physical abuse. If I was in the library copying out dense parts on a Saturday, then I was not at home to clean up the mess that my out-of-work partner had created during the week. A Sunday night in front of a chalkboard calculating matrices and sets on the fourth floor of the old building at Peabody was a Sunday night that I was free.

What I didn’t realize was that I had become so distracted by following the rules across my whole life that I had lost sight of who I was, artistically and as a human being. What I saw initially as pushing my craft forward was actually a way of shielding myself from myself. If I wanted to write honestly and openly as I had in the past, I would have to acknowledge myself for who I was as a gay Latino man. And, in doing so, I would have to acknowledge a hard truth: that I was, and had been, in an abusive relationship for the past five years.

My father’s family is Chicano. My great-grandfather was a composer and a troubadour in the Sonoran tradition and used this craft to feed his large family. The family still lives on a large land grant outside of Albuquerque, in what was originally Mexican territory prior to the Gadsden purchase. When you are driving or walking through the small village where my grandparents were raised, you hear a mix of English, Mountain Spanish, and Navajo. Due to the proximity of our village to the Navajo Nation, this language, culture, and spoken literature has always been fascinating to me.

I don’t remember how exactly I stumbled across the work of Luci Tapahonso, a poet laureate of the Navajo Nation, but somehow, probably in the fifth-level basement of Eisenhower Library at Johns Hopkins, I discovered her poem “Remember the Things They Told Us” and decided to work on a setting.

The piece, the first in the set of three, took me seven months to write—seven months for a five-part ensemble and twelve minutes of music. It would later become the first piece I had finished in three years.

The first three months of writing the work were torture. Draft after draft with no significant progress and endless blank pages in a notebook. During these months, I also was testifying at my ex’s trials, dealing with attorneys, family court advocates, and the Special Victims Unit. (Spoiler alert: Olivia Benson isn’t real, and the SVU detective assigned to my case couldn’t be bothered with actually talking to me.) For years, the only time I had felt even remotely like myself was during the moments when I could escape into the world of writing, and at this point, that didn’t even work.

Every contrapuntal trick I had failed me. I wrote OpenMusic patches to generate pitch-class sets, and every one was just wrong.

After four months, in a fit of rage, I threw out all the material I had generated as worthless and started to write from the heart, by hand in pencil, a process I had always hated.

I finished the first movement in five hours.

It was not much, but it was the beginning of something for me.

About a month before my ex-husband was arrested, the Pulse massacre occurred in Orlando, and I had wanted to do a piece of queer defiance. One of the longstanding rules in our relationship was that I was not to do anything to acknowledge my queer identity in public, as he was concerned someone would steal me from him (though, as he constantly reminded me, he could replace me in a second). So when I mentioned off-handedly that I was working on a queer work, he immediately told me to stop working on it and tried to destroy my notebooks. I would shelve the work for a while.

In one of my last lectures at Peabody in 2017, I told the students that I had gotten to the point in my work where I didn’t necessarily care what anyone thought. They looked stunned as I played an older work of mine from a more methodical, research-oriented time in my life and explained that while the piece got played often (and still does), I wasn’t going to work like this anymore, because I didn’t need to prove anything to anyone. I told them that I needed to write what I felt, and what I felt was a sense of emboldenment. I had stood up to someone who had been a nightmare in my life for five years and I was done taking orders from anyone, especially artistically. It was in that moment that I made the subconscious decision that rather than allow myself to be defined artistically by the difficulties and struggles in my life, I would use those struggles and difficulties to chip away at my artistic defenses and create a large work that I could truly be proud of. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that lecture would become absolutely pivotal in the next steps of my artistic life.

If you believe you are a victim of interpersonal violence, call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline in the United States to be connected with resources. Advocates are available 24 hours a day at 1-800-799-7233. You may also visit www.thehotline.org to be connected with resources in your community.