Category: Articles

Creating and Listening in Alaska: My experience with Composing in the Wilderness

Hikers in a foggy mountain range

I moved to Phoenix in 2008 to start my master’s degree in music composition. Almost every year since then, I have made it a mission to escape the heat at least once during the summer. I have made these efforts in spite of my financial situation and—although I am ashamed to admit it—in spite of my relationships. This year, 2019, has been my “year of doing less”—so far a grand and failed effort to take stock of what I have, get to know my Phoenix-based friends and musical companions better, and dig a little deeper into what it means for me to have a very full day job and do music “on the side.” To alleviate my annual wanderlust, I applied to Composing in the Wilderness, a program founded, built, and coordinated by composer/adventurer Stephen Lias. CiTW takes composers out into the rugged expanse of Alaska to find inspiration, connect with nature on an intimate level, and bring a new piece of music from idea to performance all within a few weeks.

I was woefully unprepared.

Map of Alaska

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Before I left, I described Composing in the Wilderness as this:

It’s a program where you hike during the day in Denali National Park in Alaska, then after a few days of outdoor observation, you are thrown into a cabin to write some music, then you get a performance. Pretty cool, right?

I knew we would be interacting with scientists and park rangers, but I had no concept of the scope of that interaction. It is a similar situation to people who come to Phoenix and decide to hike Camelback Mountain in the summer, thinking it will be an easy climb. From a distance, it looks like a good day hike, but if you are not familiar with your new relationship with the sun here, it is a far different experience than expected.

“Composing in the Wilderness is not a class or a workshop, but a shared wilderness experience.” – Stephen Lias

While my casual summary is technically correct—the CiTW experience is hiking in Denali for four days, composing in cabins for four days, then rehearsals and performances in Fairbanks and Denali with Corvus, the new music ensemble in residence at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival—it is not what I expected. When I arrived at our campsite and saw the diversity of our group and the intense knowledge of our leader Christina Rusnak and Alaska Geographic educator Suan Adams, I knew that my usual trajectory and internal compass for being in a group of composers for an extended period of time would no longer work.

Q: What are the things that still “stick” with you after the experience?

A: “The creativity of exploration and motion. The incredible calm and sharpness found in wilderness. The fuzzy joy feels of humans.” – Andy Israelsen

Observation and Reevaluation

“I feel more focused in my life. My experience with CiTW has given me a confidence and sense of determination/ direction that I haven’t had before.” – Jordan Stevenson

I have been to a number of summer music festivals and experiences. My plan was to keep my engagement to a minimum so I could have my quiet and my solitude. My much deserved respite in nature from screen time and nonprofit administration. How I thought this would be feasible with nine other composers (eight participants plus our Christina Rusnak) is a mystery in hindsight. I came with prejudgements about the loose factions that would form based on who took what too seriously.

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At first, I tried to experience Alaska in the way that I thought I had earned. I was quickly plucked from my ego and reminded that the earth does not belong to me, it is not here for my pleasure or artistic exploitation, and taking joy in discovery is far more fun than worrying about my musical knowledge and professional trajectory seeming more noble or interesting than another’s.

When I challenge why I would come in with such childish assumptions, I know it was out of fear that I would not belong or be taken seriously. I am now on the older side of the typical summer music experience participant and I want to say it doesn’t affect me, but that would not be the truth. As the group skirted around icebreakers and “where are you from?”-s, the flow of my attitude began to echo that of Anchorage-based composer Andy Israelsen, who on our last night claimed “I came for solitude, but instead I found family.”

Listening at the river

Photo by Christina Rusnak

Q: What are the things that still “stick” with you after the experience?

A: “Value of unplugged time, connection with the real—people, community, people, what lies under the superficial.” —Margery Smith

Connection to the Landscape

Regardless of the connotations “landscape” holds for you, it is a larger picture or format that has the potential to reveal multitudes if you take the time to observe. The scientists, Alaska Geographic employees, and park interpreters—who very literally led us into the wilderness and peeled back the layers—allowed us to make connections to scale, sound, and history outside of the scope of music. It was entirely up to us to make our own, very personal connections to the stream of information given to our group.

Most of us honed in on the scale of the landscape (be it cricket-sized or Denali-sized) and the visual and physical limitations the wildfire smoke had on our relationship to the wilderness. I realized that I was doing myself yet another disservice by not appreciating the bug flying past my ears and the grass tickling my wrists. Every small moving part is more essential to the whole than I ever knew. Davyd Bechtkal, a leading soundscape specialist for the National Park Service, opened our ears to the physical limitations scale and landscapes place on natural sounds and the way we experience them. Listening intently to the landscape around me gave me a better understanding of how small my role in the world is, but also how to find empowerment and joy in that role, regardless of scale.

Huddle

Photo by Christina Rusnak

“NYC is a place where you don’t hang out so much. You just go and do stuff, then go and do different stuff with different people, or just hang out at home waiting for the next ‘go and do stuff’ moment. CiTW was a small compact society. We were thrust onto each other but united in orientation—we’ve all had fairly deep relationships to making music. It was fun to share the personal aspects of that to see where it matched others.” – Skip LaPlante

Natural Resources

At the end of a 24-hour Alaskan summer day, the people I met and the friendships that were forged were the most impressive resources I found. If you look back on the history of Composing in the Wilderness, you will notice a significant age range in the participants. I could have simply watched Skip LaPlante give a lecture on his repurposed musical instruments crafted in a loft in the Bowery or read an article by Christina Rusnak in an IAWM publication, but the knowledge gained would be superficial compared to having these individuals and eight other composers from separate walks of life in a space together, not distracted by technology or schedules, swapping stories.

Without this specific wilderness/composer experience, I know I would have remained very unaware of the life and career opportunities that lay bubbling in our national and state park systems. Although I’m a good 30 years younger than Skip, I fully agree with his sentiment: “I didn’t know there was such a webwork of composer residencies in wild places. … I think I’ve discovered a new society to be part of and have to work out how deeply to participate.”

Hiking

Photo by Angus Davison

Continuing the Climb

“[H]aving the experience of being out in the field as we were, with such expert guidance interpreting what we encountered, and—more importantly—contextualizing them within the larger picture of the landscape of Alaska raised my consciousness of the interdependence of natural life, from very small to very large scale, to a level which I have never before had.” —Andrew Simpson

“I haven’t traveled much, and only within Europe, so I was shocked by how different both the wildlife in Denali and the culture in Fairbanks were to what I’m used to. It really was a little like walking on another planet when all the grass was different, all the trees were different, and the Sun was a different color in the smoke.” – Luciano Williamson

Without a doubt, the experience transformed me personally and will have lasting impact on my personal life and career. And I can only assume that when founder Stephen Lias came to Denali for the first time and began to formulate what would become Composing in the Wilderness, he knew exactly how transformative such and experience would be.

Before leaving for Alaska, I kept insisting to my co-workers that I was not going on vacation. Again, a true statement, but one that turned false after my experience. My sentiment was “I am not going to have time to relax, I am going to be working very hard while I’m gone. I am not going on a cruise.” Yes, I worked hard, we all did. But I found the things that a vacation allegedly brings: mental relaxation, reflection, and unforgettable new experiences. I came back refreshed. I came back not bugged by small things. The world is so big and people are so different, it doesn’t make sense to get caught up in the minutiae. We are human and it will still happen, but I find it easier to pull back and see the true scale of something. I feel more satisfied with what I have and am more ready to allow events to happen in their own time.

Composing in the Wilderness

Photo by Angus Davison

A Guide to Composing in Your Wilderness

  1. Minimize your interaction with technology.
  2. Find a friend to adventure with you.
  3. Select at least two new places in nature (as your available time frame and resources allow) to visit. A public park, a plant nursery, a different neighborhood, a botanical garden, etc.).
  4. If you have a question, talk about it, don’t look up the answer on your phone.
  5. Set a schedule, but do not feel bad if you do not adhere to it strictly.
  6. Eat a hearty breakfast and pack your lunch.
  7. If you are tired, take a nap!
  8. Take a deep breath, enjoy yourself no matter where you are on your journey.

Reading List

Andrew Simpson: Silence by John Cage

Particularly on that first full day in the field, as we were taking our meditative time, I kept coming back to his essay on silence, and how he says that you can never find true silence anywhere in the world: there is always sound of some kind.  In a place which is so quiet, I found myself thinking about that boundary between sound and silence, and becoming more attuned to the sounds which were there—the wind traveling through the spruces (coming from a long way off somewhere to my left, then crossing the place where I sat, and then continuing onward and out of hearing to my right)—the occasional bird, and such.  That wind moment eventually made its way into my piece, but the experience of being in such a quiet place and feeling its weight, punctuated by sound, made each sound more special and noticeable.

Christina Rusnak: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

[A book] that has to do with a way of “seeing” is Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. As we spoke about the indigenous Alaskans’ tie to the landscape, this one kept coming up in my mind.

Jason Gibson: Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

It’s a concentration camp survival story that focuses on the psychology of those in the [Nazi] camps. It sticks out to me because I found myself searching for meaning and legitimacy during the entire experience.

Margery Smith: The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise by Garret Keizer

This was one of Davyd Bechtkal’s books that I found very interesting and made me think [I can] still hear those crunchy chips from Denali lunch breaks!

Andrew Israelsen: Silence and Walking by Erlin Klagge

Silence was written after a solo walking trek to the South pole. The book is hardly about Antarctica, rather it is a winding journey on mindfulness and a wide variety of ruminations on silence. Walking has a fantastic narrative arc as Kagge explores poetry, philosophy, and personal experiences.

Skip LaPlante: The Tuning of the World by R. Murray Schaefer and Walden by Henry David Thoreau

The first is about the sonic environment in general, really understanding what you are hearing and the second is about observing and drinking in detail.

Elizabeth Kennedy Bayer: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

This is a sci-fi novel that addresses how language and views of the land and gender affect culture. It focuses on a visitor to a cold, ice-filled planet who is unable to grasp the slow pace of the people and lack of technological advancement. The visitor misses the technology they do have because it does not look like the technology he is used to. This scenario echoed with me as we learned more about how Western cultures have viewed and related to the Athabaskan, the indigenous people of Alaska.

Luciano Williamson: Musicage by Joan Retallack

It’s a collection of interviews with John Cage at the very end of his life, talking about words, art, and music, after being John Cage for a lifetime.

Jordan Stevenson: Oh the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss

“…to get you in the spirit of adventure.”

Fierce and Tender Humanity—Remembering Mario Davidovsky (1934-2019)

A photo of a woman and two men

I was reading various posts online and absorbing the news that Mario Davidovsky had died, when I received an email asking if I’d like to write a personal reminiscence for NewMusicBox. I was moved and said yes. As I thought about it in the days following, I felt I had pretty much summed up my thoughts on Mario’s music and values in an essay I wrote for celebrations of his 80th birthday. But I appreciate the chance to think more on his personality and my relationship with him, and to add to the wonderful flood of reminiscences, photos and stories about him.

Mario was a passionately involved member of society and the music world.

Composing modernist music is an esoteric activity within the general culture, but Mario made substantial connections with a great number of people. He was a passionately involved member of society and the music world. A lot of people have noted his generosity nurturing other artists, his integrity, his vehemently stated opinions, his volubility and notoriously long conversations that would range over world history, science, religion, politics.

In recent years I would call Mario for no particular reason, just to check in and chat. We talked about music and musicians, of course, but also Silicon Valley, environmental problems, branches of religious philosophy, the big cultural institutions, changing sources of funding. Mario played violin in his youth and that was certainly part of my rapport with him. Another commonality was the Jewish diaspora: both his family and mine (my grandfather) left Europe due to persecution and immigrated to countries in the southern hemisphere (Argentina and Australia respectively). He was always eager to hear about my “peripecias” after I’d been traveling and we’d compare Spain’s characteristics with South America, or the variety of Asian cultures, or one American city’s scene with another. He’d been to many of these places.

Mario Davidovsky (as a child) playing the violin

This old photo was sent to me by Mario’s nephew and Mario chuckled over it. It’s Mario playing violin, next to his mother and sisters.

By the time I really got to know Mario, he was mainly devoting his time to taking care of his wife Elaine, an elegant former dancer who was ailing for some years and passed away in 2017. He would say, “I hardly go out anymore, I’m at home always” and it was without question where he wanted to be, by Elaine’s side. But he’d also say “Tell me what’s happening! What do you see out there? Have you heard anything good?”  I would tell him about interesting concerts going on, and what pieces and programs I was playing. Often he would say “Oh yes, So-and-so was at the Conference in the 1990s” or some other decade, and proceed to describe their music then and whatever he had heard of theirs since, and any news or tidbits of rumors he’d heard about their doings.

He was often warm in his assessment of composers but occasionally he’d say, “Ay, but the music is sheeeet!”

He was often warm in his assessment of composers but occasionally he’d say, “Ay, but the music is sheeeet!” About music I was playing that he wasn’t familiar with, he’d ask “What’s it like?” I loved his challenge to express not just its basic characteristics or the inspiration behind it, but to describe from my observation what was happening in the music itself, how its elements seemed to relate.

I first met Mario in 2004 through composer Matthew Greenbaum, who had studied with and known Mario a long time. He invited violist Stephanie Griffin to perform the Davidovsky String Trio on a concert in New York and she asked me to play. I was enthralled with his music from the start. (Stephanie’s group, the Momenta Quartet, was formed from this and I played with the quartet in its first few years. They will perform the String Trio again on October 15 at the Americas Society).

Mario Davidovsky and Miranda Cuckson with John Harbison

Mario Davidovsky and Miranda Cuckson with John Harbison at Wellesley on November 8, 2015 (photo courtesy Miranda Cuckson).

I was very excited about Mario’s pieces and I soon explored and performed more: the Duo Capriccioso, Synchronisms No. 9, three of the four Quartettos, Romancero, the Biblical Songs, Chacona. I got to play all of these for him. As I said in that essay, Mario took many ideas he gleaned from his work with electronics and used them in his acoustic chamber music. In rehearsal he talked about the startling effects of simultaneities and blended sonorities, the singing passages. He emphasized abrupt shifts, saying the effect of switching from non-vibrato to vibrato should be sudden “like you pushed a button,” urging to press down very close to the bridge for noisy attacks marked “coarse!”, then asking for playing at the limits of extreme quiet. Contrasts were not only about dynamics but timbral qualities, from hits and snaps that were hard as stone to gentle, held tones of soft velvet.

For someone known for his work with technology, Mario’s musicality was very linked to older styles of playing.

For someone known for his work with technology, Mario’s musicality was very linked to older styles of playing. In modern music, glissandos are often played gradually and evenly to draw out the sliding effect, but Mario repeatedly said that his glissandos were a “real portamento,” that is, a quick slide coming at the end of the note, in the style of Fritz Kreisler or Mischa Elman. In a number of Mario’s pieces, such as Duo Capriccioso and the Quartettos, there are spurts of fast spiccato passages or arpeggiated ricochet bowings, and he’d say they should be tossed off “like in Wieniawski, Sarasate.” Sometimes as Mario listened to his music, he would sway his upper body and make expressive gesticulations, as if he were playing along. It makes me think about my former teacher, the violinist Felix Galimir, who was often described as playing like he composed the music himself. To me, Mario composed like he was playing the music himself—the character of his music came so much from the physicality of playing the instruments, even (or especially) when striving for dramatic effects inspired by electronic music.

Mario Davidovsky (Photo by Thomas Roma)

One of the few promotional images of Mario Davidovsky who was not very cooperative with photos. (Photo by Thomas Roma, courtesy C.F. Peters.)

Mario’s cultural roots were the core of his being, as was his own family. He was immersed in the music community, ready to wade into the thick of things, but if his family needed attention, he would drop everything to be with them. After Elaine passed, he said he was very lonely. There were people calling him, coming by to visit, and he was very appreciative. But he felt sad and alone without his dearest companion and I think was also, in his philosophical Jewish way, dealing with his existential sense of being a solitary soul in the world.

Mario’s cultural roots were the core of his being.

Once when I wrote him something sympathetic, he replied “I never suspected that loneliness could be so overwhelmingly infinite….God must be the utmost lonely thing in the universe—he only has himself…. At least, I have Zabars and can get some cheese and bagels!!!!”  It was a joking nudge because we sometimes ran into each other shopping at Zabar’s (indeed often in the cheese section).

I will miss his vast and loving support, his calling me “Querida Miranda” and saying “Heyyyyy!” when he recognized my voice on the phone. I hear the sounds and piquant cadence of his voice all the time now, just as I hear his fierce and tender humanity in his music.


[Ed. note: Back in 2006, we recorded an in-depth conversation with Mario Davidovsky which is one of the treasures of the NewMusicBox archives. Below is a film of highlights from that talk, but the entire transcript is also still available online. —FJO]

Mario Davidovsky in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded on February 15, 2006, 11:00 a.m., in Davidovsky’s New York City apartment
Video presentation by Randy Nordschow

Is Passion a Young Person’s Game?

A desk with scattered papers, compositions, and a computer
Look, you get older. Passion is a young man’s game. Young people can be passionate. Older people gotta be more wise. I mean, you’re around awhile, you leave certain things to the young. Don’t try to act like you’re young. You could really hurt yourself.—Bob Dylan, interview with Robert Love, AARP Magazine, February/March 2015

 

A French artist related that, in his 30s, a gallery owner told him that if he didn’t succeed as an artist by the age of 40 that he wouldn’t make it at all. He responded angrily, saying that age shouldn’t matter. “If the art is good, it’s good . . . [but] I see now that she was right,” he said matter-of-factly over a coffee in Marseille. Now in his 50s, in spite of a great deal of good work behind him, he spends his days playing boule in public lots with retired men while sipping pastis.

In the article “Blocked” by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker (June 14, 2004), Elizabeth Hardwick, a denizen of the writing world in the late 1950s, is quoted as saying: “I don’t think getting older is good for the creative process. Writing is so hard. It’s the only time in your life when you have to think.” Acocella cites author John Updike who speculates on Herman Melville’s diminished output after turning 32: “. . . basically Melville exhausted his artistic capital—his seafaring years—in ‘Typee,’ ‘Omoo,’ and ‘Moby-Dick.’ If, after those books, he wrote a couple of mediocre novels and then gave up the trade, it is no surprise.”

So, as one ages, how does one continue to “follow one’s bliss?” If it’s not passion in the 50+ age category (and, in my mind, that’s debatable) what is it that keeps us going in our work—especially if, like me and countless others, huge success hasn’t come knocking? Some days I feel like the only payoff I’ll ever have is the joy (not spoken ironically) of the daily habit of composing. Really, the important thing seems to be to work constantly and not worry about the end results; it’s best to invest your energy, enthusiasm, and—yes Bob—passion into your work.

Composer Kevin Volans, in his oft-quoted and discussed address “If You Need An Audience, We Don’t Need You,” [The Contemporary Music Centre, Ireland, June 15, 2016] states:

At least 95% of all composers get better with age. A very small minority get worse, but this is usually because of illness: . . . Yet there is more and more emphasis on and support for so-called ‘emerging composers’ —most of whom, I am sad to say, are left on the scrap heap when they turn 40. . . . I have had desperate letters from composers just over 40, who have won international competitions, and whose careers have suddenly come to a halt. Because they are no longer emerging, they are of no interest. The composers are bewildered and bereft. I think this is morally wrong. . . . Emerging, who cares? Publicists.

Daniel Grant relates the story of a gallery owner who shared that “age tends to be an issue for certain kinds of collectors and, as such, is an issue for dealers.” [The Huffington Post: “Is There an Age Limit for ‘Emerging Artists’?” August 25, 2010, updated May 25, 2011], He noted that he sees “collectors’ body language shift when they learn that [an] artist is older. . . . Certainly, one might make the argument that lengthy experience deepens one’s technical and conceptual abilities.”

Our craft takes time to mature and develop. It’s true that some great art comes out of younger artists, but sometimes it needs time. One need go no further than Stravinsky to make a case in point. His early ballet music is some of my favorite—and he was finished with those works by the age of 32. Still, I’ve always admired the fact that, as he grew older, he continued to experiment and transform as a composer. A more extreme example of the brilliance of the young is W.A. Mozart, who never did grow old (at least speaking in terms relative to our era). But, for many of us growing older, a continued concentration on craft places Malcolm Gladwell’s following statement within the realm of possibility: “. . . sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table” [October 13, 2008, “Late Bloomers,” The New Yorker].

Looking at an older generation of living composers as I write this, Alvin Lucier in his late 80s is still composing excellent and beautiful music. I was privileged to play one of three banjos (with ebows) on the premiere of his composition Hannover, with the Callithumpian Consort of the New England Conservatory four years ago. This year I released the premiere recording of a piece for solo banjo that I commissioned from Christian Wolff who is also in his 80s (Innova 005). John Zorn, in his 60s, still exhibits an originality and energy that I’ve always admired; the same holds true for Kaija Saariaho. And Augusta Read Thomas, now in her 50s, is still composing great and colorful music that’s as enthusiastically received as the music that brought her wide acclaim decades prior. But what about composers who were sensations in their 20s but then somehow disappeared from public discussion, even as their work continued. Was it a case of getting too old to be of interest to a youth-focused culture? Was a shift in body language detected in concert programmers when a name and age were mentioned?

But there are also composers in the aging category who don’t hold the legendary status of some of the above-mentioned composers who are finally finding well-deserved success combined with a craft that continues to develop. My Tennessee composer friend Jonathan McNair, who just turned 60, has been writing excellent music for years. His music is infused with wonderful musicianship honed with passion and heart. Some of his music is expressive of a large social consciousness. For years, he kept writing and teaching and now a number of musicians have discovered his music and are programming it. “I think I wrote more music in the 11-month period from May 2018-April 2019 than ever before in my life,” he wrote me. And he is confident and happy with the direction that his new compositions are going,

As a composer in his 60s, am I supposed to give up because the zeitgeist seems to favor younger composers and artists? Chances are great that many of us composers over 50 aren’t through yet. “We’re living longer than ever before,” writes Amy Gutman [“Aging is not death. Stop conflating the two,” The Washington Post, May 17, 2015.]. “In the 20th century, Americans gained a staggering 30 years of life expectancy, thanks to advances in nutrition, public health and medicine. A century ago, just 3 percent of our population was 65 or older. Today, that number is 13 percent and expected to rise to 20 percent in the next 15 years. In other words, by 2030, an estimated 1 in 5 of us will be 65 or older.”

I’ve never been bored by the subject of music; it’s been an endless pipeline of exciting ideas and discoveries. I learn a lot from looking at works by Beethoven that I don’t know. I hear for the first time events in works by Debussy or Ravel that I may have heard a thousand times, but never before noticed. That’s an advantage for me in aging—I’m a more intelligent listener; my ears are better and keep improving. And I try to stay abreast of works by younger composers. I don’t want to send my own writing in their stylistic directions, but I am interested in the transformation of our art form. As an older composer, I am set on my own path, but I want to maintain an awareness, if not open-mindedness, of what is going on around me. At least I can point my students toward composers closer to their peer group to keep an eye on.

I don’t believe that I’ll run out of material or passion if I can at least maintain my health and attitude. I’m happy to have a catalog of works good and bad that developed over several decades. For the most part I believe that I’ve gotten better as one should with practice. The daily habit is what sustains me psychologically—anything beyond that in terms of performances or royalties may just be icing on the cake.

The musician/polymath Nicholas Slonimsky interviewed by NPR on the occasion of his 90th birthday was asked what he intended to do next. He listed numerous activities including composing and writing an autobiography, eventually titled Perfect Pitch, and published in 1988 when he was 94. He, in fact, lived to be 101. Elliott Carter kept writing music up until the year he died at the age of 103.

Is passion really a young person’s game? I find myself drawn to certain quotidian habits born of a passion fostered in my 20s: composing (esp. when I don’t feel like it), practicing, and teaching. I think back to images of the young Bob Dylan in the D.A. Pennebaker film Don’t Look Back. While on tour, during the day, Dylan and his entourage are killing time in a hotel room; it’s an energetic scene: Joan Baez plays and sings in the corner, the manager Albert Grossman simply sits or fields calls, and Dylan is slamming out some sort of (I imagine) stream of conscious narrative on his typewriter. At this time, he was indefatigable and passionate with his writing and composing; performing constantly until his motorcycle accident in 1966.

I think that viability as a creative artist is self-defined regardless of age. We can’t believe an art dealer or concert promoter if they tell us we are washed up at 40. Some of us dive in early in our careers with that youthful passion that causes us to work every day. Dylan, now 77, never seems to have wavered in passion and song production over the past 60 years. And if it’s not passion, then it must be habit born of passion that continues his productivity. And as for me, I see no reason to quit stumbling to the drafting table every day; I still have ideas, and a desire to improve my work. It’s not the posterity of a large body of work that I’m trying to create, but the continued self-defined worth of an artist who still wants to compose and collaborate with excellent musicians. Thankfully, it seems that there are more of those now than ever before. Do I stop composing because the LA Phil hasn’t contacted me for a commission? Hell, no.

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.

This is the Album of the Future

record collection

I am a composer, performer, music producer, and avid record collector, and I am currently in a complicated relationship with physical media. Like many others, I love the tangible process of opening up a CD or LP, playing it through my home system, and studying the artwork and liner notes as I listen. I hold my own albums to this standard as I release them into the world. I pore over the details of the physical package, driving my collaborators crazy as I attempt to perfect every aspect of its design. After spending several maddening months—and often years—to make an album, the moment of finally holding the object itself is a satisfying final seal, assuring me that I’ve created something permanent.

Yet the age of streaming rages on, my closets are filled with boxes of overstock, and even my mother is more likely to listen to my music online than she is to put on a CD or LP. As much as we like to think of these discs as the sacred vessels of our musical concepts, many of us are questioning whether it is worth the time, money, space, and materials to produce the physical object.

What makes an album such a powerful statement is that the artists and producers craft a complete experience for the listener, not only through a cohesive musical idea but through its presentation: artwork, information, liner notes, and now virtually any form of media. Currently, digital platforms do not allow much room for this, confining albums to tracklists and an album cover: a thumbnail representation of something that could be physical. This has had financial repercussions—by reducing an album’s worth to the play count of its individual tracks, huge corporations have gotten away with paying artists fractions of pennies for their work.

In response to these changing tides, some of us have chosen to dig deeper into the classic formats, releasing our albums on limited edition vinyl and cassette tapes. Others search for new objects to represent their album (beer koozie with download code anyone?). Look no further than Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Music (2005), a self-contained electronic music circuit and playback device within a CD case, for an eloquent example of physicality as the concept of the album itself.

There have been many creative approaches to releasing albums as physical objects in today’s world, but that’s not what this article is about. I’m tossing any purity I have left aside, and I am wondering: What can an album be now that it no longer needs to be an object?

Florent Ghys’s “This is the album of the future” from his video album Télévision

The album has always been and continues to be a malleable form, having adapted to over 100 years of changes in technology, business, and pop culture. The very first albums were, literally, albums: bound books manufactured to contain several 78 RPM phonograph records, examples of which can be found as far back as 1908. When Columbia Records began releasing 12-inch discs in 1948, the term had already been extended past its original meaning to refer to any collection of musical tracks. Since then, our albums have contorted through a variety of formats, shapes, and sizes and now, residing on the internet, they no longer require a physical container. Artists can release albums at a faster rate and with more ease than before, and the possibilities seem to be endless for the integration of multimedia and interactive elements.

Some are skeptical as to whether some of the newer formats should be identified as true “albums.” To decide for myself, I apply a very simple litmus test: Does the artist call their work an album? If yes, then it is so. I see the changes in how music creators conceive and present this music as the indication of its evolution as a term.

I have been searching for compelling examples of albums that have extended this form within the digital world and collected them here. Some big-budget and mainstream offerings need to be mentioned, but I have chosen to focus on a few specimens from independent artists and labels, and have given them a close and thoughtful listen.

This is by no means a comprehensive survey. I invite anyone with examples of albums that should be included in this discussion to post in the comments below.

Notes from Sub-Underground

Object Collection’s Notes from Sub-Underground (2017)

One of the immediate parameters that is lifted for albums in the digital age is that of length. At one end of the spectrum, an artist can release a shorter offering and present it as a complete concept without feeling the need to fill the entirety of a CD, tape, or LP. On the other end, albums can be very long indeed. Notes from Sub-Underground, a 2016 collection of experimental music put out in the wake of the Trump election, is an awesome example of this. Produced by the music theater group Object Collection, this five-hour-plus compilation is comprised of 62 tracks representing somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 artists. The line-up includes influential experimentalists from across generations including Richard Foreman, Cat Lamb, Phill Niblock, Michael Pisaro, and Matana Roberts, as well as performing groups String Noise, Ensemble Pamplemouse, and my own group Dither.

Beginning with a call for submissions in December, the compilation was assembled in less than two months and released on Inauguration Day, 2017. Object Collection compiled the tracks, did some basic post-production work, and produced a cover and liner notes for digital distribution. Upon its release, in order to download a copy of the album, listeners would contribute an amount of their choosing through an Indiegogo campaign, all proceeds of which were donated to the ACLU. (You can now access the compilation through Object Collection’s website.) While only some of the tracks are overtly political, the collective album effort is what makes this an effective statement.

And it’s a great record. I committed to a complete listen, toggling between sessions on my home computer and on my headphones while on New Jersey Transit. Although the sequence of the tracks is not curated (the song titles are placed in alphabetical order), there is a satisfying flow to the album in its consistent inconsistency. One of my listening sessions began with Mellissa Hughes and Philip White’s “Clinging to a Cloud, an abstracted pop song comprised of autotuned melismas intertwined with synth tones and computer voices. This track flows beautifully into an excerpt from Suzanne Thorpe’s vocal collage “Constituting States,” constructed of recordings of the U.S. national anthem as sung in different languages. The voices swirl around each other and finally resolve, to be interrupted by Jonathan Marmor’s clangorous electronic piece “Easter Helicopter”. Listening to the entire project is a cathartic experience that holds true to Object Collection’s maximalist and DIY ethos.

OneBeat Mixtape 18

OneBeat Mixtape 18: Vols 1-6 (Found Sound Records, 2019)

A collective musical endeavor that approaches the album format as a series of shorter offerings comes from the Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization Found Sound Nation. To document the output from their OneBeat program in 2018, for which they enlisted 24 international artists to create collaborative works, they have produced and released a series of digital “mixtapes,” each averaging around 20 minutes in length. Their concept is to provide an extension (“B-sides”) to the golden record that was included aboard the two Voyager spacecrafts in 1971. They staggered the release of the six volumes, each referencing a stop as the ships traveled deeper into space. The entire project can be found on Bandcamp.

While the eclecticism of the tracks on each volume holds true to the idea of a mixtape, the concept and production of the recordings create a unified offering. (All tracks were produced by OneBeat and recorded during the same sessions.) “Sorabe,” the opening track of Vol 1: Earth composed by Tsanta Randriamihajasoa, groups the Malagasy pianist with Indian vocalist Pavithra Chari, Hungarian clarinetist Zolt Bartek, and Algerian drummer Younés Kati. The track is a jazz-infused tour of each artist’s musical language, emulating the idea of the earth’s bustling “acoustic and organic sounds.”

Skipping ahead, Vol 6: Heliopause is described by OneBeat as a collection of “abstract pieces perhaps only understandable by the most adventurous human ears.” While I don’t find this material to be inaccessible (especially after listening to 5.5 hours of Object Collection) this volume certainly conjures an otherworldly sonic palette that one might equate with the edge of our solar system. Beginning with the more tangible songlike opening of “Outer Space,” each track of the album continues a trajectory deeper into textural and droney soundscapes.

Florent Ghys: Télévision

Florent Ghys: Télévision (Cantaloupe Music, 2014)

There are many notable examples throughout recorded music history of a film being produced in conjunction with an album. The Beatles’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Prince’s Purple Rain (1984) are two of many landmark works which were released separately as film and soundtrack. As home video systems became increasingly popular in the 1980s, artists began to regularly distribute video compilations, live concerts, and documentaries as part of their output. I fondly remember the comedic band Green Jellö (popular on MTV for their heavy metal claymation video “Three Little Pigs”), who claimed in the opening credits of their Cereal Killer VHS (1993) to be the “world’s first video-only band.” (They did in fact release a soundtrack album separately from the video.)

Billing an audiovisual work as the album itself is still a relatively new phenomenon which is quickly being embraced by the mainstream, encapsulated by the success of Beyoncé’s “visual album” Lemonade (2016). Although one might question how these offerings differ from the films and videos made by their predecessors, I see this as a natural arrival point, enabled by current digital platforms: the audio and visual elements of the album are both readily available on the same interface and can be easily conceived, created, marketed, and distributed together as a unified concept.

Bassist/composer Florent Ghys dubs his most recent solo release Télévision (2014) a “video album,” and it is indeed a high-level integration of musical and visual concepts. In this case, the two elements are so intrinsically connected that it’s hard to imagine experiencing the music alone. Working in sync with both audio and video software, Ghys composed the two entities in tandem, providing a direct video corollary to virtually every musical event.

In the opening track “Beauté Plastique,” each new instrumental layer enters with a corresponding visual element, creating a complex tapestry of hockets and contrapuntal lines. The final track, “This is the Album of the Future,” features a tongue-in-cheek video collage of dated advertisements for compact disc players. (Télévision is in fact also available as a CD from Cantaloupe records.) The entire video is an absorbing and effective visual experience which kept me engaged in a way that felt more akin to binge watching a TV series or going down a YouTube rabbit hole than listening to an album of the past.

Rabbit Rabbit: Rabbit Rabbit Radio, Vols 1-3

Confronting the issue of digital distribution, another creative video-based offering comes from Rabbit Rabbit (Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi). Frustrated with online services, in 2012 the duo began a long-term project in which they released a song and video per month on their own subscription-based site, rabbitrabbitradio.com. Although they have now chosen to end their monthly output and focus on larger-scale works, they compiled their three years of work into three albums which can be listened to and watched on Bandcamp.

While maintaining high production values, these videos are intimate and homegrown, often using footage from the recording studio or home performances. They incorporate several candid and personal moments, including a living room session in which their young daughter throws a minor tantrum during the song. Family and friends feature prominently throughout the three volumes. “Paper Prison” is a documentary portrait of Bossi’s father as he discusses his rare book collection. The final track, “Merci Vielmal,” was recorded on a train while on the road with their group Cosa Brava (performed with bandmates Fred Frith, Shahzad Ismaily, and Zeena Parkins). Not only is this music captivating, but you come out of the experience feeling as if you have had a window into the artists’ everyday lives.

John Cage, The Ten Thousand Things, I Ching Edition

John Cage, The Ten Thousand Things, I Ching Edition

John Cage, The Ten Thousand Things, I Ching Edition (Microfest records, 2013)

In the ‘90s, artists such as Peter Gabriel, Primus, and The Residents released CD-ROMs with game-like applications along with their albums, providing an interface for listeners to explore the songs, art, and other elements. Today, our touch-screen devices offer even more potential for interactive music applications. Bjork’s Biophilia (2011) was released as an “app album,” featuring artwork, extensive liner notes, videos, and games associated with each track. Other artists take the interactive model further by allowing the music to be generated in real time. Brian Eno’s most recent release Reflection (2017) exists both in fixed media and as an application that creates a unique and endless version of his composition.

An interesting example of a generative album experience comes from Microfest Records’s release of John Cage’s The Ten Thousand Things (2015). In the 1950s, Cage composed this set of pieces to be played independently, in any combination, or reconfigured in a variety of ways. Microfest produced The I-Ching Edition of the album which consists of a fixed version of the piece, accompanied by an application (delivered via thumb drive) that allows you to generate unique versions the composition. Each rendering is constructed from performances by pianists Vicki Ray and Aron Kallay, bassist Tom Peters, percussionist William Winant, and an archival recording of Cage himself reading his lecture “‘45 for a Speaker.” Each new version of the piece uses the same recordings, but is unique in its organization.

One of the most satisfying things about this piece is that the spoken material in Cage’s fragmented lecture describes the same compositional techniques that you are hearing in real time. The chance aspect of the application itself adds yet another layer. The creativity of this format, the top-notch performances, and the charm of hearing Cage masterfully read his lecture make for an enthralling aleatoric experience.

Ironically, many of these innovative application-based albums have fallen victim to operating system upgrades. We can still get Bjork’s album through Apple’s app store, but similar offerings from Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, and Philip Glass seem to have become obsolete in less than ten years. These apps were either never updated, or they were seen by the record companies merely as short-term marketing tools. There also just haven’t been a huge quantity of app albums made, as the financial overhead required to create these programs is still prohibitive for most independent artists.

With so much trial and error required, it is not a surprise that album formats have needed to pass a high threshold of popularity and mass consumption in order to achieve longevity. This is one reason that physical albums are still relevant today—they survive as permanent objects on the sidelines of a constantly changing and merciless digital landscape.

What is the album of the future? I hope for an interface that is as accessible and navigable as the current streaming platforms, one that allows artists to configure a unique experience for their listeners, and one that empowers us to control its monetization. (Bandcamp is well ahead of the pack in this regard.) The ideal platform would not only provide easy access to music, art, text, and all types of media, but be malleable so that new elements can be integrated as they arise. The next sea change in business and technology will surely provide new and unforeseen formats for our music, and within it artists will continue to innovate, adapt, and respond.

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.

The Catalyst-Conductor: Conductors as Musical Leaders for the 21st Century

Photo credit: Steve Phillip

Our society has become increasingly characterized by its “gig economies”—short-term work, often defined by the worker herself. Recent studies have predicted the gig economy will represent 43% of the workforce by 2020, and the number will only rise. With the gig economy comes any number of difficulties, as modern workers are often compelled to be entrepreneurs, self-starters, self-motivators, and creators.

Conductors are no different. Indeed, they are well-positioned to take advantage of this new economic order, and many are already doing so, with outstanding results.

In addition to their traditional duties within established institutions, an increasing number of conductors run independent organizations, launch musical and civic initiatives, serve as catalysts for the development of new work, and use their positions to cross disciplinary boundaries. In bypassing institutional gatekeepers, these conductors have brought relevance, vitality, and an expanding number of previously unrepresented voices into the field. Indeed, the dynamic new “catalyst-conductor” could help bring the revitalization that the classical music industry so desperately seeks.

Conductors as musical leaders

The traditional role of the conductor was sharply delineated. A conductor would join a well-established institution, choose repertoire, maintain a musical vision, and lead other musicians in performance. Secondary expectations included some direct interaction with donors and audience, and marginal involvement in certain fundraising and marketing campaigns. The traditional Maestro arrived to rehearsal or performance with all logistics in place, all administrative details carried out, and focused solely on the interpretation of the repertoire he was to perform. Most of his time outside of rehearsal was devoted to score study. In his youth, the Maestro was likely an instrumentalist or composer. He attended a graduate study program and eventually found himself an apprenticeship with a more established conductor, under whom he served as an assistant before moving to an ensemble of his own.

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Many of my colleagues have thrived by following this focused route—studying standard repertory at a graduate program, attending a couple of prestigious festivals, serving as an assistant for a major professional orchestra, and then, following years of apprenticeship, winning a music directorship at an institution of their own. Some of these individuals now make great impact and bring creative programming to their newly found communities.

But while this path has become progressively more rare, other routes have emerged. In my early career, I embarked on a very different journey—one that has wholly shaped my music making today. Following college and graduate work, I was not apprenticed to a major musical institution. I never found an apprentice-based assistantship particularly attractive, but many traditional opportunities also simply did not exist for me. I was 23 years old, in Boston, surrounded by other young people, and wanting to create art. So that is what we did. I spent the first decade of my career running a new music ensemble and several small opera companies, in a cobbled-together career that involved conducting everything—from the largest standard works to tiny chamber music pieces of niche repertoire, from youth orchestras to professional choruses and community opera organizations. I performed with every small-budget musical collective around, while occasionally assisting at more established institutions. In my early years I never said “no” to a gig—if they wanted to see La serva padrona in a local ashram, I would conduct the opera barefoot to audiences who were sitting on the floor and sipping chai. If they asked me to put together a full-scale production of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades in a university dining hall, there I was, moving solid oak tables onto a Harvard lawn. I was fortunate to be in a vibrant city, surrounded by other artists of the highest caliber, learning by doing.

For me, this entrepreneurial, gig-economy approach was the perfect way to hone my craft and launch a career. At the small-budget organizations I led, I was involved not only in the musical and programming activities but also oversaw marketing, fundraising, production, and other areas. I learned about all aspects of administration, moved percussion instruments, built opera sets, recruited board members, folded solicitation letters, and created budgetary spreadsheets. It was an insanely packed life that was only possible to sustain for a limited period. Throughout most of my 20s, my peak score study hours were 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., after the rehearsals and meetings were complete, emails were answered, and I could have a solid chunk of time without interruption.

Most of my teachers and mentors scolded my failure to specialize and discouraged my involvement in running organizations, launching initiatives, and collaborating with people outside of my field. They saw this as a waste of time that deterred from the development of a niche skillset. But what those teachers failed to grasp was the intrinsic value of a multi-disciplinary approach to life. My chamber music experience now informs my approach to even the most large-scale symphonic and operatic works. My administrative and production experience has shaped both my leadership style and my artistic ideas, giving me a more holistic view of my work.

And I am hardly alone. At the time, I was unaware of the countless other conductors following the same multi-faceted, entrepreneurial path. This new norm is one we should embrace and encourage, as it contains potential solutions to some of the issues facing classical music today.

Lidiya Yankovskaya in the pit

Lidiya Yankovskaya in the pit
IMAGE: Kathy Wittman

Development of the Catalyst-Conductor

The change in the conductor’s role has not been sudden—it has developed gradually over the last few decades. The first developments stemmed from conductors’ more traditional responsibility of seeking and promoting the work of the composers of their time. In the middle of the 20th century, as the contemporary music movement largely moved out of mainstream concert settings, this role became more vital than ever before and the catalyst-conductor emerged. In my mind, the definitive originator for this change was Pierre Boulez. As a composer-conductor, Boulez had a personal stake in recognizing and supporting contemporary work. As an exceptional musician and tireless advocate, he used his position to move the field forward, founding as many as five large-scale institutions of the highest level, four of which continue to thrive today. Those organizations—IRCAM, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Cité de la Musique, and the Lucerne Festival Academy—have served as central development and training grounds for European music. I find especially impressive Boulez’s founding of these organizations after he was well into an international conducting career. Even amid an incredibly full agenda as conductor and composer, Boulez took responsibility for opening doors to his contemporaries and creating opportunities for the most innovative music making of his time. His tireless dedication to music, above all else—both in terms of his contributions to the field and his own fastidious artistry—should serve as a model for all in our industry. If the music wasn’t being performed in a traditional institution, he created his own space.

Boulez demonstrated that a conductor could use his position, broad musical expertise, and management experience to serve as an influencer and founder of necessary and critical initiatives. Countless conductors and composer-conductors have since launched exciting new music organizations of various bents (some American examples include Tania León/Composers Now, Brad Lubman/Ensemble Signal, Alan Pierson/Alarm Will Sound, Gil Rose/BMOP, and David Bloom/Contemporaneous). In Britain, a group of conductors used the same method to promote Early and Baroque repertoire, founding the influential Historically Informed Performance, or HIP, movement (John Eliot Gardiner, Andrew Parrott, Christopher Hogwood, and others).

In more recent years, an increasing number of conductors have used a similar approach in mobilizing civic change. Large institutions play a critical role in preserving tradition and providing the building blocks necessary for high-level, large-scale performance. As the public faces of these institutions, conductors are well-positioned to serve as advocates, both within our field and for non-musical causes. However, the traditional organizations we represent rely on support from foundations and individuals representing a broad political and civic spectrum, so there is always a fear that, if a “political” or “social justice” position is taken, someone will feel alienated. Indeed, as an organizational leader, I recognize many limitations on what I can advocate within the confines of an existing institution without the risk of hurting our relationship with long-standing patrons and supporters. However, those same supporters, while wishing the institution to remain on neutral ground, generally have no issue with the conductor having separate projects that support a specific social agenda.

The most recognized example of a conductor-activist initiative is Daniel Barenboim’s long-standing work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded in 1999. The orchestra brings together Israeli musicians with Palestinian and other Arab musicians in an attempt to unite individuals torn by a deep political and ideological divide. The Chicago Sinfonietta, founded by Paul Freeman, has worked to address the lack of diversity within the orchestral world. There are also conductors like Kristo Kondakçi (whose work includes a chorus for homeless women) and Joseph Conyers (Philadelphia’s Project 440 and All City Youth Orchestra), who have dedicated the majority of their musical efforts to social causes. These individuals have used positions at big-name institutions to form outside projects that affect civic change. The institutions provide them with the necessary stamp of quality and legitimacy. But by working outside the institutions—and seeking music making in new venues, for new communities—these conductors are able to make a tremendous impact on society.

Bypassing the Gatekeepers

A major positive outcome of increased entrepreneurship among conductors has been the opportunity for those who may otherwise have been overlooked to gain recognition. While I eventually found musical opportunities in more established organizations, my early career was largely defined by my work in a never-ending array of smaller, dynamic organizations, which I was able to develop and grow. And again, I am hardly alone. For some conductors, when opportunities did not materialize, starting their own ensembles served as the ideal career launching pad. Sarah Caldwell raised money, directed, conducted, and produced countless performances with the Opera Company of Boston, at a time when women were almost entirely missing not only from the podium, but also from the orchestra and the administration. Marin Alsop credits much of her success to a decision early on to start her own ensemble, an experience that allowed her to gain the skills she needed to succeed. Nicole Paiement established her place in the opera field with San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle and Eve Queler with the Opera Orchestra of New York. Alondra de la Parra is another example, founding the Orchestra of the Americas, which served both to showcase overlooked Latin American repertoire and to hone and prove her abilities before she had other opportunities to do so.

Without an established authority’s stamp of approval, it is not possible to convince others to follow unless they truly believe in your work. A conductor who is unprepared, unmusical, uninspiring, rude, or unreliable will never be able to get away with these faults without a larger-looming prestige figure or institution behind them. Likewise, audiences will not tolerate anything short of a stellar product when the emblem of a major accrediting body is not on the performance. Early-career conductors who run their own organizations are forced to prove their excellence by making great art that earns respect of its own accord. They can then bring the enormous experience gained from this challenge to their positions at major institutions, further impacting the field in a positive direction.

By forming their own ensembles and bypassing the gatekeepers of the classical music world, conductors like Caldwell, Alsop, and Paiement put large cracks into some very thick glass ceilings. Other conductors have made strides in areas of equity and diversity by overseeing educational initiatives. Michael Tilson Thomas’s New World Symphony partners with the Sphinx Organization to train a diverse body of emerging professionals, Marin Alsop’s OrchKids gives high-level training opportunities to kids from the poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore, and her Taki Concordia Fellowship supports emerging women conductors. In each of these situations, major conductors have used their position and expertise to create independent organizations with the purpose of filling a void.

The Future of Conductorial Entrepreneurship

Contemporary culture is built on entrepreneurship. Start-ups have defined and reshaped our social, business, and creative models. However, the structures inherent within the classical music industry have often left our field trailing behind, scrambling to keep up with the intense pace of modern cultural change. In order for classical music to thrive and move forward, we must find more ways to encourage and support individuals who are taking the difficult path of forming, running, organizing, and creating performance groups for a new era. If fully supported and embraced, conductorial entrepreneurship can be a solid pathway to increased diversity and stronger artistic leadership within classical music.

Although traditional conductor-specialists have an important place and will continue to flourish, conductor-entrepreneurs can spearhead the next wave of classical music. As mobilizers and catalysts for change, conductors from diverse backgrounds—spanning cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender boundaries—can have an opportunity to make an impact on our field, even when initially halted by gate-keeping institutions. Those who embark on this path can foster creativity and collaboration, open doors that may otherwise remain closed, increase the number of voices represented, and ultimately move classical music toward a more viable future.

Artist Financial Profile: loadbang

An instrumental ensemble of 4 Caucasian men
A discussion with Executive Director Andy Kozar

In 2007, four friends at Manhattan School of Music—Andrew Kozar, Jeffery Gavett, Philip Everall*, and William Lang—were spending significant amounts of time together talking about new music at school, and also at the bar. Realizing they could be performing new music with each other instead of just talking, they began rehearsals for what would become a concert series in an abandoned library at MSM called “Will and Andy’s Power Concerts.” These concerts were only 20-minutes long and, “just like a power nap,” they were all you needed to freshen up your day. Since these friends represented trumpet, baritone voice, clarinet, and trombone, repertoire was lacking. Their first concert program included performances of an Earl Brown graphic notation score, a few barbershop quartets (yes, they sung them), and a piece Jeff wrote for the group.

Fast forward 12 years and these four friends had become loadbang, a “formidable new music force” in the new music scene. I had the pleasure of speaking with their executive director and trumpet player, Andy Kozar, over the phone. Andy was gracious enough to tell me more about how the ensemble started, the history of their finances, a bit about their individual lifestyles, and the ins and outs of how loadbang operates as an integral piece of each members’ musical and financial activity. If you are looking to start an ensemble, I hope this article will offer you a sample working model for best practices.

Non-profit financials

Before we dig into loadbang’s financials, it’s important to note that the financials of any nonprofit are accessible to the public. Every non-profit is required to annually file a Form 990 and many can be accessed through Guidestar.org. The IRS website states:

Forms 990 and 990-EZ are used by tax-exempt organizations, nonexempt charitable trusts, and section 527 political organizations to provide the IRS with the information required by section 6033.

and continues with:

Some members of the public rely on Form 990 or Form 990-EZ as their primary or sole source of information about a particular organization. How the public perceives an organization in such cases can be determined by information presented on its return.

In short, a 990 does not always provide a clear picture, but the form can give the overall details of the financial health of an organization, primary activities and how much was spent on them, the names of the board of directors, and the compensation of the highest-paid officials in the organization. For the real tax nerds wondering what section 6033 is, here you go.

Before I called Andy, I pulled loadbang’s most recent 990 filed in 2018, from the 2017/2018 concert season (their fiscal year runs July to the end of June).

Andy Kozar

Andy Kozar

Revenue

With all the success that loadbang has achieved, some may be surprised that this ensemble is only a portion of each of the members’ incomes. This is why many musicians belong to several performing groups, in addition to their own freelance and teaching or composing work. Looking at the Form 990, the 2018 revenue amounted to $66,319.94 for the season. Expenses totaled $68,958.12, resulting in an organizational deficit of ($2,638.18) for the year. The revenue alone is not enough for any one of the loadbang members to comfortably live in New York City, yet loadbang is a very well managed organization and has set a great trajectory.

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Their 990 reveals that $47,233.33 of the revenue is from “program service revenue.” Essentially this is ticket sales and artist fees, making up 71% of the gross revenue. The other 29% is from “contributions, gifts, and grants” and “gross profit (or loss) from sales of inventory”. This information reveals that loadbang is funded primarily through performance activity. Andy mentioned that loadbang had 38 performances during the 2017/2018 concert season.

The other significant part of loadbang’s revenue is in the “contributions, gifts, grants, and similar amounts received.” This amount adds up to $18,750, approximately 28% of the organization’s total revenue. This money was most likely from received grants for concert and recording projects from organizations listed in the support section of their website. For those who noticed, the missing 1%, or $337, was profit from CD sales.

Talking with Andy, over the years that loadbang has been an ensemble, revenue has grown every year through increases in activity, and the ensemble developed a simple way to put money back into the business: since there are four members, loadbang divides the revenue—after deducting travel expenses—into five parts: a piece for each member to sustain their living, with the fifth part going back into the organization. They did this from the very beginning, allowing their nonprofit to grow the money they need to develop projects and offset occasional deficits like they saw in 2018. Even nonprofits have to put money back into the business to maximize potential and fund their own growth.

Expenses

Some readers may be wondering, “If they had an overall deficit in 2018, how did they make any money?” The members of loadbang paid themselves first. This is represented in line 13 of the 990 “Professional fees and other payments to independent contractors” of $50,047.15. A couple things to unpack here: this amount was probably not just paid to the quartet, as there could be other composers, sound engineers, and artists at large who are part of the loadbang economic activity. The other thing to note is that loadbang has decided to pay themselves as independent contractors, which is a non-employee status that allows organizations to pay performers and other contractual employees without paying payroll taxes or being responsible for their contractors’ owed income taxes. This is the most common way for musicians, composers, and other creatives to be paid. It is also reflective of the way the members and collaborators of loadbang make their other incomes—through gigging.

Other expenses listed on the 990 are printing, publication, postage, shipping ($987), occupancy—rent for concert space rental for self-produced concerts ($1,683), and “other expenses” of $16,000 that ends up being “travel expenses” as outlined by Schedule O. All of these expenses result in a deficit for the year of $2,638. Because loadbang reliably allocates funds as part of its annual budget to build the organization, a net loss for the 2018 year is not a big deal.

I asked Andy about recordings, because everyone wonders: do you make any money from the CD sales?

His response:

No, not at all. It’s a huge money pit. We don’t look at the records as a money-making thing. They are kind of the business card—you show people what you can do at the highest level—and it sets loadbang apart from new music organizations because all of the rep exists only for us. We have a responsibility to record the pieces. As long as the record is good, it can raise our profile in interesting ways.

Loadbang’s discography is impressive. With 12 albums to their name, they are cementing their impact on new music into history, while simultaneously making it easy for booking agents and institutions to hear examples of their programming. So like many arts projects, the CDs aim to pay for themselves but aren’t necessarily an important part of their profit creation, though Andy did say they occasionally get small royalty checks.

Lifestyle

With any talk about income, lifestyle discussions are often omitted but are very important to understand the nature of the business and how that plays out in the day-to-day existence of a performer. Andy was very candid during our discussions about lifestyle and was willing to share a bit about his own life, his other places of work, and the general performing activity of the other loadbang members. The intention of loadbang was never to go full time, as the loadbang members enjoy the variety of activities they participate in across different groups or solo performing, teaching, composing, and general freelancing. As Andy said about his work with loadbang, “It’s a piece of the puzzle—at this point I like all of the pieces of my puzzle… they all bring different benefits”

Andy is both the executive director of loadbang and their trumpet player. Looking at page two of their Form 990, it looks like Andy makes a little bit more than his ensemble members due to his leadership position, but he is not pulling a sizeable income from that activity. Andy also teaches at Longy School of Music at Bard College, in Cambridge, Boston. There, he is the chair of the Winds and Brass Department, co-director of Ensemble Uncaged, and the co-director of the Divergent Studio at Longy. Andy also freelances regularly in New York City, and composes and records quite often. To throw another complication into the mix, Andy’s wife, Corrine, is a tenure-track professor of voice at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. They have a townhome in Pennsylvania, but he spends part of the week in Boston and New York City. His schedule for a “normal” week looks like this:

Sunday-Tuesday:       Longy School of Music, Boston
Tuesday-Saturday:     Go back to NYC or Pennsylvania, or back and forth

But normal weeks are actually not the norm. Andy explains, “Normal is usually getting on a plane and going somewhere. Somehow it feels that’s impossible to be normal.” For now, the thriving music careers of Andy and his wife work well. They have to spend regular time coordinating schedules so they can be in the same places at the same time, but so far, their 2.5 years of marriage has been working out great.

For the rest of loadbang, the guys are more or less in New York City freelancing or on faculty at the Longy School of Music. I asked how they all ended up as faculty at Longy, and Andy told a quick story of how he started there four years ago and all of a sudden there were faculty openings for voice, clarinet, and trombone. His supervisor bounced the idea of the rest of loadbang coming on board, especially for their summer contemporary music program, Divergent Studio. It seemed to just work out from there!

So you want to start an ensemble?

Imagine you have a few friends who want to start a chamber group and have visions of becoming the next Kronos Quartet, Eight Blackbird, or Imani Winds. Although it is an excellent goal, be realistic about how an ensemble fits into your financial picture. Many ensembles start with nothing and have to put money back into their ensemble just to get it off the ground. Sometimes artistic fees barely cover travel and rehearsal costs, but you do the gig anyway to start to make a name for yourself (something you may do in your own career, but which can carry extra challenges in a group context). Realize that even the most successful ensembles are often just a piece of their founders’ incomes. As Andy put it:

I don’t mean to sound like a grumpy old man (I’m only 34), but sometimes there’s an expectation that comes from naiveté, that if you finish school and start a group and you’re doing cool things then you should be getting cool gigs….No one owes you anything—you don’t deserve a gig necessarily.

The best groups put the insane hours in following other ensembles, tracking down opportunities, and cold calling for the next gig. After speaking with Andy, I combined some of his sage advice into a shortlist of tips to get your ensemble going:

1. Play the gigs!

Don’t be too proud to take a gig. Gigs come from the hard work of networking, building relationships, and mimicking the groups you want to be like. If you can be willing to work, you will be more receptive to opportunities.

2. Send proposals out like your batting average relies on it.

It’s rare that someone will hand you a great gig. The more proposals you send out, the higher your chances of getting a contract. Your batting average increases. In our conversations, Andy said that 85-90% of the work loadbang gets is from reaching out to people and sending them proposals. The longer you do something in new music, the larger your network becomes. Only recently has loadbang seen an uptick in times they are approached to do a gig. For reference, early on, when loadbang would send out 100 proposals, they would only get seven to eight responses.

3. You may as well ask.

Even if you think a project or an idea is a long shot, it never hurts to ask—the worst someone can say is “no.” Early on loadbang thought it would be cool to get a commissioned piece from a skilled composer who they really loved, who just happened to be Charles Wuorinen. So they asked Wuorinen, thinking it would be a long shot. Apparently it wasn’t, and Wuorinen’s piece is featured on this CD.

4. Believe in your project.

Performers don’t start ensembles to become rich. They start groups out of passion and creative desire. This passion is also observed by your audience, collaborators, and funders, etc. As Andy put it:

If you’re really excited and believe in the project you’re doing, that reads. And if the product you have is good, you’re more likely to, over time, have some sort of modicum of success (however you define it)—it can be infectious.

Having passion from all members of your performing group so important. It communicates to your followers. It motivates you when keeping the ensemble going is a struggle. It keeps you honest about why you are pursuing the work.

5. Align your goals with your finances.

As an observer, I added this myself, after poring over my notes from my conversation with Andy. When anyone is seriously pursuing a project, they align their finances with their goals. Early on, loadbang put money back into the organization. This is the same for any small business. Sometimes you have to put more dollars in than you want to, but if you are serious about longevity and financial stability, it is important to organize your finances from the very beginning.

For performers and composers looking to start an ensemble, I hope this article was insightful. Do not forget that you have a plethora of amazing examples in the new music industry from which to draw knowledge. Success is not always left to the fates—you can steer your own ship in the direction of your choosing. Andrew Kozar also told me that you are welcome to reach out to him if our NewMusicBox readers have any questions, by emailing him at loadbang @ loadbangmusic.com.


*The bass clarinet position at loadbang has switched a few times, from Philip to Carlos Cordeiro, and since interviewing Andy, loadbang recently announced that Adrian Sandi is now on the roster.

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.