I Gotta Be Me

I Gotta Be Me

By Frank J. Oteri
Identity is carefully evolved over time and something we all work hard at constructing, for better or worse.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

After 28 years, there was finally a performance of three of the fourteen songs which comprise my 1982 song cycle the nurturing river this past Saturday night. (You might recall my writing about how the manuscript for this composition was lost, but that a photocopy of said manuscript luckily survives as part of the American Music Center collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.)

These are an insanely impractical set of songs which require a singer with a more than two-octave tessitura and an even wider range. And the piano accompaniment is filled with carpal tunnel-inducing pounding, big stretches, and inside the piano tinkering. But the songs found a perfect vocal ally in Phillip Cheah, whose remarkable fluidity both as a baritone and a male soprano made people think I actually wrote these songs for him. And my wife Trudy Chan’s extremely nuanced performance at the piano kept the ostinatos from appearing robotic and monotonous. I was extremely lucky to have her play these—I still remember my banging away at these without any nuance when I was composing them decades ago—and I’m also very lucky to be married to her. I’m obviously already totally biased, but the compliments from people who came out for this event convinced me that my personal musical archaeology these past few months was the right thing to do.

But before you start thinking I’ve wandered off into an insufferable narcissistic head spin as a result of this one small victory, this performance inspired a larger more ambivalent and potentially irresolvable quandary, which is actually the reason I’m writing about it here. Since these songs were so well performed and so well received, I thought I’d mine through some of the other music I was writing around that same time in the hope that I’d find some other lost gems. This has been pretty easy to do since luckily (or unluckily, as I will soon explain) manuscripts for all these other pieces are safe and sound in my apartment.

Right before I embarked on this cycle, I had composed two short unaccompanied SATB settings of psalms in Hebrew. Until a short six-voice piece I composed last December, it had been the only music I had ever written for unaccompanied voices. Right after completing the nurturing river, I became enamored of the writings of the 17th-century English libertine John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, and began setting some of his poems to music, but I soon abandoned my efforts. At first it seemed like these two projects were also ripe for revisiting. However, after inputting all the music I had written into Sibelius, listening back, and seeing it all neatly engraved, I realized that while some of it was listenable (after all, I do listen to everything), none of it was “me”.

Obviously it was me, since I had written it, but identity is carefully evolved over time and something we all work hard at constructing for better or worse. It’s why it can be such a disconnect to hear things like the early Copland-esque and non-minimalist Brass Sextet composed by Philip Glass in the early 1960s, or Milton Babbitt’s 1946 musical theatre songs, composed a year before he came up with the idea of total serialism. Yet I actually love listening to those pieces. Brahms judiciously destroyed every manuscript sketch, leaving for posterity only his sanctioned complete works. Verdi infamously threw the score for an opera based on King Lear into the flames soon after he completed it. In more recent times, Augusta Read Thomas excised numerous items from her work list when she was signed by G. Schirmer, something she discussed at length with Molly Sheridan for NewMusicBox this month.

I must confess that, as a listener, all of those anecdotes leave me extremely disappointed. I want to hear everything. So, am I being a hypocrite by not putting all my juvenilia—or even subsequent pieces I no longer feel terribly proud of—out there? I’m inclined to think that the issue is not exactly an either/or. For composers whose music is well-known, I think that little harm can be done to their reputations by having material around that does not adequately reflect their established musical identities. In fact, having such marginalia out there actually reasserts the value of the identities that they eventually honed and mastered, since no one creates an identity ex nihilo and hearing the steps along the way can be extremely instructive to other composers. But for the rest of us, whose music is not so widely known, an early non-representative work might be the only piece of music someone will hear for quite some time and lead to impressions that are false and difficult to counter. So for the time being at least, I probably won’t be putting any other early pieces of mine out there, but I also won’t throw away the manuscripts, at least not knowingly.