Tag: development

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.

Do it right or do it right now?

Still from Infoxication

Arguments in favor of quality and procrastination

Several years ago, I shared a bill with a musician who spent the entirety of his 45-minute set improvising with what can only be described as an arsenal of toneless extended techniques interspersed with episodes of heavy breathing. Setting aside my own proclivities for melody and my firm position on the ‘downtown’ side of any remaining stylistic divide, the show was objectively monotonous, self-indulgent, and under-baked—the equivalent of a musician jamming alone in his living room with his eyes closed, except in this case for a paying, open-eyed audience. One that grew increasingly restless.

The catchall advice that we are given as composers and musicians, and to which I can only assume this man had pegged his creative philosophy, is to just “do it right now.” Just get up. Just perform. Just write. Get it done. Throw it down on the page and move on to the next one. Don’t over think. Don’t look back. What matters is that it’s finished. And that you are “staying busy.” In many ways I agree with this advice and think a great deal can be learned by generating in sheer volume, getting up on any stage we can, producing continuously and seeing where the road winds. Improving by rote practice while throwing as many darts as possible and hoping that some hit the bull’s-eye. It’s a legitimate approach. Especially early on.

After a certain point, however, this advice starts feeling too much like a reductive sound-byte for my liking and I think it’s prudent to take a step back, focusing instead on “doing it right” rather than “doing it right now,” and avoiding the inevitable feeling of running in circles that arises when saying yes to every single opportunity that comes along. The evening with that improviser still lingers in my mind because, while I respect the chutzpah it takes to get up and perform a show off the cuff, it is so antithetical to everything that I have been working towards in recent years.

Waiting for perfection to come knocking ensures that you will never act, yet conversely, not striving to get close to it guarantees that you will produce mediocre work.

“Doing it right” likely means different things to different people, but for me it has meant taking on fewer projects so that I can do them better, pursuing larger, long-term undertakings as both a composer/musician and producer, and being deliberate about how what I do choose to do fits in with how I hope to shape the arc of my career. “Doing it right” is trying to do everything to the absolute best of my abilities at all times, pushing everyone I am surrounded by to do the same, and being detail-oriented. The stage, literal or digital, is after all a privilege, and I think you owe your audience the respect of trying to make that show as good as it can possibly be. “Doing it right” is empowering.

In this quest for quality, however, the question of when exactly to pull the trigger and launch big, self-driven projects comes up often, and I think about the “do it right” vs. “right now” duality constantly in relation to my own work. Sitting on material or ideas until they are “perfect” is, after all, a dangerous game. Waiting for perfection to come knocking ensures that you will never act, yet conversely, not striving to get close to it guarantees that you will produce mediocre work. Icarus should get close to the sun, yet never quite touch it. The hard part is in determining how close one should attempt to fly, while balancing both thoughts in one’s head and making smart decisions regarding when it’s time to say “go.”

Sadly I don’t have any revelatory answers to this problem. However for me, the guiding principle is always “what will serve the art best,” the answer to which is not always “doing it right now.” Projects where other entities are setting the deadlines, there are commercial interests and complex timelines involved, or jobs are structured on a “for hire” basis are obviously a different conversation (honor those commitments “right now!”), but for my own self-driven creative projects, the obstacles that come up along the road to making “good art” always wind up orbiting this fundamental question. They arise on the creative side (ex. “this song needs a better guitar sound”), as well as the logistical one (“I only received partial funding for this project” or “the engineer I like is busy”), as well as a murky-waters conflation of the two (“how do I pay for the studio and the good engineer so I can get a better guitar sound”). Case-by-case solutions don’t always reveal themselves immediately, and, in trying to “serve the art best,” sometimes I think it’s a good thing to take one’s time, letting big projects marinate and giving them space to bloom into their optimally realized form.

For me, the guiding principle is always “what will serve the art best.”

One such instance in my own career, which I include not as a universal flag-bearer for “doing art right” so much as an example of patience (and persistence) eventually proving a virtue, was an immersive multimedia performance project called Infoxication that I made with Roya Sachs, Ashley Jackson, and a team of about 40 people. Infoxication took us a few years to realize, went through more creative iterations than I care to count, switched presenters, and lost and regained its funding. It was almost a centerpiece of Google’s Pixel launch. Then it wasn’t. It was going to run for a while. Then not quite so long. We thought people might quit. (Fortunately, they didn’t.) And along the way, we had many conversations about scaling the project down to a small concert that could fall within our immediate reach.

Yet something in our gut told us that our original idea deserved better, and we persevered. Eventually the project wound up at Spring Place in New York City, with generous financial support from their team as well as Google and New Music USA, and collaborators including PUBLIQuartet, Dušan Týnek, Heather Hansen, Inbal Segev, and Bentley Meeker. The end result was something we are all proud of: a sci-fi Sleep No More meets The Office performance ‘installation’ inspired by the information age, replete with dancers on Chromebooks dressed as office drones climbing on the walls, and devastatingly good performances. It. Was. Awesome. Sold out beyond capacity. And one of my favorite things I’ve done. Our team still reminisces about how special it was. Not bad for a little project that almost went into the garbage.

There have, of course, been countless instances along the way in which “doing it right now” was the right decision, wherein projects less belabored in their development quickly coalesced into something special. Another collaboration with Ashley springs to mind, in which I wrote a piece for her in a few weeks, she premiered it, played it again at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn!, and I insisted she record it for an album right away despite her hesitation. In that instance, I simply knew she could pull it off and that we had the right recording circumstances to do it.

For me, the hard part is always in determining which projects are which, and when the stars are close enough in alignment that it’s best to just jump off the proverbial diving board (not to mention when to mix your metaphors). Personally, the answers I try to seek for myself when steering my own projects are very simple:

  • If the project has real potential and you will regret not taking time to elevate it, wait and “do it right”
  • If the project is close enough that it can be completed now without significant sacrifices in quality, and the imminent opportunity is something that you will regret passing up, “do it right now.”

Ultimately, however, there is no one-size-fits-all guideline, the argument over whether less or more is more and how best to strategize your way to a successful career isn’t one that can be resolved, and there are examples of great creators who adhere to both philosophies. It’s also something that shifts project by project as well as over time. And, as noted, it’s a conversation that only applies to those fortuitous circumstances in which we are calling all the shots.

Overall, I believe that quality, however and whenever it’s possible to attain, will always speak for itself, that there is value in taking one’s time, and that what some might flippantly dismiss as procrastination is often actually meaningful development—though obviously the line between the two requires thoughtful navigation. “Doing it right now” can be equally slippery, since a carpe diem attitude is essential to finishing any project, yet in itself can be an excuse and means of self-sabotage. Simply not trying that hard or not taking the time to do something well can make it easier to feel like you didn’t really fail. Immediate action and constant activity permit that figurative shoulder shrug: “Well, at least I tried.”

In the end, perhaps really, truly “trying” is all we should ever stake our bets on: attacking projects decisively, aiming high, holding ourselves and our collaborators to a lofty standard, and being sure of what we want to say. The “right” vs. “right now” pendulum will swing back and forth indefinitely, and it’s only through developing intuition, self-awareness, familiarity with the people you are working with, and sheer trial and error that anyone can reliably decide when is the “right time” to take action. Maybe all we can say definitively is that “now is the time to do it right.”

Performing as Self-Advocacy

Last week in this space, I began discussing my recent forays into performing, in terms of my ambivalent emotional response to these opportunities and their influence on my current compositional voice. As I’ve pursued this path, I’ve found that it’s also been a fruitful avenue for self-advocacy, in obvious and surprising ways.

One of my reasons for beginning to perform publicly was in order to be able to present my own works. The ability to travel solo has opened up doors that otherwise might have been closed due to funding or time constraints. I can be available for venues that want to present my music but don’t have access to the money needed to hire ensembles that can perform my works or to dedicated musicians who already know pieces from my repertoire. I can interact directly with interested listeners, feeling viscerally those moments in my compositions that allow attention to wander or demand full concentration. As I expected, I can use these public performances to generate interest in my music.

Although I’ve enjoyed those obvious advantages of performing, the more unexpected benefits have been more interesting to me. First and foremost, I have appreciated the growth in the development of my own compositional voice—described last week in this space—engendered by these concerts. If that were the sole profit generated by this path, it would be enough reason to pursue it.

Additionally, I’ve found that my concertizing experience has helped me to communicate my ideas in three different ways: building trust with the musicians who are learning my notated compositions, demonstrating the techniques I use in these pieces, and giving performers a sense of my musical aesthetic.

I’ve found that many musicians with whom I’ve worked since I’ve begun performing have taken the time to listen to my solo performances before beginning to learn my music. Those who have done so have shown a greater understanding for the sounds I’ve sought in my music, and have been able to work more quickly towards my desired sound. They come to these rehearsals knowing when sounds should be so delicate that they break up, and can intuit the difference between those times when the indicated microtones are essential parts of exactly-tuned harmonies and when they are more gestural effects. Rehearsals can go more smoothly when these musicians arrive with some knowledge of the unnotatable performance practice associated with my compositions.

The hands-on experience of performance has also allowed me to physically represent those aspects of my music that defy notation. Instead of talking through how I’d like gestures to sound, I am more likely to pick up an instrument to demonstrate. When I incorporate unusual techniques that might be difficult to replicate, I can make videos of how they can be executed as part of the piece. Instead of asking others to guess exactly what I mean in my attempts at describing musical sounds through graphics and words, I can save time and energy by showing them.

Finally, all of these shifts have led to a greater level of trust with those people who are looking at new pieces for the first time. They know that I’ve stepped onto the stage myself in order to perform the types of seemingly silly gestures that they now see in their parts, and they take comfort in this fact. The knowledge that we are comrades in presenting my compositions makes them feel less exposed by the odd demands of this music. The musicians with whom I am working seem to feel more like collaborators in these unusual concert experiences than in the years before I wore the performing hat in addition to the composing one.

Performing as Composing

As regular readers of this column know, in the past few years I’ve begun to perform music in public for the first time. What began as accompaniment for performance art gradually developed into group improvisations and finally into unaccompanied shows and engagements as a concerto soloist. Emotionally, this process has been simultaneously incredibly difficult and rewarding.

As with nearly every aspect of my compositional life, I began this process by questioning my artistic reasons for following this path. Since I hadn’t studied any instrument regularly, I lacked the basic skill sets that are second nature to most professional musicians, and maintained an utter ignorance of proper practicing techniques and strategies to learn new repertoire. While most pre-teen musicians can far surpass my manual dexterity, I could bring two things to the table: an ability to hear and control musical structure in interesting ways, and an interest in producing unusual sounds. Over time, I began to realize that these latter interests allowed me to create performances that could fully express certain compositional ideas while being of interest to a small segment of listeners. The fact that I am horrible at the sorts of musical tasks at which most people excel opened up alternative paths for sonic exploration and forced me to create a sound that fully reflects my personality and compositional interests.

I find it incredibly difficult to step on stage in order to perform my own music. A huge part of me expects someone to point at me and shout “charlatan” or to at least boo vociferously and correctly. Of course, I had similar fears when I began teaching and only overcame them through years of experience, so that at this point in time I’m confident that I’ve thoroughly researched the course materials and their intellectual foundations and that I belong in front of a classroom. As a performer I still feel like an under-skilled neophyte, but I’m gradually coming to trust that I can provide a unique experience, that my unusual background and proclivities allow me to approach performance in a way that certain people will appreciate and that others will at least accept.

As a listener, the pieces that I most greatly treasure are those that create sound worlds that I’ve never heard before. While these original sounds can be produced through harmonic (especially microtonal), melodic, and/or rhythmic means, I have always been drawn most strongly to interesting timbres. My own performances have given me the ability to scratch this itch, to question the basic function of instruments in order to force them to produce sounds entirely different from those they were designed to create. I’ve found that I can augment the tinkling of the toy piano by bowing, strumming, and plucking it (among various other techniques) until it transcends its original purpose, and I similarly can explore other instruments. I had always wanted the sort of composer/performer relationship that would allow for collaborative conversations on how to experiment with the basics of performance itself, and now, by assuming both roles, I have created this relationship.

My ability to fully explore the subtle gradations of these instruments opened up surprising new possibilities for me. Not only could I create new timbral possibilities, but I also began to get a better feel for how these related to other musical parameters. By exploring the distinctions between the overtones created by playing specific notes at various volumes or in different ways, I could create new harmonic worlds. By shaping the excess noise produced by these unusual performance techniques, I found that I could create new types of melodies. Finally, I began to feel that my timbral, harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic languages could emanate from a single source.

As I discovered these new methods of producing sound on my own instrument, I began to apply these techniques for exploration to my written compositions. Physically grappling with a violin or guitar allowed me to draw the same sorts of confluences between the musical parameters while composing for string-based ensembles. I learned how to ask better questions when approaching projects for ensembles that for practical reasons wouldn’t allow me unlimited access to copies of the instruments themselves or when my knowledge of the basic performance technique on the instrument was miniscule enough that such access wouldn’t be useful.

Thus, my newly discovered abilities as a performer have directly altered my compositional output and have provided me with an outlet for experimentation that I look forward to continuing to explore. For these reasons, I’ll continue looking for opportunities to step onstage, despite my deep-seated fears.

Adaptation and Transformation

1503 diagram of the brain

I tend to be a late adopter of technology. As I learned electronic music in the mid ’80s, I avoided the new sampling keyboards in favor of the antique Minimoog, and kept splicing tape long after nearly all my peers had jettisoned their razor blades and replaced them with sequencers. I remained attached to LPs and CDs (in turn) long after most people had shifted their musical collections into the new preferred formats. And I finally bought my first smartphone within the past year.

As I began to program this new device, I found the interface to be a little counterintuitive—things tended to flip when I wanted them to swerve and they scrolled when I wanted them to jump. I slowly transferred my contacts and calendars into this useful little computer, gradually getting a feel for how to manipulate it. After about three days, I began to have nightly dreams that I was programming my phone. During this time, I could sense new neural pathways developing as my brain began to attune itself to how it would need to function in order to unleash the power of the device. As I was adjusting, I’d enjoy little serotonin kicks when I’d properly navigate through a computing sequence. After about a week, I’d become fully acclimated to the new technology and it began to feel like second nature.

Although I recognized this process from several prior occasions, the period during which the smartphone controlled my dreams felt simultaneously gratifying and disturbing. It seems that whenever I attempt to learn a new skill quickly and obsessively, the process seeps through several layers of my subconscious during the period in which my brain adapts to allow success at the new task. When I began to dream of Tetris, I knew that I had crossed the line into tetrisoholicism and that I needed to quit cold turkey. Indeed, this ability for video games of all sorts to penetrate deep into my subconscious is the main reason why I avoid them, despite my belief that they can provide an extraordinarily fruitful platform for artistic exploration. Conversely, when as an adult I had to learn how to sight-sing and to take dictation of tonal music, I welcomed these somnambulistic practices as a sign that I was beginning to make connections between the sounds that I’d always heard and their theoretical labels. I could feel the shape of my brain adapting to be able to associate the visual phenomenon of how a V7 chord is represented on the page with its visceral need to resolve—an imperative that I still don’t feel when I hear Mm7 chords as part of blues progressions.

Our brains are remarkable in their ability to change their shape in response to stimuli. As we undergo these mutations, we become different people. I no longer hear tonal music in the same way that I did prior to my advanced training, and I cannot recreate my prior mental state. In a certain way, this ability has transformed me into a new person, someone who accepts the basis of Western tonal music and who feels that these tools are a central part of the aural experience. While I believe that this change has allowed me to gain more than I’ve lost, it’s important for me to recognize that I no longer hear music in the same way that I did before embarking on this path.

As I train myself to use new technologies, musical or otherwise, I need to bear in mind that each adaptation changes who I am at a very basic level. Each new neural pathway that I create makes me approach my art in a different way.

Growing Pains

When I was 18 (and had barely a year or so of musical study under my belt), I remember that one day our school composition seminar was visited by accomplished composer Stephen Paulus, who was kind enough to share some of his experience and expertise as a business-savvy independent composer. A lot of what Stephen described to us—self-promotion, distribution, contract negotiations—seemed laughably out of reach to our undergraduate minds, even pompous; I recall sharing in a bit of nervous tittering while a slightly more advanced student asked if he should create a professional website. That seemed like a silly question to most of us beginning students with few musical offerings, which is why several of us chortled that we would never have a website.

Just over a decade later, I not only have an unremarkable but functioning composer website, but have crossed all kinds of other Rubicons: writing a blog, teaching my first class, receiving my first humble commission payment, and seeing my work reviewed in the paper. I own an 11×17 printer and a coil binder, have a folder for commission agreements, and an envelope for tax-deductible receipts. On the flip side, I’ve never sent out an email concert announcement or Facebook event invite; I’ve never applied for a Guggenheim; and I’ve never presented my own concert or festival.

There is such a thing as reaching for the next rung of the career ladder too early, as in the case of the over-eager self-promoting student, or buying a lot of expensive printing equipment when you print out only a few scores each year. Yet there comes a time for every composer when one must either expand or else stifle development: when works are receiving some performances but there’s nowhere online for someone to listen to or purchase the composer’s music, or when it’s time to create a separate checking account just for composing travel and expenses. It seems to me that there are paths that overemphasize each extreme—pushing to expand too rapidly when it is not helpful, or failing to make the necessary changes and investments when old ways are holding us back. Composers would do well to stay attentive to their own needs right now, and not what their peers, friends, and competitors are doing.

The process of growth looks different for every composer. Some of us build momentum fast, while others do their best work when they take their time. Some of us peak early and ride out a plateau, while other composers modestly chug along until they are knocking out some of their best music in their 70s and 80s. Some of us follow linear paths, while for others development is marked by a process of lateral expansion. But all of us will grow if we keep composing, and all of us will have to deal with musical “growing pains” of some variety.