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.
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.