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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.
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.
Editorial note: The text of this article has been corrected. Though the Varispeed Collective (Gelsey Bell, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, and Aliza Simons) has worked deeply with the music of Robert Ashley previously, this production was performed by a larger vocal ensemble which also includes Amirtha Kidambi. Mimi Johnson, through Performing Artservices, produced the opera, and Tom Hamilton served as music director.
The opening words of Robert Ashley’s Improvement are a bit of a head-scratcher: “To continue, I must explain an idea that I am inadequate to communicate in the music.”
Continue what? It’s the first line of the opera. And communicate what? If he didn’t think himself capable of communicating via music, why write an opera, of all things?
Over the course of the next 88 minutes, seven voices attempt to communicate this unexplainable idea alongside an orchestral accompaniment consisting of a MIDI-controlled synthesized harmonic environment. The issue of communication was a concern for the composer throughout his life. Ashley, who was born in 1930 and died in 2014, composed “television operas” and other experimental theatrical works employing a vocabulary of ordinary folks mumbling, humming, chanting, and occasionally singing. Ashley conveyed quotidian experiences, such as getting old or getting divorced, in a United States vernacular woven through with grandiose metaphors and allegories: at the end of his prerecorded opening narration to Improvement, he intones, “For the sake of argument, Don is Spain in 1492 and Linda is the Jews.”
Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) is Ashley’s first in a series of four operas exploring the experiences and consciousnesses of a collection of ordinary Americans: Don, Linda, Now Eleanor, and Junior Junior. The tetralogy is “based on the notion of a sequence of events seen from different points of view.” In Improvement, the seven vocalists converse with each other in question-and-answer sessions (“Do you have a ticket?” “Yes.” “Do you have baggage?” “Yes.”), interrogating each other Inquisition-style, and adopting different identities when the narrative demands it. The vocalists shift seamlessly from their roles as named individuals to Greek-chorus-style delivery, whispering and echoing underneath. The result is at times laugh-out-loud funny, as when Linda gets a ride from the “Unimportant Family” (“my name is unimportant, and this is my wife, whose name is unimportant, and our two lovely children, whose names are unimportant.”) Other moments are eerie, and still others are imbued with a profound sense of loss and isolation. But the opera never loses its sense of momentum, of getting the listener from one place to another.
Ashley’s works sometimes have the feel of a code waiting to be cracked….An entire article could be written about a deceptively throwaway line.
Ashley’s works sometimes have the feel of a code waiting to be cracked. Even though the texts burble along in a seemingly haphazard fashion, they are arranged according to Ashley’s careful cosmology. An entire article could be written about a deceptively throwaway line such as Mr. Payne’s comments in Improvement that “still words would be useless, if the sound were not the meaning” or “The world moves on the air of music. There’s nothing like it. It’s the only thing we had before automobiles as four-dimensional.” Mr. Payne represents Ashley’s philosopher muse Giordano Bruno (who was burned at the stake by the Roman Inquisition in 1600), and his character betrays much of Ashley’s complicated approach to language and communication. Words can be helpful, but are most helpful when they are sounded out loud; music can convey the meaning of words while also transporting you from point A to point B.
Which is ultimately what Ashley’s music does so effectively. Ashley was more interested in the process of musical communication than in its end product. His metaphors and allegories aren’t nonsensical or tongue-in-cheek operatic devices; they illustrate the interconnectedness of human experience across geographies and temporalities and encapsulate human sensation on a much broader scale than a story concerned only with individuals locked into a specific place and time. For these reasons, I must disagree with Ashley: he is possibly one of the only composers who is adequate to communicate “in the music.” Ashley’s operas remind us that sound is metaphor—they make us hear what music really is: sounds that are meant to communicate something beyond themselves.
Improvement, which Ashley wrote in 1985, was first recorded in 1991. The first version existed only as a recording, with the vocalists doubling their own voices in live performance. The most recent production of the opera (presented to sold-out houses February 7–16, 2019, at The Kitchen in New York City) was reconstructed over a period of two years by producer Mimi Johnson (Ashley’s widow) and music director Tom Hamilton (Ashley’s longtime collaborator). (Production information and libretto available here.) Although the subsequent operas in the tetralogy were first performed live, Improvement first existed as a recording (upon which live productions had to be based) for almost 30 years. The assumption being that “this piece was not going to be performed live in concert,” Hamilton told me—ostensibly because it was the first in a tetralogy that its creators suspected would not be of interest to venues or live music programmers. Although some of the original tracks were found for the 2019 performance, some of them weren’t, which meant that the opera essentially was reconstructed from scratch.
Johnson, as producer, was involved in the process from start to finish. She told me that “the orchestra and voices had been mingled irrevocably,” and so both components of the opera had to be recreated. In the first version, the singers were doubling their own voices—which meant they could occasionally take a breath during a live performance, knowing their own voice would be doubled. But according to Johnson, “the new version is 100% live,” with only a click track in the vocalists’ ears to keep the beat. This presentation maintains the sound world of the original, but also imbues Ashley’s opera with a new sense of expressiveness: unexpected sighs or syllabic emphases or vocal inflections resulting in twists of humor or jolts of sadness.
Ashley’s libretto does not specify these sorts of things. His timings are exact down to the second —Improvement runs precisely eighty-eight minutes: no more, no less—but he granted musicians the freedom to interpret the stories and conversations and ramblings however they chose. Ashley’s textual narratives are inextricable from his musical scores: typically, there is one row for each line of the libretto, with columns indicating extratextual information, such as which vocalist should be speaking, a tonality on which the vocalist should be centering their speech, and how many beats per line and beats per minute. In the case of Improvement, the chorus is presented in all caps, solo voices are lower case, and Ashley indicated that “all lines for chorus begin on the first beat” and “underlined syllables fall on the beat and are somewhat accented.”
The team rehearsed the opera five days a month for roughly two years. The cast members—Gelsey Bell, Amirtha Kidambi, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, and Aliza Simons—were not strangers to Ashley’s oeuvre, having performed in the 2011 remounting of That Morning Thing and in Ashley’s last opera, Crash. Gelsey Bell, who was tasked with reincarnating the role of Linda (originally played by Jacqueline Humbert), explained in the New York Times: “There’s been a moment in this process where I stopped listening to the recording and just saw what came out of me. My voice is different from [Humbert’s] in many ways, and so there are certain things that sound more natural and sincere coming from me: a slight change in the way I’m handling timbre, a slight change in the way I handle ornamentation in certain scenes.”
When I sat in on a rehearsal in January, the performers seemed equally as concerned about doing justice to Ashley’s work as they were about adhering to their own personal sense of creativity and musicality. After Hamilton brought their attention to a problematic moment (line 614, in which Linda sings “right at the airline ticket counter” with chorus) the group hashed it out, with Bell ultimately deciding to “just do it the way I’ve been doing it” and the others making slight rhythmic modifications so as not to throw off the overall flow of beats and syllables and sentiments. Simons then began sifting through a box labeled “Bob’s ties,” selecting shirt and tie combos for McCorkle, Pinto, and Ruder before the three male cast members went out to get haircuts together. The cozy rehearsal space reverberated with warm excitement, mingled with a touch of silliness and a touch of reverence.
The performers did not need to attempt to communicate Ashley’s presence from beyond the grave; he could do that for himself. The only voice that was carried over from the first version was Ashley’s own: at three different moments in the opera, Ashley’s narration crackled through the air, slamming our ears and hearts with the weight of something that seemed much more solid than invisible sound waves. “I am inadequate to communicate in the music,” the voice ironically claims, but Ashley’s operas are so much more adept at communicating than “traditional” opera. The conversations, mumbled soliloquies, and half-remembered songs within Ashley’s operas refuse to objectify the sung voice. Instead they allow the spoken or sung voice to communicate universal concerns and human experiences within the immediacy of the sound waves themselves.
Ashley’s cosmology always concerned itself more with communicating big ideas through a focus on particular microcosms of American life. Ashley’s musical language reflects this interest in escaping traditional conceptions of time. As he himself put it in an interview with Kyle Gann:
The only thing that’s interesting to me right now is that, up to me and a couple other guys, music had always been about eventfulness. And I was never interested in eventfulness. I was only interested in sound. … There’s a quality in music that is outside of time, that is not related to time. And that has always fascinated me. … That’s sort of what I’m all about, from the first until the most recent. A lot of people are back into eventfulness. But it’s very boring. Eventfulness is really boring.
In focusing on the sound rather than the event, Ashley’s music communicates events and entities and ideas beyond the sound. Ashley’s resistance to musical “events” imbues the entirety of Improvement, in which Don and Linda’s breakup (and their subsequent airport mishaps) represent suffering on a much larger scale and across a much grander scale of time.
Ultimately Don and Linda’s breakup is irrelevant. It’s not about Don leaving Linda; it’s about violence and persecution as central themes to human existence. Through repetition of words and sounds, Ashley makes us hear how Linda’s situation—even while isolating and alienating for her—is just another variation on the repetitive nature of human experience. When the “Unimportant Family” picks up Linda after she gets left by her husband, she is reminded that her discomfort—in the van, in her new life circumstances—does not make her special, no matter how lonely or isolated she might feel:
This ride is uncomfortable, I know.
…there is a certain wornness about it,
and this wornness makes the
reminding him or her that this
event is probably not unique.
Bell’s rendering of Linda’s suffering was so apt, managing to capture the sadness of Linda as an individual as well as the sadness one goes through even while realizing that others have gone through it too. She is able to express this while also conveying the allegory of Linda’s role as a metaphor for much “bigger” and more abstract ideas.
And so Improvement, as an eighty-eight minute “event,” does not exist for the sake of sounds becoming ideas or vehicles for linguistic communication. As Ashley himself stated in the libretto for Improvement, “music has no calories.” Instead, the sounds become communication itself as they direct our ears to what exists beyond these sounds happening in this moment in time. They help us to see and hear and think beyond ourselves. Improvement is not “about” Linda and it’s not even really “about” the persecution of the Jews by the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. It’s about how the event of heartbreak ultimately can be kind of funny and mundane—because there’s a certain wornness about it, because it’s probably not unique. It’s about how the universal can exist within the particular. It’s about the conveyance of human suffering with musicalized sound.
I recently set a poem for SATB a cappella chorus that ended in the word “sun.” This music should have come easily to me, but I’d already set another SATB a cappella piece that ended in the word “sun” just a few months ago. Both sentences used the word to end their respective poems in an uplifting, redemptive gesture. They called for similar music, but I didn’t want to write the exact same music twice.
To what extent, as a composer, are you allowed to plagiarize your own music? Sometimes, of course, we do this unconsciously, realizing only belatedly that we’re repeating ourselves. How do we know when this is a terrible idea, and when it’s a great one? After all, there’s a long history of composers ripping off their own music, borrowing ideas and recycling whole measures—or sometimes whole movements. Even Bach did it. But given that repeating our past ideas can read as flat-out laziness, when, if ever, should we self-plagiarize?
Hitchcock once said, while defending the repeated use of certain filming techniques within his work, that “self-plagiarism is style,” and I think his philosophy holds the answer to when and how we should imitate our past compositions.
Some composers write in a style so recognizable, we need only hear a minute—or even a measure—of their music to know exactly who wrote it. Musicians occasionally criticize these composers for writing music that “all sounds the same,” but it takes skill to settle on a style that works consistently. A composer’s style becomes distinctive not only because certain ideas are present in many of their compositions, but because that composer has made compelling artistic choices deliberately and repeatedly across their body of work.
A composer’s style becomes distinctive not only because certain ideas are present in many of their compositions, but because that composer has made compelling artistic choices deliberately and repeatedly across their body of work.
In the evolution of artistic style, there’s a crucial distinction between “self-plagiarism” and “plagiarism.” Replicating the specific elements of gesture and orchestration that define another composer’s style is a tricky matter; do it without identifying your source material, and your work may be written off as derivative. Perhaps it’s best to avoid the most distinctive indicators—unless expressly doing so in homage—and to seek out whatever will come to define our own work.
There’s a difference between realizing you’re organically writing music similar to what you’ve done in the past versus purposefully trying to recapture the style of your previous work, too. The few times I’ve tried to write a piece similar to one of my older pieces, I’ve found it absolutely maddening; it’s impossible to recapture who you were and what mindset you were in when you wrote an older piece. Perhaps counterintuitively, it’s nearly always easier to forge ahead with a new work rather than intentionally re-create the style of an older one.
Are we responsible for creating our own “style” or should we simply write the music we want to write, let it evolve naturally over time, and allow others to decide what defining factors unite our complete body of work? On some level, our own style may always remain unknowable to us, recognizable only after we’ve written everything we’re ever going to write. We are, though, in charge of how we choose to imbue our music with meaning. Here’s where I think “self-plagiarism” does define style: rather than imitating old ideas or forcefully repurposing them into new pieces, we can view a creative lifetime as a chance to create our own musical vocabulary.
Consider a few moments in Thomas Newman’s film scores that sound similar. In several films Newman has scored—including American Beauty,Revolutionary Road, and White Oleander—Newman favors a sparse orchestral texture, with sustained strings and a simple melody in the piano. He uses this approach in so many different films that the repeated use of this texture must be deliberate. Often, these similar themes highlight moments in each movie when the presence of beauty creates a stark contrast to darkness or death. By writing similar themes for each of these different films, Newman strengthens the purpose and value of each individual theme. This music is recognizably written in his “style,” yes, but beyond that, it functions as a sort of life-long leitmotif within his work.
Even outside of film scoring, it makes sense for composers to use similar music to underscore parallel moments within different compositions. I considered this as I wondered how to set a second poem ending in “sun.” I’d already solved this musical problem once; if I solved it the same way again—with a different approach, but the same harmonic progression leading up to the final “sun” chord—that moment could effectively link both pieces together.
Applied to a life of composing, this intentional repetition could create a library of motives, gestures, and orchestration that defines our work. As we encounter words and dramatic moments similar to ones we’ve scored in a previous piece, we can purposefully link these pieces with the same vocabulary—adapted so that it will reflect whatever surrounds it—so that anyone who encounters both pieces will hear these pieces linked across time. For listeners who take the time to know our body of work, these moments will feel almost like an inside joke: a reward for speaking our language.
Apr 24, 2017
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