The Long and Winding Road

I am expected to bring fresh music in every week. I have spent more than twenty years writing to deadlines and I am proud to say I’ve never missed one, but this feels different. I don’t know why. For each lesson, I bring in music.

Written By

Susan Kander

A country road that twists and turns

The Conservatory of Music at SUNY Purchase is on a flat green campus an easy forty minutes north of New York City. Mine is the only car in sight as I am rounding the long campus drive to my first day of graduate school. In an eye-blink, out of the woods on my left, a golden animal darts across the road in front of me, lopes across the green field on my right and disappears into more woods. Cat-like but more than twice cat size, with sharp ears and a stubbed tail, I hear myself shout: “Bobcat!” A stunning wild animal, independent, insouciant even; I feel as if my bobcat has consecrated, in unforgettable style, the first day of the next two years of my life. Midway through a career as a composer and librettist, I am a (late-ish) middle-aged graduate student in composition.

Today I am just a bit trepidatious, however, because over the summer a change has occurred: Suzanne Farrin, head of composition at Purchase, has left to be head of music at Hunter College and Laura Kaminsky, who founded the composition program years ago at Purchase, is back from a sabbatical and is acting interim chair. I’m concerned because Suzanne had met me on a very collegial level; she had invited me to mentor the other students, promised they would not “waste my time” with unnecessary classes or requirements, and urged me to come directly to her with any concerns. When I meet Laura on day one, though I register her puzzlement, she is welcoming. The one concern I sense, behind her polite querying, is whether I am only there for the piece of paper; she wants to be sure I will be a fully participating, exploring, contributing member of the group. I am impressed by this. She laughs off my complete belly flop over online registration—I had to call the office more than once for technical help—and I am confident we’re going to get along just fine.

Although I live these next four months in linear fashion, it doesn’t really tell that way. It breaks down, for the telling, into Thing One and Thing Two. Thing One is my weekly lesson with Huang Ruo and the music that I write. Thing Two is everything else. Let’s start with Thing One.

At my first lesson, though Huang Ruo and I have met before over coffee, we begin to get to know each other by talking about the contemporary music scene. Then we discuss what I’m looking for from him: he completely understands and wants to provide the kind of leading and pushing I seek. In a generous nod to my unique status, he has offered to do an independent study in analysis with me instead of my taking the regular graduate course with all the young musicians, and the administration has accepted this proposal. We will study what I want and need to study as it comes to us. I now have someone to personally lead my learning in the directions I want to go, which is the whole point. And we laugh a lot together. I am thrilled.

At that first meeting, I am given my composing assignment for the course called Purchase New Music, the core of the composition program. There are three instrumental groupings available this semester in the course. Composers, with their teacher’s guidance, are to choose to write for some or all of the instruments in the group of their choice. Two groups are sextets of more or less normal instrumentation; however, Huang Ruo chooses for me the wackadoodle group of bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, and double bass. He tells me I am to compose eight minutes of music for the whole group. Okay: as Du Yun said, I’m here to play in the sandbox of composition, and this ensemble definitely counts as a sandbox!

One adjustment I have to make right out of the gate is to digest the idea that I am expected to bring fresh music in every week. I have spent more than twenty years writing to deadlines and I am proud to say I’ve never missed one, but this feels different. I don’t know why. For each lesson, I bring in music. Huang Ruo sits at his desk, peruses the score, asks me why this or that. No one has ever asked me why. He laughs heartily when I anthropomorphize the instruments—e.g. “the trombone is an outlier” or “the bassoon ignores them”but at the same time urges me to stop thinking in terms of dramatic action and to get more into abstraction. (All my music is choreographed in my head, and this is something I want to move beyond.) He is quick to identify both habits and missed opportunities. At no time does he suggest anything that will specifically make my music sound like his music. It is all about making my conceptual process more expansive. All the comments are small, but over time they begin to lead me to more abstract, hopefully more interesting articulations, movement by movement, week by week. I come out of every lesson terrifically energized.

Over the course of eight weeks, I write eight movements for this off-brand group and title it A Few Things I Failed to Mention. Huang Ruo acknowledges that I am making progress. I can spot my own habits now and have identified patience within the music as a primary value I want to pursue. I worry, having never written with students as end users before, that it is too hard. The players range from freshman to grad students. Huang Ruo insists I not worry about that. I throw out two junk movements—I love throwing out bad music!—and reorder the remaining six. Doing this, I notice a potential through line that will help draw the piece into a whole; a little massaging here, a little cadenza there, and I wrap it up. Now, Thing Two.

Aside from my lessons, I am with the kids. I register for the Contemporary Ensembles course in which we will prepare and perform Terry Riley’s In C, because if I’m going to be a member of this conservatory I’m going to do it all the way. Dominic Donato, head of percussion and new music, runs the rehearsals with skill and savvy, and every week we step up the music. I come to understand why this piece is such an iconic work. When we perform it one evening in late November, I am surprised and gratified that the audience members outnumber the performers. I see this again and again at Purchase. Students show up for each other.

But my fellow composers are my pod within the conservatory. Whereas last year there was one lone female student, this year—big news—there are four. We almost hit 33%. All together we are thirteen composers. It is not too hard to keep the mother in me in the background. These are my peers, not my children. That they are all, well, adorable, is lovely, but mostly it is their energy and their thinking that I respond to.

In fact, at the beginning, that is all I have to go on because I have no idea what anyone’s music sounds like. The tone of discourse in Composition Seminar is set at constructive and positive. That’s fine, but I am continually gratified by how observant and articulate this bunch is. They listen. More than that, they grasp what the student composer is trying to do and offer specific ideas towards achieving it. I notice that students who are beyond freshman year have a great deal of faith in this process. No one shrinks from presenting; rather, several welcome it as a way to push past a bump in the road. They trust their fellow composers, seeking feedback from them as much as from the teachers who, in fact, are conservative and strategic with their comments. I sense zero competitiveness. Having heard last year’s one and only graduate student’s new complexity work, I am expecting more of it, but as the students present their pieces I discover a smorgasbord of styles, approaches, and philosophical inquiry. Some music works or will eventually work, I think; some not so much. Some is esoteric, some theatrical. Some makes use of machinery I don‘t understand. (That’s next year.) I figure the permission and encouragement to explore this broad a range of music and sound art must come from the top. There is simply no stylistic line to tow: that much is clear and it makes me very happy.

When I make my own presentation, there is a balancing act to be aware of: I am part of the professional world—there’s no hiding it—but I want to assure them that I am a seeker as well. I play parts of a duo, an aria, and an orchestra piece. They are very complimentary but also insightful; I am intrigued by the things they focus on. In addition, I feel a change: I am no longer an unknown quantity. I feel more like one of the gang. We’ve all had to stand up and reveal our desires.

Back to Thing One: after eight weeks writing music, we move to the next stage, handing it to the musicians.