Paying Your Dues (and other bullshit)

Since moving back to Phoenix, one phrase (besides “it’s better now”) has begun to permeate my consciousness—and weigh on my mind—more than it ever did while I was in California. I absolutely spoiled any chance at a surprise with my title, so yes, that phrase is “paying your dues.” Despite all the time I’ve spent wandering through various genres and fields of music, it’s never quite rung true to me. This is, I think, partly because of how intentionally nonspecific it is and partly because of the conditions under which I make music and move through the world at large. The depths of this issue are murky, and from here it’s difficult to see the bottom, but if I had to take a stab at a thesis, it’d be this: the gatekeeping, favoritism, and institutional bias that create the foundation of “paying your dues” stifle creativity, discourage participation, alienate newcomers, and serve the white patriarchy.

Wow, that’s a lot to unpack. So let’s take it a bite at a time, shall we?

Before we get into it, I’m not sure why this didn’t come up a lot while I was in Los Angeles, but the answer is probably partly regional and partly cultural. A wise jazz musician once pointed out to me that the prevalence and outward manifestation of misogyny varies drastically by location. Generally, New York and LA are noticeably different (though not necessarily less misogynist) than most of the rest of the country. And while this “paying your dues” thing can undoubtedly play into that, I think another part of the equation is that mindless playing-for-the-paycheck work isn’t as looked down on in LA as it sometimes is in some pockets of Phoenix—in part because gigs are a step up from the carousel of day jobs, plural, needed to pay Los Angeles rent.

The other part of this, I suppose, is that I wasn’t told to pay my dues in LA; I was told to put in the work. While both phrases carry similar weight, there’s a lot more flexibility to the latter. My friends and teachers saw me making angry assault music and counted that as “doing the work.” They saw me advocating for student life improvements and institutional change and counted that as “doing the work.” They see me blogging about the need for better treatment across the board and count that as “doing the work.” But regardless of the details, I didn’t hear or talk about or think about “paying my dues” much in California, and I do in Arizona, so it’s time to break down some concepts.

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Emerging Composers and Age Limits (Newsflash: That’s Not A Thing)

There’s this idea among musicians and arts organizations that there’s a deadline for being an “emerging composer.” The age in question can vary, but because we commonly associate emerging composers with youth and being newly educated, the cap is rarely over forty. Sometimes it’s thirty or thirty-five. And while that’s great for folks like me, who found composition very early and have been able to capitalize on a college education in the subject, it’s not so ideal for . . . well, lots of other folks.

I recently came across a composition competition run by the National Women’s Music Festival. They were soliciting scores from “emerging women composers” (their words), but I was surprised and pleased to read that there was no age limit (lower or upper) for their call. To be fair, it is less surprising that this is coming from an organization dedicated to women, because of one crucial thing: childbirth.

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“It’s Better Now” And Other Well-Intentioned Half-Truths

As I’ve begun settling back into Phoenix, I’ve decided that being upfront about my plans and trepidation is the best policy at this point in time. As a result, I’ve been honest with folks—common refrains are “I don’t play standards anymore,” “I’m still figuring out what I want to put energy into,” and “I’m picking projects I really like and going from there.” These ones are easy to swallow for most folks (though the standards one often raises some eyebrows until I add “this community killed that for me”); however, some of the truthful answers further down the playlist of “how are you?” are already raising some pushback.

The big one, unsurprisingly, is the simplest: in some ways, it’s terrifying to be back.

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On Pen Names, Impersonation, and Identity

Greetings, folks, and welcome to another episode of Posts I Didn’t Want To Write. Today, we’re using a real-life example to talk about marginalized identities in composition and repertoire. However, this example, highlighted this week by the band and orchestra communities, is of a white man using a pseudonym to represent himself as a female Japanese composer (and, by extension, to represent his appropriative works as authentic).

The man in question is Larry Clark, an educator-turned-composer who has achieved some prominence as a large ensemble composer, particularly for young groups. Clark has, since at least 2005, published some works under his own name and others under the pseudonym Keiko Yamada. Titles from Clark’s catalog are fairly standard for a white composer in this century—“Subatomic,” “Intuition March,” etc. (I will not be linking to his website or any of his content during this post.) Yamada’s titles all lean into the supposed Japanese identity—“Hotaka Sunset,” “Kon’nichiwa,” “Japanese Lullaby” . . . you get the picture. To make matters worse, parts of this false identity seem to be co-opted from actual Japanese women—one student presentation on the “composer,” found in a basic Google Search, conflates Clark’s Yamada with the popular Japanese manga artist of the same name. The “composer”’s birthdate, available through Schott Music’s page dedicated to her, is listed as August 18th, 1972, which is the birthdate of Keiko Komuro, lead vocalist of the pop group Globe.

Through this, Clark has created two footholds for himself in the world of large ensembles: one in which he profits off his own name and one in which his racist, sexist, colonialist, and transphobic business practices allow him to profit from work misleadingly billed as authentic. He has created a persona that tiptoes into spaces he would not otherwise be welcome in. He has taken advantage of the intentional programming movement; Yamada’s name and work is listed on mandatory repertoire lists in at least two states. Further, the decision to publish under a name carrying double-minority status means he, a white man, can take up spots on concerts reserved for women, people of color, and women of color.

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2019’s Large Ensemble Giveaway: Here Be Dragons and People Talk

Folks, it’s back-to-school time again, and I know many of my ensemble director friends are knee-deep in planning their seasons. Last fall, I had a great experience with the giveaway process for strength in all things, so this year, I’m going to do it again—but this time, you can take home two pieces if you’d like. Like last year, the idea’s the same: you can take home the pieces for free if you program one (or both) of them in 2019 or 2020. (A personal suggestion? If you’ve got the performers for it, an election year would be a great time to program People Talk.)

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Pardon Our Dust (this work is messy)

On this blog, I try to write about the intersections of womanhood, music, misogyny, and my own creative practice. The balance is a tenuous one to strike, especially since world events and major (musical) institutional announcements can necessitate posts that both move beyond my usual material and interrupt the flow of my thoughts. As such, even though I try to tie everything back to music or the work I do specifically, sometimes I think some folks forget that this all ties together for me.

And yes, it can be tempting to ditch the writing about feminism and activism and navigating music’s social scene in a decidedly female body. At times it feels like it would be easier to try to be the Buzzfeed of contemporary classical music. I know full well that I could opt for the familiarities of topics like leading ensembles and earning respect (now there’s a phrase fraught with male undertones) and inclusive programming. I already touch on these things from time to time, but they could become the mainstays of my written work. I could emphasize the traditional (or, at least, expected) career components we’re all familiar with.

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Music, Weaponized Vulnerability, and the Question of Us

The end of my masters degree was a little nontraditional. This is fitting, I suppose, because most of the rest of my degree was largely nontraditional. But in my last semester, I was fortunate to spend quality time with four teachers (now friends) whose work I admire and who all handle life pretty well. My questions to each of them varied, but the gist was the same: what on earth do I do now?

See, I’m a good student, but I’m a professional very much in the process of figuring out what makes a career and how the wheels keep turning. I know I don’t have all the answers I need, and I understand some things will be lessons learned the hard way. But I’m also an artist working with (and through) an injury that could have ended my playing career, and I’m an artist whose creative output travels to very dark places a lot of the time. If I want to keep making work that truly challenges me (and maybe society), I have to develop habits and boundaries that preserve my personal wellbeing through the creative process. And, for the sake of my mental health, I probably need to grow those in the next five years and adapt them over a lifetime.

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Okay, Phoenix, Let’s Tango

Sometimes it feels like I, a person with a 408 area code, was always destined for the 480. The universe likes playing tricks, so it’s not a completely unreasonable suspicion. That said, as many of my AZ-native friends understand, I left, and I didn’t really expect to be back. In fact, if you asked me a year ago if I ever thought I’d live and work in Phoenix again, the answer would have been a vehement no.

On the flip side, when your partner gets the opportunity to study with one of the best trombone teachers in the country, you take it. (Dr. E, I don’t think you’re reading this, but if you are, hi!) As a Sun Devil alum, I’m thrilled John and I will both have degrees from ASU (and CalArts . . . but in opposite orders). As someone with a handful of friends I’ve missed desperately, I’m looking forward to reconnecting. But as someone who took some very bad moments and memories with me when I left the desert, as someone who realizes the reasons I was so frequently brushed over and passed by are myriad and gendered, I am . . . less excited.

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Curtis Institute’s Non-Apology and Actionable First Steps

Yes, we’re doing this again.

Last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a detailed account of powerhouse violinist Lara St. John’s childhood abuse, assault, and rape at the hands of her Curtis instructor, Jascha Brodsky. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend that you do—the article goes into significant detail about St. John’s initial reporting process and multiple attempts to seek accountability from Curtis. The morning the story broke online, Curtis sent a message to its alumni network, asking them not to talk to the press and encouraging everyone to let the school spin the story. This didn’t go over well.

Curtis later backtracked, issuing a pseudo-apology for the gag order and making vague promises to be better. They also announced that they would be creating an anonymous reporting hotline (theoretically for sexual abuse, though they did not specify what the hotline would focus on or whether alumni, staff, and faculty who have been victimized would be able to utilize it). Nowhere has the Institute apologized to Lara St. John—not for facilitating abuse, not for disbelieving her, not for the joke of an “investigation” they rushed through to sweep the crime under the rug. And, if my guess is correct, they aren’t planning to. These continued missteps communicate to the music community at large that Curtis is more concerned with its reputation than actually working to right the wrongs.

This isn’t the first music school to face a story this explosive, nor is Curtis the first to navigate the reality that they willingly enabled a predator who they kept on faculty for decades thereafter. In fact, I wrote a piece roughly a year ago talking about very real ways to ask for consent for necessary touching in lessons and other artistic environments. In short, we’ve heard this song before. This makes it infinitely frustrating that school after school—Curtis among them—reacts like legions of musicians haven’t already communicated quite clearly the things we need to hear from a school truly interested in accountability and improvement.

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