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Hostile Work Environments and Unraveling Tapestries: A Follow-Up to Untouchable

Untouchable took me a month and a half to write, but I spent four years trying to articulate its content. As (the blessedly many of) y’all who read it probably saw, I referenced fifteen other pieces I’ve put out since early 2017. This morning, I piled all sixteen posts into a single document to check the word count, and it came out to just under 29,000 words—or about half of the minimum requirement for a full-length novel. It was 47 pages of material. While that bodes well for any potential doctorate I may choose to pursue in the future, it says some interesting things about the likelihood of being both believed and understood within our community.

You see, I don’t expect people to believe me when I start talking about most of the things I discuss on my blog. Part of why I started writing the thoughts down was because my in-person conversations with peers were so often derailed by some level of disbelief—sometimes in the form of “[other woman] doesn’t say that,” sometimes manifesting as “I’ve never seen that so it must not be too bad,” sometimes in other forms that are intricate and nuanced and harder to illuminate. I was only rarely allowed to communicate a thought beyond its first couple sentences and almost never given the space and time to puzzle through something that felt important. On paper, though, I had the freedom to do just that, to make sure an idea was complete and concise before putting it out into the world. And while no one’s obligated to read the entirety of anything I post, I find a lot of people do. (For this, I’m incredibly grateful. Yes, that means you, sitting at the screen.)

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Untouchable: The Male Gaze, ASU Jazz, and the Phoenix Community

When I was an undergrad running with the jazz boys, no one wanted to sleep with me.

…Yeah, I didn’t know how to start this one, either. For all my work addressing sexual assault, I actually don’t spend all that much time dealing with sex. (I tend to leave that creative artistry to Rebecca Drapkin, the sex-positive to my sex-negative.) While I love my body and everything it can do, I’ve grown accustomed to keeping my sexual side to myself. I’m still figuring out how much of it belongs in my artistic life. And though that answer is nonzero, part of why I keep my sex life (and body, and sexuality, and . . .) separate from the rest of my artistic discourse is just because I don’t share all of me with all of you. But part of it isn’t, and there are reasons for that—reasons I can trace back to a very specific time and place—and though I’d rather not discuss any of this, I think it’s time.

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on representation and artistry

Every once in awhile, usually when I’m in the middle of a slew of pieces about assault, my mom will check in with me about my writing. “You are taking the time to write happy music, right?” she often asks. It’s a time-honored song and dance—she asks, I reassure; lather, rinse, repeat. Less often, she echoes a sentiment I’ve also heard from my friends and my own internal monologue: I don’t want, theoretically, to be known for my assault work and nothing else.

That sentiment is a difficult one to wrap my head around on a good day, but I’ve always understood it on a fundamental level. I don’t want to only be approached when someone’s looking to dive deep into the dark; I don’t want to be known as the girl who doesn’t write music for more straight-ahead performances. And while I maybe won’t always write work that’s best when programmed on a vanilla concert, the underlying idea is stark: don’t close doors that might stay open if I picked more palatable subject matter. Put more bluntly, don’t brand as broken.

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Ownvoices versus Intentional Programming: A Primer

In the last year, I’ve sat down several times to break down problematic and offensive programming and publishing decisions by major music institutions. Sometimes it’s started on Twitter, sometimes on my blog, but I’ve found myself circling back to many of the same issues again and again and again. In certain cases, it’s been harder to spot, because the Phantom Regiment snafu and resulting fallout look different on the surface than, say, the Larry Clark/Keiko Yamada moment or my thoughts and hesitations about Fire in my mouth. Each of these points to different, interconnected issues within our communities and the ways in which we talk about marginalized composers and their work. However, they also point to different ways in which our current mainstream discussions of these issues aren’t specific enough to make the right arguments for folks who may not be as plugged in as we are.

Because while these instances and others (looking at you, St. Louis Symphony’s History/Her Story programming) all fall under the umbrella category of Things Concerning Marginalized Composers, they don’t all deal with the same issues. In fact, they concern themselves with two distinctly different things: intentional programming and ownvoices representation.

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Performance Restrictions, Ethics, and Calls for Scores

It’s been a busy semester of teaching and grading, rehearsals and more grading, and I’ve found myself composing a little less. This isn’t entirely a surprise—it’s my first full year out of grad school, and I’m trying to commit to not writing on absurd deadlines anymore—but it’s been an interesting change of pace. While I’ve enjoyed having the opportunity to sit back and really think about what I’m putting on the page, I’ve also learned a lot from watching competitions and calls for scores go by.

The side of me that cares very much about ethics isn’t super impressed with those right now.

Before we get too far into it, I’ll freely admit this is colored by my preexisting dislike for most competitions. Some are fine, but anything that costs money to submit to and doesn’t provide transparency about what that money is used for grinds my gears. (My rule of thumb: for existing ensembles, if there isn’t a cash prize involved, regardless of performance opportunities, competitions and calls for scores should be free to submit to.) Further, the motivation behind competitions specifically has always been a little odd to me. How are any of us realistically going to identify the best composer?

Okay. Time to get back on topic. Otherwise, this is going to get unfocused fast. I’m not the biggest fan of competitions, but I’ve run my share of calls for scores, and for the most part, I don’t mind them. They’re a great opportunity for composers and performers to swap scores for recordings (and performances!) without either party losing a lot of money. They’re especially awesome for composers who have scores sitting around and ensembles who wouldn’t have a lot of access to new music otherwise.

That said, I tend to shy away from calls for scores that are billed as “new works” recitals, and tonight, I want to talk about why.

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Talking About Women Composers Isn’t Enough

Over the past few years—especially since the election—I’ve seen lots of meaningful conversation, art, and advocacy on behalf of women composers and their work. I’ve seen an elevation of public consciousness—not necessarily across the board, but within classical and jazz spheres, to be certain. And yes, we’ve got a lot of work still to do with drum corps (and classical and jazz) and the more mainstream-music-listening public; our efforts need to extend further than they already do, but we’re making progress. Women working in composition are seeing a shift in how we are treated, in the opportunities open to us, and in the interactions we have with our peers, colleagues, and superiors.

From here, this post could veer in two different directions. I could keep talking about the work we need to do with equity, to ensure that women are getting a statistically fair shot whenever possible. I could go on about what that means and how I’d do it. (Spoiler alert: it would make a lot of men mad.)

But that’s not actually the route I’m taking today. Maybe I’ll come back to it someday, but for now, there’s something more pressing on my mind.

Talking about women composers isn’t enough.

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Holding Space and the Quest for Honest Scheduling

In my last week in Santa Clarita, I was constantly running between packing my life and buying boxes and sorting out the tail end of our utilities and setting up mail forwarding and, in the approximately ten minutes I had left, spending time with as many of my friends as I could. It was a hectic few days, and most of it is a blur, but those last interactions with the people I hold dear remain etched into my memory.

One such moment was a last-minute cup of coffee with Lily Maase, who I’ve written about before. We met at Honu, the single most adorable coffee shop in downtown Newhall, for an hour and a half that felt simultaneously like a small eternity (in the good way) and the blink of an eye. We both had relatively full schedules—if I remember right, she was only in LA for 48 hours or so—but the time we spent talking life and career was a nice break from the action for us both. Our conversation ranged all over the place, but we stopped for a few minutes on the one thing that had brought us together—scheduling.

If I’m being honest, I can’t entirely remember what led to the topic. Maybe I was talking about trying to make plans with the Phoenix friends I was returning to; the “maybe if I’m not busy” refrain can be common out here. At any rate, we sat at a quaint table in the shade outside, putting our heads together to revel in a shared experience—namely, making plans with male friends that turn out not to be plans after all.

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Notes from the Margins: Impossible Asks

A lot of the lessons I’ve learned in music school were designed for my male peers.

There are a lot of directions I could go from here; I could talk about the homogenization of the classical canon into the Straight White Men’s Club or the devaluation and exclusion of women and queer people in the jazz tradition or the gendered (and racist, and classist) expectations for concert dress. And while I’m sure I’ll spend time with each of those individually, none of them are quite hitting home for me at the moment.

One such lesson, though, that disproportionally benefits the men I’ve been educated alongside is one of the most important ones a composer learns: how to run a rehearsal of your own music. While a lot of the components of this come down to “don’t be an ass, and make sure you respect your performers,” a large part of why we run our own rehearsals is so we can address questions promptly and ensure the music sounds how we want it to. The core tenets of running a good rehearsal, besides regular community maintenance, are these: “don’t be afraid to ask for what you want” and “be picky.”

To be clear, it’s not that these strategies for running an efficient rehearsal are inherently dehumanizing toward gender-marginalized people. It’s that most of them are only acceptable when leaving the mouths of men. And this is where we get into Pushback City, so I need y’all to stay with me and read everything before you go off and grouse internally. See, I’ve been at this awhile now, and I can tell you what it’s like to be in a rehearsal room where you’re the only gender-marginalized person—and you’re supposed to be the one running the show.

Sometimes it’s fine. Sometimes it’s not.

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on discomfort and triggers

[CW: discussion of triggers, sexual assault, suicidality]

There’s a tumblr excerpt that goes around every once in awhile about respect. Though I’m sure I can’t quote it verbatim, the gist of it is that there are two types of respect: “you treat me like a human” and “you treat me like an authority.” The post goes on to point out that some people, usually those benefiting from immense privilege, leverage that discrepancy to make “if you don’t respect me, I won’t respect you” into “if you don’t treat me like an authority, I won’t treat you like a human.”

I think about that post a lot, both because of its direct relatability to my life and the broader applicability it has to other words commonly used in two different ways. One in particular has stuck in my mind as of late: uncomfortable.

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Fire in my mouth And Pushing For Ownvoices Rep

[The following is a transcript of a thread I did on Twitter this evening. I’ve kept things as intact as possible, besides some minor punctuation changes to make it make sense when it’s not delivered 280 characters at a time. Additional thoughts added for this version are in brackets.]

So I’m listening to Julia Wolfe’s Fire in my mouth, and first of all, the writing is very good and the recording is very good, but second of all, I have thoughts. Apparently I’m threading these on Twitter again, so buckle up, folks. A couple things: one, this is my first listen, so there is undoubtedly stuff I’m missing. Two, my thoughts on this are shaped especially by what’s going on in publishing right now.

First, the text setting is good. Nothing revolutionary (though I’m not to the end yet), but good. I get that it’s an oratorio and there’s formal guidelines being followed. I’m more of a scary-noises-and-extended-techniques person, but given the sound palette, it all makes sense. The string writing is probably my favorite part of the composing itself. It’s compelling. The percussion choices are good ones, too. Honestly, though, that’s probably all I’ve got to say about the composing part f this, because the circumstances around the work catch me. [I was running out of characters, but what I meant here is that the circumstances are the thing that piques my interest.]

Continue reading Fire in my mouth And Pushing For Ownvoices Rep