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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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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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.]

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Young Lions (and things I’ll never be)

Though as a professional musician who’s friends with other professional musicians, I live my life in a deluge of Facebook event invitations, I do try to take the time to read through most of them so I know who’s playing and what’s happening. A recent one caught my eye: “We have chosen Michael Kocour to give voice to some of the ‘young lions’ of the Phoenix jazz scene . . .” The description was apt—the lineup was full of folks who are skilled and particularly roar-inclined—but “young lions” made me pause. First, because it shouldn’t be in quotes if you really want to sell it, and second, because it’s one of those terms I instinctively know would never be ascribed to me as a default.

This morning, I wandered into our office (which, despite its stated purpose, is not where I do most of my work) and mused about this to my partner. “You’d be a young lioness,” he reassured me, but I was having none of it.

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We Aren’t Your Selling Point: Thoughts on Tokenism in Publishing

Anyone on Facebook knows and probably despises Facebook’s targeted ads. Sure, on rare occasions they’re selling something you’re actually looking for and genuinely need, but most of the time, they’re either a pain or ridiculous. The algorithm, I’ve found, also likes dredging up brands and companies you’ve maybe had one interaction with and dropping more of their ads in your news feed. When it’s a company you’ve had a positive interaction with, that can be really good. In the case of a negative first impression . . . not so much.

Enter Bandworks Publications.

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Commissions 2020: Expanding My Horizons (and maybe yours, too)

My dear readers, friends, colleagues, and peers,

I’ve had the time of my life in 2019 working with a series of commissioners on new works and bringing many of my 2018 pieces to the stage for the first time. By my best count, I’ve written almost an hour of music this year, and I’ve begun to explore new artistic directions that really excite and challenge me. As we move toward 2020 (and onward!), I’m looking forward to continuing to build on my current practice and dive deeper into my own voice.

Over the last several years, it’s become increasingly clear that the work I love creating the most doesn’t fall under standard “contemporary classical” boundaries. Realistically, most of it falls somewhere under the New Music umbrella, which does save space for classical- and jazz-adjacent things but allows me to pick and choose which pieces of tradition or time-traveling sonic nonsense I want to include alongside the modern developments that make my heart sing 24/7. For people who know me well, this isn’t a huge surprise, but the wonderful folks who commission me aren’t even always people I’ve met. (Which, for the record, is amazing.) I love working with new collaborators just as much as I enjoy reconnecting with folks from years past, and my catalog is starting to reflect that in some really exciting ways.

That said, my compositional voice today doesn’t sound like it did two or three or five years ago, and as I continue trying to move toward the artist I want to be, I need to point that out. Those of you who knew me (and my writing) in undergrad might not know how I sound now (unless you’ve been keeping up with me online, in which case, you’re awesome). While there are still pieces in my back catalog I love dearly and plenty more I’m still proud of, it’s worth pointing out that I’m not necessarily writing that way all the time anymore. I’m playing with noises and soundscapes and text instructions and concert-theater-aligned ideas, and while some of that does still involve regular notes and rhythms, it isn’t always in the way you’d think. (Exhibit A: People Talk.)

And as my commission calendars start to organize themselves for 2020 and 2021, I’m making an effort to continually work toward making the art at the top of my wish list whenever possible (or, at least, art that’s consistent with my current voice). And while some of that is work for me or John or some of the long-term collaborators I work with, I’m hoping some of that will be for all of you, too. These might not be pieces you can turn around in a month and a half for a recital (or they might be, but not for the reasons you think). These might be pieces that require you to search as deeply within yourself and your own practice as I’m searching in mine. They might not be instantly-consumable, you-can-throw-this-together-in-a-couple-rehearsals bites of music and sound—and if they are, they’ll probably be utilizing different skill sets and making different requests of your musicianship.

Continue reading Commissions 2020: Expanding My Horizons (and maybe yours, too)

Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and the Importance of Teaching Identity

It’s December 1, 2019, and I’m propped against the comfiest pillows in my apartment, poring over the second edition of Robert Walser’s Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History in preparation for a forthcoming guest lecture. I’ve got tons of time—until sometime next semester—but because I’m trying to highlight the connections between my musical work as a whole and the jazz tradition, I’m looking for sources that will back up my arguments. I don’t expect to spend much time in the legitimacy flames this time around, but ideally, I’ll use this lecture again in the future. So I’m reading Keeping Time in full, re-engaging with my favorite parts and digging deeper into things I might have missed or flat-out did not read when I first brought the book home as a junior in college.

While I’m trying to find useful words by men to prepare for the inevitable (hopefully distant) day one decides to argue I’m a poser who doesn’t conform because I don’t understand complex harmony or virtuosic playing or some shit like that, I’m also giving myself full permission to luxuriate in the (few) moments of words penned by women. So I dipped my toes into Hazel V. Carby’s “The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues” like it was the hot tub of my dreams. I wasn’t disappointed—in fact, in the span of a single essay, my world rearranged itself.

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