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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.
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.
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.
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.)
I am sitting onstage with the Nash Composers Coalition—either at our inaugural concert or second; I can’t remember which—and we are almost through our set. The adrenaline is pumping, and despite the weight of carrying my gender on my back on that stage, I’m smiling. We’ve been riding the performance high all night, and spirits are high. As we round the bend into the last couple tunes, we call a free improvisation, with the title to be determined by the audience.
The first few suggestions are fine, harmless; they prompt thoughtful nods or friendly chuckles from me and my colleagues. They’re what we expect. Then someone—a guy, and by the self-satisfied tone of voice, it was probably a young or young-ish guy, though to my knowledge not one of my peers—shouted out something super sexual. I can’t remember if it was “seductive” or “foreplay” or something else entirely, but I remember the discomfort it brought to me immediately.
Hang on; I have to go look through those recordings now and see if I can find it. I want to get this right, and it’s a story I try not to remember.
Have you ever gone to something expecting to have a reasonably good time and come out of it with your life forever changed? I’m not talking about I-went-and-got-another-degree; no, I mean the kind of thing where you come out with unexpected new inspirations, role models, and routes of exploration, the kind of thing that makes you get out of bed at a reasonable (or maybe even unreasonably early) time because you can’t just stay still when there’s so much to do, the kind of thing that stays with you in ways you don’t expect.
It’s been awhile since I had one of those experiences (I think the last thing that even comes close was when I premiered He Probably Just Likes You with the Nash Composers Coalition), but I spent this past week at the International Women’s Brass Conference, where I presented two of my own works and a solo set. After just six days, I’m a different person. Like, my hair is still (blissfully) purple and I still need to practice for approximately forever, but I’ve got new paths dangling in front of me that I desperately want to explore. But first, I wanted to talk a little bit about what it took to get here.
I’ve been sitting on these plans for months now, and I’m so excited to finally share them with you. Over the past year, I’ve been floored by the willingness of friends, family, peers, colleagues, and near-strangers to support my art in all its different forms. That support, whether emotional, financial, or professional, has enabled me to reach new heights and produce work I couldn’t even have conceptualized not so long ago. In just two years, I’ve put out a significant amount of work about sexual assault and rape culture. My understanding and use of extended techniques has grown, but I still enjoy mixing them in with more “normal” sounds for a new blend of timbres. I’m braver and more authentic as a performer and artist. I’m so proud of how far I’ve come during my MFA, and even though I know this is just the beginning, it’s a little crazy to believe it’s even real.
As I leave academia (at least, the student side of things) and start bringing my artmaking practices fully into the professional sphere, I’m looking for ways to not only ensure I keep creating new work but get it into the hands and headphones of people who might not always be able to see it performed live. I’ll be rolling these out as they wink into existence, and the first platform I’m adding to my creative portfolio is my Patreon page.
Wow, what a crazy first half(ish) of the semester. I’m spending the weekend sleeping extra and getting back on a somewhat normal schedule for, well, everything. I’m still a little shocked that I spent two months working hard on an intense show about sexual assault and victimhood and somehow it worked. We had a great run last Sunday—my dancers were superhuman and my chops were happy with me—and now I’m diving deep into footage, thinking critically about the next steps for face the mirror. I’d really love to take it on the road in California and the Southwest, so if your school or venue wants to host a night or two, give me a shout. For the time being, though, I just want to take a few moments and expound a little on what this show means to me and how it came into existence.
Tomorrow night, I take the stage to bare a piece of my soul.
Mine, and a thousand others’.
Tomorrow night, I take the stage with a little fire in my feet and a spark in my eyes and I bring the world into a story I might’ve told a hundred times by now. I bring the world in, and I shut myself out.
You see, that girl onstage isn’t me.
Sure, she wears my face and laughs and cries like I do. She carries with her the same sense of wonder, the same reactions to old wounds made new again. She lives a story that is rich and complex and devoid of the words I’d choose to write for myself. Her experiences shape her, ever so subtly, in different ways than mine shape me. Sometimes they look the same, outwardly—she falls to the floor at all the same times that I probably would—but her motivations, her qualms, her relationship with herself is dramatically different.
As 2018 comes to a close, I’m spending time reflecting on some of my professional endeavors from the past year. Among the greatest joys in my musical year has been getting so many opportunities to create new works for performers and ensembles who want to add something new to their repertoire. Just this past year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a slew of folks in three different time zones. Each collaboration has been incredibly rewarding for me, and I’m pleased to announce I’m now accepting commissions for 2019 and 2020.