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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.
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.
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.
Fetter (n.): 1. a chain or shackle for the feet. 2. something that confines.
Some of my favorite hooks in the world are the kind where you can tell something’s being revealed or turned on its head, but you won’t figure it out without a little research (or an extensive vocabulary). And man, Ian Stahl sure knows how to write one.
The line in question comes at the end of the chorus of “Fetters and Feathers,” the title track of Cilience’s debut EP. Backed by intrinsically satisfying syncopation, frontman Stahl sings, “Waiting for something better/Until fetters are feathers, I’ll sing until I can fly.” It’s the kind of music you’d want to listen to during a sunny drive up the Ventura coast—which, for a song intended to highlight racial inequality, is impressive. Its parent record, Fetters and Feathers, is a conceptually quirky but idiomatically sound ride through a host of styles and existential quandaries that invites listeners to explore as far as they want to go.
I’ve spent much of the past week reflecting on my experiences at the Rafael Méndez Brass Institute and getting back into the daily grind. I had such a great time getting to know everyone at RMBI, but it’s dawned on me that as someone who actively identifies as both a composer and a performer, I don’t talk as coherently about my creative practice as many of my new friends do. To be completely honest, I’m a little envious—from the outside looking in, it seems nice to be able to start by saying “I do this” and then getting more specific instead of explaining that you do two or three or five different things and having to elaborate on each one. I’ve also realized that I haven’t at any point sat down and written out how I describe and view my own work. (Grad school application essays don’t count.)
Generally, I dismiss myself pretty quickly. I tell people that I try to marry traditional technique and tonality with experimental idioms, and that’s true. Making weird things accessible to audiences regardless of their musical background is and always will be a priority. Even still, there’s so much more to my writing and performing than “it sounds a little weird but also sort of normal.” There are facets of my creativity I haven’t talked about very much. So this post has two objectives: to introduce myself a little more thoroughly to my friends (new and old, musicians and non-musicians) and help define for myself how I frame my creative practice.
A week has come and gone, and one cancelled flight and many phone calls later, I’m in the air headed home from the Rafael Méndez Brass Institute. RMBI brings together a veritable army of instructors, students, auditionees, performers, and a couple amazing collaborative pianists for a week of brass-related shenanigans. I didn’t want to post too much about my expectations going into the festival, so for the most part I’ve kept quiet online. However, now that I’ve made it out the other side, I thought I’d compile a list of the festival’s greatest hits (and misses) for anyone who’s considering attending next year. As always, these opinions are my own, and I’m always cognizant of the fact that as a musician whose focus is largely on contemporary performance, my experience differs from my peers’. But here are my biggest pros and cons of RMBI 2018: