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.
I spent much of the holiday season catching up on sleep and composing projects, and I’m happy to have some new things off the ground and some long-awaited scores nearing their premiere performances. This semester alone, I’ll have works performed in four to five states (which, for an early-career composer, is a Big Deal), and Letters will reach more audiences than ever before thanks to a couple large ensemble performances, a student recital (away from CalArts, even), and my own graduation project, face the mirror, which will have its own page soon but for now lives in my Projects catch-all. I’m super excited for each of these milestones and will devote more column space to each of them over the course of this semester, but I wanted to take a moment this week to talk a little about a piece I’ve just completed and how the concepts at play within it affect my own life on a day-to-day basis.
The work is called walking/I’m sorry, Mom and it was commissioned by my dear friend and fellow musical troublemaker Tanner Pfeiffer for the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble at CalArts. For CVE’s spring concert this year, Tanner is assembling a collection of works that explore, in some way or another, movement, theater, and/or dance within a musical performance context. Much of the art I currently enjoy making incorporates theatrical or dance elements, so I was excited to hop on board to contribute something new. Originally, I’d been aiming for a work that established strong connections between physical aftereffects of assault and their mental repercussions, but as dark works tend to do, the music pulled me in a different direction.
I wrote walking about what is [unfortunately] a quintessential part of the stereotypical female experience—a strange man, with unclear intentions, following a woman home late at night. “Don’t walk alone in the dark” was one of the sentiments that shaped my own coming-of-age experiences; ASU’s campus is lovely at night, and frequently the only reasonable time to walk around and enjoy the area is after the sun goes down, so eighteen-year-old me admittedly didn’t follow my mom’s advice to the letter. I’m fortunate that I started walking with friends before I could run into cause for concern, but I have friends (both from my time at ASU and other moments) who have dealt with these issues repeatedly.
More than that, though, walking isn’t just about being alone at night. It’s about being approached by a man—in any situation—and having to make that snap judgment of how to react. It’s about Schrödinger’s rapist.
As I’ve mentioned before, I have TMJ. I’ve spent longer than I’ve cared to admit trying to sleep and eat and talk and go about my day without pain or tightness, and despite my best efforts, a lot of days are tough days professionally. More often than not, playing a horn is a struggle between wanting to work toward being a better performer and wanting to keep the tension out of my body, keep myself safe, and avoid making things worse. Navigating life with my jaw is a dance between doctors and stretches and food choices and sleeping positions, and while some days are absolute crap and others are amazing, the vast majority of them are somewhere in the middle—not terrible, but not great, either.
I grew up playing classical music and longing to be in jazz band.
Granted, it didn’t take long for that to come to fruition—by eighth grade I was taking solos and groaning at lead parts like I’d done it all my life—but with jazz comes an often-stifling series of mistreatments. I don’t have to tell you that; I haven’t touched the art form in over a year, and while I still miss the music, I’m waiting for the opportunity to get back into it on my own terms with people who won’t shut me down at every turn. The thing I loved most about jazz, though, was simultaneously what I hated: the improvisation.
I’ve debated writing this post for a long time. Not because it’s particularly controversial, but because I didn’t always know where to start. Musicians don’t like talking about injuries—so often we keep them under wraps, not wanting to get bumped down a part or looked down on by our peers and mentors, that the only time we really hear about big physical roadblocks are in whispers months after the fact. And that takes its own toll, leaving those struggling feeling like they’re in it by themselves. I’d really prefer people not feel like that, so I’m sharing a little about what I’ve spent the last couple years navigating.
Three Octobers ago, my jaw locked up. I was in the middle of a normal evening, and all of a sudden I couldn’t get it more than about a third of the way open. For twenty minutes. After some frantic Googling, a bunch of massaging, and some fervent prayer to the brass gods, it finally relaxed, but I didn’t know what to do from there. One drop-in visit to the health center later, I came back with Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJD, but literally everyone shortens it to TMJ). If you want to get really colloquial, it’s lockjaw, but without the tetanus associations. While the locking up and the fatigue was new, since then I’ve realized that tension in my jaw has likely followed me since childhood, which makes it so much more fun to get rid of. [Insert eye-roll here.]
I hate artist statements. I hate them with a fiery, burning passion. I’m not good at writing them and I often feel like I’m leaving out something significant in an effort to fit my creative practice into an approachable, understandable box. The fact that I’m still in school and still learning about aesthetics and sound worlds and crafting environments doesn’t help—I’ve known since undergrad that unless a project started with me, I’m very comfortable molding my sound world to fit around an instructor I’m learning from or a period of music I’m learning about at any given time. These days, that’s not exactly something I consider a skill.
For my artistic self, high school set a lot of things in motion. I dove headfirst into band music; I started arranging and making things up at the piano; I spent time learning about my peers’ instruments and what worked well (and badly) for each of them. I don’t talk a lot about my life before then—not publicly and not a whole bunch to my friends and family. When I do, a lot of it centers around my assault and subsequent events that put me where I am today as a casualty of that event. And it’s true that for better or for worse, my assault sent me down a lot of paths I might not have wandered onto otherwise. But tonight I want to sit down with you, listen to the rain that’s blessing Santa Clarita for the first time in months, and remember how a bright spot in my early life got me ready to fight like I do now.
When I was five or six, my parents decided to sign me up for a couple seasons of youth soccer. It was probably the least competitive setup you’ll find anywhere, but for a very tiny, very rambunctious me, it was a little slice of heaven. I got to run around, enjoy the world moving under my feet, and indulge my competitive side. I can’t remember what spurred it, but after two or three seasons of this, we stopped going back. My brother was getting into baseball and I was dancing more than I had previously, so other things rose to fill the gap, but I missed it. So in fourth grade, when large, impromptu games of kickback and kickball (two entirely different games, thankyouverymuch) started turning into structured soccer matches, I paid attention.
I want to stop for a minute to describe this environment for you, because it’s really a defining moment in my youth and a big part of how I define my childhood. I’d spent third grade dealing with an excessive amount of bullying explained away by “he probably just likes you,” and I was struggling to readjust to reasonable expectations of my peers when I started joining these games. Every recess (and we got three per day), we’d scramble out onto the absolutely massive field we had free rein over. At the beginning of the day, we’d pick teams. Our best two players were never allowed to play on the same side—a few of the guys were playing on club teams, and even at that age, there was a big difference in the skills they brought to the table compared to everyone else’s.
A year ago today, I lost my funny, smart, amazing, kind grandmother. She’s the first close relative I’ve lost, and we weren’t expecting her to go quite so soon. I’d planned on going to see her that evening, in fact—I’d made the drive from Valencia to Palm Desert two weekends in a row and was going on a third. I was all set to tell her about how I’d led my counterpoint class for the first time that morning. I’d packed the stuffed animal she gave me when I started college. I was wearing some jewelry I’d picked up at the mall earlier that week so I could show her what I was finding lately. And I still ended up going out to Palm Desert that night, but it wasn’t so I could show Gram everything I’d brought for her.
In the weeks that followed, I spent a lot of time out in the desert, going through Gram’s belongings at my grandfather’s request and taking whatever I thought I would use. I grabbed a bunch of her two-tone earrings (a pair of which I’m wearing today), a whole bunch of bracelets I’ve since fallen in love with, and a closetful of basics and pants I’d never buy for myself. (And an awesome jumpsuit with pockets that my grandfather picked out for her—props to you for thinking fashion-forward, Grandad.) All these things were split between me, my aunt, and my mother. But one thing was for me and me alone (strictly by virtue of sizing): Gram’s shoes.
My brothers and sisters and siblings and I, we have been violated. We have been attacked and groped and touched intentionally and carelessly and recklessly. Our attackers may know what they did to us; all the same, they may have forgotten entirely, relegated us and our pain to the insignificant past. We have been hurt beyond all telling. And we don’t report.