Music, Weaponized Vulnerability, and the Question of Us

The end of my masters degree was a little nontraditional. This is fitting, I suppose, because most of the rest of my degree was largely nontraditional. But in my last semester, I was fortunate to spend quality time with four teachers (now friends) whose work I admire and who all handle life pretty well. My questions to each of them varied, but the gist was the same: what on earth do I do now?

See, I’m a good student, but I’m a professional very much in the process of figuring out what makes a career and how the wheels keep turning. I know I don’t have all the answers I need, and I understand some things will be lessons learned the hard way. But I’m also an artist working with (and through) an injury that could have ended my playing career, and I’m an artist whose creative output travels to very dark places a lot of the time. If I want to keep making work that truly challenges me (and maybe society), I have to develop habits and boundaries that preserve my personal wellbeing through the creative process. And, for the sake of my mental health, I probably need to grow those in the next five years and adapt them over a lifetime.

My last semester was such a relief because I had access to people who do things that I do and still lead generally happy lives. And when I asked about balance and fulfillment and happiness and all that, I got serious answers. On the surface, they might seem predictable: slow down, stay healthy, keep your body happy, choose projects that move you, remember your basics. But the thing about having so many amazing teachers is that I’ve spent a good chunk of time learning about them. I know why they give me the advice they do, and that increased context helps me adapt the concepts to my own life.

I started searching for these answers because it became fairly evident over the course of the last year that I would need to keep myself alive to continue doing this work. Before anyone panics, let’s be clear: I’m okay. I promise. But as you might expect, art about sexual assault and misogyny is a heavy burden to carry sometimes. And that’s on top of working in fields that don’t always think I should belong, in a country run by an admitted sexual predator, at a time when watching predator after predator walk free is particularly public and eternally painful. Most days, I can handle the load—after all, much of the art I make on those subjects serves as a release valve for the tension and pressure—but it doesn’t always work out that way. I don’t expect it too. Never have, really. But I know it happens, and part of being a responsible artist (and self-caring human) is preparing as much as possible and knowing those days will come.

Because as I told one of my teachers, I tend to take my vulnerability and throw it out in front of me like knives. (His response: “I’ve noticed, yes.”) It’s a storytelling style and artistic decision that can serve me well, but there’s an obvious amount of risk involved. I know there are people in my life who wished I didn’t walk this path. Some days, I agree with them. But here’s the thing: I rip myself open because it’s not my right to borrow anyone else’s story without their willing, enthusiastic consent. But unlike some of my (fantastic) peers, who use the music they create to show us some hidden sliver of them, I use my work to illuminate a dark corner of . . . us. All of us.

I don’t normally dive into this in blog format, but we as a human populace actively suck at looking out for each other. We’re conditioned, especially by society, to prioritize our individual needs over those of demographics beyond (or intersecting with) our own. If something doesn’t directly affect us, we probably won’t be super vocal about it, but if we can find a way to connect others’ experiences to our own, we’re way more likely to advocate for and learn about these issues. And while vulnerability serves as my knives, empathy is the putty with which I mold their handles and control their flight. And that, to me, is important, because if I’m going to make you uncomfortable, I want to be as in control of that as possible.

And the thing is, this may be daunting work, but when I have the moment where it’s all put together, when the stars align for the best and everything clicks, it makes me happy. Aggressively so. (Anyone who’s ever seen me say, a little too gleefully, “I love making people cry!” can confirm.) It makes me happy not because the work is necessary or timely—I really, really wish it wasn’t either of those things—but because the feedback I get from audiences tells me I’m hitting a nerve and connecting to a very visceral emotion that lives in a lot of us. Which one I hone in on depends on the piece; sometimes it’s something in the vulnerability category, but I also try to reach for more destructive emotions. Anger. Hate. The need for revenge versus justice. Self-loathing and self-destruction. I think it’s necessary not just for the women and femmes and assault victims/survivors/casualties who encounter my work—it’s necessary for the men seeking to be better and the men who don’t think they’re part of the problem and the rapists who might not realize they’re rapists (and, of course, the ones who do). And all of that matters. So I reach for the things that make people cry and squirm, but I try to do so with as much control as possible, because I want to make sure I do so with as much respect and consideration for everyone’s individual journeys as possible.

For the record, while I will certainly be talking about target audiences and Who Needs To Hear This Stuff again in the future, I do generally try to keep the focus on non-cis-male perspectives. I will continue to do so. But I think it’s important that I point out that allocishet men are part of my audience, because a significant part of why I have to make all of this as eloquent as possible is because the women and queer folks in my life usually nod their heads in understanding when I’m still scrambling around trying to make a point, while my male peers and colleagues frequently do not take my word as the authority on my own experiences unless I can present them clinically and explain how I got from point A to point B in as many little, obvious steps as possible. And as much as I dislike that gap, that’s why my work is about us—all of us, including our differences in communication and understanding. And if I’m somebody’s first point of contact for this discourse, I want to make sure I don’t leave them feeling like I’m judge, jury, and executioner in one. I want them to feel like they can learn and act and have a positive, productive place in the conversation. I want to inspire them to make this a critical part of their personal politics.

So I use my vulnerability like knives, and I’m still looking for ways to care for myself so I can keep pushing toward the art I love. It’s not a perfect process or a quick one. But as someone who’s going through a really big life transition, it’s nice to have something like that to push toward—something that’ll help me and the people I make music with in the long run. But what on earth do I do now?

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. ♦

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I Need a Nap (Because Sexism)

If you follow me or the drum corps world, you know what happened this week with Phantom Regiment. They released their show concept for the 2019 season, based (veeeeeery loosely) on Joan of Arc, using the tagline “burn it all down” and claiming to be focused on women’s empowerment. The show repertoire accompanying this announcement revealed that Phantom would be performing this “empowering” show to a soundtrack of music written exclusively by men. I and many others critiqued the decision and battled harassment and cyberbullying in the comments sections of posts for three days before Will Pitts, head drum major of the fan-favorite 2009 Spartacus show and current head honcho at Phantom, put out a statement addressing the whole ordeal. While it was appreciated, it said little more than expected: Phantom isn’t changing its show, they didn’t realize the optics would work out this way (emphasis mine), they considered works by women composers, blah blah blah.

Let’s be clear: I in no way expected Phantom to change repertoire. They are less than a month from the start of their season, and even if they wanted to add a piece by a woman, I doubt there are many female composers (whose work they would want, anyway) who would be willing to go near them with a ten-foot pole right now. Those arranging permissions would be expensive. This announcement, while maybe preventing them from further putting their feet in their mouths, is a full two days late and several dollars short. But as much as I hope Phantom and its creative team learns from this experience and significantly reconsiders how they program their shows, experiences like this that are so widely visible both remind me why I do what I do and reinforce that as much as my own experience and perspective understands perfectly well why we should center some voices over others in artistic works, most people are not engaging with art and music on that level yet. There is still work to be done.

Continue reading I Need a Nap (Because Sexism)

Schrödinger’s Rapist and His Presence in Male Spaces

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.

Continue reading Schrödinger’s Rapist and His Presence in Male Spaces

New Music and the Performer Problem

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of reading a post from my friend and colleague, Nico Bejarano, on cultivating acceptance of new music in a professional world that can at times seem dead set on only playing the repertoire already elevated to the echelon of “the classics.” (A comment my mentor Jody Rockmaker once made on my counterpoint homework, here taken wildly out of context, comes to mind: “Get your ears out of the nineteenth century!”) I concur with many of Nico’s sentiments, and I encourage you to check out his post here. I also wanted to take a few moments to address many of those same ideas from the perspective of someone who’s spent a long time being a composer first and a performer second.

Nico talks at length in his article about how the availability and mass consumption of recorded music has diluted audiences’ tastes down to an aural experience that prizes the familiar over all else. It’s an apt correlation; however, I argue that the demographic most affected by this oversaturation of Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler isn’t our concertgoing audience­—it’s the armies of performers rising through the ranks of schools and orchestras that treat new music as an afterthought. These folks are used to cross-referencing recordings of the symphonies they’re performing that semester. They endlessly study their favorite soloists’ versions of their solo rep. And they lose the ability (or maybe the imagination) to look at a piece of unfamiliar music and bring it to life in their mind.

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A Manifesto? (otherwise known as An Intro to My Creative Practice)

Hello, friends! I hope this finds you well.

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.

Continue reading A Manifesto? (otherwise known as An Intro to My Creative Practice)

Choosing Music (and/or Money)

I distinctly remember when I started telling people I planned to go into music.

It wasn’t some grand announcement—I mean, I was a junior in high school—but the way people reacted, you would’ve thought I’d just proclaimed I was going to major in winning the presidency.

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The Finalists are Here! Phantom Announces its Second-Round Composers

No time like the present for a call for scores announcement!

As many of you know, Phantom recently wrapped our second call for scores. This time around, we separated the process into two parts: our initial judging and a finalist round,
in which we look at works from ten to fifteen composers and make our selections. In no particular order, our finalist composers for the Winter Call for Scores are:

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April Performances (and other adventures)

Friends,

What a month it’s turned into! April is shaping up to be action-packed in more ways than one. Because I’m about to plunge into a bunch of different performances, I thought I’d take a moment to highlight a few of them here:

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Ensemble Talk: On Working with Composers (Successfully)

Beginning in undergrad (and sometimes earlier), composers are taught how to approach performers—what to say, what not to say, how to phrase critiques, ask questions, and ensure a successful performance. But because traditional performance institutions, particularly those following the conservatory model, value dead composers above all else (except for that one large ensemble concert a year that’s reserved for new works), it’s not uncommon to encounter performers who haven’t thought all that much about how working closely with a composer can require something beyond basic professionalism. Young performers, particularly those who play works by a composer friend, seem particularly susceptible to this, but everyone can stand to benefit from some organized consideration every once in awhile. So what do composers wish their performers knew?

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An Open Letter to the High School Girl Who’s Passed Her Auditions

Dear friend,

Congratulations on making it through your auditions! I hope you traveled to as many schools as you were able and met as many professors and students as you could. Audition season is an incredibly stressful time, and I’m sure you felt the pressure, but you did it! The worst of the application process is behind you.

In the coming weeks, you’ll start receiving your decision letters, if you haven’t already. You might have your heart set on one school, or you might be choosing from a field of many. You may have musician parents, or you could be trying to figure out for yourself which program is the right fit for you. If you’re in need of an extra perspective, consider the following:

Continue reading An Open Letter to the High School Girl Who’s Passed Her Auditions