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.
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.
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.
I have carried the weight of my own existence for a long time. Some days it’s light and life is easy. I laugh and love, I take the risks I’ve dreamed of, I pursue my best self relentlessly. I am my own best comforter.
On these days, my mind is sharp. I engage with my peers, my friends, my colleagues. I am brash and loud and bold. I am the woman fourth-grade me would be so excited about. And on those days, very little can touch me—I’m up in the clouds, soaring to my heart’s content. On these days, I am free of my past. (This feels good.)
I have carried the shame of my own existence for a long time. Some days it’s so overpowering I can’t breathe very well. I fall silent. I pull away. I can’t bring myself to confide in the people I love; they don’t need to watch me suffer. I shrink into myself, asking what I was wearing or why I was alone or why I didn’t report or whatever other vitriol someone in power chose to sling at a survivor today. (This does not feel good.) I reduce myself to a casualty of this war to normalize violent behavior. I find a thousand things to write but none to say aloud, lest I find myself the target of that powerful person’s vitriol someday. I let my music speak for me because there are still so many things I can’t bring myself to say. And I bleed. (This does not feel good.)
It’s been a couple years since I’ve been okay with how the jazz world is run. Sure, the music’s great and it’s fun to go to shows, and I’d be lying to say I didn’t desperately miss those aspects (and others, like playing with the Nash Composers’ Coalition out in Phoenix), but if you’ve been with me for awhile you know that all the jazz scene manages to do is break my heart and piss me off. I spend almost all my time in male-dominated fields, but for whatever reason, traditional jazz is the one intersection of maleness and music that seems to just keep kicking when I’m down.
Before I go any further, let’s be clear: I’ve spent the most time in jazz circles that glorify swing and bebop, that don’t advocate for experimentalism, whose primary interest seems to be preserving tradition. The jazz people I’m around now aren’t like that; indeed, lots of the creative jazz scene in LA seems to intrinsically value the blending of genres, including jazz and non-jazz. I like that a lot more, but I’m still hesitant to dip my toes back into a world that has repeatedly told me I have no place in it. I thought about trying to explain why, but then I found some old writing I did on the subject and never sent out into the world. It still rings true, so I’ll let it speak for me:
Last week, former Olympic gymnasts and reigning NCAA champions Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian appeared on CBS This Morning after recently revealing they too were victims of Larry Nassar, who assaulted hundreds of young gymnasts under the guise of medical treatment. Ross and Kocian appeared with their coach at UCLA, Valorie Kondos Field, and the three women fielded questions about Nassar’s actions and subsequent conviction. They were articulate and composed throughout the interview, which you can watch here. Many of Ross’ and Kocian’s thoughts echoed those previously heard from their teammates (the entire 2012 Olympic squad and all but one member of the 2016 team have come forward as Nassar’s victims). Though never asked in as many words, the question lingering over the interview was unsurprising: why wait? Why not come forward earlier?
My parents enrolled me in dance classes when I was three years old. My mom claims it was because I was clumsy (I believe her, as I’m still clumsy), but integrating myself into a world of high buns, leotards, pink tights, and hairspray taught me innumerable lessons that have affected my musical training from the beginning. Dancing was where music got to be fun, where I got out all the energy I’d never be able to project through a horn or a piano. But there were hidden benefits, too—chief among them, the safety net that helped me as a young victim of sexual assault.
Unlike the majority of women, my assault wasn’t committed by someone I knew, but claiming and using my body as my own, as something I could use to create amazing things, was and is a key part of my recovery. Dance has always been key to that. And the most affirming things I’ve ever heard from a teacher were spoken in dance class: “Is it okay if I fix your posture?” “Can I lift your leg to help you stretch?” “Will you come up here to show the class?” “I’m going to shape your foot, okay?”
Did you catch the commonality running through these questions? Each one asked my permission for an act that required my body. Further, not a single teacher touched us outside of those corrective moments, except for high fives or holding hands (you try herding twelve kindergarteners onto a dark stage and let me know how that works out). I knew as early as elementary school that people should ask before touching me, and I owe that to my dance teachers past and present.
Dance has its fair share of systemic problems. Not all teachers are like that. But in music, most teachers aren’t.