Untouchable: The Male Gaze, ASU Jazz, and the Phoenix Community

When I was an undergrad running with the jazz boys, no one wanted to sleep with me.

…Yeah, I didn’t know how to start this one, either. For all my work addressing sexual assault, I actually don’t spend all that much time dealing with sex. (I tend to leave that creative artistry to Rebecca Drapkin, the sex-positive to my sex-negative.) While I love my body and everything it can do, I’ve grown accustomed to keeping my sexual side to myself. I’m still figuring out how much of it belongs in my artistic life. And though that answer is nonzero, part of why I keep my sex life (and body, and sexuality, and . . .) separate from the rest of my artistic discourse is just because I don’t share all of me with all of you. But part of it isn’t, and there are reasons for that—reasons I can trace back to a very specific time and place—and though I’d rather not discuss any of this, I think it’s time.

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on representation and artistry

Every once in awhile, usually when I’m in the middle of a slew of pieces about assault, my mom will check in with me about my writing. “You are taking the time to write happy music, right?” she often asks. It’s a time-honored song and dance—she asks, I reassure; lather, rinse, repeat. Less often, she echoes a sentiment I’ve also heard from my friends and my own internal monologue: I don’t want, theoretically, to be known for my assault work and nothing else.

That sentiment is a difficult one to wrap my head around on a good day, but I’ve always understood it on a fundamental level. I don’t want to only be approached when someone’s looking to dive deep into the dark; I don’t want to be known as the girl who doesn’t write music for more straight-ahead performances. And while I maybe won’t always write work that’s best when programmed on a vanilla concert, the underlying idea is stark: don’t close doors that might stay open if I picked more palatable subject matter. Put more bluntly, don’t brand as broken.

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Talking About Women Composers Isn’t Enough

Over the past few years—especially since the election—I’ve seen lots of meaningful conversation, art, and advocacy on behalf of women composers and their work. I’ve seen an elevation of public consciousness—not necessarily across the board, but within classical and jazz spheres, to be certain. And yes, we’ve got a lot of work still to do with drum corps (and classical and jazz) and the more mainstream-music-listening public; our efforts need to extend further than they already do, but we’re making progress. Women working in composition are seeing a shift in how we are treated, in the opportunities open to us, and in the interactions we have with our peers, colleagues, and superiors.

From here, this post could veer in two different directions. I could keep talking about the work we need to do with equity, to ensure that women are getting a statistically fair shot whenever possible. I could go on about what that means and how I’d do it. (Spoiler alert: it would make a lot of men mad.)

But that’s not actually the route I’m taking today. Maybe I’ll come back to it someday, but for now, there’s something more pressing on my mind.

Talking about women composers isn’t enough.

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Notes from the Margins: Impossible Asks

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.

Sometimes it’s fine. Sometimes it’s not.

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on discomfort and triggers

[CW: discussion of triggers, sexual assault, suicidality]

There’s a tumblr excerpt that goes around every once in awhile about respect. Though I’m sure I can’t quote it verbatim, the gist of it is that there are two types of respect: “you treat me like a human” and “you treat me like an authority.” The post goes on to point out that some people, usually those benefiting from immense privilege, leverage that discrepancy to make “if you don’t respect me, I won’t respect you” into “if you don’t treat me like an authority, I won’t treat you like a human.”

I think about that post a lot, both because of its direct relatability to my life and the broader applicability it has to other words commonly used in two different ways. One in particular has stuck in my mind as of late: uncomfortable.

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Young Lions (and things I’ll never be)

Though as a professional musician who’s friends with other professional musicians, I live my life in a deluge of Facebook event invitations, I do try to take the time to read through most of them so I know who’s playing and what’s happening. A recent one caught my eye: “We have chosen Michael Kocour to give voice to some of the ‘young lions’ of the Phoenix jazz scene . . .” The description was apt—the lineup was full of folks who are skilled and particularly roar-inclined—but “young lions” made me pause. First, because it shouldn’t be in quotes if you really want to sell it, and second, because it’s one of those terms I instinctively know would never be ascribed to me as a default.

This morning, I wandered into our office (which, despite its stated purpose, is not where I do most of my work) and mused about this to my partner. “You’d be a young lioness,” he reassured me, but I was having none of it.

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Commissions 2020: Expanding My Horizons (and maybe yours, too)

My dear readers, friends, colleagues, and peers,

I’ve had the time of my life in 2019 working with a series of commissioners on new works and bringing many of my 2018 pieces to the stage for the first time. By my best count, I’ve written almost an hour of music this year, and I’ve begun to explore new artistic directions that really excite and challenge me. As we move toward 2020 (and onward!), I’m looking forward to continuing to build on my current practice and dive deeper into my own voice.

Over the last several years, it’s become increasingly clear that the work I love creating the most doesn’t fall under standard “contemporary classical” boundaries. Realistically, most of it falls somewhere under the New Music umbrella, which does save space for classical- and jazz-adjacent things but allows me to pick and choose which pieces of tradition or time-traveling sonic nonsense I want to include alongside the modern developments that make my heart sing 24/7. For people who know me well, this isn’t a huge surprise, but the wonderful folks who commission me aren’t even always people I’ve met. (Which, for the record, is amazing.) I love working with new collaborators just as much as I enjoy reconnecting with folks from years past, and my catalog is starting to reflect that in some really exciting ways.

That said, my compositional voice today doesn’t sound like it did two or three or five years ago, and as I continue trying to move toward the artist I want to be, I need to point that out. Those of you who knew me (and my writing) in undergrad might not know how I sound now (unless you’ve been keeping up with me online, in which case, you’re awesome). While there are still pieces in my back catalog I love dearly and plenty more I’m still proud of, it’s worth pointing out that I’m not necessarily writing that way all the time anymore. I’m playing with noises and soundscapes and text instructions and concert-theater-aligned ideas, and while some of that does still involve regular notes and rhythms, it isn’t always in the way you’d think. (Exhibit A: People Talk.)

And as my commission calendars start to organize themselves for 2020 and 2021, I’m making an effort to continually work toward making the art at the top of my wish list whenever possible (or, at least, art that’s consistent with my current voice). And while some of that is work for me or John or some of the long-term collaborators I work with, I’m hoping some of that will be for all of you, too. These might not be pieces you can turn around in a month and a half for a recital (or they might be, but not for the reasons you think). These might be pieces that require you to search as deeply within yourself and your own practice as I’m searching in mine. They might not be instantly-consumable, you-can-throw-this-together-in-a-couple-rehearsals bites of music and sound—and if they are, they’ll probably be utilizing different skill sets and making different requests of your musicianship.

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Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and the Importance of Teaching Identity

It’s December 1, 2019, and I’m propped against the comfiest pillows in my apartment, poring over the second edition of Robert Walser’s Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History in preparation for a forthcoming guest lecture. I’ve got tons of time—until sometime next semester—but because I’m trying to highlight the connections between my musical work as a whole and the jazz tradition, I’m looking for sources that will back up my arguments. I don’t expect to spend much time in the legitimacy flames this time around, but ideally, I’ll use this lecture again in the future. So I’m reading Keeping Time in full, re-engaging with my favorite parts and digging deeper into things I might have missed or flat-out did not read when I first brought the book home as a junior in college.

While I’m trying to find useful words by men to prepare for the inevitable (hopefully distant) day one decides to argue I’m a poser who doesn’t conform because I don’t understand complex harmony or virtuosic playing or some shit like that, I’m also giving myself full permission to luxuriate in the (few) moments of words penned by women. So I dipped my toes into Hazel V. Carby’s “The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues” like it was the hot tub of my dreams. I wasn’t disappointed—in fact, in the span of a single essay, my world rearranged itself.

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You Are Implicated: Pedagogy Ethics and Why Everyone Should Have a Point Where They Quit Their Job

I spent my last semester at CalArts taking almost literally every class I possibly could with Tim Feeney, who’s not only a beyond-words percussionist, improviser, and composer but also arguably the nicest human being you will ever meet. During the spring, I saw Tim three times every week: Wednesday mornings for Writing for Percussion, Wednesday afternoons for Free Improv Ensemble, and Friday afternoons for The Experimenting Ear. By mid-March, I could no longer remember which thing we’d talked about in which class, and as such I spent a lot of time connecting very distant dots in front of peers missing one end or the other of the train of thought. While that was super confusing for almost everyone around me, it meant I walked around getting my mind blown for months. It was the best.

One of the most important lessons I learned from Tim—and, arguably, among the most important things I absorbed during my MFA—began in The Experimenting Ear as we were analyzing Jed Speare’s Inside the Cable Car Barn, a beautiful piece that provokes a daunting question: are the things we might find on a field recording already music, or do we make them music based on how we consume them? My analysis of the piece basically summed up as: “wow,” and my grade reflected that lack of attention to detail, but the conversations we had in the wake of the assignment piled questions on questions. Again, it was the best.

At one point, we were discussing a formal shift in the music where formerly prevalent tones give way to more rhythmic sounds. Tim posed a simple question. “What does this mean for the person holding the field recorder?”

It took us a minute, but someone got it. “They’re moving.”

That was the first of hundreds of times Tim must have uttered the words it all boiled down to: “when you are making or consuming this work, you are implicated.” Or, to put it another way, your decisions to make a thing or listen to a thing or frame a thing as music (or make any number of real-life interpersonal decisions) puts your own stamp on it out of necessity. In making/doing/consuming things, we give them perspective they would not otherwise have. In saying, “here’s a piece about a cable car barn,” we intentionally listen to appreciate sounds and nuances and decisions we might not otherwise think twice about.

“You are implicated.”

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Token Hire

I don’t like being the only gender-marginalized person in an ensemble. If you asked my peers about it, they’d probably roll their eyes and laugh. Yeah, that’s Megan. I don’t have to be with other women, though that’s obviously a blessing when it comes along; in LA, there were plenty of occasions when I performed with a section or a group whose members were male-coded but included at least one other person somewhere on the gender spectrum beyond cis man. I’ve fallen in love with working among others whose struggles to be accepted in our professional environments speak to something in my own experience. These moments allow for subtle, important moments of solidarity: little reminders that we’re not alone.

That said, I spend a lot of time being the only gender-marginalized person in an ensemble. (#BrassPlayerProblems #JazzProblems.) It’s difficult to explain why the difference is so stark, especially when I’m trying to make sense of it to folks who have probably never found themselves in such a situation. (And even if my cis male friends have, y’all don’t have centuries of systemic gendered oppression weighing on you and affecting your treatment within that scenario.) But when a well-reasoned fear of the consequences—both professional and personal—of putting even one toe out of line has been bred into you from the moment you chose your career, when you work in an industry that has a tradition of violence of all types against your gender(s), when you’re working around people you know won’t speak up if someone makes you uncomfortable, you spend a lot more time worrying and being quiet instead of working to create the art you want.

However, it’s 2019. Professionals the world over are realizing all-male ensembles can’t continue to be their default. Overall, that’s a really good thing; doors are beginning to open for gender-marginalized folks who wouldn’t have had many options a few decades ago. There’s a dark side to the change, though: musicians are beginning to reach for women and other gender-marginalized performers to incorporate into their ensembles so they can say they have one. It’s a performative, superficial kind of inclusivity that draws in folks facing this kind of oppression without considering the systemic structural changes that might be needed to make us feel welcome. It’s hastily scribbling down the answers to your math homework in the ten minutes before class without bothering to show your work (because you’re copying someone else’s), and the results are usually the same: if you don’t have a plan for getting from point A to point B, you’ll only ever get partial credit.

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