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 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.
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.
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.)
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.
As we move into the fall semester (or quarter, if you’re weird like that), I’m happy to announce I’m accepting commissions for Fall 2018 and Spring 2019. I’ve had a fantastic time working with individuals and groups this year, including the Spring View Middle School Jazz Band, Failsafe Duo, Willis Dotson, John Pisaro and Ian Stahl, and Oakwood Brass. That said, something I’ve come to realize is a lot of my friends, peers, and colleagues are interested in commissioning new works but don’t necessarily know how to approach the process. I can’t and won’t speak for all composers, but these are the most important things to know if you’re interested in working with me.
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.