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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Bandleading, Phoenix, and Three-Year-Old Scars

I met with some friends tonight (back when tonight was in September)—mostly folks in the young generation’s old guard, who were around the last time I lived here—and while we mostly got together to play, we inevitably got to talking, too. At one point, I mentioned that I was considering pitching a new project I’d be bandleading, figuring I’d get some useful insight from the group.

What I didn’t expect was the instant pushback.

Frankly, it was startling. It always is, even though it was an interesting hallmark of my last trip around the Phoenix block. The refrain this time was different: multiple folks mentioned concerns that the venues I’m considering pitching to might turn me down or give me subpar billing because they already have a token woman they hire in that capacity (and, theoretically, they aren’t interested in doing anything more than the bare minimum). While this isn’t the vibe I’ve gotten from conversations with Phoenix musicians a decade to two decades older—they’re generally very supportive of my pitching, actually—the fact that my peers (and close friends!) are shooting me down immediately is troubling at best.

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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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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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“Lead the Change,” Emotional Labor, and Research

Once upon a time, as an undergrad, I accidentally opened up a Title IX investigation. (Yes, that is absolutely a ridiculous sentence, but it’s true.) I didn’t mean to, but no one had ever told me that “I can’t tell if they’re being sexist assholes or just assholes” was enough to accelerate an issue. So the contents of that conversation went up to Title IX, but the office never followed up. The effort I’d made to highlight the issues at hand completely evaporated, caught between higher admin who evidently decided it wasn’t a priority and faculty who never checked back to hear if anything came of it.

In the aftermath of those moments, though, I remember a comment from a faculty member that’s continually drilled itself into my brain: “You could lead the change.” It was said in earnest, with the feeling like this marked a door opening, a path forward through all the bullshit. And twenty-year-old me probably wanted to believe it was. Lord knows I spend entirely too much time contemplating where, or if, I fit within the greater Phoenix musical community. The thing is, even though I know all the way down to the bottom of my heart the idea was presented with wholly good intentions, it’s become a bit of an unwanted pest.

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2019’s Large Ensemble Giveaway: Here Be Dragons and People Talk

Folks, it’s back-to-school time again, and I know many of my ensemble director friends are knee-deep in planning their seasons. Last fall, I had a great experience with the giveaway process for strength in all things, so this year, I’m going to do it again—but this time, you can take home two pieces if you’d like. Like last year, the idea’s the same: you can take home the pieces for free if you program one (or both) of them in 2019 or 2020. (A personal suggestion? If you’ve got the performers for it, an election year would be a great time to program People Talk.)

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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.

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the performance of affection in male spaces

I’m really bad at hiding my close relationships. Not necessarily in a PDA sense (though, when I was younger, that was a thing too)—no, I get attached to people and I want them to know it. This isn’t just romantic or sexual; most of the time, it manifests most loudly in my platonic relationships (which, for y’all who could use a refresher, covers the friends-and-family category, plus any acquaintance you’re not interested in dating). However, when most of my friendships spend most of their time in a scene high in toxic masculinity and a little messy in terms of affection of any kind, I feel the effects of my Othering pretty acutely.

Now, the Othering (read: I am female (and queer, though allocishet-passing)) doesn’t seem to be inherently connected to the affection problem if you look at it on the surface—at least, if it is, we choose to ignore it or lump it under sexism generally. But here’s the truth I’ve been able to articulate for five years and known even longer: if you are a female-presenting person and you hug the same male-presenting person a whole bunch, people assume you’re an item. To a certain extent, it doesn’t matter if you’re just sleeping together or something more, though in certain circumstances, being someone’s girlfriend or partner can afford you a great deal of protection. (That’s a whole other post waiting to happen.) In fact, it doesn’t matter that usually, you’re not sleeping together or dating; the rumor mill gets going, and it doesn’t favor you. No amount of “we’re just friends” will convince anyone who doesn’t know you well.

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Clinging to my Femininity

I spent a lot of my early life wanting to be a tomboy. Though I didn’t always understand what exactly that meant from a presentation standpoint, I associated it with the results it got in the books I read—being sporty, popular, and seemingly effortlessly gorgeous. For awhile, the label really didn’t stick, but I spent fourth through sixth grade playing soccer with a bunch of boys, and by the time I hit middle school, I felt like I belonged more with them than with my own gender.

I navigated this in-between fairly well in middle and high school—I did largely male-dominant things, but I had enough female friends to keep me going. It worked out. But college arrived, and with it came an entirely new set of problems. I didn’t just happen to be around women anymore. Most of my friends were guys. Most of my teachers were guys. And in a matter of months, I went from a well-adjusted girl who liked everything from basketball shorts to ballgowns to a young woman who didn’t understand why her image suddenly conflicted with how the world around her expected her to act.

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Recital in Review: face the mirror and its process

Hi, all!

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.

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From act 3 of face the mirror. Photo by Eric DeJarnett.

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