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.
As 2018 comes to a close, I’m spending time reflecting on some of my professional endeavors from the past year. Among the greatest joys in my musical year has been getting so many opportunities to create new works for performers and ensembles who want to add something new to their repertoire. Just this past year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a slew of folks in three different time zones. Each collaboration has been incredibly rewarding for me, and I’m pleased to announce I’m now accepting commissions for 2019 and 2020.
As I’ve mentioned before, I have TMJ. I’ve spent longer than I’ve cared to admit trying to sleep and eat and talk and go about my day without pain or tightness, and despite my best efforts, a lot of days are tough days professionally. More often than not, playing a horn is a struggle between wanting to work toward being a better performer and wanting to keep the tension out of my body, keep myself safe, and avoid making things worse. Navigating life with my jaw is a dance between doctors and stretches and food choices and sleeping positions, and while some days are absolute crap and others are amazing, the vast majority of them are somewhere in the middle—not terrible, but not great, either.
I’ve debated writing this post for a long time. Not because it’s particularly controversial, but because I didn’t always know where to start. Musicians don’t like talking about injuries—so often we keep them under wraps, not wanting to get bumped down a part or looked down on by our peers and mentors, that the only time we really hear about big physical roadblocks are in whispers months after the fact. And that takes its own toll, leaving those struggling feeling like they’re in it by themselves. I’d really prefer people not feel like that, so I’m sharing a little about what I’ve spent the last couple years navigating.
Three Octobers ago, my jaw locked up. I was in the middle of a normal evening, and all of a sudden I couldn’t get it more than about a third of the way open. For twenty minutes. After some frantic Googling, a bunch of massaging, and some fervent prayer to the brass gods, it finally relaxed, but I didn’t know what to do from there. One drop-in visit to the health center later, I came back with Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJD, but literally everyone shortens it to TMJ). If you want to get really colloquial, it’s lockjaw, but without the tetanus associations. While the locking up and the fatigue was new, since then I’ve realized that tension in my jaw has likely followed me since childhood, which makes it so much more fun to get rid of. [Insert eye-roll here.]
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:
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten since I went to college came from Brianne Borden, and it was a simple one: set goals, no matter how far away they may seem, and keep track of them by time period. One of the first things I did my senior year of undergrad was break down a bunch of goals for the semester, the year, the next five years, and the next decade—and it really helped me maintain my focus during a hectic fall semester of grad school applications and recital planning.
This time around, I’m entering the second year of my master’s and what I somewhat hope is my final year of being a student (in academia, anyway). As I started making my goals lists, I decided I’d try to hold myself a little more accountable than otherwise and share some of them with all of you.