Native Son

Reno is not the place you think it is.

Although I like saying this to other people, I mostly end up saying it to myself, especially after being there this season with the Reno Philharmonic. I grew up there, my whole family comes from Nevada, and I left for college with fanfare and lots of kinds of revulsion for the place. Typical, clichéd complaints: too small for a big fish like me who was going to make something of himself, too little regard for what I thought was important. Fourteen years later, my take is also typical: the things I didn’t ever even think about then are what make me love it now. All that divorcing! Slot machines in the airport, at the grocery store! Many, many things never close, there is never a time when you can’t buy or consume alcohol, and the sun is never, ever, not shining.

Reno is weird, let it be sung. Since it’s far away and over the mountains from most other places, it’s a center and amazingly diverse. There are tons of awful sports bars, there’s an Apple store, there are hummers with upsetting bumper stickers, and there are hipsters who can don a pirate costume on the sidewalk just as well as they would in Williamsburg or Silverlake. But it’s not Vegas, and like most second-largest towns in western states (San Francisco to Tucson to Colorado Springs to Fairbanks) it basically defines itself as something that the other one, that putrid, wretched borg that holds the cards in state politics, could never be. It’s also a serious local matter, because, like San Francisco, it was once the largest and only city in the state. It’s actually that history that deeply infuses the culture of these places, and why they are unique in a frontier culture; Las Vegas has no need for history, just ask them. Or go on YouTube and watch them blow up buildings to make room for bigger buildings. Reno has a university and a serious art museum, and has history (the Donner Party of all things!), and in my lifetime has struggled with it: the environment, preservation, modernization. With my mind on Rome or Berlin or Cairo, I applaud with condescending tone: good for them (or should I say, us?).

On the frontier, easy answers are easy to come by. Need big money? Dig in the ground for precious metals. Get people to bet against themselves in various games. Sell the water in the ground, because it almost never falls out of the sky. In my harsh opinion, a state like Nevada is still in the early adolescent phase of dealing with the complexities of society. There are now about 20 times as many people living here compared with when my mother was born, and things like education and safety nets and even basic infrastructure like roads are starved for attention. Nevadans are a generous and friendly lot (buckets of physical space in every direction helps), but every rugged individualist pulls himself up by his bootstraps and pans for silver. Conversations, not about raising but introducing a state income tax to pay some of the bills, need not happen on the frontier. People play cards and buy gold, and they always have for the past 100 years. Forever, really.

Where, oh where, does art fit in? I ask myself this now, and, since I grew up here, I basically always have. I struggle mightily with why I write music and I always will. I’ve faced that bewildered look in all of my grandparents’ eyes, sometimes over a meal including food they’ve grown or raised, and remember that my daily worries are a matter of luxury to most. While I like to tell myself that this proven need to create naturally drives me to make things with an innate vitality and honesty that might not otherwise exist, I more often fear that innate qualities like vitality and honesty are elusive, if not invisible, to their maker. What is a great story but the gift of a great storyteller? My experiences as a Reno native will certainly inform my time there, but whether I will be more relevant as a resident composer than anyone else is a different question.

My Reno residency grew over several conversations with the music director, Laura Jackson, and executive director, Tim Young, after I got an email out of the blue from Laura asking to see my music (correct order of operations, in my experience). Laura, in Reno since 2009, has already made a serious and positive impact on the organization, partially by turning the programming on its head. I was already a fan from afar, having seen Carnival Overture and Carmina Burana appear nowhere on the brochure in her first season. When they approached me about a specific project: a new piece for the orchestra, in conjunction with the Nevada Museum of Art for their “Art and Environment” conference, I agreed on the spot. As I began thinking about home, family, and windy deserts, our conversations grew toward thinking about a deeper collaboration, with a piece about environment (however I might define it) as the centerpiece of a longer residency. We’ve just begun our journey: I spent ten days with the orchestra and community this past March. In rehearsals, meetings, classrooms, and casinos, I’ve absorbed an amazing amount already.

I haven’t written a note of it yet, but this piece, in approaching environment, has gotten me thinking about home. About leaving, coming back; about whether or not it’s significant, whether it needs to be. About growing up, if that’s what I’ve done. And the physical environment of Northern Nevada is difficult to overstate in terms of importance on my imagination. For so long, all I knew. Now, extremely exotic. Its presence flows through my consciousness; there is no way for me to avoid it, so I must interact.

In returning, one big surprise was the very warm welcome I received from those I knew who I haven’t seen since, from members of the orchestra to high school friends to my first-grade teacher who saw my name in the paper. It’s also highlighted the incremental changes of life that one rarely takes stock of. Most of my immediate family now lives elsewhere, and I like the irony that now that I’m “in residence,” I stay in a hotel. It’s colored my attitude toward my fellow transplant neighbors in Brooklyn: we’re all from somewhere.

There’s no place like home, Toto, and certainly no place like Reno. Who knew?—I feel remarkably lucky to get to go back.

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2 thoughts on “Native Son

  1. Matthew Peterson

    Wow, Sean. You’ve beautifully expressed so many things that I am not reflective or erudite enough to articulate. But I have felt many of the same things returning home to North Dakota. I relate to many of your experiences growing up in and returning to the great-wide-open, recently-frontier spaces and cities.

    I’m reminded of another Wonderful Wizard of Oz quote, from the Scarecrow, that I’ve always kept close.

    “If your heads were stuffed with straw, like mine, you would probably all live in the beautiful places, and then Kansas would have no people at all. It is fortunate for Kansas that you have brains.”

    I don’t know if brains has anything to do with it, but anyone who dismisses the open (desolate) places has a small imagination. I’m never surprised when these places produce remarkable, unique artists. And less surprised when spiritual geography and a sense of place are important to these artists.

    I’m happy you are writing on this site and I enjoy your articles.

    -MKP

    Reply
  2. mollys

    Slightly to the side of the topic at hand, but your comment about small places producing remarkable, unique artists made me think of this awesome short I just saw about culture in Marfa, Texas. I love these kinds of American stories.

    No Place Like Here: Marfa, Texas

    Reply

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