Old Dog/New Tricks
While midlife crises come in various shapes and sizes, the traditional sports car and plastic surgery purchases tend to be beyond the means of most artists. I have a fiction-writer friend who claims that hers began and ended with the procurement of a single curling iron (no word as to whether the aforementioned product was actually utilized). Mine has mainly manifested itself in renewed attempts at self-improvement.
My bête noirs tend to fall into one of two families: vegetables and public performance. Attacking the former has been the process of sampling foods that I have abhorred since childhood in their most innocuous forms—with mixed success. While I am now able to savor sweet potatoes chips, squash remains anathema and my avocadophobia holds sway. My efforts to subdue the latter bugbear have been both more serious and more successful.
The process began two summers ago, when I was in residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, working on Hurricane Charm, a piece for two pianos and percussion. I knew that this piece would reveal a toy piano melody at the golden section and so I brought one with me to Virginia. I was recruited by the interdisciplinary artist Mayumi Ishino to provide toy piano accompaniment for a new performance piece that she created for an open space at the center, presented on a clear summer night with a supporting ensemble of several thousand crickets. I was astonished to find that playing music publicly felt right, that I made better music when responding to the adrenaline produced by an audience, that indeed I did have something to say as a performer of music. Mayumi and I created two more pieces in New York City and Philadelphia. I experimented with musical saw, detuned violin, and microtonally tuned autoharp and found that the more I pushed myself to go beyond my comfort zone, the better the result.
The key element to the success of this endeavor was that my music filled a supporting role in these projects rather than holding the center of attention. I was able to continuously remind myself that any musical mishaps would not automatically entail a failed performance. When the music was successful, I was able to build confidence in my abilities.
After working through this process, I am now able to advocate for my own compositions as a performer. I can seize opportunities that I otherwise would have avoided (including conducting one of my own pieces with the Great Noise Ensemble in a performance that was very (very!) briefly featured on a Voice of America television broadcast in China). I am now returning to my roots with electronic processing in order to create solo pieces that I can perform myself.
This liberation from long-standing fears is allowing me to say “yes” and to enjoy music in ways that I had never thought possible. Audiences—albeit small audiences—have been responding with enthusiasm to my forays into performance, inspiring me to want to explode beyond more of my self-imposed boundaries.
Who knows, perhaps soon I will even touch an avocado. On second thought, let’s not go crazy here.