View Right Before Grad School: Connecting the Parts
My upbringing is somewhat unusual: I was raised by a composer and a performer, both of whom are well respected and established in their fields. I was dragged from rehearsal to rehearsal and I had no idea what I would become in life. I think part of my dilemma has been accepting that I was made for this. Composing music is at the root of my creative urge and I am happiest in the moments when inspiration strikes and I know what to do next on a piece. But for whatever reasons, it has seemingly taken a long time for me to commit to this path, perhaps because of some imagined pressure to outperform my parents. Indeed, this is a futile goal: they are consummate musicians and my interests are quite different from theirs. Even if a comparison were possible, it probably wouldn’t be meaningful.
During my undergraduate studies at Oberlin Conservatory, I soaked up as much as I could and integrated a wealth of new influences into my voice as a concert music composer. Those of you who know the little Midwestern town of Oberlin, Ohio, know it to be somewhat isolated in a geographical sense but also culturally: Oberlin the school is like an oasis of something extraordinary in a land of miles and miles of the ordinary (forgive me, Ohioans!). This highly enriched and also isolated environment emboldened the already seductive sentiment that I was separate, and therefore more gifted, more enlightened, and more entitled to a music career, than the rest of the music-creating world, wherever the heck that was.
Central to my experience as an undergraduate was a sort of blossoming as a social being. During my high school years I was also isolated, but not geographically. For personal reasons, stemming from my parents’ divorce and other traumatic experiences as a youth, I chose to shut peers out of my life and to rely on the friendship of adults. Once I was at college, however, I was forced to come out of my shell and find many important friendships as well as my first serious romantic relationship. Somehow, I had forgotten all the pain of the past and was riding the wave of the bounty of the present. Everything seemed perfect until my senior year when it occurred to me that all this would end shortly, that my friends would move to various other cities, that I would have to say goodbye to my teachers, and that, essentially, the bastion of security that I had created around me and for which my family and I had paid through the nose would soon vaporize.
Many of you out there may have had some voice (your own or your parents’?) telling you to pursue your craft as your career and perhaps you’ve had some foreseeable path of how to do this. Composers seem to be the bald-headed step-children of the music world. No one really knows what to say when I tell them I am a composer except, “Have you written for any movies I would have seen?”
So there I was at the end of my college career without a clue as to how to get to the music in head and certainly no idea of how to make others hear it. I think it was at this time that a fundamental element of my personality was formed: I need to have a strong and secure personal and financial foundation before I can give credence to my creative impulses. Many musicians, such as my father who is an operatic tenor, essentially live hand-to-mouth and rely on their craft as their breadwinner. This has made no sense to me. I have always felt like working as a composer or performer for a living would spoil the thing I love.
So as a way to deal with the daunting tasks of facing the demons in my personal life, supporting myself with many thousands of dollars of college debt over my head (not to mention quite a bit of credit card debt), and finding a new home for myself where I could build this aforementioned foundation, I moved to Boston where a large number of family members lived at the time (although my parents were on the West Coast). Here I could get closer to my grandmother, aunts, and cousins, and start something completely fresh of which I was the true authority. This was really my first time leaving home because it was the first time I felt like an adult who was responsible for himself.
In Boston I stopped music altogether and took instead to my second love of visual art in the form of oil painting, and worked in various capacities from a $5.50 an hour ice cream scooper to a seller of computer hardware. I felt like Oberlin and music were a million miles away. I was in a foreign land with no one who knew me other than my family. Composing music seemed meaningless without the community that I had been a part of at school. Who would play my music? Who would like it? Who would care? Who would know the difference between the influences of Reich or Adams? Forget it. I’ll put my creative energy into something tangible of which I have complete control: painting. And so I painted steadily for about three years and created many pieces. This felt like a liberation; and certainly, as a painter, I could not disappoint my parents who couldn’t paint the side of a barn with a push-broom.
Despite the creative outlet that painting had provided, I began to feel more and more lost, and during the next several years I moved around a bit more looking for a town that would give me some feeling of foundness. At one point, I was driving to my software tech support job in Sonoma County, California, ranting at myself that “my parts feel disconnected!” I really had no idea of how to integrate all the conflicting impulses and needs for a stable home life, financial security, a place to be and a thing to do everyday, a fulfilling romantic relationship, a community of people who would understand and appreciate my creative output, and most of all, the undying voice inside of me who, at this point, was urging me to write music again. No one thing seemed meaningful without the others. How could one arm pull up the whole body? I began to have an image of my soul as a well-oiled machine – or perhaps a community of machines – one which must be working perfectly in all aspects for any one part to produce anything worthwhile.
About this time I decided to take the same approach to creating music that I had taken to painting: to be in control of the process from start to finish. I took a leap of faith and went into debt to the tune of $10,000 on my credit cards and bought equipment to assemble a decent computer-based, sampling/audio-recording/sequencing home studio. I would write electronic music and use a palette of sounds as I had used a palette of colors as a painter. This proved to be an amazing boost for me and gave me a whole new world of creative freedom. No longer did I care if anyone would hear the music. I just needed to get these sounds out of my head and onto some kind of magnetic material. So I spent a year or so making field recordings, collecting and making music samples, and assembling everything into sound/text/ambient/rock/funk/jazz/hip-hop/whatever collages and pieces. I made a full-length “concept” album with original text, singing, sampling, processing, and artwork and I produced and packaged the entire thing myself. (I still have about 500 in my closet if anyone is interested!) I had found some way to be a composer again without the overwhelming pressure of a “real-world” actualization or purpose.
Soon after my electronic music breakthrough I met an experimental stage director who was based in NY (I was still in CA). He really liked my electronic music and he urged me to write music for his original, hyper-real, text-driven performance pieces which merged circus, traditional theatre, music theatre, film noir, and visceral lighting techniques. This was an important step. I would collaborate with professionals, my music would have a real-world application and would it be heard in New York by hundreds! I was thrilled. Soon after our first collaborations, I moved to New York to join the theater group and start yet another life for myself. I had been scared of New York previously: it felt as if I weren’t already plugged in here I would have no way to get plugged in. But now I was plugged in. With this dynamic and growing theater company (and a few other companies), I created music for 25 shows in about 3 years. My approach was to make a through-composed underscore for the entire play or performance which was tailored in timing and development to the dramatic developments on stage. The music had a very specific function: to be felt and not heard and to provide a visceral, emotional, and psychological element that could only be created with music. It took some perfecting, but soon I was able to crank out 2-3 hour scores in a just a few days. Although I was collaborating with directors, writers, actors, etc, I was essentially unlimited in my creative vision for the music. Since no one was paying me, and basically no money was to be made from these performances, there was no executive producer breathing down my neck and telling me to write something prettier or more mundane.
Writing for theatre was a freeing experience and made me feel like a master at something but soon I was itching to develop my compositional skills. Writing for electronic sounds began to feel too easy and lacked a vitality that only wood, gut, brass, and skin can bring. Around this time, my father commissioned me to write an extended piece for him to perform with a mixed chamber ensemble. I had complete creative freedom over music and text. I worked for eight months on his piece which he premiered in the Spring of 2003. This turned out to be an invaluable professional opportunity and a lovely collaboration with my father. It also put an end to my demon of not being good enough for him musically since it proved to be one of the most fulfilling musical experiences of his life.
Folks, the wheels were turning quickly in my mind. Now, I needed to write as much concert music as I could and seek opportunities for performances. About this time I became an AMC member and started sending out scores and recordings (never underestimate an immaculate, hand-performed MIDI demo, folks!) to as many competitions and grants as my printer and binding machine could handle. I went to 3-5 new music concerts a week and networked as much as possible. Something made sense to me now: write music, get it performed, hear others’ works, and give and get feedback. Repeat. I felt like I had re-invented the wheel, but who cares. It was my wheel.
Well, getting back to the “disconnected parts” idea: That thunderbolt had now, surprisingly, hit me again. There I was, writing music for no pay and running a software consulting firm for the construction and service industries. How did these parts add up to my future, my career, and the true fulfillment of my dreams as a creative being? They didn’t. I would soon tire of the software business as it would devour time and energy I would rather spend composing. It was time to go back to school but this time in the same geographical area in which I already had a strong network of friends and collaborators, a large and devoted mailing list, my own condo, a car, and a successful freelance consulting business. I have recently been accepted to the MA program in composition at SUNY Stony Brook for this coming fall. I intend to earn a doctorate, teach composition at a university or college, and write and produce opera (music and text).
So how can this story be useful? I think fundamental to my convoluted path as a composer is a strong need of community. Isolation breeds depression. Depression breeds TV and donuts. TV and donuts leave music on the shelf. I feel like any note I could write is meaningless without a community of creators and listeners with whom I can collaborate. And now, follow me here for this paradoxical twist: as my community has grown, so has my self-worth, and, therefore, the confidence that someone will care if I put my soul into my music. And as this confidence has grown, so has the realization that perhaps only a few will care or understand what I am doing and that this is okay. Now I write music just for myself but only because I know there are ears nearby. I no longer live for one comment from a teacher or friend. Fundamental also to this well-oiled machine is the stability in all aspects of life that supporting myself by owning my own business and creating my own stable home life have given me. This has not been worth rushing, and each step has happened when the time was right; when enough bricks had been laid. Therefore, I can fully appreciate each turn the road has taken, without knowing, or even caring, where I will end up.