I'm not quite sure why this came up today, but I felt an urge to revisit a piece I wrote 11 years ago in 2007.
2007 was the worst year of my life. My grandmother died. Nothing was going right with my 'career.' I was way overweight. My cat fell off the apartment balcony and died. That was the year I began the journey towards being who I am today.
In the middle of all that there was a composition contest. Because we all know you're only a good composer if you win things. Music is art, but who are we kidding here, we want to win. It's the only way you'll have a career, it's the only way people will notice you, it's the only way you'll be accepted, it's the only way people will hear your music, it's the only way you'll make any money.
Or so I believed for a decade. I kind of understood, but didn't 'really' understand that unless you check off a very narrow series of boxes in your style, technique, and aspirations, you're not going to be receiving the awards. It's just like anything else. There will always be a need to rebel against the establishment, even if the establishment says 'the battle is over; everything is allowed.' Trust me, it's not. Not in music or theatre, not in anything in life.
How many failed pieces, how much misery and falseness could I have avoided if I had stopped trying to please people and make the establishment like me and instead double down even deeper on who I was, the perceived flaws, the things that teachers wrote off as growing pains...
This contest was a synthesizer maker who wanted to commission a new work to try out their synth string sounds. The challenge was to write a piece inspired by Samuel Barber's 'adagio for strings.' What better way to deal with the stuff going on around me.
The whole piece is on a mathematical grid - very very slow intersecting pulses - layers of counterpoint each mapped to a number. It was excruciating to keep everything straight, but listening to it in 2018, it's easily the most abstract piece I've done and gives a really interesting feeling of waves.
It didn't win the contest. The piece that won was nice, full of dazzle and sparkle. I really internalized that. Teachers at various seminars said my piece didn't know the tricks.
What I didn't know was that people are always going to filter your stuff through their lens, when really the only way to reach true creativity is to obsessively double down on what makes you passionate and know that those instincts are on to something that needs to be developed - for me in this case it was number grids and an abstract approach to processing grief. John Luther Adams eventually won the Pulitzer Prize with the same slow burn mathematical techniques that are in this piece, which were in the air but not mainstream yet.
In 2018 it sounds so much fresher. It’s not perfect (and the MIDI messes up sometimes), but I love it now. What difference would a chance to interact with real players, experiment and come up with new textures, etc. have given this piece? Why didn't I speak up? Why didn't I know? Why didn't I advocate for myself? Why was I trying to impress people when I could have been making friends with performers, going further compositionally, learning in an organic, loving, iterating, allowing way? If I’d believed in myself I could have doubled down on what was really special about this piece and revised it into something incredible.
Never again. There is something inherently wrong with the way the arts are institutionalized today, the funding models that make becoming a writer or composer an elitist contest.
It’s time for change. Contest or no contest, you got to be you. This piece is for my grandmother.