A Manifesto? (otherwise known as An Intro to My Creative Practice)

Hello, friends! I hope this finds you well.

I’ve spent much of the past week reflecting on my experiences at the Rafael Méndez Brass Institute and getting back into the daily grind. I had such a great time getting to know everyone at RMBI, but it’s dawned on me that as someone who actively identifies as both a composer and a performer, I don’t talk as coherently about my creative practice as many of my new friends do. To be completely honest, I’m a little envious—from the outside looking in, it seems nice to be able to start by saying “I do this” and then getting more specific instead of explaining that you do two or three or five different things and having to elaborate on each one. I’ve also realized that I haven’t at any point sat down and written out how I describe and view my own work. (Grad school application essays don’t count.)

Generally, I dismiss myself pretty quickly. I tell people that I try to marry traditional technique and tonality with experimental idioms, and that’s true. Making weird things accessible to audiences regardless of their musical background is and always will be a priority. Even still, there’s so much more to my writing and performing than “it sounds a little weird but also sort of normal.” There are facets of my creativity I haven’t talked about very much. So this post has two objectives: to introduce myself a little more thoroughly to my friends (new and old, musicians and non-musicians) and help define for myself how I frame my creative practice.

Full disclosure—this blog is going to have a sh*t-ton of hyperlinks in it. If something interests you, I want you to be able to find it.

On a very general level, the work I enjoy creating and performing has at least one of three elements. The first of these, which was part of my original compositional practice but has reemerged over the past year and a half, is a sense of story. This can be explicit or implicit, conveyed to the audience or left a mystery, but I like music with conflict. Sometimes that’s a juxtaposition of rhythmic or tonal/pitch ideas; sometimes it’s orchestration or tempo changes or a change in volume. Sometimes it’s words that take you in a direction you didn’t think you’d wander off to.

Most of my explicit, you-know-it-when-you-hear-it statements reside in my body of work about sexual assault and rape culture, currently titled Letters from the Aftermath. I started writing Letters in November of 2016, when sexual assault was beginning to enter the news cycle as a serious, all-encompassing topic, not just statistics we spit at college students. So far, the pieces of Letters include Don’t Tell, a piece for fixed media that delves into victim-blaming and the onus of self-protection we place on women and would-be victims; He Probably Just Likes You, a mixed-ensemble work that demonstrates how the same phrases can follow women through life with increasingly dire consequences; and Take What You Want, a text piece for two narrators that touches on the commodification of women as bodies rather than humans. I’ve written a couple other text pieces that premiered on my mid-residency recital along with TWYW: the first, YOUR MOUSE GOD iS DEAD, features two narrators armed with megaphones and a flair for the dramatic; the second, CA-198, is a ghost of a piece that just barely hints at how lovely it is to get away from the city for awhile. Working on text pieces has been incredibly fun, and I’m beginning to form the ideas for three more, all operating within the Letters envelope. (There will be more non-Letters ones too! Don’t worry.)

The second element I adore in music I’m creating or realizing is a collection of interesting sounds. My studies at CalArts have been great for this part of my creative self—this time last year, I couldn’t have told you I’d be excited about premiering a piece for amplified valve caps, paper, and structured breaths just eight months down the road. Learning about experimental composers of the past century (and, just as importantly, those creating work today) has enabled me to search as both a composer and performer for sounds I find intriguing. In the past year, I’ve gotten to make fun sounds on Lachenmann’s “…zwei gefühle…”, which was amazing, and I’ve performed similarly weird things on two works by dear friends—an orchestration of Mattie Barbier’s gravlax and Cameron Robello’s new work, Quiver, which I commissioned and premiered. This spring, I also had the pleasure of conducting the premiere of my first piece for (largely) strange noises, Shatter the Heavens. Many thanks to the CalArts Brass Ensemble and our incredible faculty for encouraging the use of bassoon reeds in trombone and tuba mouthpieces.

Last (but certainly not least, the cliché part of my brain supplies), I’ve found I really enjoy working on pieces that incorporate motion, theatrics, or a strong sense of character into their performance. This is related to my love of a story, but it also ties into one of the most important parts of my creative foundation. I grew up dancing—ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop, modern, the whole nine yards. Though I’m no longer able to hit the studio whenever I’d like to, the connection between music and movement has stayed with me, as fresh as the first day I learned to plié in time. I’ve played with explicitly-notated movement in my own work before; as a sophomore in college, I gave multiple performances of Sibling Rivalry, a trumpet quartet I wrote, with movement and theatrics arranged in advance.

I’d love to go back to explicitly-notated movements someday, and I’m sure I’ll get there, but right now I tend to arrange movement and action with each set of performers for the space they’ll be making music in. Mouse God started with John Pisaro and Ian Stahl charging up the sides of the Wild Beast, screaming, “ATTENTION! ATTENTION! Your mouse god is DEAD!Shatter includes a performance note that all notated fermatas should be visually silent (still) as well as aurally silent. Premiering TWYW on my mid-res with the inimitable Leila Jay involved as much conversation about movement and posture and demeanor as about the words and their delivery. Working on Quiver was a joy largely because the musical motions Cameron choreographed for me required physical and aesthetic changes to match; to this day I feel like I have much more to learn from that piece as I continue to perform it.

So, friends old and new, as we careen toward a future that hopefully includes collaborating with each other, I hope you’ll bear all this in mind. As most of the people who’ve commissioned me in the past can tell you, I’m always happy to work with you to create a piece that makes sense with your own experience and practices, and I always strive for honesty and integrity in my performance, even (actually, especially) when it means standing perfectly still at the front of a concert hall. But if any of the above piques your interest, please drop me a line! I’m constantly looking for new collaborators, and I hope I’ll find myself working with all of you as time passes. You can always reach me direct through email (hit up my bio for that), but feel free to ping me on social media or drop a comment below. Thanks so much for being along for the ride! ♦