Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Composer from Somewhere

For every composer, there usually comes a moment when you must decide to follow the inner voice that pushes toward an aesthetic that is meaningful and authentic to your being or write music to be “accepted” by others.  I’ve thought about this lately and tried to recall the moment I made my own decision in the matter. What prompted these thoughts was the recent premiere of a chamber work of mine for clarinet and saxophone that I entitled Citizens of Nowhere. The title is taken from an article of the same name written in 2003 by Paul Kingsnorth in The New Statesman. The article puts forth the assertion that a new global middle class is emerging that is, as Kingsnorth puts it “…Rootless, technocratic, unburdened by the baggage of locality… [existing] in every nation but [feeling] attached to none.”

Yours truly, playing at a recent
Greek Festival in Ocala, Florida
In addition to my activities as a composer, I am also a traveling, gigging musician. I wander the southeast performing with my Greek band at festivals and private affairs many weekends out of the year. As such, I often find myself within the environment created by the fruit of these “citizens of nowhere;” awakening in chain hotels flanked by chain restaurants and big box retailers. More than this simple comparison, however, I believe the notion of the “citizen of nowhere” sometimes extends to the current state of contemporary music composition as well. I can’t help but think about how many “composers of nowhere” there seem to be. Over the years I have attended many contemporary music conferences and festivals or sat on composition panels where one contemporary piece is presented after another. Very quickly, they all begin to sound alike; originating from a nondescript geographical area and possessing all the same textbook techniques. Thus, the title of the Kingsnorth article and the class it described resonated with me in an unintentional way.

As a student, I was firmly on the path of nowhere. To be taken seriously as a composer, I felt I needed to incorporate techniques that didn’t necessarily represent me personally but were in keeping with the music that my peers were writing. There were actually two moments that pushed me towards embracing a more personal compositional voice. The first occurred in 1986 while I was in a lesson with my teacher, Donald Erb. Of course, back in those days, lessons always began with a long interval of silence as my mentor carefully examined my music. There was no computer notation playback of the score with cheesy, artificially generated sounds. There was not even a computer. During this particular lesson and the opening silence, I began to grow panicked as I realized, to my utter horror, that I had incorporated – overtly incorporated mind you – elements of Greek folk rhythms and folk tunes in an otherwise dourly constructed academic piece. How could this happen? Damn all those Greek gigs! They somehow worked their way into my “serious” writing! As Erb continued to study the score, my discomfort reached such heights that I interrupted his concentration and began to apologize for all the “Greek stuff” littering my composition. “I don’t know what you are apologizing about,” he said without lifting his eyes from my smudged score, “the Greek stuff is the only thing that’s interesting about this piece.”

That lesson did not immediately change the way I approached writing music. However, Erb’s comment tickled the back of my mind from that moment forward. Was it actually OK to clearly cross the bounds of my “serious” music and my gig life? It would be another 11 years before I finally made the decision to follow my inner voice. The year was 1997 and this time I was no longer a student. I remember sitting quietly working on a large piece for TTBB choir and orchestra when I bumped into a small dilemma. I noticed that after tracking dutifully along for sometime in some kind of amorphous dissonance, I reached a sonority that got that old tickle from Erb’s lesson to act up again. I stared at the sonority I had just written and realized that I was sitting on a suspended B Major chord. All I needed to do was resolve the 4th degree down to reach a consonant triad. I struggled for hours finding one way after another out of the situation so as not to give any sense of tonality to the piece. And yet, I erased each clever escape and returned to the sonority; wondering if I should just go ahead and land on the chord. What if doing so would be the only really interesting thing in the whole piece? In the moment that I decided to embrace the triad where my writing had led, I embraced the idea that I would, in addition to following craft, follow my heart as well and write what I wanted to write.

Not long after this, more tonal aspects – heavily imbued with my Greek heritage – crept into my compositions and before I knew it, I was developing a personal voice and writing music that I actually enjoyed listening to myself! I finally had become a composer of somewhere.