Thursday, June 6, 2013

To Thine Own Self…

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the 2013 New Music USA Awards Ceremony held at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City. The energy at this event was palpable as some of the heaviest hitters in the field were in attendance. Even with a casual look at the program, names such as John Luther Adams, Anthony Braxton, John Kander, William Kraft, Meredith Monk and the JACK Quartet among others immediately caught my eye. All of these award recipients (with the exception of Braxton) were present. The evening also featured magnificent live performances of music. Members of Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble and The M6 teamed up for a gorgeous reading of Monk’s Jewish Storyteller/Dance/Dream from Book of Days. Another real treat were performances by Face the Music, an ensemble comprised of high school students from the Kaufman Music Center under the direction of Jennifer Undercofler. The young performers gave a very spirited and respectable performance of Lick by Julia Wolfe as well as a work by one of their own members, bassist Ethan Cohn’s Lionfish.

The view from the top of the New Museum of
Contemporary Art in NYC. The breathtaking
Freedom Tower dominates the skyline.
It might be easy to get swept up in a bit of stargazing in such surroundings (and I do confess to a bit of that), but I had another important takeaway from the event. It was readily apparent to me from the outset that each of the recognized composers and ensembles had extremely diverse and distinctive voices. There was nothing cookie-cutter about the evening. Even for someone outside the contemporary music world, it would be very difficult to confuse the music of John Luther Adams with Meredith Monk or John Kander. The award recipients had all cultivated distinctive and highly personal voices. These were creative artists who were neither timid nor worried about fitting in or sounding like everyone else. It’s a wonderful model that can never be displayed often enough.

It’s easy sometimes for me to fall into a bit of despondency from time to time over lack of recognition on a national stage, perceived snubs, etc. I’m sure it’s the same for all creative artists. I’m convinced, however, that the way out of such valleys is not to try and sound like those who are “successful.” There is room at the creative table for many voices. To truly cultivate one’s artistic voice, there is just one important question that needs to be asked: Why do you create?

When someone finds out that I am a composer – and they move past the novelty that such persons still exist – I am asked, “what kind of music do you compose?” Usually, my answer – given in nervous fits and starts – revolves around the “what” and “how” of my work. When the composer Alvin Singleton is asked the very same question, (“what kind of music do you write?”) his quick and assured response is “wonderful music.” I love this answer because, at its heart, it comes from a clear understanding of the “why” question.

Hanging out with some truly distinctive and wonderful
composers after the awards ceremony in Little Italy.
(L-R: Carman Moore; yours truly, Alex Shapiro &
Alvin Singleton)
To write personal, distinctive and wonderful music, a composer knows – at the very deepest level – why he or she is compelled to create music. The answer to “why do you write” is no doubt different for each composer. It is a question that has been considered and cultivated through the unique life experience of the successful artist. Yet, to understand why one creates is still not enough. Composers of significance also are fearless. They are sensitive to what moves them and explore those facets of creativity that speak most insistently to them, irrespective of where their journey may lead. For some, these explorations lead to highly experimental and genuinely genre-bending pieces. For others – and I include myself in this group – the exploration simply bolsters the courage to compose music that seems, at least on the surface, more conventional in nature.

There was a time when I was a little embarrassed that I conceived of music in more “traditional” ways. I felt that because I am drawn to explorations of harmony, melody and pulse driven rhythm I was somehow not modern; not relevant.

Increasingly, none of that matters anymore.

As I progress in my career, I am gaining a clearer understanding of why I write. I know what is important to me and I strive with every piece to hone my craft in order to better express myself. I’m also trying to be more courageous. With each passing year and each completed piece, I try to better understand how to write what I want without resting on mere craft. Most importantly, I’m beginning to understand that it’s fine to want to be like the “successful” composers; as long as I do it my way and not theirs.

So what kind of music do I write? Just listen.

The day that a listener can discern the answer to that question without me spilling a long string of inadequate words is the day I become a “successful” composer. I won’t need anyone’s validation or award. The work itself will be the reward and the recognition will eventually follow. Or, it won’t. Again, it doesn’t matter.

To be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with award ceremonies, prizes and all the other measures of “success.” Our nation is fortunate that wonderful organizations such as New Music USA exist and promote contemporary composers and their work. But it is important for me to keep a balanced perspective. Somehow, I don’t believe any of the composers receiving awards in Manhattan a few weeks ago created their distinctive art with ceremonies in mind.

Neither should I.