Forward, Backward

A large part of the drive that enables me to work on so much each semester is the knowledge that my time at Pomona is limited. Since I decided to become a composer during my sophomore year, I have been profoundly aware of my limited time with a heard of Steinways, large swaths of hard copies of musical scores, and 24 hour access to numerous practice spaces to experiment. While I wouldn’t want to reduce any of my friends or colleagues here at Pomona to simply “a fading opportunity for a musical experience,” I still wince every time I think about the fact that I will probably never find myself in such a thought-provoking and collaborative environment again.

Even though there was never really a “switch” that turned on in my head alerting me to my impending future, there was a current of anxiety that hit me in waves as I navigated various plans for my future. When I wasn’t working on writing my senior thesis I was working on any number of post-grad plans, from applying for grants, to strengthening my portfolio for graduate school applications, to actually applying to graduate schools, to applying to jobs.

As with every semester, I had a lot of opportunities to perform great pieces of music. In the Pomona College Orchestra, I was appointed as the second ever student conductor under its current director’s 25-years with the ensemble. As the “music major obsessed with music from living composers,” I was encouraged to program John Corigliano’s Elegy for orchestra. Despite some rough patches, such as an overdue ear cleaning that made me think the violins were never playing loud enough, the opportunity to lead my peers in the realization of this work was one of the most fulfilling experiences in my entire time at Pomona College.

Coinciding with this experience was a collaboration with my friend and bass-baritone Matthew Cook. Last spring the Pomona College Humanities Studio chose me as one of their 2019-20 fellows, which came with a grant to get a head-start on my thesis over the summer. This worked out well, as when I asked the music department if I could have my recital in the fall, they told me that I would have until the first day of September to complete every bit of music that was to be featured on my recital. This turned my summer into my first experience as a “secluded (feral?) artist spending all of their time at a desk and not having any interactions with humans.”

In line with the Humanities Studio 2019-20 theme of “Post/Truth,” this piece took the form of a 25-minute song cycle setting texts from the last one-hundred years of writing about the concept of “truth.” On one hand, this project was a satisfying exploration of an epistemological topic I have a lot of interest in, but on the other hand, I could not help feeling like a “fake” philosopher, or at least a musician going to a Halloween party dressed as a philosopher and refusing to take off the costume for an entire year.

Before the common Pomona response of “IMPOSTER SYNDROME” it should be noted that this really is something I have very little experience with. I went to a high school that heavily emphasized quantitative skills over any sort of interaction with the humanities. I wasn’t even aware that philosophy was something that you could take classes on when I was in high school. My exposure to the humanities has been entirely through my schooling at Pomona, and even that has been anything but smooth. This lack of background bred in me a more stem-oriented prioritization of skills that festered in my head up until I realized I would never have what it takes to pursue a career in computer science. Not to imply that being a musician is any easier, I just had such a bad a tendency to fall on my face when attempting to understand any concept in computer science that I was once called out amongst 60 other students in the swiftest move of weeding out I had ever witnessed, even in fictional depictions of college life.

Even musically, I felt that I was attempting something I had no business doing. I had very little experience writing vocal music, and other than growing up singing church hymns, I had almost no experience singing either. On one hand, I felt completely lost and without any sort of authority to make any decisions. On the other hand, having to produce such a large scale project so quickly shattered all creative barriers, allowing me to write vocal music that was both singable (with some elbow grease from Matthew) and felt satisfyingly experimental. I can honestly say that the end product was one of the only truly personal pieces I have ever written. It should not come as that much of a surprise, given that the last time I stranded myself in uncharted territory like this (in an upper division literary analysis course that I came close to failing), it produced Wandering Rocks, my piece for Pierrot ensemble that was premiered last summer at the Atlantic Music Festival.

This is all to say that I never really felt like I was experiencing imposter syndrome, but instead something I’ll give the ad-hoc label:”faking it until making it” syndrome. In all honesty, that may just be where I am supposed to feel at this point in my composition career, less like a veteran explorer and more like my childhood self, floating down the Rivanna, wandering where the waters will take me.

Before moving on, let me share a short story from this past summer that will give appropriate background to my final project of the semester. This past July I had the utmost pleasure of attending the half-session for the Atlantic Music Festival in Waterville, ME. One of the highlights of the festival was the chance to have composition lessons with a number of esteemed faculty. Among these composers was Dr. Chen Yi, a recent Pulitzer Prize finalist, master orchestral composer, and professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. During our lesson, she made it very clear that she appreciated my “very idiomatic” orchestrations, and encouraged me to write a work for orchestra.

That orchestral work went through a number of different phases. After my talk with Chen Yi, I immediately wrote a sizable amount of an orchestral work based on the artwork of David Hockney, but after a boating accident that left me concussed, and unrelated back pains that made me barely able to leave my bed, I suddenly lost all interest in the piece and found myself in an August-September bout of writer’s block. Inspiration finally came in the form of a trip to the Huntington Library and Gardens as a part of my fellowship with the Humanities Studio. It was the innards of the library and the surrounding gardens that suddenly brought forth musical material I felt was compelling enough to make a piece out of. I quickly began writing and in a month and a half I had the first draft for a new work for orchestra.

Also immediately after my talk with Chen Yi, I went through just about all of my contacts to see who would like to be a part of this project. The final scoring was a sinfonietta featuring a double string quartet with the horn and clarinet replaced by a euphonium and saxophone respectively. I found that this scoring choice worked well, and while at times it was difficult to deal with the balance from the overpowering euphonium and saxophone that can cut through anything, the end result was stunning.

This past semester brought about the most personal growth I have ever experienced while at this school. So many past semesters have felt wholly overburdened with complete failures, and it’s good to finally feel as though I have accomplished some number of feats and had a productive semester. While I don’t exactly know how my post-graduation plans will play out, I feel as though now there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that I can now make some sort of definitive claim that I am going to make it out alright.

One last thing: I am going to start writing much smaller posts than this and get them out on the last days of each month. Not all the posts will have this sort of strange “public diary” feel to them, as I hope to just start writing more and more about what really interests me in music, to give my focus on developing myself as a musician a bit more direction, and to make sure I am accountable for continually moving forward in my career as a musician.

A special thanks to my classmate and fellow composer Jack Szulc-Donnell for proofreading this post.

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