The Biggest Fish

Arvo Pärt (left) and me (right)

Since coming here to Estonia I’ve had an odd recurring feeling that people in the US are looking at me and holding their breaths for me to dish out some Arvo Pärt stories and content. This thought turns out to be surprisingly justified. When I was applying for the Fulbright Grant that allowed me to come here to Estonia, I reached out to a number of previous Fulbrighter composers who did their grant in Estonia. The two I actually got to have conversations with were boastful about the fact that they had one or two interactions with Pärt at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theater. I believe I am accurate in saying boastfully, but I should note that that might stem from the fact that they both adamantly told me I would almost certainly not get the grant and therefore the act of them relaying their experiences to me took on a bragging tone. Additionally, I’ve had numerous conversations with people from back home who have referred to EMTA as “the place where Arvo Pärt studied,” indicating that there really are a lot of people whom I am good friends with back home who would like to hear about my interactions with him (I can only imagine this is strengthened by me now being a resident composer at his centre).

I honestly did not think that I would run into Pärt very much over the course of my time in Laulasmaa, but as of right now I’ve seen him quite a lot every day. As I mentioned in my last post, it was really amazing when I first arrived and he so avidly shook my hand and told me he was happy I was there. He’s visited me while I’ve composed, said hi to me a lot in the halls, and just generally been a really amazing person to be around. Furthermore, without being prompted, each of the staff members at the centre will talk nonstop for hours about how much they love him, about how Pärt makes them want to be the best version of themselves, and how just his presence in a room can brighten everyone’s day. I suppose this is just a very American thought, but it’s really pleasing to meet someone so esteemed that is genuinely really lovely to be around (and also legitimately amazing to hear people say “my boss makes me want to be a better person;” don’t hear that a lot in the US).

Not to get too vulnerable or sappy, but I have been in so many instances over the course of my time composing where I’ve met quite harsh discouragement either from peers who were much more skillful than me, or from really big figures whom I looked up to. Those words really affected me in negative ways. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think that one could reasonably argue that the trajectory of people’s careers has a profound effect on their mental well-being and therefore on the energy that they exude. People who are further down the ladder therefore are probably in a worse mood, but just about everyone is in a pretty bad mood because everyone is looking up. Everyone always wishes they had a better career, and everyone enviously looks up to someone for inspiration. There’s always a bigger fish, and it’s tempting to think…well, maybe I simply met the biggest fish? For most of the 2010’s, Pärt was the most played living composer on earth. It would be completely reasonable to think that level of success comes with a profound peace of mind.

Well, I don’t actually think that’s right at all. My hypothesis about this is that negative personalities in the arts stem from being jaded, and then the subsequent moving up into stardom (if it happens) causes them to weaponize their negative relationship and history with their art against those below them. At any point in this process, they could attempt to be nice, but they aren’t because there are genuinely powerfully corrupting forces working against them. This makes a lot of sense given the variety of biggest fish. For instance, James Levine was probably one of the most skilled conductors ever and he was a horrifyingly evil person. Wagner was a profoundly prolific composer and became one of the most influential artists of all time (and if you don’t believe me, read Alex Ross’ new book) despite a slurry of awful behaviors.

The other side of the coin (which Pärt occupies) is that of the good person. I honestly don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it takes an enlightened-level of kindness to be as nice as Pärt. To be the most played living composer in the world, attending classical music concerts….CLASSICAL MUSIC CONCERTS where people (no joke, this has happened a lot apparently) scream that they love you and not let it go to your head, that takes work. It’s actually a kind of emotional labor that you have to expend in order to be so humble in those circumstances. Fame, even the niche academic kind that is enjoyed by a lot of composers, is actually really powerful in how it effects your mind. It takes a lot of energy to not simply be subsumed into the corrupting forces that could so easily make you bitter. I won’t go into specifics about what Arvo Pärt does with his time that allows him to be so wonderfully easy to be around. I don’t actually know, but now having spent a good amount of time around him, I have some guesses that aren’t particularly groundbreaking. Still I want to respect his privacy so I won’t even make an attempt, but there’s really no secret formula for taking care of yourself, it’s actually (at this point, at least in American consciousness) a public formula of physical and mental well being that will not just help you, but all of the fish around you as well.

Turn Away

My first day at the Arvo Pärt Centre was surprisingly stressful. Unbeknownst to myself and the staff in charge of the residency, some folks were taking the opportunity granted by the Monday closure of the centre to test the fire alarms. I spent a good amount of my day frantically scribbling sketches of the middle section of my latest work for chamber orchestra trying to get as much done before the alarms went off. Luckily for me, they alerted me before the alarm repairpeople arrived. And they were considerate enough to arrive later than they had initially planned, and then were fashionably late to their new arrival time. I also lucked out by the fact that there were no fire alarms in my room. Instead, all noise-making devices were tastefully far away from my room. I was, however, acutely aware of the alarms as they were going off, which is probably good and means that I won’t catch on fire for the rest of my time in Laulasmaa.

It was an interesting way to begin my residency, and I mean that quite literally and neutrally. This day and the sounds of the fire alarms were, literally, thought provoking. It reminded me of a story about John Cage where he was sleeping in an apartment with a number of his good friends and the fire alarm went off in the middle of the night. While his colleagues were tossing and turning and trying to figure out what to do as the alarm was going off, Cage recalls the following:

“I remained in bed, listened carefully to its pattern, and worked it into my thoughts and dreams; and I slept very well.”

When the repairdudes arrived and I was told that the alarms would be sounding soon, I walked over to the beach and back. Despite the fact that I was already thinking about John Cage and the possibility of just trying to vibe with the alarms, I had one too many cups of coffee from the centre’s actually very good coffee machine (and high quality beans) to trust my heart with staying in my body at the screeches of a fire alarm, especially one that gets me when I’m in flow state. Once I got back to the centre, I realized a bizarre parallel between Cage’s story and what I was experiencing. The Arvo Pärt Centre is phenomenal in it’s objective of acting as a sort of non-existent space. In the project of the residency program, it’s goal in “taking you away from the distractions of every day life and allowing you a quiet space to be with your thoughts and creativity” implies that the centre will exist in your consciousness as unobtrusively as possible. Much like Cage’s acceptance and integration of the sounds of the alarm, the APC as an architectural marvel takes itself very seriously as able to be intrusive of the minds of people who visit and obtrusive to their experience of that nature. There are many design choices that take this into account and are effective in minimizing their footprint on your perception. I could go on for awhile about the interesting philosophical implications of this design choice and what they say about the act of the creation of art, how it’s really just a sliding scale of impact, or how this design choice mimics the aesthetic of Arvo Pärt’s music itself, but I’m going to keep these APC blog posts as brief as possible. Only fleeting thoughts and stream of consciousness writing in this part of my website.

Despite the fact that I applied to this residency program with the intention of getting the silence to listen to myself, today was a reminder that there is in fact an outside world which deserves listening to. And sometimes, despite whipping out the essential oils, chai tea, Calm app, artist residencies or what have you, the world will still grab you by the collar and force you to listen to it. This again reminds me of a John Cage quote (which I kid you not I coincidentally read for the first time yesterday in a book that I brought to the APC with me to read in my down time),

“Music is continuous. It is only we who turn away.”

On a much more positive note, thank you to Arvo Pärt for greeting me with such enthusiasm today. Shaking your hand and seeing you smile so brightly was truly one of the most amazing things that has ever happened to me. I am immensely grateful to be allowed to take part in creating music alongside you in Laulasmaa.

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.

Conducting Elliott Carter’s “Elegy”

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This past semester, I had the extraordinary honor of being granted permission to perform Elliott Carter’s Elegy for string orchestra on a recital at Pomona College’s Lyman Hall. I gathered a group of my friends from the Pomona College Orchestra and we rehearsed the work 4 times before the performance. I was absolutely stunned with the extremely high level of musicianship this group of people brought to the piece, and am grateful for the experience of having guided an ensemble of string players through the realization of this amazing work. I’d like to extend a special thank you to my conducting instructor, Eric Lindholm, for helping to guide me in a few rough spots during rehearsals and also for helping me to gain a better understanding of the work through my independent studies in conducting with him.

I would also like to thank the orchestra, which consisted of the following wonderful humans:

Violin I: Adam Dvorak – Concertmaster Adam Guo, Kathy Liu (SCR); Violin II: Sara Uehara – Principal, Abby Lewis, Daisy Lee, Krista Gomez; Viola: Anna Soper (HMC) – Principal, Eric Zhu, Marcus Michel; Cello: Katherine Burgstahler – Principal, Jessica Kuo, Amy Kaneshiro; Bass: Ethan Ong – Principal

The full performance can be found by clicking here.

highSCORE – A Reflection

highSCORE Festival is today’s leading Italian Contemporary Music Festival

The HighSCORE New Music Festival takes place on the outskirts of Pavia, Italy, on what is referred to as Campus Aquae, a set of dorms for the University of Pavia which includes a large community pool next door. In the main area of the campus, there are the dormitories arranged in a square around a courtyard, and in the middle of the courtyard is a large glass room. 

                                                                                                                                                   offering unique masterclasses specifically shaped for composers,

For me, I ended up meeting one of the faculty early. As I approached the baggage claim at the Milano Linate Airport, I realized that one of the people standing near me was the world-renowned music theorist/philosopher Dmitri Tymoczko. It took a little more than a glance from him at the midi keyboard I was holding for us to begin talking, at which point he informed me he would be able to give me a ride to the festival so that I did not need to work through the difficulty of finding a bus and then a train. His ride was running late, so, despite being jet-lagged, he was able to share a number of stories on topics from Philip Glass to John Cage (he had attended Cage’s randomly generated Charles Eliot Norton lectures while a student at Harvard).

                                                                                                                  one of the «ten summer festivals to get the contemporary music blood pumping» (Composition: Today).

The glass room (often referred to as, “The Fishbowl”) is where the majority of the first week’s activities start, where the festival participants get to know each other and the faculty during colloquiums and lectures where the students and faculty all present their works, with the faculty also presenting a series of lectures in their specializations. Among these lectures included Amy Beth Kirsten giving an introduction to the world of composed theater, Sarah Kirkland Snider telling us all about the do’s and do not’s of recording and releasing our music, and Dmitri Tymoczko lecturing about how music theory does and does not fit into actual music composition (much of the information in this lecture can be found in his book, A Geometry of Music).

The upcoming 9th edition (August 6-18, 2018) features an outstanding faculty roster: Helmut Lachenmann and Toivo Tulev, guests of honor; Amy Beth KirstenSarah Kirkland SniderDmitri Tymoczko, and Christopher Theofanidis the core of our Composition faculty.

The second week of the festival brought lectures and masterclasses by the two guests of honor, Toivo Tulev and Helmut Lachenmann, as well as more workshops and lectures by the other faculty, and performances of the pieces we had all written for the festival. The two guests of honor are some of the most renowned composers on earth, so getting to hear them lecture first-hand was an absolute dream come true. It was also amazing to witness the masterclasses, where a select number of students showcased their work and received feedback live feedback from Lachenmann, Tulev.

Guest performers invited to perform the music submitted by participant composers are Quartetto IndacoTrio Mythos and unassisted fold.

The rehearsals with Quartetto Indaco went very well the previous weekend. Despite this, I was very nervous about their upcoming performance of my work at Chiesa di Santa Maria di Canepanova. This concert was going to be the first time my music was played in any sort of concert, and for some reason, the universe decided it should be by a stunningly amazing professional group in a foreign country in a city I had never stepped foot in before in a church which looked as though it was taken straight out of one of my dreams.

Application deadline: April 14th, 2018.

Here is the audio plus some poetic looking clouds I took a photo of on the plane ride home. A special extra thank you to the Quartetto Indaco for their mind-blowing performance of my piece. I’m so glad to have walked away with an amazing performance, and an amazing new bunch of friends who make some of the absolute coolest music I’ve ever heard. I could not have asked for a better first festival experience.