Thursday, April 25, 2019

HONOR THE GHOST (Part 1): Meeting the Ghost

My most recent piece, Honor the Ghost, is written for the 2019 Fresh Inc. Festival in collaboration with Fifth House Ensemble  and was made possible through generous support from the Steven R. Gerber Trust, which honors the composer's memory by bringing new works to life.

One of the unique parameters of this commission was to respond in some way to the concept of identity "and the difference between the masks we often wear for others and our truest, authentic selves." In an age where authenticity is key, I found this concept to be very personally meaningful and relevant:

You see, I got into "composing" by way of songwriting. In fact, my dream in middle school was to be a professional studio guitar player. I began putting poetry to guitar chords and discovered I could write songs, too. I was instantly hooked. After that, I put all the money I earned from lawn-mowing one summer into my first microphone (CAD Equitek E-200, which I still have and use!) and began recording. I had no idea what I was doing but I loved playing, and I loved the process. At the same time, I also began teaching myself to write music. Again, no idea what was happening but I loved the process.

Fast forward to college: my second year of college I began taking formal composition lessons with Beth Wiemann, who was always patient and generous with advice and help. As a kid who grew up in the Maine woods, self-taught, with very little outside exposure, I was awestruck. I thought: is this how you're supposed to make music? I thought I had been doing it the wrong way. Add to that a couple of bad experiences from my high school rock band days, and my songwriting took a backseat in priority.

But all that while, I continued to write and record my songs.

Recording in my bedroom, and later in a college dorm, I was convinced I was forever doomed to "keep it down", this thing I loved doing and felt compelled to do. I dreamed of one day having my own dedicated recording space (spoiler alert: nowadays I finally do have that dedicated home studio). It became my secret passion, that is, until 2013.

Action pose of me in costume as
Eggbert P. Slocum from a high
school play. Circa 2005, the year
I started songwriting.
The Winds of Change

In 2013 I headed to the Atlantic Music Festival, where I had the privilege of taking a lesson with Ken Ueno. Nervously but proudly, I showed him this Big Orchestra Piece I had spent forever working on and that had recently been premiered by the Arizona State University Symphony Orchestra. He very politely listened, but looked interminably bored as he scrolled through the score, commenting at the end that it was "nice". Knowing a little bit about who he was and the type of music he made, I decided in that moment to switch tactics, and show him one of my songs. One of my songs.

I explained that it didn't have any written sheet music, and that it (both music and lyrics) was mostly improvised, with me playing all of the instruments and singing. Called The Space Explorers, I sampled some sounds from an old 1958 animation by the same title and incorporated them with acoustic instruments (voice, acoustic guitar, layered trumpets, and tuba).

I very nervously started playing the tune for him on my laptop. His face immediately lit up, concentrating intensely on the music. At the end of the song, he said it was impressive and asked if I wrote many songs. I told him that it was something I had always done, and came really easily to me, but I had always been too scared to really do anything with it. He grinned and said, "maybe you should spend more time doing the thing that comes really easy to you". I was blown away.

It was the first time my songwriting had ever gotten any validation, let alone by a professional composer, let alone by one of the wizards of composition. That lesson changed my life.

Identity, where it meets the ghost

Since then, I began actively working to merge the two sides of my creative musical output, lovingly described in Seinfeld terms as: Relationship George and Independent George (AND NEVER THE TWO SHALL MEET!) Well, precisely the opposite.

Over the years, I've had some mixed success with the merger. In 2014 I wrote a piece for solo horn and electronics called Kasl, which has since been performed several times (most recently earlier this month). I wrote Kasl in the style of a popular song, replete with a chorus and bridge. Last year, in 2018, I wrote a piece for the Sonic Liberation Players called For all love lost and spirit gained which freely associates influence, from Claude Vivier to Between the Buried and Me, to turn of the century Tin Pan Alley songs, but which also features original text deeply relevant to my person experience, but couched in the vehicle of a children's story.
Now in 2019, for this commission, I wanted to take it a step further and incorporate music from songs I've written and recorded over the years mixed with unfinished compositions. All of the songs and pieces are very personally meaningful to me and stand out in my mind as pieces / songs that have shaped me in some way. The idea of giving my songs a platform and elevating them to the same "level" I hold my compositions is scary to me, and to be honest, I almost abandoned this approach several different times.

Astute readers will notice a conspicuous absence of links to any of the songs I've referenced here. While at this moment I think I'm still a little too self-conscious to share them in this post, I'm optimistic some will appear in the next installments of this series, which is where I'll give you some background for the source material, discuss how I put everything together, and expand on what I've learned about myself in the process so far.

Until then,