I AM A COMPOSER.
Those words were on a sign I had on the main bulletin board of my office wall during a rough patch in 2011. I felt ridiculous seeing it there. My therapist at the time made me write it and sign the damned thing. So, there it was, HUGE and on my wall. Unfortunately, it did nothing for me and neither did that therapist. What my therapist didn’t know and couldn’t see was I needed medical help, not useless self-esteem boosting platitudes in all capital letters and bold type on a bulletin board. Fortunately, I got a team of doctors and other great people to put Humpty back together again. And, now, I know I’m a composer, or rather, I am able to be one. But, what kind of composer am I? Female? American. Well, yeah, but, ugh. That is way more baggage to unpack than I want to today. Another day, perhaps I will delve deeply into these matters. Today, I just give it a slight dusting by way of introduction to the genesis of my musical background, and soon afterwards, my process.
On March 11, some of you will be able to see and hear what kind of composer I am and make your own judgments. You’ll see some remarkable musicians in a gorgeous new hall. If you are not there on the 11th, well, not to worry. I am having the whole shebang recorded and filmed by some wonderful people. As I have said before, I am a fortunate woman.
This show has been percolating for a long time, not just while I was in graduate school. I was a musician since the day I was born. I found it all around me. Music found me, and music bit me. Hard. I’ve been studying music since I was five years old. I even found it in my after school education via Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, and games I played with friends. I found it in music lessons (piano, viola, trumpet, horn, violin,) while participating in performing solos, or ensembles, bands and youth orchestras. It was my entire life, my lifestyle, in fact. In a recent interview with Tim Page, music critic and teacher, he discusses, among other topics, self-medicating his difficult youth with music. I did likewise. It was at once medication and meditation for me. It still is. No matter how horrible life was, or how cruel my music teachers sometimes were, music never let me down. I got a music teaching degree and became a public school music teacher to share that passion. Teaching, however, did let me down. So often it was not at all about music. Bureaucracy took front and center nearly every day. Music took last place. About ten years into my career, I found myself turning to composing. I left my job. It was the right choice.
I have been composing for a relatively short time. I am what the proverbial they call a late bloomer. I love being a late bloomer. It took a while to appreciate that. Now, at age forty-eight, sixteen years into being a 21st century composer, I have a daily perspective that reaches back and forth. With reverence, I reach back through history to my heroes, predecessors and mentors. With anticipation, I reach forward to my present and future and seek out ways to incorporate the old with my voice. From whom do I borrow? For whom do I compose? These are the valid questions I ask myself every day. Some of the answers and the things that inspire my work have surprised me. The childlike influences are my favorite by far. The older I get, the more I realize that the voices from these fundamental lessons are ready to speak. On March 11, 2016, they will be heard.
One of the profoundest reasons I have reached back to my personal history is to find the happiest, most innocent and curious times of my life. If I could just find that joyous place of discovery, maybe my work would find its ideal form of expression. I showed my dear friend, writer Meehan Crist, a photo of myself as a child receiving my first musical instrument. You can see the photo above this post. That’s me on Christmas morning 1969, Memphis, Tennessee at my grandparent’s house in my pink footie pajamas receiving my favorite gift, a tiny toy piano. The bliss on my face is undeniable. I asked Meehan if she thought this emotional trip backwards to seek that sort of happiness was even possible. She had this to say to me:
“Carolyn, none of us get to go back– the tragedy and great consolation of being alive.”
How wonderful and sad and wonderful again.
Shrugging and stubbornly trying to go back, just a little, I do so while composing. I push my work through a series of filters. I build imaginary playgrounds and I play in them. I look back to my childhood play inspired by Mister Rogers and Froebel’s gifts from Friedrich Fröbel's original concept of kindergarten. I take inspiration in the gestures and dancing movement found in Arthur Ganson's kinetic sculptures and other mechanical inventions. I play with toys. I spin tops. I buy toy pianos and other toy instruments. I buy whistles, and I toot those whistles. I collect music boxes and I buy the mechanisms to hand punch my own music. I play games. I look to visual artists like this one and that one, filmmakers, and countless other musicians I admire. I find inspiration in the natural world. I use formal structures of my own creation or those I adapt from my predecessors. Sometimes, though I am truly terrible at it, I even use math. These filters, often used in the form of play, are shaping my present and future compositions. These influences will permeate my show slated for March 11, 2016. The next series of blog posts will feature everyone and everything that has inspired my impending recital. I hope you’ll come back for more.
By the way, remember that note I had on my bulletin board?
I AM A COMPOSER.
I found it today while panic-procrasti-cleaning up my office during a bit of an afternoon attention span slump. I laughed. I didn’t know I’d saved it. I must have thought I’d need it one day. I’m pleased to tell you, I do not.
I AM A COMPOSER.