Composing Diary: Big Ideas (in Small Places)

“Composing Diary” is an ongoing series detailing my misadventures in writing a piece for Alarm Will Sound. You can see previous entries here.

Photo by Jodi-Renee Giron.
Photo by Jodi-Renee Giron.

Finishing Day

The one on the left in the picture above is me. The much more handsome gentleman on the right is my friend Nacho.

Nacho is an eight-year-old living in Denver. He’s an unbelievably smart little guy, a gifted musician, and the unofficial mascot of the Denver jazz community. He loves the Avengers and has a soft spot for Phineas and Ferb. He also has terrible asthma that occasionally threatens his life, but unless you caught a glimpse of his red emergency inhaler you’d never know it. You’d only ever see an affectionate kid with a biting sense of humor, an inspiring sense of wonder, and a craving for ice cream.

It’s a while since I last updated my virtual diary with news about this piece for Alarm Will Sound, but the last three months summarize to this: wall after wall after wall. It’s not hard for me to understand the reasons why. This semester’s uneven schedule and random engagements made it tough to settle into a writing routine. Composing for such a phenomenal collection of musical superheroes as Alarm Will Sound carries a lot of pressure, and it affected my ability to love any idea that came out of the pencil; nothing was ever good enough. I chiseled away at the diamond block encasing this piece as best I could, using art, free association, and any other technique I could conjure. Little to nothing worked.

Then something happened: Nacho went back to the hospital.

This isn’t an uncommon occurrence in his world – thanks to his asthma, the poor little guy’s been to the ER every year since he could talk. I’m a new presence in his life, though, and the thought of my 8-year-old hero suffering through our broken health care system has always shook me, especially when I’m toiling 900 miles away in Ann Arbor. A lot of hand-wringing, a few long walks, and a few more sleepless nights, and I knew that, for better or worse, this piece was about him. Knowing that fact changed the way I was sketching, and the way I was directing the piece. It was still about color, still trying to capture bright hues and stark contrasts, but there was a seriousness about it. One might have listened to those early bits and thought the piece to be an elegy on steroids: music that wanted to bright and optimistic but whose fire had been doused under a blanket of grief and worry.

A few weeks later I visited Denver for spring break and stayed with Nacho and his family. I wasn’t sure what to expect upon seeing Nacho for the first time since his most recent ER trip. What changes when someone that young comes home after almost losing a battle to his illness? Is he more cautious, a little more grown-up than a kid that age deserves to be? How is he different?

The answer turned out to be simple: he wasn’t. He was the same exuberant, mad genius that I had come to love. He still loved Phineas and Ferb and taking his Boston terrier, Dogma, for long, happy walks in Cheesman Park. He still wanted me to race him and shoot penalty kicks at him for hours on end; when I worried about his asthma he was almost insulted by the concern, as if it was an annoying inconvenience and not something that had nearly killed him weeks before. Seeing Nacho rise above his condition to get back to being a kid taught me something: any piece honoring him couldn’t be bogged down in worry, distress, or frustration with the way things were. It had to be pure, unadulterated love. Pure, unadulterated fun. It had to be a celebration of the bright colors and lightning-fast motions of his world, where everything was wondrous and not even a trip to the hospital could change that.

One day, we were out for ice cream, and Nacho told me a story. This particular tale was of an artist who draws the universe from scratch. He begins with a star, quickly followed by a big, warm sun; a simple green tree; a human couple and their dog; and so on and so forth, until a colorful universe with a beautiful night sky has been drawn.

Later I would find that the story comes from “Draw Me a Star” by the American children’s writer Eric Carle, but at the time, it was Nacho’s creation. He was captivated by his own story, telling it with passion, excitement, and wildly vivid color. Listening to the story gave me the push I needed to break the clouds and write the piece my little hero deserved to have his name on – a piece joyful and carefree enough to capture Nacho and his zest for Ferb, ice cream, soccer, and life. The piece was finished on the 27th of April, 4 days before it arrived in the hands of Alarm Will Sound, and entitled “Draw Me the Sun.” The title comes from a line from Nacho’s story, via Eric Carle:

“Draw me the sun,” said the star. And the artist drew the sun. It was a warm sun. 

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