Comp Lessons from Unlikely Teachers: Empty Houses

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The HobNob, 2010.

It’s a humid Sunday evening in June in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’m on the patio of a 30-year-old white colonial house, sandwiched between a vibraphone on my right and an electric keyboard on my left. My horn reflects the golden light inside the house and the softer, bronzer glow from the light standards, flickering to life in the setting sun. The fireflies — which we never see in Colorado — are starting to pepper the air in the dining patio. Even as the heat loses its edge in the twilight, I’m sweating through my shirt in the thick Southern humidity. 

I’m not thinking about any of that right this second, though — the waning sunlight replaced by fireflies, the light dancing on the bell of my instrument, the damp heaviness in the air — because right now someone in the small but jovial crowd has asked for Giant Steps, which I’ve never played in public.

“What do you think, Joe?” I look over at my friend Joe Lulloff, wearing a polo and clutching a tenor saxophone, and I’m envious for just a second of his ability to weather the mugginess. He thinks behind his glasses, and says in a short, nonchalant chirp: “Sure, man.” I look around at Josh and Conrad, Andy and Chip. We’re like sardines on this porch fashioned into a bandstand. At some point in the last few minutes, a beer has materialized on the railing; I look into the crowd and see a grinning, bearded face pointing knowingly at me. Apparently Bob, sitting with the Shanghai String Quartet, saw the beads of sweat on my forehead and decided I could use a drink.

I smile with just a tinge of embarrassment. I take a knowing sip, and say in my best stage presenter voice: “Giant Steps.” A few scattered whoops from the tables of friends and locals collected just behind the railing. There are maybe ten people, but they are so full of love and warmth, they may as well be a thousand. Everything is light and love and sweltering mountain heat and beer and music and we’re here to be a part of it. I turn to Joe and raise my horn.

“One, two, one.”

All of us — me, Joe, the guys, the people at the tables — breathe together.

*******

I’ve taught here at the Brevard Music Center for three summers. I minister to the high school students, teaching them musicianship. I also guide our high school composers through the gauntlet of the summer, four pieces in six weeks. When the freakouts start — when the deadlines and concerts are approaching and there are parts to make and the middle section isn’t coming together and a performer bailed on them and they can’t find inspiration and are they really cut out for this? — I remind them that I made it through the summer twice as a student here, sitting right where they’re sitting, and it can be done. I tell them they’re already through the hardest part: looking at the hill you’re about to climb and taking the first step. I remind them the finish line is closer than they think, and that they’ve done this before. Then I tell them to go into town, get a cookie at Bracken Mountain Bakery, then come back and write.

In my time here, I’ve walked every foot of this three-acre campus. I saw my first luna moth here, my first firefly. There is so much beauty here, from the hidden trails in the Bracken Preserve to the Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium at midnight, still and glowing.

I’ve made so many friends, so many amazing memories here. But some of the moments most dear to me weren’t on campus at all, but at the HobNob, a restaurant on the edge between the town and the forest, set up inside a 30-year-old white colonial. I’ve never played another venue like it.

I wandered into the HobNob on my first Sunday here in 2009, because someone had told me there was live jazz. Joe Lulloff, running the band, invited me to sit in the following week, and that was it. I came back every Sunday. Then I did the same the next year. When I joined the faculty in 2015, I came back again. Every single week.

Then last year, the music got a little less frequent. The tables were a little less busy. This summer, two weeks ago, I drove by the HobNob on my way to campus, and discovered a vacant white colonial, guarded by its locked iron gate and a For Rent sign.

********

Everything changes. As someone great once said, it’s the only thing you can know for sure about this world.

When something does change — whether it’s momentous, like a personal tragedy, or infinitesimal, like a little Southern live jazz spot closing its doors — we react, we adjust, and we eventually regain our rhythm. Change is hard, there’s no mistake. But it’s part of life. We recognize it and embrace it, and we learn to love what comes after.

I have to relearn this lesson frequently, because I have to teach it. Talk to almost any young composer, and they’ll tell you about their “voice”: the abstract set of stylistic traits that defines a composer’s oeuvre. Some will say they’ve found it. Many will say they’re worried because they haven’t. They’ll feel an urgency to define who they are for the world, for reasons artistic, philosophical, professional, and economical.

I was the same way for a long time: my script said that without a voice, I was an amateur, a dilettante. Serious composers, I thought, have voices. They have styles and signatures. And they find them young.

Which is, of course, bullshit. Nobody knows who they are when they’re nineteen. Hell, a 19-year-old is usually too dumb to even know he doesn’t know who he is. For that matter, no one is their 24-year-old self forever… or their 30-year-old self, or even their 40-year-old self. Everything changes, and people are no exception.

The narrative about voice among young composers is not, I think, there because it’s real or even because it makes sense. It’s there because every composer is afraid. Afraid of being unemployed, of being unperformed, or even just of being unready. Anxiety is part and parcel of being a composer, because there are so many vying for so few opportunities to be heard. If a college junior can point to a language as their “voice,” it lends them legitimacy. They have a security blanket against the nagging fear that their music isn’t good enough. How could it ever not be good enough? It’s me.

The problem is that believing you see your own voice leads to closed-mindedness, and closed-mindedness usually means you stop learning. The longer you believe you must write one way, the harder it is to write any other. You can’t grow, evolve, or expand the way you need to to attain artistry. The security blanket becomes a straitjacket.

That means that just about all young composers, including me, need to let go the concept of voice. But that’s a hard sell when the roots of it are so deeply mired in anxiety and self-doubt — mired in fear of whether your work actually matters enough. The instinct is to stay safe. Stay with what works, musically and otherwise. So I often have to remind my students, and myself:

Staying in the same place doesn’t teach you who you are. Change does that.

No one learned how to walk by staying in a crib. No one came to adore fall just by watching evergreen trees. No one mastered an art or a craft or a sport by making the same sculpture, playing against the same people, or painting the same still life over and over and over. Change teaches us how to be better. Change teaches us who we are.

We recognize voice in the work of great composers, because we view them through filters: historical ones, political and artistic ones. The ease with which we can now define them leads us to the expectation that we should have a singular voice, and the belief that to lack one is a sign of weakness or naïveté. But the voices of composers — even the greats — especially the greats — change alongside their lives and minds. Beethoven was never the same after the Heiligenstadt testament. Debussy dropped out of the Conservatoire and began to discover himself. Copland changed after the HUAC hearings. Cage changed after visiting the anechoic chamber.

It is through this change that we start to see patterns emerge: those things that, no matter how radically different we become, stay the same. This is voice. And it only comes through embracing (and sometimes even forcing) change.

And change doesn’t have to mean the end. There’s still jazz in Brevard, at Marco Trattoria and the Phoenix. There are more great musicians here than ever before, even if some of my friends from the HobNob are no longer present. And on the right humid, glowing, Southern night, the tables near the bandstand are still packed with jovial crowds who will try to stretch the performers by calling Giant Steps.

But as I walked today, I stopped near the empty white colonial. I looked at the old chairs neatly stacked outside, the patio cleared of tables and collecting dust on the painted railing. I remembered that hot Sunday night eight years ago, about to fumble my way through Giant Steps for the first time. I remembered meeting Joe and Chip and Josh and Andy and Mikey, playing for ten people who could feel like a thousand. I remembered the sweat, the taste of the beer, the flashing of fireflies just beyond the patio, and the electricity on the crowded bandstand as we took a breath together before the downbeat.

And as I put my hand on the iron gate, now locked, I remembered again that change is never, ever easy. 

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The HobNob, 2017.

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