I’ve never been one who cared what critics thought. But when I got my first negative review, which basically called me a two-bit knockoff of Aaron Copland, it rattled around in my head for months.
Especially in those moments when I didn’t have something else to occupy my hands, I found them pressed against my temples thinking of my critic. I imagined him, thin-lipped and bald, dressed unseasonably in an ugly tweed suit (I don’t know what he looked like), and found myself incredulous that he could have seen in my work such a caricature of my goals. His two-dimensional view of my piece, myopic as it seemed to me, was frustrating, maybe even infuriating. Long after I’ve forgotten the critic’s name, his words stay with me.
Even so, when I sit down in the early morning or late evening silence to work toward the deadline I have coming up, it ‘s never the critic’s voice in my head. I know what the critic looks like (even though I don’t), and it isn’t him saying snide or biting things about the notes I’m writing. It isn’t really anyone specific. It’s always The Listener: the faceless everyman entity who is so vague in their preferences and proclivities as to be useless. Composers talk about The Listener all the time, guessing at its preferences, its likes and dislikes, its artistic creed.
Even though we often find ourselves writing for it, trying to please The Listener is a fool’s errand. A surefire road to madness. We know that.
But the same thing that makes The Listener useless is the thing that makes it so dangerously crippling. Because its facelessness isn’t like that of a shadow or a will-o-the-wisp. It’s more like that scene in A Scanner Darkly where Keanu Reeves is constantly shifting bodies as he walks — one second he’s one person, and then without breaking a stride he’s got a new face, new hair, a new outfit. One second the Listener is my mom, asking why I don’t write something happy. The next second it’s shifted shape and it’s my old composition teacher, telling me he hopes I don’t put this piece on my CV. Now it’s the old friend who’s won more competitions than me, and I never knew why but I always feared it was because he’s better than I am. My late grandfather. My wife. The tenured faculty member down the hall. The Listener knows who you want to impress, and it knows who you’re afraid of. And it can amplify those voices so loud that they drown out the music.
I still don’t really care what critics think of me, even the thin-lipped writer who compared me to Copland. So why am I so frightened of bad reviews?
Because whoever The Listener is in any given second, I know they know how to read.
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.
Every once in a while, I compose music for electronics which uses as its source American field recordings. These can include folk songs, narratives, or “found” sounds from somewhere in American life. I use these sources as beginning points, entering into a free dialogue with them and the stories they tell about what it means — and has meant — to be an American and to be an American artist. These pieces are loosely organized into an ongoing project which I call Dead Cowboys. My newest musical offering has its beginnings in the legendary American singer and storyteller Bessie Jones. In the source audio, Bessie is talking with sonic historian Alan Lomax and his wife, Antoinette Marchand. This entry into the Dead Cowboys series is entitled Pray For Rain.
Special thanks for this project’s completion goes to the Lomax archives at the Association for Cultural Equity, an invaluable resource for hidden sounds from the American past. Thanks also to Hunter Ewen for his help smoothing out the technical edges (Hunter is a terrific electronic composer in his own right — check out his website and see for yourself).
Dead Cowboys: Pray For Rain is available below via Soundcloud, and will be listed on gregsimonmusic.com shortly. Like everything else in my output, derivative works of Dead Cowboys are licensed under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0. For direct download or offline use, contact me directly.
The first performance of my original music in my new town! Marble and Glass is performed by the UNL Jazz Orchestra (with me at the helm) this Wednesday night, April 26 at 7:30pm! Kimball Recital Hall – admission is free. See you there!
Every once in a while, I ask friends and colleagues for the titles of their favorite songs, and use them as titles for new flash fiction. Keep reading to see some of the latest additions to this project.
Every once in a while, in order to break the creative blocks, I write. My favorite project is to ask friends and colleagues for the titles of their favorite songs, promising to use them as the titles for new flash fiction (very short stories, only a few hundred words in length) and post the results here. Part exercise in new artistic directions, part homage to Mr. Tambourine Man, mostly an effort to fill this space with things worth reading.
I’m often working on these little flash stories behind the scenes, so if you have a suggestion for a title, share it on Twitter @gregsimonmusic, or email me using the Contact page. Here’s the third volume of song title flash fiction, with due credit to their respective sources. If you’re curious to hear the songs behind the titles, just click the artist names.
Giovanni Santos – a great conductor, tremendous friend, and the original commissioner of For Angels, Slow Ascending – is taking his wind ensemble at La Sierra University to Europe this summer, and on Saturday, March 11 they’ll be holding a fundraising concert to help them get there. Featuring a ton of great music, and including For Angels, Slow Ascending in the original maestro’s hands. This is one not to miss!
As the calendar turns to 2017, I’ll be doing some small tweaks and redesigns to this space. Mostly cosmetic, which means you can still do all your favorite GSM things (listen, view, and purchase music by visiting the Music page, and find me on Twitter and Linkedin by visiting the homepage) uninterrupted. If you notice that something is missing or broken, don’t hesitate to let me know by using the Contact function, and I’ll get in touch with you right away.
The University of Michigan Chamber Choir has just released their drop-dead gorgeous album White Hurricane, available on Equilibrium records and for download here. In addition to some really fantastic music by my friends Kristin Kuster and Daniel Knaggs, they offer a stunning recording of my piece Two Lorca Songs. Makes a great belated Christmas present for the choral music fan in your life, and makes even better New Year listening. Order from Equilibrium above, from Amazon here, or find it on Google Play and Spotify!
South African composer Kevin Volans gave a speech in which he called out millennial composers for their laziness, lack of ambition, and greed. When I saw it, my first thought was about how Kevin Volans was showing the worst parts of the millennial stereotype: privilege and entitlement.
There are few things that get under my skin more than the popular stereotype of the millennial. You know the one: lazy, entitled, constantly staring at the screen to see if they can find trigger warnings in their politically correct Facebooks. It’s a lazy, facile, and (frankly) unbelievably stupid characterization of a vague collection of individuals that, when examined more closely, doesn’t really exist. And yet it’s pervasive in our culture here and internationally, mostly perpetuated by relevance trolls or writers who have literally nothing else to write about but often easily seen in social networks and casual conversation, even among millennials themselves. If you are a millennial (like me), you see it in boldface all around you. You’re too sensitive. You’re lazy and coddled. You’re entitled.
Monday was a red-letter day; my frustration with this stereotypical garbage finally intersected with the new music community. … Continue Reading
The way we discuss relevance in classical music is a mess. We talk out every conceivable side of our mouth about a single concern dressed up as programming or education or popular misconception. Even though we claim to stand for the culture at large, and even though we are supposedly trying to relate to non-musicians, we assume that everyone who's not initiated into the music world is just like us but hasn't seen the light. We are trying to reach large, diverse audiences without questioning whether our own experiences may not be universal.
It’s a well-recognized cause of hand-wringing in the classical music world that concert/art/classical music, new or old, is struggling to stay “relevant.” Our music is losing a PR war, the voices will cry. Where once classical music institutions were beloved national treasures, today they’re cultural non-factors.
“Relevance” is a term often sung in harmony with the timeless “classical music is dying” refrain; not a great starting point, as every “death of classical” article is bound to be a masterclass in logical fallacies and mistaking correlation for causation. What it represents, though, is legitimate: anxiety on the part of classical music’s devotees and practitioners that regardless of the art form’s quantitative place in modern culture, its qualitative place – the actual good it does for the hearts and souls of non-musicians – is being threatened or marginalized. It represents fear that no one cares about or understands the artistic offerings we make so vulnerably, and in the face of pop music or market saturation or smartphone culture the level of appreciation is only destined to wane further. Artists generally want to improve the world through their craft, and even if that’s not the case, they still want to share their projects with people who will find them resonant. As an old teacher once said, we all just want to be heard. So, the discussion of relevance is an understandable one.