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 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.
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.
Earlier this week, I sent up the proverbial Bat-signal for suggestions of song titles, 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. The quest for such titles goes on, and there are more coming for the remainder of the month and perhaps beyond. If you have a suggestions, share it on Twitter @gregsimonmusic, or email me using the Contact page. Without further ado, here’s the first 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.
Emily’s hand shook, and her breathing quickened – but she found herself reaching for the door anyway. It happened almost instantly. The second her fingers felt the cold, smooth knob, she had taken a different route to get here. Her whole hand closed around the knob, and she hadn’t gotten married. As she turned the knob and moved the latch, she’d traveled to Europe after school, learned Japanese, and written a novel. She pushed the door open slowly, having never met her husband. It creaked as she found she had chosen to leave her first boyfriend after he’d hit her the first time. Emily stepped through the door, having chosen never to go to college. As her body crossed the threshold, she’d read a thousand books, worked odd jobs and known life in a million small towns across the globe. She heard the door creak closed behind her, and as the latch resealed a strange feeling washed over her: a feeling of vertigo, of limitless freedom in a cocktail with frigid loneliness.
Emily turned and noticed there was a plain wooden door behind her. She wondered where it would lead.
We regret to inform you that your petition to name your garden a city landmark has been denied.
A number of factors contributed to our committee’s decision. Chiefly, the committee feels that your garden is not sufficiently unique to merit special consideration.
We were impressed with the seemingly supernatural array of colors in your flowering plants. One committee member remarked that the orange-and-teal gradient to be found in your carnations was palliative to her arthritis, while another claimed that the orchid bed which continuously changes color restored sight in his right eye, afflicted with cataracts for many years.
However, we found that these exquisite displays do not themselves merit landmark status, given the sheer number of supernatural gardens within walking distance of yours. You will recall that Miss Bagley’s garden includes a bed of snapdragons which display messages to their viewers from deceased loved ones, and a tulip wing which informs visitors of the exact day and hour of their death. This is but one of a hundred stunning gardens which have themselves been denied special status.
We thank you for your understanding and encourage you to apply again at such time that your garden improvements merit reevaluation. The committee wishes you the best of luck in your future endeavors.
All the Things you Could Be By Now if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother
“So anyway, my brother-in-law’s in town for a gig – he’s a jazz guitarist or something. I was never that good at music. I mean, I played a little clarinet when I was a kid, but anyway, he starts talking about the set he’s gonna play and mentions that jazz musicians play these things called… contrafacts? counterfacts? I don’t remember, it was one or the other but the point is that what they do is they take a song that someone else wrote, then play all the chords that go with that song but with a new melody. It’s like you’re playing Happy Birthday, and it’s got all the harmonic things that Happy Birthday should, but you’re playing a song that doesn’t sound anything like Happy Birthday.
“So I’m not a musician or anything, but back me up here – isn’t that kind of bullshit? I mean, last time I talked to Jonas he said that most of the time jazz musicians are improvising using the chords of the song. So if you, like, get rid of the song part of the song, it’s just more improvising, right? Even if you write your new melody down, you’re still improvising, but you just, you know, took longer to do it. It’s like, at that point, why bother using the song at all?”
When I wake up in the morning, I make a pot of coffee. Eight O’Clock Colombian. Ever since I was in school. I drink two cups before I leave for work. Sometimes I’ll drink one out on my porch, if it’s not too cold and the neighbor’s kids have left for school already.
Every once in a while – not often, but every once in a while – I’ll have this vision behind my eyes while I’m making coffee. It’s not because I’m particularly angry or upset that morning, and it doesn’t happen only on days when life’s particularly stressful. It seems like this vision happens for no reason. It follows some kind of internal logic or random chance.
Every once in a while, when I’m making the coffee, I imagine what it’d be like to raise the fresh pot over my head and smash it on the counter with all my might. I imagine the scalding hot liquid torching my hands and arms. I imagine the glass flying left and right, shards getting in my eyes and hair. I imagine the coffee swirling with blood and sweat on the counter, making a brown-red Jackson Pollock painting. I imagine Lorraine’s scream from the other room as she tries to figure out what the hell happened. There’s pain and noise and bloody coffee everywhere. Then I snap out of it, and here I am again pouring the coffee. Every once in a while I’ll have that vision. It’s probably no big deal – I mean, everyone has things like that.
We didn’t notice it until months after it had happened, we think. We couldn’t know for sure. Maybe it had been that way for years, but since we lived in the heart of the city we could never see it for the light polluting the view around the clock. All any of us knew was that as long as we could remember, the stars glowed white – that special, iridescent white you think of when you see the night sky in paintings.
We probably would have gone right on thinking so – after all, within the city limits all anyone saw after sunset was a black sheet and streetlights in the corner of their eye – but we could still see the moon. First the moon turned the warm, gentle orange of a harvest moon. But instead of paling the next night, it darkened as if stained with tea. Over the next few nights it darkened more, until the moon was a deep, blood red. A handful of us headed out to the country to get a better look, and that’s when we noticed that the stars had also become a deep blood red, twinkling sharply like the dust of rubies.
We didn’t know whether they had become that way in sync with the moon, or had changed and then led the moon to change. But we started going to the country more often, just in case any more changes were on the way.
Sometimes a break from composing is required. But those needn’t be a break from creativity; in fact, I’ve always believed they shouldn’t be. I’ve also always believed that I need to be updating this blog a whole lot more. So, for the month of November (and maybe beyond), I’m turning part my efforts to my other favorite form of expression: short fiction.
You can take part in this little diversion simply by giving me something to write about. Send me the title of your favorite song, either by commenting on this post, on Twitter @gregsimonmusic, or using the contact page.This can be a piece of music in any genre, a pop song, or even (especially?) the title of something you wrote. For each one I receive, I’ll write a 100-word flash fiction with the same title and post it on this space.
Credit will be given for all suggestions unless otherwise requested. I’ll take suggestions anytime before December 1.
And since more exercise is never a bad thing, feel free to share this call around – new friends are welcome.
At one university I attended, Famous Ensemble came to visit the composers’ seminar: the topic was “How to Make It In the 21st Century Music World.” I walked into the room excited and bright-eyed, ready to take notes. Students asked questions like: “What are your favorite pieces?” “When I send you my score what can I do to ensure it gets considered?” Over the course of the lecture, my eyes kept getting drawn to a faculty member in the corner, who was staring at his iPhone the whole time, even while the extremely polite members of Famous Ensemble were talking. I was shocked – how rude, and what a wasted opportunity. I couldn’t understand it.
By some time later, I had sat through what felt like a hundred seminars with famous performers, composers, and conductors. The opening speeches were the same. The questions from the crowd were the same (“what are your favorite pieces?” “When I send you my score what can I do to ensure it gets considered?”) By the time I saw Famous Ensemble again at yet another composers’ seminar (some years after the first), I understood why that faculty member was more interested in his iPhone: he’d heard the same thing a thousand times before.
But he was still wrong – after all, the problem wasn’t the artists who showed up to share their work and thoughts with us. The problem was us. We asked them about craft, economics, career, technical specifications. We forgot to challenge them, to engage them in questions about art and music and how the two fit into this ever-factioning cultural world. Most artists, I think, have a lot to talk about. How exciting those hundreds of seminars would have been if we’d only done our job.
Between program notes and bio, a composer's message is usually seen first and heard second. These two portions of the compositional process -- the program notes and the short biography -- are among the least celebrated, and yet they are present with a listener well before the downbeat and well after the double bar, the singular lasting documentation of what it was we were trying to express with a new piece and why we were worth listening to in the first place. And in those bite-sized media, every word carries weight and meaning whether the composer intends it to or not.
Let’s start here: you can write any music you like.
It is not my place to tell any other artist – musical or otherwise – what to express or how. Every composer I know, whether I have them on my proverbial iPod or not, pours heart and soul into every single note, and no one, including me, has the right to tell them that any aspect of it is incorrect or shouldn’t have been done. If you stand by your musical choices, then you are justified, whatever those choices may be.
When you talk about your music, that’s another story.
By virtue of the concert paradigm and the web experience, composers commonly introduce themselves through the written word before a note of music fills the air. They define their own context for the listener, often before he/she is given the opportunity to make up his/her own mind. And even if they don’t always, then maybe they should. It wasn’t that long ago that this happened, a needless controversy that could have been prevented if the composer had opted to talk.
Between program notes and bio, a composer’s message is usually seen first and heard second. These two portions of the compositional process — the program notes and the short biography — are among the least celebrated, and yet they are present with a listener well before the downbeat and well after the double bar, the singular lasting documentation of what it was we were trying to express with a new piece and why we were worth listening to in the first place. And in those bite-sized media, every word carries weight and meaning whether the composer intends it to or not. Words matter. … Continue Reading
Last week, the American music world’s shine grew just a little dimmer.
Richard Toensing (‘Dick’ to his students), a composer, conductor and music educator, passed away on July 3, just a month after announcing to his friends and colleagues that he’d been diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer.
The honors Dick achieved in his time on Earth place him in the finest class of American composers. You can read about them in his obituary, here. But since his accomplishments have already been well-documented (and maybe since I tend to think we spend entirely too much time talking about awards and jobs in this business), I’m going to use this space to share some other thoughts. … Continue Reading