honestly going mental with this
I composed this piece to expose the casual bigotry of elected officials and to illustrate the connective tissue linking it to the worst kinds of hate-related tragedies. Yes, I wrote it to make people sad and mad.
every day i walk by people smiling for pictures in the spot where john lennon was shot.
tonight, in the same room where I played the piano, at the same time, was Eli Manning and Salman Rushdie.
When I first set up my social media platforms, I told myself that I would present my experience as a classical musician as honestly as possible, even if it meant not always looking cool. My colleagues always seemed to have cool stuff going on—gigs, residencies, grants, commissions—and I typically greeted their good news with a three-part mix of joy, despair, and skepticism. Meanwhile, I was mopping floors in a West Village gay bar, substitute teaching in inner-city schools, and stealing practice time whenever I could for concerts that didn’t exist yet. No, I didn’t feel cool. When people first read my blog they thought I was suicidal.
Far from it, I was fueled, like any artist, by a tenacity tangled in doubt but rooted in a core of confidence. Over the past few years, I’ve figured out how to connect the dots (also, to see them in the first place), and have begun to trust in a long endgame over which I’ve come to realize I have very little control, but a responsibility to honor with work. Constant work.
It’s part of why I shake my head when people ask if I crash after a big concert. “Of course not!” I say, because I always have something new lined up to occupy my attention. But as I trudge through this month, helplessly observing a half-present version of myself struggling through conversations and daily tasks, lashing out and self-flagellating in continuous rotation, and avoiding friends, phone calls, and social gatherings, I have to own up to the fact that this is all happening on the heels of an exhilarating performance I gave last month in Brooklyn, and that this has all happened before. Maybe I suffer from post-performance depression, after all.
Last year around this time, I’d just performed at the Rubin Museum. The performance, presented by WQXR, sold out completely. I also played well. Nearly a year of preparation and anticipation led up to the event, and I hobbled through the weeks that followed it in a fog. I’d even lined up another performance, an ambitious, multimedia “reading recital,” but found myself immobilized by a kind of grief, staring into my computer, wandering the apartment, barely practicing. Every idle moment felt like a betrayal of my potential, a squandering of my future, and worst of all, proof that I wasn’t cut from the same cloth as my very cool colleagues. The day before the reading recital, while numbly washing dishes and staring into space, a glass shattered in my hand. I’ll always have a scar where a chunk of my knuckle went missing.
Years earlier, when I finished my fifty state America 88x50 tour, I languished for a summer in Malibu, working at a veterinary clinic. I still remember staring out at the sea and crying. I was 24, living in Malibu, and had just accepted a position directing a new music nonprofit in Houston for the fall. I had nothing to cry about.
I’ve tried churches, support groups, emotional affairs, journaling, therapy, The Artist’s Way, exercise, new age spiritual reprogramming seminars, all in attempt to, as one self-help book put it, “avoid intolerable reality,” to help unblock my creativity, maximize my efficiency, and keep my mood coasting at a healthy equilibrium. But what happens is, eventually some commitment sweeps in and saves the day as I rise to its challenge. This starting-over fills the void, often excruciatingly so, and I begin again.
A musician treats their career like a garden. We plant seeds and hope they grow. The best of us never stop planting, watering, and tending, and ideally, one stretch of concerts will arc as another few breach the soil. Ideally.
I looked pretty cool last year, with concerts every month in different boroughs and time zones. I’d arrived, so it appeared—so I made it appear—and still I hustled throughout, trying to line up things for the future. My activities climaxed, I suppose, last month with that concert in Brooklyn, but my garden looks a little sad. An older student just asked what I had coming up, and before I could explain, let alone finish the words “I don’t know,” he interrupted me with “What!?“
I live on the Upper West Side with a loving (and forgiving) partner. I’m publishing a book that I’ve spent seven years developing. I’ve begun gnawing into a new program on a beautiful grand piano that I recently bought. I’m paying my bills with music—an incredible feat—and, yes, have accepted invitations to play here and there. I have no reason to panic, to have these dark, sleepless circles under my eyes, to shrug when people ask how I’m doing. But still, I’m crying in Malibu.
I suppose it’s only natural to feel vulnerable in these resetting moments, learning new music, cold-calling presenters, feeling like a beginner in every way. Back in the thick of practice and the daily grind of proposing concerts, one has only their faith to keep the engine running. Gone are the wonderfully imposing concert dates, the articles, the audiences. A musician in this purgatory is a runner at high-altitude, functioning fine enough but also intensely aware of the difference between the present moment and the ideal. We suffer privately, and in the meantime every “yes” feels like redemption and every “no thanks” like a doomed fate confirmed.
Of course I’m projecting, but I think any musician might agree, the hustle, the build, the high, the crash, the starting over, it might all be part of the artistic experience that keeps us hooked. It’s a Jacob’s Ladder of a process, sure, and remarkable that we musicians will trade in hours, days, weeks, or years of ours lives for a few moments of—not fame or recognition, but simply connection, connection with an audience, a composer, with ourselves. And then it’s over, like a novel scrawled on a blackboard, read aloud, and then erased.
Yes, we may all look very cool on our social media avatars—perhaps it comes with the job—but I think classical musicians adopt a distinct kind of humility from our vocations. We stand before a new project as one stands before a mountain, and we bravely embrace every doubt-soaked minute between then and when we share it with a single person, as miraculous. We have the privilege of tenacity, of commitment, and no particular interest in summiting anything. What summit? We climb, we stay, we explore, and we function best, at high altitude.
I waited about ten minutes while one of my older students, a woman in her sixties, finished up a phone call with her rabbi. From the sounds of it, she was planning a bar mitzvah, arranging everything from the start time to the cake design to the seating. “I want it to be a nice,” she urged. “People should feel like it’s special.” Between breaths, she whispered apologies in my direction. I shrugged. It didn’t matter. This sounded important.
At last she hung up and came to the piano. “It’s a lot of work!” she gasped, regarding the yapping shih tzu on the floor, ”getting Muffin blessed.”
I feel so proud to have premiered this work by Seth Rozanoff for piano and live electronics. It’s as if he could hear all the sounds bouncing around inside my head and then conceived a piece around it. Truly forward-thinking, beautiful, and uncompromising music by a great artist and friend.
LINT / BOO, FOREVER
I composed this piece very slowly in the basement of Dixon Place 4 years ago when I first arrived in New York. Rachel Brook and Will Larche performed it with me there a year later. Then I presented a solo version of it last month at Roulette. I like how this live recording came out. The piece is supposed to feel like a void. We’ve all been there.