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.
I often wonder if some pianists come away from their practice with a sense of having beaten a piece into submission, because when I finish my practice I tend to feel the opposite.
One of my older students uses a piano instruction book from 1956. It has markings in it from every period of his life, and the book itself serves as a kind of time capsule from another era (the first printing was actually in the twenties), with almost every page offering some dizzying finger exercise or cluttered attempt at teaching a key signature. Of the eighty-five little pieces, several serve as politically incorrect postcards from early twentieth century America, with songs like “In Old Japan” and “The Jolly Tar.” I’m partial to “The Laughing Fairy,” but I know I’m reading into things.
The final song is called “Italian Dance,” and my student started working on it about a month ago. His book, which has accompanied him through nearly half-a-century of his life, is, needless to say, falling apart, and the last page went missing probably decades ago. “Italian Dance,” to our dismay, has no ending. In fact, we only get a measure of the Coda before we’re forced to quit.
I have a thing for scooping up old, out-of-print piano teaching materials, and so I pounced on the opportunity to find this book. For one, I think it has some good music in it. And secondly, we would get to find out how “Italian Dance” ends. I found it online, bought it for $20 (the printed price on the actual book is $3.25) and… have forgotten to bring it to our lessons ever since. I’ve peaked inside and there are only two lines of music after our forced stopping point, but for three lessons now the poor guy has asked if I remembered to bring the book, desperate to finish the piece, and I’ve had to tell him no. Today, I even went back into my apartment to bring some other new books to his lesson for us to explore. But not the one with “Italian Dance.” I know…
So, as per usual, we played through it today and stopped at the first measure of the Coda. He likes to stay focused in our lessons, but I had to say something. I told him that our relationship with “Italian Dance” reminded me of my childhood.
See, my father and mother divorced when I was two, but he still visited every so often on weekends. With him, he would sometimes bring stacks of VHS tapes filled to capacity with dubbed movies. I don’t know if anyone besides me remembers how to do this, but one would basically wire two VCRs together and then record one tape to another. One could also select the quality of the recording: extended play or standard play. My dad chose extended play, and would pack three movies to a tape. Or, I should say… almost three.
So I’d get this succession of films on one tape—Goonies followed by Scanners followed by Return to Oz—and I’d watch them nonstop, letting them no doubt inform my subconscious to this very day. But of course movies have different lengths, and three movies will rarely fit evenly onto one VHS tape. Sometimes the endings, especially for the third movie in line, would suffer the consequences.
Such was the case with Pinocchio. I fucking loved Pinocchio. Easily, I watched it more than any other Disney film, and had it on heavy rotation along with Indiana Jones, Jaws 3, and The Worst Witch. But the ending, because of its position on the dubbed videotape, was cut off. Like, I mean, right at the pivotal moment where the whale sails toward Pinocchio for his final attack. Just then, the tape would stop and begin rewinding.
I never really saw the end. I never saw Pinocchio turn into a real boy.
Not for years, at least. I think I once begged my mom to rent it for me so I could finally see Pinocchio’s face, smooth and human. I still remember the thrill of going past that expected cut-off point, seeing the whale suddenly coming straight toward me.
I still remember the exotic despair of seeing Pinocchio face-down in the tide pool.
I still remember the initial awe of seeing him transformed.
So this is a story I told my student today.