Sitting here at 5:17 AM on a restless summer Tuesday, I find myself struggling as I always do to find a voice for my blog posts. I have tried again and again to make writing something regular, perhaps therapeutic, in regard to my work and experiences as a musician and educator; however, I always seem to have so much trouble. Is it that I don’t know who my audience is? Is it that I don’t know if I even have an audience? Is it that I have nothing truly valuable to write about? The endless cycle of doubts goes on and on. My logical mind tries to find answers to those doubts, shields to their arrows. While it may not be revolutionary, most (if not all) human beings have something valuable to share with the world, as our experiences are unique (as far as we can tell, only ever really knowing our own perspective, how the world occurs to us), so that is unlikely the problem; I certainly am not sure if anyone has ever really read one of my posts, and there could be a myriad web of reasons why that may be so, so perhaps; and right now my audience is predominantly friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances (and though I would enjoy having fans of my work, that is likely something far off into the future if it is to happen at all), and it somehow feels weird writing without the academic styles and voices I’ve picked up (perhaps were even forced onto me) over so many years of formal study.
I also feel it worth mentioning, in the spirit of therapy, something that I have not really shared with many of those who I know. If you knew me closely post 2013, you’ll know that a gym accident left me afflicted with what myself, friends, and doctors could only describe as seizures, usually brought on by intense physical activity. Despite my large body-type, I love physical activity. After the accident, where I pushed myself too hard, passed out on the concrete of the locker room at ENMU, and knocked out many of my front teeth leading to this first of many “seizures” I was dismayed. I felt like I had lost one of the few avenues I had to a healthier lifestyle. Visiting doctor after doctor always yielded no concrete results or medical progress, and larger and larger bills. So, I gave up, and resolved to just live with it. In 2018, after the passing of my grandmother and the murder of one of my best students in the Austin package bombings, I had one without physical activity, and then more of the same, and I became truly scared. All the tests and neuroscientists at Baylor Scott and White could find no reason for them and they gifted me with the most devastating medical bills of all. That is what pushed us to move back here, to my home-area of West Texas, where the living is cheap. It took six years before I had a visit with a primary care physician in Brownfield, tiny old Brownfield, TX, before someone decided to really listen to what was happening to me. I explained how the seizures comes about, the warning signs and how they always followed a certain sequence, and almost before I could finish my doctor said, “That doesn’t sound like seizures. That sounds like a panic attack. You have panic disorder.” Those words changed my life. I got some as-needed medication, in my mind the language transformed from “seizure” to “syncope” (the culmination of the panic attack when most severe that resembles a seizure), and I have had no random attacks crescendo into an episode since. That being said, I often feel most anxious right before bed or right after waking, which I know many others with my condition, including my mother, experience as well. So, these mornings where I wake early, struggling for sleep that will not come, anxiety gently waiting on the wings of the stage of my consciousness, I try to distract myself.
A night of rain here in Lubbock, punctuated often by muted, deep cracks of thunder, reminded me of a recent project I needed to add to the site. And so, I have decided to speak about that process, and distract myself from the anxiety that accompanies me.
“Maǧážu,” the Lakota word for “rain,” was a commission by a dear friend of mine, Lauren Cook. We both attended ENMU in our undergraduate years, and she performed a hilarious and quirky piece for soprano and tuba (she the soprano, I the tuba) on my senior recital by Rodger Vaughn called “Three Pieces.” Because my recital had to be delayed until summer due to a pianist not keeping their integrity and dropping out on me at the last minute, I was able to perform my recital as a clinic at the ENMU Choir Camp. The Vaughn piece was a sort of jewel of the performance, since my audience was all choral students, college and high school, and what was originally misfortune because fortune, as I realized I was able to share literature that most of those vocal musicians had probably never heard in their life. One even came up to me afterward and said, “I didn’t know tubas could even PLAY sixteenth notes!” (referencing the abundance of technical passages in the Bruce Broughton Tuba Concerto, still one of my favorites to play to this day). It was a lesson learned for my young self, that what may originally seem disappointing can often be a source of discovery and potential. I am still very thankful to this day for Jason and Kayla Paulk for allowing me the honor of performing for their young adults and “crashing” their choir camp that summer of 2013.
Years later, Lauren, who was then in Washington working on her Masters, needed a short piece for soprano and instruments. She is a big advocate of supporting and performing new music, so I was thrilled to get to collaborate with her on something. She is also an insanely positive person, and that is ALWAYS something I am eager to involve myself with. This world seems to be increasingly brimming with negativity, so seeking out those shining stars of positivity is so valuable to our sanity. We eventually settled on an instrumentation of soprano and string quintet (I had to add the double bass – as a tubist, I just love that LOW range in a piece of music).
Since studying with Donald Grantham at UT, I have spent more time embracing my Native American culture and trying to integrate it into my music. He told this story, shared with him by his teacher Nadia Boulanger, about her student Astor Piazzola. The story goes (pardon my over-simplification and likely inaccurate retelling) that Piazzola was trying so hard to write “academic” music, and in their lessons she was not particularly impressed. One day Boulanger discovered that Piazzola could play accordion, and he was playing some amazing tangos. At their next lesson she told him THAT was what he needed to be writing. Though that stuck with me, it took a few years to sink in and to develop into my musical voice, partially because at the time I was already in the middle of some intensive commissions for the Pakistani fusion group that was going on tour for the next few years and I was also writing my opera for the Cohen New Works Festival, with a deadline of 3 months until full production. Oh, and classes. There were those, too…
The point is, this piece was one of the first that really embraced the idea of contemporary classical Native Americana in my musical works as something here to stay. Now, when it comes to words I always turn to my old friend and colleague Sam Reese, who is a brilliant musician (vocalist and hornist) in his own right, but whose true beauty shines brilliantly in his wordcraft. He damn well better become a professional writer one day. As my father-in-law said, he has been given a gift too valuable to keep from the people who need his words. To keep them hidden would be a shame, and selfish. Sam, if you’re reading this, RELASE YOUR WORDS TO THE WORLD!!! They belong on more pages than my modest vocal works.
I chose a poem of his called “Swami Vivekananda.” The words leapt out to me, they had a natural cadence and musicality all on their own, and I felt I could interpret them in this context with some honor. It is written in four stanzas. Since I was limited to about five minutes, which is a bit of a challenge for me (I usually like rambling on in my music), I decided to treat each stanza as a tiny movement and make the piece a sort of miniature song cycle. In my mind I kept thinking of tapas, or those flights of beer or dessert that give you just enough of a taste to leave you wanting more before moving you on to something different.
The first movement came fairly easily. The strings used col legno to mimic the drumming of drum circles most popularly known from public footage of Pow Wows. Usually these are pretty aggressive songs (accompanied by dance), but here I muted their quality. Partly due to form, partly to function. Lauren’s voice is delicate, though shining, but I did not want to overpower her. The bouncy drumbeats in the cello and bass created just enough of the essence to provide that inertial energy needed to start the piece, and the rest was a contrapuntal dance between the soprano, violins, and viola.
The second and third movements were torture to write. Nothing I put on keyboard, paper, or whistle (one of my favorite ways to improvise – I am an OBSESSIVE whistler) felt right. It was frustrating. I threw everything in those two movements away. Finally, I decided to move on to the last movement, thinking if I knew where I began and where I was headed, I might figure out how the journey should unfold in between. I began writing the fourth movement, and it was a total release. Everything just laid out before me and it took maybe half an hour to finish it. I was amazed, in a way, at how organic the whole movement came to me, as a sort of reflective hymn, simple and direct. I give the credit to Sam, again. His words were just so perfect for this stanza, they pulled the music out of me where I thought there was none.
It did the trick. The third (a fast, brilliante sort of scherzo, playing on the word “fly” and in my mind conjuring the wind) and then second (a sporadic, darker, more aggressive character, emphasizing the “crack” of thunder) movements followed quickly after, and the piece was done. I sent it off and waited eagerly for the premiere rehearsals.
Unfortunately, due to some overwhelming snows, along with shuttle and flight cancellations in Washington, I was never able to go up and be a part of the process in-person. We did what we could via video conference, and from what I could tell it turned out beautifully in their capable hands.
And so I spend some time today uploading the score artwork and details to my store. One day I hope to have a recording of the piece to share with you all, but until then you will have to just enjoy this story of how it came to be, and wait…
…unless you’re a soprano, in which case you can buy the music, spend this COVID-19 time to study and work up the parts with some fellow string players remotely, and, like the cleansing of rain on the dry south plains, herald in the passing of the virus with a performance of “Maǧážu.”
Stay safe. Stay healthy. Wear a mask. And do everything you can to make the world a better place to live.