New Music(TM) with Friends

As a composer , I often contemplate what my role is. Sure, I write music, but to what end? I worked for so long as both creator and performer, that now that these roles have separated it has been difficult to understand how I really fit into the overall process. As a composer/performer, you have the insight to write both music you enjoy and music that exemplifies what it is you do well. The latter had mostly been lost on me since I left the performance aspect of my life behind.

Over Spring break I was able to go home to Texas for a few days. While I was home, I worked on a new record with my friend Eric Turner. Eric fronts, writes for, and mostly is the band Kamikaze Pilots Manual. I’ve known Eric since high school. We’ve been in a couple bands together and have probably been to a hundred shows together. He trusts me with his music and I know him well enough to help him achieve his goals as a musician. The feeling of working with someone you enjoy, to achieve a unified goal is the most rewarding sensation. It is both humbling and gratifying to be trusted and to be eager for someone else’s success. If you know me at all, you’ve heard me plug Kamikaze before, I also produced their first full-length, My Ship Will Sail. That project was probably years in the making before it finally got released; it’s been so long since we started working on it that I can’t really remember. I half-jokingly told Eric that he should let me produce the record (not thinking that it was something anyone would actually let me do). The next thing I knew, we were neck deep in songs and ideas, and it was the warmest and most comfortable I’ve ever felt working on music.

When I first started “composing” (whatever that means), it felt necessary to make it all about me. It was always my ideas, and my music, and my everything; it got to be very dissatisfying. The premiere of a new piece of music never felt as good as I wanted it to. It wasn’t until I started producing that I realized what it is I truly enjoy about making music. In retrospect, it’s kind of ridiculous that it took me this long to realize that what I love is collaboration. My first attempt at making music was in the company of good friends, all working together to try and write the best(worst) music we could write at the time (it was bad). Back then it was so enjoyable because we were creating music together. Of course, we thought we were complete badasses writing the coolest music of our time, but that's beside the point. 

After succumbing to this epiphany, I completely altered how I approach my work. The music created is really only a fraction of the outcome. I strive to create relationships with new collaborators, or indulge in longstanding relationships with old friends to create something that we can both be proud of. Of course, everything isn’t a walk in the park. Part of the difficulty in this is becoming comfortable enough with myself as a composer to allow someone else in on the process. This was much easier for me with songwriting, which is why my work as a producer led to this altered mindset in my approach to concert music. As a producer, none of the music is actually my music. I don’t write any of the songs, nor am I in a position to dictate the direction of the music. Yet, I am just as invested as the musicians who did write this music. My success is only measured in the success of the musicians I am working with, which is why it is necessary to establish a unified goal. I was fortunate to have my first project be a collaboration with someone who trusts me enough to dissect their work.

It’s a little odd having come to this realization during grad school. In part, I feel the pressure to just write, write, write and not let up until I graduate. But honestly, all I really want is to create this close bond with new people I meet so that we could collaborate either now or sometime in the future. Collaboration shouldn’t feel like a chore, nor should it be one-sided. Writing a piece of music and then asking someone to play it isn’t automatically a collaboration. I want to be inspired by the people I work with. Their success is a motivator. My work has ultimately become a lot less about me, and a lot more about the people I work with.

As I am writing this, I am knee deep in two pieces with mezzo-soprano and new music champion Megan Ihnen. The first is a wordless lullaby, in which she is commissioning a literal butt-ton of composers for an album (Kickstarter campaign shout out!!). The second is a piece for her chamber ensemble, Seen/Heard Trio (with texts by my good friend and invaluable collaborator Jeremy De la Rosa, whom I’m sure I’ll blog about in depth at some point). It’s an understatement to say that I am excited to be working on these pieces for her. I’ll admit that I’m a pretty melancholic person, but Megan’s excitement about new music and new collaborations makes me excited to create anything and everything. She’s already worked (and is in the process of working) with so many people I know of just by way of these two ventures alone. It is people like her that make my job so enjoyable, even when every bar I write feels like the worst bar I’ve ever written. As much as I want to jump at the opportunity to work with someone like Megan, it takes some self-control to stop myself and identify whether a project is valuable to anyone other than myself.

As I am better understanding my role as a collaborator, I have stopped trying to put so many projects on my plate at one time. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there won’t be projects that I do entirely for myself and by myself, but the bulk of my work I want to be a collaborative effort between friends—some old, some new, and some yet to be. I recently completed a new trio for my friend, Alex Jochum, whom I met as an undergrad. She’s played a couple of my pieces, and during the process of writing this piece my mind kept replaying the various comments and suggestions she gave me back then. Another piece that is in progress is a second collaboration with Jonathan Thompson. Last year, I wrote an oboe and marimba duet for him, and this year will be a piece for oboe and classical guitar. The idea for this piece came before the marimba piece, so in a sense this one feels more intimate, as it’s been growing in anticipation since early last year. The piece will be a series of miniatures based on poems by Octavio Paz, and it will be the first time I’ve written for classical guitar in a good while. Working with Jonathan last year was such a pleasure and I can’t wait to head back to Texas for the premiere of this new piece. I’m thankful for everyone I’ve had the chance to work with so far in my career. It took a lot of trial and error to get this far, and there is a lot that I know I can work on to make projects more meaningful to both me and my collaborators.

For other music projects I've completed with my friends, check out my discography page.