Finding Meaning in MusicAugust 12th, 2012
#12 on my 2012 list of New Year’s Resolutions reads, “Move to NYC!” #13 reads, “Learn how to say something.” I’m not really sure what I meant by this, but I think it has something to do with a deep desire to take my music to “the next level.” As many of you know, I was never a music major in college. While I’ve been lucky to have some amazing mentors and helpful and encouraging colleagues over the last few years, it’s still been hard as hell to keep learning “how to compose” let alone “how to compose meaningfully.”
My most recent commission was probably the most challenging by far. City Trees was commissioned by the Lesbian and Gay Band Association to “commemorate 30 years of music, visibility, and pride.” I certainly support the organization wholeheartedly and am deeply honored to be a small part of such a long-standing legacy. With the recent controversy and hard-hitting gay rights related headlines, what could I possibly say to celebrate the LGBT community?
I had just moved from Arizona to New York City when I began sketching fragments of the piece. After living all too comfortably in the wide open spaces of Tempe, Arizona, the entirely different New York fraternity seemed to be hazing me little by little, testing my worthiness by nearly losing my mail, letting me walk into poles, rejecting my search from apartment to apartment, and (perhaps worst of all) selling me expired beer. One afternoon, I began Googling poetry specifically related to NYC, looking for a beautiful image or phrase that might somehow motivate the loving lyricism I wanted for the commission. I eventually came across the poem, City Trees, by the bisexual Pulitzer prize-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, who lived for much of her early career in Greenwich Village. After reading it once, I moved on searching for other poems, but I soon ventured back to reread it.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
The trees along this city street,
Save for the traffic and the trains,
Would make a sound as thin and sweet
As trees in country lanes.
And people standing in their shade
Out of a shower, undoubtedly
Would hear such music as is made
Upon a country tree.
Oh, little leaves that are so dumb
Against the shrieking city air,
I watch you when the wind has come,—
I know what sound is there.
I began to relate to the poem, albeit superficially at first, as my own feelings of angst and adjustment were settling in. “Great” I thought, somewhat sarcastically, “I’m writing music about… trees? I suck.” On top of that, the piece was sounding too pensive and unsettling — perfectly in sync with what I was feeling having just moved to the most impossible city in the country but too inappropriate for a work that was supposed to celebrate an organization that has braved its own political and social weather for 30 years. But, as I’ve learned (and continue to learn), I convinced myself to trust my instincts, move forward, and continue to explore the piece the way it wanted to grow.
After being born, growing up, and living in Arizona for 25+ years of my life, moving to New York for no real reason other than “just because” was and continues to be the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. It has also been one of the bravest. I left my friends, my family, and my $400/month rent all without much planning. I mean, nobody moves to one of the hardest US cities to live in to write band music.
Every time I stepped outside, I noticed the trees shackled by the sidewalk. Some had little fences around them, many had trash nestled up next their exposed roots, and others had grown so big and become so strong that they had broken right through the concrete pavement. As I walked down the street, they all seemed to wave their leafy pom-poms in the wind, a thousand leaves applauding, cheering me on as if I had just returned from the moon. The more music I wrote, the more the days passed in New York. I eventually found a place to live with awesome roommates, I found a laundromat that was clean, I found a grocery store that didn’t have expired beer, and I’ve slowly started making friends while keeping close with those back in Arizona. The piece began to take on a growing sense of bravery explained within expansive lyrical lines that swept over the pensive undercurrent and rhythmic drive.
Finally, the piece was beginning to reveal itself. Pensive as it is, the overarching themes of courage in the face of restraints and challenges were starting to be something that I really believed would appropriately celebrate the Lesbian and Gay Band Association’s 30 years of standing tall and growing strong. For me, City Trees is a lyrical reflection of the bravery that it often takes to venture into new worlds, embrace other cultures, and lovingly encourage new ideas. Although it might seem a little heavy for the band’s “Going West With A Twist” concert theme (which features pieces like The Magnificent Seven and San Antonio Dances: Tex Mex on the Riverwalk), City Trees is by far some of the most personally moving music I have ever written. I hope others will find their own meaning in it as well.