Sunday, 22 September 2019

Am I a Composer?

When I was in high school applying for college, the thing I wanted most to do was study musical theatre. Moreso than that, I wanted to get more into what theatre was in general. I’d been in a number of shows with school and with community groups. But I still had no clue what I was doing. I applied for a few schools and went through rigorous audition processes, most of which cut me after the dance call. I was not a dancer. I had a little tap under my belt, but my body is not cut for ballet, and I was never afforded the opportunity to study dance. We didn’t have the kind of resources to make that kind of thing happen. My mom thought it was best to focus on one talent, since it was all we could afford, and so I ended up doing a lot of music programs. I begged to go to a theatre program, but it seemed out of the question.

Luckily, I had gone to Tanglewood the summer before my senior year (on scholarship), where the final week was spent auditioning for the music school at Boston University. It was the only program I got into, and they gave me a scholarship, which meant I could actually go.

A number of good things came out of my time at BU, but I was not a happy voice student. My voice teacher once remarked, in front of a fellow student, “For Kevin, being a student is an extra-curricular activity.” I know now that she missed the mark. I loved being a student; I didn’t love being a vocal performance student.

And I wasn’t a bad music student. I got into junior-level music theory and senior-level sight-singing in my freshman year. I was reportedly one of two students that year who aced the entrance exam; unusual, especially for a voice major. The thing was, I didn’t feel like I belonged there. I wanted to do theatre. I auditioned for a student-run production of Bat Boy in my first semester and was cast as Pan. Doing that production taught me that my classical singing wasn’t going to cut it in musical theatre. I needed a more flexible voice capable of handling multiple styles. It also taught me that movement was more important than dance; you need to look comfortable on stage or else the audience is going to be uncomfortable. Finally, it made me realize how unhappy I was studying voice alone. I needed to get out.

As a consolation, and since I was there already, I decided to attempt to transfer into the composition department. This side-line was inspired by my father, who was a failed composition student. (Not a failed composer; I actually quite like his music: songs and gospel tunes in a jazzy-pop style, a little bit of rag. He has never been proactive about getting his work performed or published outside his little circle. At least, not in my lifetime.) I started writing music when I was thirteen, and I’d always wondered if I was any good at it. No one seemed to like my pop-style songs. They always came out too dark, with lyrics that were too cerebral or just plain awful. I wrote some music for church, though, which people seemed to love, and I wrote instrumental pieces. I started writing my first musical with a high school friend of mine who, conveniently, was also at BU. We had an informal recital, the freshman class of voice students, where, instead of singing, I asked to play one of my piano pieces, a suite pretentiously titled L’imagination. It was fairly well-received, so I resolved to contact the head of composition at BU, an avant-gardist called Richard Cornell. He invited me to send along some scores, which I did. In hindsight, perhaps, I should have included recordings, because my actual music writing may not have been clear enough. But I thought, surely, he’s a composition professor, he should be able to understand at least what I’m getting at.

After not hearing back for a while, I finally confronted Dr. Cornell in person. I was surprised to find him a short man—shorter than me, and I’m not tall, not that his physical stature is as important to the story as his professional stature. He told me he wouldn’t be recommending me for a transfer because my music wasn’t good enough. “Accompaniment in search of a melody.” Those words have haunted me for some time now. At the time, though, I said, well, maybe music isn’t your thing. I started looking at theatre schools to transfer to.

My fourth semester at BU, I gave up. I stopped going to classes, I skipped exams. I was done. Part of this was unrelated to learning; I was depressed from a failed relationship, and I was torn. On one hand, I loved living in Boston, and I loved my friends. On the other hand, I needed to get out. The funny thing that happens when you don’t go to your classes is that professors either give you an incomplete or they fail you. And when you get an incomplete or failure in a class, it doesn’t count towards your credit hours. I suddenly found myself without enough credits to be a full-time student at BU, and my scholarship was revoked. Thinking I just needed one more semester to figure myself out, I wrote an appeal letter in hopes I could come back in the fall and then get my transfer paperwork in order to be somewhere else by spring. By mid-August, I hadn’t heard anything. The prospect of not going to any college in the fall was daunting for some reason. I needed to be somewhere.

I knew about this small performing arts college on Long Island (the Land of my People, for better or for worse) and thought in a last-ditch effort that I would just walk in and see what their deal was. My thinking was that I would go and inquire about the theatre program and, if I liked it, I could apply to begin in the spring. So, I drove to Five Towns College towards the end of August. Within two days, I had auditioned and secured a scholarship to study theatre, beginning the following week. I wrote to BU officially withdrawing from their music school. The day I started class, I received a letter reinstating my scholarship at BU. Too late, Terriers. Too late.

Thus, I became an actor and, inadvertently, a scholar of the theatre. I studied every aspect. I became the student accompanist, a teaching assistant for multiple classes, a master electrician, an occasional assistant stage manager. I directed a world premiere of a play I’d done a reading for as my senior project. My first musical had its first (and only) table-read. I wrote my second musical by myself using a bunch of songs I’d been writing over the years; it later got a new book by Travis Leland and received two staged readings, one in New York City. In one of my midterm reviews, a professor told me I should consider getting a PhD. It didn’t seem likely then, but now it’s on my bucket list.

My first gig out of college found me on the professional company at Theatre Three, a small-but-mighty non-union theatre on the north shore of Long Island. I had music directed a few things there while in college, including their summer Musical Theatre Factory. When the artistic director found out I wrote music, I was given my first commission: to give a new score to his children’s show Little Bo Peep and the Great Lost Sheep Caper. I joined the company because I wanted to be on stage and be immersed by the world of theatre. Writing music and lyrics and (occasionally) full shows was sort of icing on the cake, a little side-gig. I realize now it gave me an opportunity to try things out and learn the art of composition as I went.

I still didn’t consider myself a “real” composer, even as I wrote for church choirs and for the theatre. I studied scores I loved. I read books. But first and foremost, I was an actor and a director trying to make a way in this crazy industry.

I moved to Los Angeles and back. I got my master’s in Performance Studies from NYU, in part to prove that I could succeed at a big university and in part to lay the groundwork for a PhD. Somehow along the way, I ended up at the 92nd Street Y, that great New York cultural institution, writing more children’s theatre and getting praise from their School of Music director.

Then, as a fluke, I applied for the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop and got in. It’s changed my whole outlook. Now, finally, I see myself as a composer, legitimized by a prestigious institution and regarded by my peers. Perhaps my purpose all along has been to create musical theatre instead of just be in it or direct it.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Making Art, Doing the Thing

I've given a lot of thought to this business of art-making. It's not an easy business. One of the major hurdles in the art-making business is, really, the whole business aspect of it. It's not too hard, once you've mastered your craft or even have an inkling as to what you're doing, to produce art—and good art, at that. The tricky thing is being able to sustain yourself—in a capitalist society which tends to value art not on its overall effect on society (as culture, as memory, as knowledge, and as vessels of affect/feeling/emotion) but rather on either its more practical effects or its trendiness or (more infuriatingly) its potential to be trendy. It's a wonder we get any art-making done.

What's an artist to do? We have to ask for help to survive, but we live in a society (especially in toxically-masculine America) which disapproves of asking for help. Asking for help, it seems, connotes a weakness, which makes one less valuable to society, or, at least, to Steve in accounting, or wherever. The reality is that asking for help connotes a strength. You can ask for help, and be asked for help in return, and you are stronger for it. And we (society) are (is) stronger for it.

Much of my thinking on this topic has been influenced by the amazing performance artist (I call her this; not sure she would agree) and musician Amanda Palmer. She has a book called The Art of Asking as well as a TED Talk which goes into detail about all of this from an artist's standpoint. And so, we create art, we ask people to pay for the potential for art, and art gets made and made again and again. We help each other. We build a stronger community and (with hope) a better society.

Recently, two big events have helped me put this into perspective.

You may or may not know that my friend Jade Rosenberg and I are writing a musical called A Time to Speak, about a young woman who inherits her father's company at the turn of the last century and must join the women's suffrage movement in order to protect her father's legacy. We asked a lot of people for help in order to put together a video of one of our songs, “The Way of the American”. This particular song is sung by the workers in this company, which is a textile manufacturer in New York City. The workers are mostly female, immigrants, potentially former slaves or second generation freed, potentially indigenous people. These are the kinds of people working in factories in America at that time. (And at this time?) We chose this number specifically because of its potential for parallels to our current era.


Jade helpfully stepped up as director for the shoot, since I had to play an instrument due to one of our musicians cancelling at the last minute. (But we only had one cancellation, which I think is pretty great!) She had our singers try to embody the emotional journeys of each of these factory workers, even though our singers were in their own clothes and singing in a dance studio. I think the effect works to highlight the universal-seeming nature of a struggle to make a better life.

There is no way we could have made this video without help. We got help from the singers and musicians, who gave up time to make this happen. (We gave everyone some money for transportation and food, but not the kind of wage one would expect for doing this kind of work.) We got help from Adam Blotner, who filmed, recorded, and edited the video and audio for us, and from my soon-to-be-spouse, Grace Odengo, who also filmed and took photos. We got help from Megan Doyle at the 92nd Street Y, who gladly let us use Studio 92 for our shoot. And, behind the scenes, we got help from our patrons on Patreon, a number of whom have been giving us monthly monetary support since we started this project in September 2016.

And we hope that our art helps people; if not, we hope it at least brings people joy or some kind of feeling; if not, we hope people just like it. If not, it still exists and has effect and meaning in its own way.

I was reminded of this important piece, where we have to help each other as artists. I was accepted into the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop as a composer last week. The BMI Workshop is incredibly prestigious. Some of the alums are Alan Menken, who has been the house composer for Disney for the last thirty years; Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who wrote Ragtime, Once on This Island, Seussical, and others; Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, who are responsible for (among other things) Frozen; Jeanine Tesori, who did Shrek and Fun Home and a bunch of shows in many different styles. The list goes on, and I'm still pinching myself. But what I'm getting at here has to do with the entrance form they had us fill out when we got accepted. There was a page where they asked what skills you had to offer to your fellow workshop attendees: do you sing, or dance, or play the piano, etc. It was the open invitation to help each other which made me realize what this BMI Workshop is all about, why it's so successful. It's about skill-building, to be sure, and it's about producing work. But it's also about producing community. The people I work with in this workshop will be a part of my community now, and I will be a part of theirs. This community already feels different than the one I entered into at NYU, many of whom I do not keep in regular contact with (though I should). The BMI Workshop focuses on the collaboration and the community building. We're all already together.

I am interested to see where all these collaborations go. And when I say collaborations, I'm talking not just about the different artists getting together and making work. Collaboration is as much about society coming together in come way. Patrons collaborate with their resources as much as a singer collaborates with their voice. The project can only exist in community. Something to think about.