by Adam Cuthbért
Recently, I wrote a response to the prompt, “tell us about your musical life” for a music festival application.
I found there was quite a bit to tell – my undergraduate music school experience was not a routine four-and-out era of hard practice before waking up one morning to realize great success had been achieved. It was a confusing time for me not because I was unsure of whether I wanted to be a musician, but because I didn’t know how I wanted to be a musician. The desire to make auditory art into a career and lifestyle was always a certainty, but despite having drunk a lot of orchestral Kool-Aid, I still always felt like a black sheep whenever I picked up my horn. While I’m never certain I’ve “come home” to a community that wholly understands me [nor am I even slightly certain I wholly understand myself], I still think wading through confusion makes an interesting story. So I want to share it with you.
The other reason I want to post this story is because after speaking recently with some of my composer friends and reading a particularly powerful article, I’ve decided I would much rather be a part of the camp who uses his internet space to describe his work, rather than name-drop awards and festivals. I’m grateful for every hit this little website gets, and I know you’re reading because you’re at least somewhat interested in the projects Dan, our friends, and I do, so the last thing I want to slap you with is a trophy case in text form. Instead, I want to
articulate my purpose document my attempts to pinpoint things I want to achieve by writing music, in hopes that they may mean something to you.
So, here is my story that you don’t know. Or in Japanese, これは僕の君の知らない物語。
I entered Grand Valley State University as a relatively blank slate – I was a young minded trumpet player with some definite interest in composition, but hadn’t the slightest clue where to begin a career in writing, let alone in playing the trumpet. I stumbled into Bill Ryan’s composition studio, which was only two years old at the time, and watched as a stagehand as my new friends and colleagues rehearsed and recorded Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. From this deep experience with a breed of music I had never known before, I began a double-life of music education, engaging in the small, newly budding niche Bill Ryan had begun to create, at the same time learning trumpet in a very conservative classical curriculum.
As a fresh composer, I was treated to concerts, master classes, and lessons from innovative composers from all over the place. Thanks to Bill, I met Marc Mellits, So Percussion, Todd Reynolds, Michael Lowenstern, Robin Cox, Belinda Reynolds, eighth blackbird – a wide variety composers and performers in the “big city new music circuit”. The baroques and romantics of the trumpet world quickly took a back seat to the eclectic, innovative sounds of these current composers, who fascinated me with interesting rhythms, electronic crossovers, and timbres I hadn’t heard before. I absorbed these new sounds while concurrently working through my core curriculum of ear training, theory, and history, though the dead guys never quite thrilled me in the same way again.
My parallel music lives existed rather exclusively of each other for the first two years. Adding to the fact that my trumpet teacher taught from the orchestral and operatic traditions and was not interested in much “new” music, I was not yet skilled enough at trumpet to write myself any new compositions. I wrote acoustic chamber pieces for my friends who were interested, and enjoyed several relatively well-received premieres. This eventually led to an opportunity to compose a concert opener for the GVSU Symphony Orchestra during my third year.
As a Junior, I also made my way into the trumpet studio’s top trumpet quintet, whose primary annual assignment was to play at the National Trumpet Competition in Fairfax, which it had won first place at in its two previous visits. It was at this time that my double life as a trumpeter/composer started to break. The more engaged I became with classical trumpet performance, the more frustrated I became with the orchestral tradition and its seemingly obstinate nature. I grew unhappy with the stress of playing music to win [prizes or jobs], feeling guilty every time I was outside of the practice room, and most of all, feeling unmusical. I could not find any satisfaction in playing the same pieces that had been being played perfectly by thousands of musicians for hundreds of years, nor did I enjoy competing in a system that only valued particular interpretations of particular dead composers. That world was at a standstill, and I wanted to run away before it was too late.
During this period of frustration and uncertainty, a saviour in a stylish black fedora came to GVSU to give a week-long workshop in composing with Ableton Live. Electronic music was rather foreign to me, but seeing Todd Reynolds create layers of textures and worlds and dreamscapes – an orchestra’s worth of sound – with a single violin and some foot pedals gave me the kick start I needed to bridge three years of composition study with Bill Ryan with my stressful performing world. After several months of software learning, I created a piece for trumpet and electronics with Live, and played it during my junior recital. The music completely alienated the other trumpeters in the audience. None of them seemed interested in trying electronics, and a few even pressured me to stop “wasting time” and focus on the music that would get me an orchestral job.
By the spring of 2010, I was finally able to gather the courage to leave the trumpet quintet and it’s endless cycles of competition, and start focusing on the music that made me happy. I was convinced that a life of an orchestral musician was more like an interpreter of history than a creative artist. I had no interest in interpreting for a living – I want to create new things. I teamed up with Daniel Rhode, a fellow composer who was equally jaded with the orchestra world, and we decided to “build our own table” by putting on a concert full of our own works. We invited nearly thirty musicians, dancers, choreographers and filmmakers to join us for “Sight/Sound”. The concert featured music we wanted to make, without any recital requirements or period repertoire to incorporate. It featured chamber music, electronic music, and a whole slew of music and dance that incorporated acoustic instruments with live processing, tape tracks, and DJ controllers. The show’s success gave us the impetus to continue working collaboratively together, both as producers and co-composers.
That summer I spent a semester in Japan, where I enjoyed a short break from music school to study another thing that I loved: Japanese language and culture. I had the privilege of playing trumpet in the university’s wind orchestra, a club put together by the students themselves for no reason other than to play music because they love it. There was no stress and no pressure, even though we were preparing for a competition. Even though there was no music program at the university, the level of playing was through the roof. I was touched by their love for music, which was inspiring especially because I was fighting back against “what you’re supposed to do in music school”. My Japanese friends were making music because they loved it, not because they needed to “beat Juilliard and Northwestern”. I knew that when I went back to America for my final semester of undergraduate work, my goal would be changed – I knew then I was supposed to create music, first and foremost, that means something to me. Then, I was supposed to share it with my friends.
I returned home to find my best friend, roommate, and collaborator Daniel in a wreck from a bad breakup. Just as I was deciding to restart my purpose as a musician, it seemed he was starting anew as well. I helped him burn off his stress by smashing some old printers and DVD players with the pipe wrenches from downstairs, and that night, we created a cathartic whirlwind of emotion that would become the building point for our next Sight/Sound concert. In retrospect, it was the true birth of /S. Our goal was to create music which was personal and meaningful to us and be able to share it with others the hope that the music would resonate with them too.
We were surprised to see well over 250 people show up to our second show, which was more experimental in nature, featuring Todd-style electronic performance, improvisatory visuals and sounds, chamber groups comprised of brass, winds, strings, and percussion, as well as a rock band ensemble. Our sixth Sight/Sound concert was played last April, and each time we have enjoyed a full house, and a healthy blend of successes and failures upon which to ruminate and grow.
After graduating, I tried to go to graduate school. Really, I tried. It wasn’t that no one accepted me – it was that I couldn’t convince myself it was a good idea. I flew around the country for interviews, and everywhere I went gave me a foreboding impression that at any particular school, I would be a black sheep all over again. In my interviews, I got funny [and some very condescending] looks when I mentioned things like video game music, electronic music in general, and even promotional tactics to build an audience for music. Nowhere felt like a place to land in and call home. Nowhere gave me the inspiring warm-fuzzies that I felt when Dr. Ryan brought in his NYC cohorts for classes and shows. Why wasn’t I feeling that in any of these grad schools I visited? But through that confusion, I found my answer:
“Fuck it. I’m just gonna move to New York.”
But, but – ! What will you do about finding opportunities to compose outside of academia?
“I’ll figure something out.”
But, but – ! How will you make money? You have a composition degree.
“I’ll figure someth- wait, that’s a good point…”
I moved to New York City with naught but a few friends, and a half a van full of possessions, clinging to a dream that I could acquaint myself with more people like the ones that inspired me so greatly. I moved into a small Manhattan closet, connected with friends and commissioners for new composing opportunities within the refreshingly eclectic community of La MaMa ETC, and began working at Dotdotdotmusic and Bang on a Can‘s Fort Greene office. I started learning about the NYC arts scene from several angles. Through PR, theatre, and the flagship force of Bang on a Can, I met people that introduced me to more people, and absorbed concerts, art galleries, performance spaces. I was challenged to think seriously about what I’m trying to do with music, what I appreciate about art, why people should care, where things are going, how we can adapt – hard questions that you could ignore in undergrad by digging your nose into methods books.
I don’t regret the path I’ve taken so far. It’s been scary. It’s required multiple leaps of faith and a lot of trust that I know [at least sort of] what I’m doing. Someone told me that postponing graduate school is the best life decision I’ll ever make. I certainly feel some retrospective relief to have taken the plunge. One day I’ll write about how this decision makes Kanye West’s College Dropout album resonate so closely.
Somewhere in the middle of the past year, I heard a song, an old favourite. It’s relevance caught me by surprise:
It’s six months now and I can tell you truthfully, few periods in my life have passed so quickly. I am in excellent physical and emotional health. There are doubtless subtle surprises ahead but I feel prepared and ready.
Was that piece about life in prison, or just life?