Geography and Composition

I’m returning home today after a nine-day trip around the U.S, one that was exciting, rewarding, and maybe a little exhausting. Traveling is one of those experiences that is strange as a composer. On the one hand, it exists entirely outside of my normal routine – in addition to new locations, it is almost impossible to write or practice music – but it is an integral part of my overall career. Performances and talks rarely happen near where I live, so traveling, speaking, meeting with musicians (both old friends and new) is a strange, extraverted side to a normally introverted profession.

So what was this trip for? My new piece Currents, commissioned for the Phoenix Experimental Arts Festival and premiered by the acclaimed new music ensemble Crossing 32nd Street under the baton of Dr. Christopher Scinto. Following that, I traveled to LA to visit relatives and have an initial meeting with a string quartet there, hopefully the first meeting of a very large quartet project, but that is the subject for another entry. Finally, from LA to Miami where my partner Susan had work. I – fortunately or not – had no work in Miami and so was forced to go to the beach for the last two days and reflect on this trip.

Phoenix, LA, Miamiā€¦not a bad way to spend late February when one lives in DC. All of these places – or more specifically, these climates: desert, Pacific, tropical beach, eastern seaboard – affect the way I write music. I spoke about this once in an interview; when I lived in Arizona for my graduate work, the new surroundings greatly changed my approach to composition. For me, the desert slowed and expanded my sense of time as well as scope. Coming from the East Coast, I felt pressure to state and develop themes with an almost brutal efficiency, but even after moving back to the east after living in the southwest, I continued to write with an expanded sense of time and a vaguer sense of direction. This is a compositional trait that seems to resonate with many on and off the east coast but continues to confuse some of those born-raised-and-never-left from the DC-New York-Boston corridor.

What then, I wonder, do new climates bring? Especially as my musical life expands and takes me new places, I feel more and more the rhythm and vibe of new places. This is not as simplistic as it might sound; I’m not talking about the basic sights and sounds and music that exist from place to place, but rather the different sense of a place that comes from living there, not just passing through. The ocean in particular draws me; I feel some difference in my sense of harmony and counterpoint every time I hear and smell it, though I cannot as yet put my finger on the nature of that change, having not been lucky enough (yet) to live directly on the ocean. So are there new sounds for me to discover in LA? in Miami? Seattle? Taipei? Perth? Most assuredly so, but they would only truly be found by being part of a place, not simply visiting it, and I have little intention of uprooting myself every few years.

Still, traveling and touring are important to me as a composer, not just for the extraverted aspect of the profession but for the compositional process itself. With time I can become more and more attuned to the new rhythms inherent in life in other places, and at the very least traveling keeps me aware that these other vibes exist, keeping my mind open to new musical approaches.

Next week: more about Currents! What place does improvisation have in classical music anyway?

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