My degree is in music history. I’ve never studied music composition with anyone, but I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in a few masterclasses with composers whose music I admire: Ken Ueno, Judith Lang Zaimont, and David Maslanka. I do a shit ton of score study and listening. It’s the way I’ve taught myself to compose. I wrote my first piece of music in March of 2000. I was 23. Three years prior, I decided I wanted to be a composer upon hearing the Rascher Saxophone Quartet recording of Xas by Iannis Xenakis. I didn’t know that sounds like that existed. Or could exist. It still took me a couple years before I really began putting thoughts and ideas down on paper.
I’ve always had my insecurities. We all have our shit. Some hide it better than others, but we all have it. Never having a comp teacher made me feel insecure every time I finished a piece and every time I had a work performed. I feel like I’ve missed out on something, like I’m behind and playing catch-up. Even if it was a work that had been performed multiple times. I always felt there was something that other composers ‘got’ that I didn’t about music.
Fast forward more than a decade to 2012.
Beginning around New Year’s Day 2012, I started feeling ill. It felt like my usual: sinus infection and/or bronchitis. My doctors began treating me for those issues. By April, I’d had 9 different antibiotics and was not improving. My doctors said I was fine.
I spent most of May in bed, unable to get out of bed most days, much less go to work. I began to get angry. I started calling new doctors just trying to find someone who could find out what the hell was going on. In June, I was not as exhausted, but still more tired than I had ever been. I began having chest pains. The new doctor tested me for many things. We tried a few things with varying results, but something was still ‘off’.
On June 17, 2012, I had a CT scan of my chest. They injected the dye and it made me feel funny and I couldn’t leave afterward for 20 minutes because of the fear of an allergic reaction.
The nurse called my name and told me that I couldn’t leave. No explanation was given. I thought I must have squirmed or something and they had to re do it. Crap ass. I heard the nurse talking on the phone and my name was mentioned a few times. She eventually called me over and handed me the phone. She’d been talking to my doctor.
He told me I had multiple pulmonary embolli (blood clots) in both lungs. Not just one or two clots. Multiple. In each lung. Thankfully, at the time I was clueless at how serious pulmonary embolli were. Over the next 5 days, my symptoms subsided thanks to being injected with my weight in blood thinners and other meds. It began to sink in just how serious my condition really was. It began to sink in how lucky I was to still be breathing and that one of the clots didn’t work its way to my brain. How lucky I was to be able to return home to my wife and son after five days. In the two adjacent hospital rooms there were two people much worse off than me.
I was fortunate.
In the following weeks, my health didn’t improve. The chest pains reduced but the fatigue and joint pain never went away, but I started composing again. I began new pieces as always with my normal insecurities and trepidation. I would always worry if the music I was trying to write was ‘too weird’ sometimes I would pull back the reins. I would censure myself as I would compose. Then the thought occurred to me, “I’m currently unable to work, and no one is listening to my music anyway, and I nearly died”.
So I said fuck it.
Fuck it. My give-a-damn was officially broken.
I was going to start writing my music as weird as I wanted. I was going to write whatever I wanted. It was freeing.
But my new mantra (not that I had an old mantra) became:
‘There are billions of people on this planet not listening to my music and not performing my music every damn day. One more person not playing or listening to my music doesn’t really hurt my feelings.’
Every time a performance falls through or a commission falls through I just think of that and compose something else. I still have some of the same insecurities but they’ve lessened. I still get nervous as I finish a piece and at performances.
I consider myself in a very unique position. I’m still sickly. Chronically ill. My diagnoses are Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Depression, Atrial Fibrillation, and several others. I’m unable to work. I’ve unsuccessfully tried part time work since this has happened. Most days I’m too tired to cook dinner for my family, which I did daily before this illness. Running errands such as quick trips to the pharmacy or grocery store take longer and are incredibly exhausting. I can’t usually cook dinner on a day where I’ve also run errands. I’m currently waiting on a hearing for Social Security Disability.
It’s a real pisser, yet I consider myself in a unique but fortunate position. I can write music however I want. If anyone dislikes it, oh well, I move on. Not my problem. My composing pace is slow and there are long stretches where I can’t compose.
I’ve written my best music since my give-a-damn broke. My artistic process has changed out of necessity. The way I handle and develop musical material has changed.
So I feel I’m fortunate,
and I get to see my son when he gets off the bus everyday.