Mental Health As A Resistant Female Composer

written by Rachel Epperly
2018 GLFCAM Logan Skelton Fellow, Cycle 7

I vividly remember my anxiety the night before performing at the 2017 Midwest Composers’ Symposium, an annual symposium at which the composition departments of four midwestern universities come together for a weekend of student concerts. At the symposium, I performed my piece,“Girly!,” a performance art piece in which I turn myself into a dysfunctional Barbie who oscillates between singing peppily about her love for “girly” norms (having babies, skipping math class because it’s too hard, the like) and having breakdowns from being unable to keep up the pressure of her facade. The piece is replete with kitschy music derivative of 1990s Barbie ads, a band of plastic instruments I found on E-bay, and an emotional breakdown in which I ugly-cry, binge-eat Nutella, and shave my legs with the excrement-lookalike substance — all in front of a group of tenured professors at one of the most academic, scrutinizing concert environments I have yet to witness. I was one of two women composers on this particular concert.

The night before the performance, I feared I was making a huge mistake. I lost my appetite. I was shaking. I was hyper-ventilating. I was scared of putting my body out there in the way being dysfunctional Barbie required of me, especially in front of a mostly male audience. I was afraid that people would think my performance was too weird, disturbing, politically unclear —the list goes on. Although the work was intended to cause the audience some discomfort, I felt apologetic in advance for making them feel such things.

Such performance anxiety is not uncommon for me. Over the past year, I have developed a passion for composing and performing music about gender and the body. My narratives and lyrics explore gender norms, empowerment through sensuality, menstruation, and self-objectification. Music and politics are inseparable to me, and I consider my love for and use of aesthetics that are marginalized within the classical canon (pop, kitsch, and untrained vocal styles) as a political gesture. Onstage, I find power in taking up space: man-spreading with my accordion, using my voice to make guttural, alien sounds, and wearing tons of leather. The stage is where I can be large and unapologetic — things I’m encouraged not to be as a woman in daily life.

Although empowering, composing and performing works that swim upstream the male dominated culture and canon of composition is taxing. It often means putting my body in vulnerable positions onstage. It means being under a high level of scrutiny, in which my work and disposition is labeled as too angry, too conflicting, or just “a lot.” It means frequently being asked to explain my work and justify my choices. It means being dismissed by traditional competitions and institutions, which can be isolating. It means second-guessing myself constantly, or being apologetic about my unapologetic-ness.

And honestly? I’m tired. Currently in my first gap year after my undergrad, I find that I’m much too burned out for a 22-year-old, and that I have a ton of healing to do. I’m less inclined to accept poor mental health as an acceptable cost of the resistant music I make. Watching Princess Diaries 2 in my bed, scratching my dog’s belly, and playing board games with my Grandma feels better. Since acknowledging the mental wear-and-tear I’ve experienced as a female composer, I have taken a break from music and put my plan to pursue graduate school in composition on hold. I decided that it’s okay to take a break from being vulnerable or brave.

And the thing is, I haven’t stopped being vulnerable; my definition of vulnerability has simply changed. Vulnerability for me last year was getting onstage and being dysfunctional Barbie. Vulnerability/bravery for me now is seeking help for my mental health, removing myself from unhealthy artistic communities and relationships, and prioritizing family and friends over music.

My definition of vulnerability has also changed in my music. While composing my piece for GLFCAM, “Chant of the Ghost Pipes” for piano four hands and melodica as a Fellow with Cycle Seven, I was frustrated by how the piece didn’t “say” anything politically, that it wasn’t vulnerable. It was just unsynchronized chords and a sparse, warbling melodica part. But over time, and upon hearing ZOFO’s excellent performance of the piece in November 2018, I noticed that the piece was indeed vulnerable. It was exposed and sensitive and strange — not like dysfunctional Barbie, but a more subdued baring of my soul in healing and transition.

In Boonville this fall, as I was describing my need for rest to Gabriela, she offered the beautiful metaphor of a sostenuto chord, in which a choir collectively sustains a chord over a long period of time. While singing sostenuto chords, there are moments in which you as an individual inevitably need to breathe and stop singing. While you do so, those around you will continue to sing and carry the chord for you. You can, and should, take a rest when you need one. Gabriela’s metaphor prioritizes the notion of community and solidarity. No matter how isolating or exhausting it may be as an underdog in a given field, you are not alone, and there are other people fighting alongside you. The metaphor also speaks to allies, calling us to continue fighting for those who are silenced and tired in such a way that we are not.

As said by American activist and writer Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” For identities who are constantly told that they do not deserve happiness or security, the act of self-care, of denying oppressive forces an emotional foothold over you, is in and of itself a radical act. In this time of my life, self-care is my preferred radical act as a female composer.

[Note from Gabriela: When I first received Rachel’s application to GLFCAM and began perusing her scores, my eyebrows raised to see the purposefully childish fonts – bubbly and peppy – and the instrumentation list of Barbie musical instruments for “Girly.” Then I watched the video and my jaw dropped.  I was utterly transfixed at its saucy and joyous brilliance; and afterwards, screamed to my husband who was outside planting a tree, “Get your butt up here! You have to see this!”  How happy I am that Rachel agreed to come to Boonville to share her lovely heart and wit with us all, and that she is committed to protecting both.]


Rachel Epperly is a composer, performer, and improviser who is passionate about continually stretching the boundaries of vulnerability in her work. Learn more on Rachel's bio page.

Gabriela Lena Frank