The Boonville Compass

written by Christine Delphine Hedden
2017 GLFCAM Béla Bartók Fellow, Cycle II

Around this time last year, amidst October’s leaves falling into the Charles River, my friend and I were driving back to our apartment. “How are you doing?” had quickly dived into deep musical questions – not unusual conversation between us, a pair of young and freelancing musicians. Our non-synchronized daily dance includes movements of practicing, composing, writing grants and lesson plans, teaching, rehearsing and meeting with others in person and virtual reality. Fortuitously passing synchronization means our conversations are usually loaded, getting right to what is meaningful and on our minds in a matter of minutes.

“You know,” my housemate said matter-of-factly, “You don’t have to stay in this world [of contemporary classical music]. Do you?”

I jerked upright, not from a sudden break in Boston traffic, but from the idea. I had never considered of leaving new music entirely – but, why not?

For those of you reading who are wondering, “Hmmm, so what is new music?” Good question. New music a tiny sub-genre of classical music essentially – it’s the music that is being written now. Think of Baroque music or historical performance, but on the other end of the timeline. As someone who writes music, I am naturally part of the new music scene, but there are also performers and other individuals involved in the arts who are passionate about breathing life into our freshly printed ink.

For the last few minutes of our trip home, my friend and I were silent. The following week felt like a continuation of these minutes, as I considered leaving the new music scene and the question… why not?

A few days later, Gabriela’s email showed up in my inbox. I must confess to giving fate a mental look that said, “Seriously?!?” I was nearly ready to walk away from new music when I felt some invisible hand pick me up by the hood of my jacket and turn me back around.

My destination was set to Boonville, CA for April 2017.

In the meantime, I took a hermitage from the new music scene – unfollowed Facebook posts, halted applications to competitions, stopped talking about networking with fellow composers and performers – and focused solely on writing the music at hand.

During my hermitage, I reached out to an old friend, who had been frustrated with the new music scene a few years prior – enough to take a year off from composing to work on essays that sought to express these frustrations coherently and constructively. As we talked, he mentioned that he had recently been editing these old essays. I asked him to share any bit of his previously secret thoughts and luckily, he was willing.

One of the thoughts that he shared brought an immediate sense of connection. Though simple, it seemed to articulate the invisible essence that directs the magnetic field of my musical compass: that we, as composers, have an inherent duty to speak to something deeper within our shared human experience.

With my compass freshly calibrated, I began to write.

When April came, I landed in San Francisco and hopped into a car with two fellow composers to take the winding roads to Boonville: the beauty of the land grew with each degree, as we traveled north and west, until we finally reached the tiny town that is Boonville.

Later that evening, I was sitting outside with my soon-to-be roommate, fellow lady composer and new friend, Akshaya. Gabriela is a magical match-maker: as we got to know each other, we said numerous times, “You like that too?!? How did Gabriela know?! She can’t have known?!?”

Somehow in our conversation, my frustrations with new music bobbed suddenly to the surface. As I was hesitantly walking my toes up to the edge of sharing our soon-to-be friend, Noah, asked, “Hey! Can I join you guys?”

We laughed, smiled and I quickly hid the buoy.

Dusk became starlight, cool evening air settled into the mountain valleys and we moved inside. As we stood around the kitchen island, Akshaya said, “So, Christine was about to say something really interesting when you joined us Noah…”

Terrified, I found myself unexpectedly sharing my most vulnerable thoughts over steeping cups of tea. I was lucky enough to find two deeply trusting friends at the bottom of our tea cups.

It’s difficult to write about having these frustrations with the new music scene and yet leaving them a mystery here. These frustrations aren’t the point of this post, so they don’t really belong here (despite the writing process involving the occasional passing dump truck quickly followed by a bulldozer).

These frustrations were vividly present in my experiences during the year that led to Boonville. Yet, in Boonville, I found beautiful contradictions to these frustrations: how our new music world could be, and maybe is, in very small places. I’ll share one example.

One of my frustrations is that, through the nature of our training and the scene itself, we are subconsciously taught to value and judge music by a thousand other qualities before its ability to create meaningful, human connection.

Similar to all other fields of human life, we get caught up in what “other” people will think of the music – friends, colleagues, teachers, performers and mysterious unknown identities – and end up writing music to please the imaginary judgement of these “others.” Is this music “hip” enough? (Or, does it fit into a certain aesthetic?) Is it technically challenging and impressive? What will those “others” think of this music?

Do we remember to look for human connection post-performance or only for how many bow hairs the violinist has shredded? Or the identities of who has congratulated us? Do we reflect and ask ourselves: does this music have the power to reach out and connect with another human heart?

Along the road, I have been lucky to have met a few teachers who have not only emphasized importance of human connection: they live by their teaching. In their own professional lives, they are constantly swimming upstream or bushwhacking their own path.

Gabriela is one of those teachers. During our short time in Boonville, she created a feeling of community that I have never experienced amongst a group of composers. She showed us how much she values people: Josh and Johnny, each composer fellow, her husband and the people in her community. When we returned in September, she had carefully crafted a concert that welcomed and shared our music with the entire community of Boonville in a down-to-earth, yet celebratory, way.

After our September concert, Aric asked about my frustrations and how I was feeling – at the time, I couldn’t speak or answer the question. (Truthfully, I could only giggle).

In reflection, I was filled by the beauty of the evening. People were gathering as a community and sharing meaningful experiences through our music – in the writing, in the listening and in the performance. For a moment, my frustrations were washed away because I was experiencing due north: the heart of where all music, including new music, should be striving.

Shortly after arriving back home to Boston, I came down with an unknown illness for nearly our entire New England autumn. My compass went through some involuntary fine-tuning during this time: I couldn’t mindlessly hop back into old ways of being, despite leaving Boonville full of hope and ready to write. Sources of meaning, in music and in life, became intrinsically distilled and I have become more grateful for those wells of meaning.

Now, whether I’m performing or composing (new music, fiddle tunes, folk songs or something in-between) my musical adventures stay attuned to this compass: is this adventure led by sincere human connection and will this road lead me there?


Christine is a Boston-based composer and performer, exploring fiddle in the context of jazz, electronic, classical, and traditional music. Living among this variety of influences, Christine centers opportunities to form connections between diverse communities. Find out more on Christine's bio page.

Gabriela Lena Frank