On the Importance of Finding Joy

written by Jessica Hunt
2018 GLFCAM Boontling Community Fellow, Cycle 4

(In which, having recently turned thirty, a not-so-young young composer wonders about the difference between Being and Doing, and celebrates the oasis of Boonville.)

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Choosing a career is a funny thing. 

When I was very young, the noun at the end of “when I grow up I want to be a ____” changed every few days, typically inspired by media for young audiences (A princess? Cool! An astronaut? Awesome!).  My very patient Mother recalls that at one point in my early years, my rapid-fire goals began to stack up — l was absolutely definitely going to be a fire-fighting, ballet-dancing, opera-singing, piano-playing epidemiologist-gymnast. 

But it turned out I was afraid of fire, thought blood was gross, and didn’t have the right kind of spinal health for dancing or gymnastics — though I do still sing and play the piano.

If you are reading this blog post, you already know I’m a composer.  But I didn’t really see any examples of composers before I started taking piano lessons, and when I did, they were all dead, white, European, and male.  When I started “noodling” around and “making my own songs,” I didn’t think I was composing (if only in a rudimentary way) because that was something men did a long time ago in the past — as far as my young self was concerned, I was just expressing myself through my instrument.  It took a number of insightful piano teachers, an incredible performing arts magnet school (Vancouver School of Arts and Academics) and extraordinarily supportive parents to get me to a point in my youth where I could start to apply the word “composer” to myself and add it to my “when I grow up” list.

In my early teenage years, music was my entire life. My school afternoons were chock-full of choir rehearsals, band practice, recitals, school musicals, independent study classes in composition and conducting and more — and I loved every single minute of it. Before the academic mornings, I would get to school early so I could play piano duets with my friends in the school’s lobby, and in the rare hours I was actually at home I was consistently glued to my piano bench.  Looking back on those years, I can’t believe how prolific I was — I wrote all the time!  Of course, I would be mortified to publicly share anything I composed during that period but regardless of the quality of my early work, the simple truth of it is that during those years, I constantly lived in Joy.

As all my friends wondered what majors they would choose in college, I felt proud and relieved to feel my truth so strongly.  I wasn’t done growing up yet, but I knew what I wanted to be.

Hindsight is 20/20.  I didn’t have the wisdom, as a teenager, to separate the career goal (Composition) from the emotional goal (Joy).

I’m sure you can guess the next chapter of the story, in which over years of lessons, competitions, and commissions, I gained sorely-needed technical facility and the ability to be purposeful and specific in my musical choices, but at the expense of my sense of self, my personal voice, and my freedom.

In my early 20’s, I didn’t have the wherewithal to shut down misogynistic questions I heard from classmates like “Do you write pretty music because you are a girl?” (and disappointingly, many variations on that theme).  Instead, I internalized such micro-aggressions and my perceived “otherness” in a poisonous way.  I took great pride in proving myself and winning competitions and scholarships, beating out entrants from an exceedingly male pool.  I made it my mission to be the “best.”  My deep-rooted anxiety over earning others’ perceptions of my work as “excellent” spawned both an intense drive to write “perfect” music and an intensely unhealthy fear of failure.  All of this extreme emotional and technical effort was fueled initially by my old friend, Joy; but before too many years, the Joy was all used up and withered.  My experiences had forced me to find new fuel to compose with: An unhealthy mix of habit, pride, and stubbornness.  I stopped being me.  I became my own composer alter-ego: Miserable.

Maybe a better way to put it, in hindsight (with whatever wisdom you attain when you turn thirty) is that my identity shifted. Before, I identified as Jessica-who-loves-to-compose. Afterwards, I identified simply as a composer, a chameleon shifting aesthetics to please each commission while losing a bit more of myself with each note.

I subconsciously began to pull away from composing, taking on different musical gigs and even working for a stint in the corporate world where being too busy and too tired to write provided me with the opportunity to avoid the root cause of my misery.  Instead of searching for my lost Joy, I abandoned myself and ran away.

It sucked.

***

The bright side of hitting metaphorical rock bottom is that eventually, you realize that rock bottom is really truly actually where you are. Eventually the denial fades and you have no other option but to look up, all the way up to the bright spot in the sky, that star of Joy in the faraway distance that used to live warmly in your heart. Eventually, you make a choice. You follow your Joy-star.  You look around, and make a plan, and start crawling towards it. It’s hard, it’s so, so hard. Eventually you can taste an echo of it, and it spurs you on. You ache in the place where it used to be and so you climb, no matter what.

For me, my climbing path included reconnecting with myself as Jessica (not just as a composer), going back to school, starting a passion project (my opera-in-progress), finding my amazing partner, and moving to a new state.  It hasn’t been easy, and I am still my own work-in-progress, but I’m finally living my truth now and I actually enjoy being me.  I enjoy this climb.

It took a decade to get here, but I am me, again.

***

After my first Skype call with Gabriela, I was walking on air for days. I felt so uplifted, encouraged, energized, and ready to work in a way I hadn’t felt since childhood. Gabriela had magically read my mind: Her primary advice for my new piece for the Chiara Quartet? “I want you to write with Joy,” and “Write what’s in your heart.” This piece would be my first opportunity to test-drive Jessica 2.0 on a piece outside of my graduate work, free to explore my relationship to my compositional process beyond the constraints and pressures of a degree program — A dream come true. 

I had spent the previous summer living in my grandmother’s old house, helping to get it ready to sell when she passed away. Her little island cottage in Washington’s San Juan Islands was full of memories of both my grandmother and my grandfather and treasured childhood adventures.  I had wanted to celebrate the lives my grandparents and memorialize their home in a composition for some time, and my gut told me that Gabriela’s Academy was the right occasion to do so and that the Chiara Quartet were the right musicians to bring it to life. I was stunned to learn that Chiara has actually toured in the San Juan islands, and that they absolutely understand that uniquely beautiful landscape and the culture of Pacific Northwest island life.  I am so moved that we together will get to share that special place with others through music.

In my personal journey, I’ve grown to have absolute respect for the phrase “Joy attracts joy.” Gabriela has created an oasis of joy, peace, and supportive fellowship in Boonville that is truly life-affirming and creatively rejuvenating. During the Academy reading session of my work in progress, I was so humbled and honored by the joy Chiara shared with all of the Composer Fellows through the love and generosity with which they played each of our pieces. It is so rare and wonderful for early-career composers to be in the same room as such phenomenal musicians as the Chiara Quartet, not only in the reading sessions but also while sharing Gabriela’s stove-top side-by-side cooking meals together, getting to know each other as human beings who play music, and human beings who compose; learning who we are, not only what we do; finding Joy in the process and in each other.

***

My original plans and preliminary sketches for my piece consisted of a number of short movements, little scenes from my time on the island: the way the waves crashed and the salty wind rushed past me standing on the ferry deck; the way the proud bald eagle surveyed the water from his tree, suddenly diving with talons outstretched towards the water below; the way the hummingbirds zipped and danced around the bright fuchsias; and the way the gentle light would change at sunset in the crisp, cool air when the water grew still.

I will forever be grateful that Gabi instead asked me what it would be like to compose from a mental photograph, or image, rather than a linear scene or story, like I had planned. I’ve typically written very programmatic works over the course of my career-to-date, most of my pieces are driven by text or an abstract narrative that controls its structure.  I’ve always found programmatic organization of my musical thoughts and ideas to be a comforting architecture that provides some scaffolding to hang my notes on and tell a story. But to compose from an image?

My mental photographs of that place and time make me feel. The exact blend of colors in the island’s summer twilight sky evoke an indescribable peace and longing so much more real and alive than simply telling the linear story of sunset.

When I sit at my piano and work on this piece, I experience an incredible gift. I get to close my eyes and see this beautiful place again, a place that fills me with love and warmth and bittersweet remembrance and Joy.

And then I get to open my eyes, and compose from my heart.

***


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Ms. Hunt’s primary goal as a composer is to seek emotional resonance in the rhetorical dialogue between herself, the audience, and the performer by creating eclectic works that explore the aural and syntactical intersections between theatre, narrative, sound, truth and fiction. She is currently pursuing her doctoral studies at the University of Michigan. Find out more on Jessica's bio page.

Gabriela Lena Frank