Fear and Self-Loathing in Boonville

written by Antonio Celaya
2018 GLFCAM Chabuca Granda Fellow, Cycle 5

(Wherein the author, an aging composer-of- sort, and not very successful 195-pound Mexican-American lawyer, recounts his insecurities, experienced while listening to talented young composers’ works-in-progress.)

***

In America, the land of bullyboys, conmen and self-promotion, an admission of weakness and insecurity is a cardinal sin (unless one is a television evangelist who has been caught in a motel room with more than three hookers. Then, public tears and a confessional mode are required.) While admission of insecurity is “career suicide,” when Gabriela Lena Frank invited me to participate in “Cycle Five” with the Del Sol String Quartet with the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music, I realized I would have to admit to my insecurities, uncertainties and fears regarding the up-coming workshop in Boonville, CA. But Gabriela, that marvelous composer, generous teacher and human dynamo with too many names for me to type on my cell phone, is not someone easily denied.

For several days at the end of February, in advance of my time with the Del Sol musicians, I audited Cycle Four in which five young, extraordinarily talented and superbly trained composers explored and tinkered with their works with the phenomenal Chiara String Quartet. Young is relative. All the composers were mature adults. Most were around 30, but I am at least 30 years older than most and old enough to be the father of any of them. Discussing music with them was exciting. It gave me numerous panic attacks. How, in a month, could I be workshopping my music among another group of young composers in Cycle Five with advanced degrees from prestigious institutions, the experience of master classes with famous composers and musicianship far beyond anything I had even when I was young?

To comfort myself, at first I assumed that they must all write perfectly, unlistenable academic sludge and that it would take them decades to forget about all the academic nonsense they were forced to learn in school. The composer fellows soon took away the comfort of this delusion. Why are the young composers’ works so charming and elegant? Shouldn’t their music be dull and academic? If, already, they are writing charming music that people want to hear, how will they spend years recovering from the pall that I’ve always been told graduate school in composition inflicts on a composer’s work – a condition I have heard too often? Why is my work back on the desk at home awaiting its reading, so gray, bland and pseudo-academic sounding? My piece sounds as though they are coming to take me to the Gulag at any moment. In the era of Trump, perhaps they are coming for me. It is ironic that my composition, written for Gabriela’s symposium, which is not in the least stodgy or pedantic, and in which I struggled to try something new and to push my limits, came out a rather gray, grim – and dare I say even in my confessional mode – a bit of an academic-sounding thing. There will be time to save it – I hope.

Gabriela’s symposium, if that’s the right word for it, is unique, but it is not the only project for emerging composers. It turns out that there is a plethora of composer camps on multiple continents, where young composers go to sit at the feet of masters, hear their compositions performed and then suffer a critique. That is valuable experience I have long wished for. Gabriela, whether by courage and insight, or a complete lack of good judgment, is the only person operating a symposium that would ever offer me a slot and have my music heard. She refuses to allow her symposia to look like initiation night at Bohemian Club – male, upper crust, Ivy League and pale as the behinds in a Norwegian sauna in February. She has no fear of declining a spot to the perfect resume that has been cultivated at summer arts camps and other prestigious fetes since junior high school, in preference for the imperfect resume accompanied by an imaginative piece of music. Her symposia are not provincial, and look more like the world. The music reflects the broader world, rather than merely the current academic fashions.

Mine is a truncated and only partially formed musical education, obtained at a big state university music school that produced a plethora of high school marching band directors and junior high choir teachers. No school has ever had the slightest idea what to do with me, and I have never had any idea what I ought to do in school. My education is just one reason, and perhaps not the best reason for insecurity. History has many examples of composers who didn’t attend a conservatory but wrote wonderful music.

At 61, with no graduate degree in music, and few performances of my music, the five 30ish or younger composers of Cycle Four could have treated me as the odd man out, a foolish interloper, but nobody treated me that way. “You don’t belong here,” is the thought continually shouted in my head by a nasal voice with a very Ivy League, Northeast Atlantic Coast accent. None of the young composers at Camp Gabriela had the accent, so I’m certain the voice was in my head. “You didn’t even go to grad school to study music composition!! How dare I put notes on paper, or on a computer?!” I am not fluent in the magic potions of set theory and integral serialism, which were stylish in some academic circles in my youth. Well, that may not matter; those academic hexes and spells may have now fallen out of fashion. But, I don’t even know what is in fashion.

Everyone at Camp Gabriela is kind and open-minded towards others’ music and people, because Gabriela sets the tone with openness, imaginative exploration, and compassion. Good attitude flows down from the top. Do you hear that Donald Trump?

The composers who worked with Chiara String Quartet each imbued their music with their charm and talent. To summarize:  

Iman Habibi’s work-in-progress for the Chiara Quartet is a political work regarding the hijab. What really got me thinking is that there is no scent of propaganda in Iman’s music. Why? At the end of his string quartet about hijab protests, the second violinist stands up on her chair and plays, as women protesting in Iran stand on power boxes and waive their hijabs on a stick. Those women face arrest and prosecution. The gesture of a violinist standing on a chair is the sort of gesture that can come off as high-handed or cornball, but Iman makes it work. His music does not call on the listener to blindly join an unthinking, obedient throng. I can’t say precisely how he pulls that off, but he does.

 Beatrice Ferreira, a composer from rural Pennsylvania now residing in Montreal, is also a fine fiddler, delving into Texas swing, Appalachian, and Quebecois fiddle music. Beatrice’s draft string quartet raised many interesting questions. It was a finely crafted melody inspired by a trio of women who sing close harmonies and fiddle in the restaurants of rural Pennsylvania. It was a dammed good tune, which is a very hard thing to write. Gabriela, subtle teacher that she is, raised a question for Beatrice, but did not answer it. Should Beatrice develop the piece in ways that will make it something other than a great tune? (I am often guilty of writing something pleasant and then trying to make it all artsy-fartsy and a little strange, and thereby prove I am not a complete dolt...“If I add dissonance, they’ll know I’m very intellectual.”... It rarely works for me.)

Bonnie McLarty, is the only composer I’ve ever met who raised Highland Scottish cattle. She writes music of emotional power and clarity of purpose. She is also a star doctoral candidate in a University of Kansas graduate program.

Carolina Heredia initially trained in Argentinian folk traditions and mastered folk fiddling before launching into the New Music business. She is now on the faculty of the Mizzou School of Music. She shared with us a video of two movements from her multimedia piece, “Ausencias,” about three suicides. She seamlessly blended electronics and live instruments to fine emotive effect. Even as I enjoyed the work, I began to fret. Her music about multiple suicides was more cheerful than what I was working on back home. That can’t be a good sign.  

Jessica Hunt, a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan’s famed School of Music, brought the Chiara an engrossing sketch for landscape music in three movements, an island in the San Juan Archipelago. Also, she shared with us an excerpt from her opera in progress as she is a real theater composer. There are several very famous composers who are renowned for their operas, but whose work always strikes me as poorly written for the voice. Jessica knows the voice and understands what draws out emotion on the stage; she will set them all straight some day.

So far, Camp Gabriela (the whole process is too much fun to call it “the Academy”) has been a great education for me. Gabriela is a talented teacher in addition to being a highly gifted composer and pianist. She rarely gives the student “the answer.” She asks difficult questions, often the questions the student has asked him/herself but has avoided confronting. She is catholic in her tastes and demonstrates no desire to produce a School of Gabriela, filled with Gabriela-imitators.  Some teachers who think they have found a musical holy grail, are not so generous to their students. She seems to seek to let the composer become more quintessentially him/herself. This did make me wonder whether that is always a good thing. If confronted with a young Wagner, might a teacher inadvertently encourage the pupil to become even more pompous and anti-Semitic?

In conclusion: Why am I still composing music at this stage of life when the world long ago made it clear to me that it cares little for the non-Pop music anyone writes? One can use one’s art as therapy but nobody is going to want to hear it. One has to have the desire to communicate with someone. Camp Gabriela has assured me that my desire to communicate in music is neither foolish nor impossible.  That is no small comfort. I compose because I can’t stop and can’t think of anything more interesting to do.

My piece for the Del Sol String Quartet is still in the works and I hope to make something of it. If the worst thing to happen to me in 2018 is that I write a less than stellar piece of music, then it will have been a great year. The opportunity to workshop a piece with the Del Sol is something I’ve longed for over the years. It is a BIG thing for me.  Fortunately, composing music is not really a risky business like soldiering or fire fighting.  Failure is something one must expect and take in stride.  Given how much I learned as an auditor during Cycle Four at Camp Gabriela I’ve developed hope that I will learn enough to go back to my desk and make my composition something worth hearing. 


antonio.jpeg

Antonio Celaya was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona. He has studied and been influenced by a variety of musical traditions: Mariachi, Chicken Scratch, Swedish and Danish choral music, flamenco, and more. He has also become beloved for bringing fine chocolates and donuts to GLFCAM masterclasses. Find out more on his bio page.

Gabriela Lena Frank