Leave the labyrinth

written by Marco-Adrián Ramos
2018 GLFCAM National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures Fellow, Cycle 7

As I am wont to do, I’ve become aware of the surreal nature of my current activity: Sitting in my Washington Heights apartment, beginning the sixth year of my conservatory studies at Juilliard, writing a blog post for an academy headed by Gabriela Lena Frank, a person whose name I’ve known ever since twelve-year-old me curiously googled “Latin composers” in a desperate bid to validate my interest in music (to myself). That name on the computer screen, on the recordings, and the music, like so many other composers and other musicians, has become a flesh-and-blood person in my life. Twelve-year-old Marco-Adrián couldn’t have come up with this shit in his wildest dreams.

I have lived the most blessed life: Supportive immigrant parents (Viva México) who instilled pride and a work ethic into their three children, incredible teachers who have left their indelible marks on my being (RIP Chris Lacey, I think about you all the time), and close friends whose emotional intimacy and humanity give me an ever-flowing fount of faith in the fundamental goodness of man. I have always felt a primordial need to make these people proud, to show them that their time, money, emotional energy were well-made investments in a man who at times feels pressure-destined for some kind of “greatness.”

Obviously, this sanctimonious idea of greatness clashed quickly with reality. I would be lying if I didn’t say these almost six glorious and tumultuous years weren’t filled with profound anxiety, depression, nervous tics, and bouts of frequent illness, especially an as-of-writing-this-blog-post undiagnosed gastrointestinal coup d’état five years in the making that sometimes renders me bedridden. Constant crippling doubt about the quality and “authenticity” of my music, always comparing myself and my achievements to my peers, and what could be described as a resigned jadedness regarding concert music culture and career paths have all pervaded my psyche, as I’m sure they’ve pervaded the psyches of most (all) people reading this.

I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint an exact moment that I decided that it was time for a change, but a major moment comes to mind: The week before a big prèmiere with my school’s orchestra this past April, I fell terribly ill with an episode of the aforementioned gastrointestinal coup d’état. I had to miss half the rehearsals, skip school, cancel obligations, and cloister myself for several days before I could even take the train. I had little idea what the piece was going to sound like when I sat in Alice Tully Hall (pure fear), and it took what little strength I had left to not spill my guts on the stage when I took my bow, a real bittersweet moment. It would be another month before I returned to my “normal” self… Just another one of the episodes that have been arriving more and more frequently these past couple of years. But I suffered the consequences of my complacency with my situation. I thought it was just the price I was going to have to pay for the life that I wanted, along with the anxiety, the fear, the infections, the constant exhaustion.

They make for great art, right?

The film director/artist David Lynch has an apt quote for this: “Anger and depression and sorrow are beautiful things in a story, but they are like poison to the filmmaker or artist. They are like a vise grip on creativity. If you're in that grip, you can hardly get out of bed, much less experience the flow of creativity and ideas. You must have clarity to create.”

I have recently decided to begin this new and scary path out of my mental and physical labyrinth: I refuse to make myself suffer any more. I’ve begun seeing a therapist, have a new gastroenterologist, and learned the technique of Transcendental Meditation. I want to communicate more honestly about my struggles to my family, friends, and peers. I want to love and have faith in my work (as long as it’s good). It’s all just getting started, but I will see the walls come down.

Getting that first email to take part in the Academy’s inaugural year (2017 as a member of Cycle Two to work with Joshua Roman and Johnny Gandelsman), and getting to know Gabi and her way of balancing work, family, social commitment, and education was a watershed moment for me. Here was a model to follow! Returning for Cycle Seven to work with ZOFO was another blessing, especially given that my decision to make serious changes in my life came in the intervening year. Talking with my peers about their lives and the ways they choose to find balance was equally as enriching. It is an infinite comfort to know there are people like you, with similar struggles, trying their best. Your souls form a quiet bond.

Gabi is truly saintly, attempting an equilibrium that should be a model for us all: Wife, composer, educator, community organizer, chicken-mother, and on and on... I am grateful for the examples set by her, her Academy, the musicians, and particularly my fellow composers.


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Marco-Adrián Ramos (1995) is a Mexican-American composer and arranger. He has written for a variety of media including works for voice, instrumental ensembles, incidental music, and dance. Learn more on Marco's bio page.

Gabriela Lena Frank