Sunday, October 09, 2005

Credentials (Or: Towards Writing an Honest Bio)

We all have to write bios and resumes. And we all know from a recent FEMA director's example that they get padded all the time. But what if we really listed in those documents the actualities that really define us, the true measures of what we have to offer in our various disciplines? Would anyone hire us on those real terms? More to the point, I'm wondering, would anyone hire ME on those terms?

As a someday-soon-to-be-a-doctorate-holding-person, and one who is called upon to write a bio of himself every time he submits a piece or a paper to some conference somewhere, I have started rebelling against the norms that are followed by many of my colleagues. Usually the plan in a composer bio is to name-drop the hottest folks in the biz that you've ever been associated with, no matter how fleetingly. And all of your degrees, which are particularly important if they come from a major school. So you'll see bios of composers who declare they have "studied" with some titan of the craft, when actually they sat in a room with about 50 other student composers for an afternoon and listened to said titan offer a handful of comments on their or other people's work. I fell into this trap for a while, but I eventually realized its essential dishonesty, and I now avoid it. For example, I used to include Shulamit Ran (a fine composer who won the Pulitzer Prize a few years back) amongst those I'd "studied" with, and I suppose that technically that I can do that. I DID have two lessons with her in the early '90s (plus attending lectures and masterclasses), but quite honestly, she didn't really affect the outcome of a single piece that I've ever written. Why should she have to bear some obscure responsibility for what I compose? I had a bit more contact with Jacob Druckman (another Pulitzer winner, and head of the Yale comp department until his death), but his expansive descriptions of working with Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez, and the offhand musical wisdom that he offered to us over lunch or coffee were more memorable and important to me than were my actual lessons with him.

The two teachers who DID shape my path as a composer are less well-known, but far more important than any of the names I could drop: Albion Gruber and Timothy M. Sullivan. If anyone has had a say in how I developed as a musical thinker, they have, and much for my betterment. And my gratitude for their support and patient instruction of a hot-headed and willful egoist can never be exaggerated.

My earliest musical experiences consisted of playing clarinet in a small-town band and singing in the choir at the local Methodist Church. Humble as those are, they contributed to my musical identity in a profound way, and I ought to own up to that fact. And they probably have a greater bearing on the music that I write than anything else I can name, apart from playing for five years in the Colorblind James Experience, and a couple other groups, in the late '80s and early '90s.

There are still other experiences that should really be listed in my bio, and some of them may eventually start to show up there. For example, I worked for a few years in a record store in Rochester called the Bop Shop, and later managed one called Recorded Classics. Both were owned by a visionary music lover named Tom Kohn. Recorded Classics is gone, but the Bop Shop soldiers onwards to this day. I learned more about jazz and classical repertoire from working in those stores than I ever could have from any college course. In fact, I think that one of the saddest aspects of the current decline of independent record stores is the fact that this occupation can be a critical part of a young musician's education. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer places offer the riches that we could and did play and discuss daily in the Bop Shop or Recorded Classics. (In the course of a typical day at the Bop Shop, we'd spin a few sides of late Coltrane, some of the new European jazzers like Willem Breuker, some klezmer music, Howlin' Wolf, Bulgarian folk choruses, Elvis Costello's newest album, and a hefty selection of more obscure stuff... Over at Recorded Classics, we'd listen to Feldman, Cage and Stockhausen, along with Josquin masses, Haydn Piano Sonatas and Bernstein's Columbia recordings of Charles Ives. All this before lunch.) Beyond their purpose as retail outlets, these record stores functioned as a kind of cultural repository, an alternative library of sounds and styles. And as Tom Kohn has demonstrated in his 20-plus years of helming the Bop Shop, they can have an enormous influence on the local musical community. Would I be even close to the same composer had I not worked there? No way.

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