Reflecting on Reflect and Release Pt.1

Next week, my first music video will be dropping, so ahead of this I want to give some insight into the creation of the piece and the people surrounding it.

In mid-2017 I was approached by Forward Motion, a Pierrot ensemble here in Indianapolis to formally begin work on a project we had been considering for a long time, and which would eventually become Reflect and Release. In the following paragraphs, I’m going to be a little too honest about how foundational procrastination and self-doubt have been to my compositional process in the past, and give some idea of how this piece came to be. For background on where the narrative of where the emotional arc of this piece began, between firming up the commission with Forward Motion, and the original due date, I won a chance to work with the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet and was forced to squeeze a piece into my schedule in a time where there really was none. So as 2017 was fading to 2018, Reflect and Release was more of a slowly brewing idea than a real collection of notes on the page.

On January 10, 2018, I was in San Diego with my family for a vacation and was woken up by my mom. Ostensibly, I was being beckoned to get ready for the plane, but as it comes to find out, I was also to learn of the passing of my cousin Deb. Looking back, the tone of voice my Mom used was heartbreaking, she was telling me as if it was some little piece of news that wouldn’t be important to me, but that I would need to know, even though for her is was almost certainly pretty concretely devastating.

Now Deb and I were never exactly cl0se. Growing up, we lived in different cities, and interacted only occasionally throughout the years. But she had always occupied a guidestar role in my view of how I fit in with my family. She felt like a kindred spirit with her love of classical music, her fearless and varied intellect, and her deep devotion to her craft. She also gave me a camera when I was in high school. A gesture I appreciated, and that could have sparked an interest in photography much earlier in my life, but ultimately something I didn’t capitalize on enough at the time. The camera became symbolic to me for a few years growing up of something I would definitely do someday. And in a sense cultivating a relationship with Deb felt the same way, I would get around to it when the time was right. (Now, all of that said, even when I moved to Indianapolis there were practical barriers to me ever spending time with her. She had at least three cats as far as I could tell, so talks of visits to her darkroom or listening to classical music were always stunted by the practical reality of the low probability of survival on my part in that environment.)

When she died, I was faced with the reality that things in life, even things that feel important, timeless, and in some sense inevitable don’t always work out. This pleasant abstract possibility of cultivating this relationship was at that moment turned into a very concrete failure on my part to ever do so. Two weeks later, while making last minute edits on the LAPQ piece before heading to the airport, I had my first panic attack. There is something very funny about it now, looking back, I was walking through the airport, with the distinct feeling I was going to die at any moment and walking through the TSA line like nothing was wrong. I remember this one moment where the agent said, “Have a nice trip!” and I was very tempted to respond “Thanks, I’m dying!” Only the first part made it out. The trip to LA was a nice four days of warmth in the midst of some of the coldest weather in Indiana of the last few years, and ended up being positive at the time.

Upon returning to Indiana, I knew I had some work to do, in a few senses. Work on Reflect and Release started in earnest, and, at about the same time, I started writing a lot of tunes for a music box my brother had given me. Often when I am under the gun on a project, I will vent some frustration with waning concrete progress by working on things that seem more fun and frivolous as long as it is tangentially related. For me at the time, the fun project became the music box. I wrote a series of pieces fairly quickly that felt pretty natural and were free of the pressure that sometimes comes with putting notes to the page.  It took me a full month to realize that by avoiding R&R, I was actually writing the piece.

During the two months I was working (and not working) on this piece in earnest the panic attacks continued, my job changed from part time to full time, and death was almost constantly on my mind. Building this piece for me was a direct offensive against the nagging feeling that I was letting life slip away, and me trying to remind myself that thinking about what you’re not doing is actually not doing anything. It was also an argument against this newfound anxious voice that had crept into my head begging me to just give up because by giving up on your own terms, I could have at least had some control. In some ways, it was also a test of my ability to work out my own issues and, to a passable extent, actually take care of myself. This was not unique to the time period, but was definitely a step up in difficulty. For me, I often work through times of crisis by mentally picking the part of myself that is struggling up, and fireman carrying him over the finish line.

Reflect and Release ended up becoming a haven for me and a document of creation-as-catharsis that I had not quite experienced as an adult at the time. After what I’ve been talking about, one might expect to hear a piece full of death and gloom, but what came out of it was a love letter to life, surviving change, and to the people in my life who were making this kind of music possible for me to make.

The movements of the piece are as follows:

Kaleidoscope 1: Wherein I have everyone except the cellist playing percussion.

In a Garden: Named for one of the spaces I desired to be during that cold winter.

A Note on Suffering: A canon-laden movement that might have been a bit of suffering to learn!

Sliding Scale: This movement, unlike the others, did not originate from the music box, but was an abstraction of patterns that would usually serve at the backbone of the music box pieces themselves. In all honesty, it is also a nod to some of the post-rock I used to listen to, and features a lot of pulsed swells and a fully irresponsible use of the sustain pedal on the piano.

Kaleidoscope 2: In this one, everyone is playing percussion and propping up a simple melody that was originally written as part of a piece I wrote to get over my fear of reading music in public.

All of the material in the piece came from distinct angles of musical reflection that don’t necessarily directly translate to the emotional narrative I went through above. Chief in the musical forces at work were the developing love of my music box as a vehicle for composition and performance, the desire to write a playfully experimental piece that would not fall into the category of weird music that I often found myself in, and my love of canons and musical displacement.

By the time the first performance of the piece came in June, the panic attacks had not subsided yet, but had become more manageable, and, although I didn’t have the courage at the time to explain the emotional origins, I got to share the music with a large group of family and friends. In a sense, that premiere was the eponymous release of the whole process. Almost two years later, this piece is about to see the world in a wider way, and I get to revisit it with fondness and gratitude. There will always be things that I would like to see happen that will not come to pass, but I am learning to be more present and make things I can make happen, happen.

Here is a preview of the piece in the form of a recording I took at the premiere. I remember as the piece closed I had this rush of relief and gratitude that I will not soon forget. Next week, I will talk about the people I worked with to make this happen, and show the video we’ve made of the piece.