My first reaction to the prospect of writing about the contemporary music scene in New Orleans was: what scene? New Orleans does not have a new music scene, at least not in the way that New York City or Los Angeles or Chicago does. Even Minneapolis has some brilliant post-post-jazz, and Omaha has a small but burgeoning community accumulating a critical mass around Amanda DeBoer Bartlett’s eclectic Omaha Under the Radar festival. In comparison, New Orleans is a new music desert, a fact laden with irony given its deep musical roots. There are certainly a few oases here—the improvisation series at the Blue Nile and the recently-established Versipel New Music come to mind—but they are just that: isolated activities within a landscape largely devoid of new music features.
So why do I, as a composer, live here?
New Orleans became my home through a mixture of circumstances. My wife is from here, and we both leapt at the opportunity for her to return when she received a solidly funded offer for graduate school. Moving to a place with familiarity and family made it easier to transition back to the States from England, where we had been living, and the city’s affordability allowed me to comfortably continue putting composition at the center of my time commitments. Over time, these practical advantages were surpassed by the intangibles of place and culture—the food, the neighborhoods, the people, all the nooks and crannies that define a city for its inhabitants. I developed a strong connection to New Orleans and now preach its merits at every opportunity. An international acquaintance once quipped that my passport must be Louisiana specific. His reasoning was sound.
My Big Life Question has thus become how to lead my artistic life in a city I love but a city that lacks obvious support and outlets for the music I am passionate about. It is not a matter of having the means to showcase my own artistic output within my zip code, but rather about keeping new music front and center in my daily life without mechanisms that keep it there for me. There are no general answers to this problem: each is individual- and context-specific, and it is a life-long process. Here are some of the steps I have gone through, both internally and externally, in an effort to resolve this question for myself.
What Do I Want from Where I Live?
I often say that New Orleans checks all the boxes of my ideal home, save a music-related job and an established new music community. That is a lot of checked boxes. I have to ask myself: would the trade off required to get those music boxes easily checked—namely moving—be worth it? Having experienced the other side of the coin, where placing music first determined where and how and with whom I lived, I can comfortably answer no, not for me, at least not at this time. I would rather work with what I have.
Part of working with what I have is understanding how I want to earn an income and what I want out of a job beyond money. This has not been an easy process, but it has given me some valuable insights. For example, realizing how much I valued job stability contributed to my accepting an ongoing position as an elementary school teaching assistant over a temporary assignment filling in for a composition professor on sabbatical. It was a difficult decision to choose work outside of my apparent field, but in practice the elementary school position offered me many things that the university position did not: increased job security, a steady wage, and the hours to continue spending time composing. This made it seem the more desirable choice, and one that facilitates and complements my compositional pursuits, rather than veers away from them. It was not a purely practical decision, however: I immensely enjoy the work. Working with children requires flexibility, patience, and humility that I can only hope feed into my music. And it is just such this interrelation between my life as a musician and my life otherwise that building an artistic life in New Orleans continues to promote.
Redefining What Applies to My Art
When I was studying as a percussionist, I practiced four to six hours a day, seven days a week. Less than five felt like slacking; less than four was cause for self-flagellation. Family, friends, love interests, school, eating, and sleeping were all secondary to my pathological need to log these hours. This narrow understanding of what came first in my life was both unhealthy and unimaginative.
I first approached composition with the same attitude of punching a time card, but composing resisted this mentality. It lacked the physical component that enabled the rote labor allowed in practicing an instrument. Composing’s demand for acuity and introspection required a more fluid understanding of my artistic labor: I learned to allow for playful wanderings of the mind along tangents, and judged the success of my creative work sessions less quantitatively. I still log my hours obsessively, but also understand composing is not the same as manufacturing widgets. My once single-minded pursuit of instantly gratifying output has been replaced by broader inclusiveness as to what constitutes my creative work.
I have consequently sought to understand my non-artistic interests artistically. Sports, for example, have progressed from a cursory fascination to a lens through which I can better understand my art. Musical virtuosity has for me been redefined from a showcasing of control to a pursuit of personal boundaries, like the athlete’s. Just as an athlete’s exceptional abilities sublimate and their failures humanize, musical virtuosity can be a means for laying bare the soul rather than erecting an artifice of perfection.
In the same spirit, my appreciation for New Orleans’ famous fusion of cultures—architectural, culinary, and otherwise—has developed alongside a broadening in my musical language. I have become increasingly inclusive with the sounds and events that make their way into my work. While these changes have run parallel rather than unfolded causally, I do believe a certain influence through osmosis has taken place. This influence has been cultural if not specifically musical. I once eschewed certain basic musical elements wholesale. Consonance, for example, was a harmonic characteristic that I struggled to take ownership of: rightly or wrongly, I felt unable to integrate strongly consonant intervals into my music. But in recent years I have endeavored to find a role for such intervals in my work, and their strengthening presence has in turn opened up unanticipated directions. These days it is not uncommon for, say, a major triad to unexpectedly surface while I am composing. And importantly, I find myself more willing to entertain its place in the piece than I was in the past. I would like to think that this move away from musical puritanism is at least partly a response to the celebration of diversity that is my adopted home’s hallmark. I understand New Orleans’ ideal as a celebration of diversity that maintains uniqueness, and I certainly aspire to evermore sparkling individuality in my music from one moment to the next.Connecting my non-musical experiences and interests to my artistic motives like this has enabled me to synthesize facets of my daily life into artistic directions and musical material. This has helped me to keep art central in my daily life in an environment that often lacks more obvious means of doing so.
As a recovering hermit, I am constantly grateful for music’s social dimensions. I love how being a composer requires me to work with others to realize my artistic visions. The dialogue, both concurrences and disagreements, enriches my work in a way that working alone could not. It allows me to benefit from others’ unique perspectives, interests, and knowledge, and for me to share my own. Such collaboration is increasingly the lifeblood of my artistic practice.
The lack of a preexisting new music community in New Orleans has been one of the biggest difficulties in my establishing a creative life here. There are obvious ways to mitigate this remotely—email and Skype are a composer-in-exile’s best friend—and I have worked to extend technology’s opportunities. For example, I curate an online arts periodical, FOCI Words, which features a variety of content from contributors throughout the world. Soliciting entries is an easy way to start and sustain conversations about music, creativity, social issues, and whatever else is on the minds of artists I deeply respect. The end product often spurs further conversation and debate through social media. Undertaking this project has the dual advantage of perpetuating my connections to the global new music family, and keeping me regularly listening to, thinking about, and discussing music with others.
Closer to home, I find myself making similar efforts to keep the conversations going. Many of these are simple—coffee, dinner, board games, disc golf with the few musicians in my field who do live in the area. I have learned over time that taking the afternoon off to just talk music with a friend is worth it, a hard-won lesson given my zeal to punch that time card. These social moments are integral and would often not happen if I did not prioritize them. So, I do so.
I also curate a small concert series. I have been overwhelmed by the eagerness of some very accomplished musicians to travel here for less-than-ideal compensation and perform for less-than-ideal sized crowds, all for the sake of furthering our work together (and consuming some phenomenal New Orleans food along the way). Bringing musicians I respect into town is a wonderful, uplifting way to connect the broader music community to my home life. The lack of obvious venues means I have to be creative, fostering relationships with local institutions and scenes that can bear fruit down the road. Many of my concerts have taken place in spaces more regularly devoted to visual art, because these are the venues that exist here. I have also gotten involved with poets, who have a more widely established community in New Orleans. This has led not only to stimulating conversations across mediums, but also to the prospect of new projects on down the road. This process and its unexpected fruits all further establish a creative lifestyle.
These are just some of the ways that living in a city where new music is especially uncommon has pushed me to alter my lifestyle and my approach to both community and creativity. It has helped me realize the significance of collaboration and conversation in my creative endeavors, and led me to understand my non-artistic interests in light of my artistic ones. It is not a smooth or linear process, but it is a gratifying one.
And it is one I am not alone in. I am grateful to my numerous colleagues across the country who are in a similar position. Our regular exchange of ideas, be they growth strategies, coping strategies, or just airing grievances, has helped my pursuit to foster a contemporary music community at home. It has also lessened my sense of isolation in the interim. Connecting to others engaged in such a process provides a vital reminder that I am a part of the larger new music community regardless of where I reside. And for that I am thankful.