Growing up my younger brother was clearly the bookworm of the family. We would come back from the public library and he would have a stack of fresh literary sustenance several feet high. I did not understand why he spent all day reading book after book; there were times I remember exclaiming– "He reads stuff he doesn't even like!" This was not an exaggeration; often within the first few pages it was clear if the novel matched his preferences, but if it failed he would continue to power through. Later I understood, it was not about whether he connected with what he was reading. Rather, he liked the act of reading. He was (and still is) a consumer of the written word.
The preferred "literature" of my childhood was always about sports cars and rock music. One book, Guitar World Presents the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time!, sticks out in particular. The sections ranking the guitar players was fine, but what kept me up at night was the list of guitar solos. I took this as scripture. It never phased me that the list was simply the result of a reader's poll. This was a challenge. From the ages of 14-17 I had this text in tow whenever I traveled, reading and re-reading every detail about these guitar solos. Not only did I have the list memorized in order, but I sought out recordings and sheet music for each of these songs, learning how to play a large portion of the solos and riffs myself. Exposing myself to a variety of sub-genres and eras via this publication proved to be formative in my background as a creative person.
As evidenced above, I have always had the makings of a specialist. Unfortunately, my early interests rarely fit into the literature classes at school. It felt like the curriculum was made up entirely of novels taking place in rural pre-1900 America. I grew up in a quite rural area myself and lived in a house surrounded by cornfields and soybean fields as far as the eye could see. Needless to say, I was less than enthusiastic about these mandatory books on frontier life. I knew first hand what living out in the country was like and these romanticized depictions not only bored me, but left me with a suspicion that I perhaps hated reading. During English classes I thought, if this is what novels are all about maybe reading is something I don't care for.
This all changed my senior year in high school through British Literature. Every book required for that class I enjoyed. Themes of humanism and the chasing of intellectual pursuits were common among the works. The settings were frequently urban. I was hooked. From this year George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, and William Shakespeare's Macbeth all left a strong impression on me. It was also during this year that I realized my preference for absurdest humor. I read a lot by and about Douglas Adams, as well as the history of Monty Python. Furthermore, around the same period I was studying for the SAT's I remember connecting with A. J. Jacobs' memoir The Know-It-All.
College (undergrad and master's years)
My freshmen year in college I had enrolled in two comparative literature courses. The topics seemed to be based around various novels from across the world (all translated to English). I appreciated the analytical and critical aspects of pinning these texts against each other. Also during this time I dove into Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow trans.) and John Henry Newman's The Idea of a University. Soon after, my focus firmly settled on composition, and because I felt my peers already had such a strong background in classical music (many had attended high school programs like Juilliard Pre-College and the New England Conservatory Prep School), I immersed myself in the subject.
Memoirs from major contemporary composers like Gunther Schuller's The Compleat Conductor and John Adams' Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life both helped inform what the history of my profession was like in America. As I progressed in my craft my interest in more technical publications began to take over my reading list, both out of necessity and a pure love for the material. These included The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt, Olivier Messiaen's The Technique of my Musical Language, and Erno Lendvai's Bela Bartok: An Analysis of His Music.
During my final year in undergrad I received a commission to write an art song for a music festival. I took this as an opportunity to delve deeper into modern poetry. I felt strongly about using text from a contemporary writer, as I would hope those in other art forms would feel strongly about using music from a contemporary composer. Thus, I poured over hundreds of short works in various collections and anthologies. I eventually settled on Mark Strand's piece Eating Poetry. Much like the realization that I favor absurdity in humor as a high school senior, through this quest for a text I realized as a college senior that I favor surrealism in poetry.
While at Oxford for my master's I focused deeper into modernism. The most helpful and engaging publications I encountered were Marguerite Boland and John Link's Elliott Carter Studies, and Iannis Xenakis' Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition, and David Metzer's Musical Modernism at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century. In particular, Metzer's book was pivotal in my understanding and contextualization of artistic expression in today's world.
I am starting to be in the odd, yet fortuitous position where I know either the subject or the author (or both) that I happen to be reading. I had the great privilege of studying with Aaron Einbond, and recently he, along with Aaron Cassidy, published Noise in and as Music. I view this book as the next step after Metzer's work on modernism. Einbond notes that– “Its contributors are first and foremost practitioners, which inevitably turns attention toward how and why noise is made and its potential role in listening and perceiving.”
Lastly, about a year ago I was completing an artist residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). As with most artist residencies, the fellows are given a room and private studio to work on their respective project. During mealtimes everyone comes together at the dining room and socializes. At VCCA there is also a tradition of weekly readings, performances, and gallery showings by the current fellows after dinner on a given evening. This is a great, low-key opportunity for everyone to share a bit about their discipline among such a multidisciplinary group. The evening presentations throughout my time there were always a highlight; not only because of the high level each artist was working at, but also because it allowed me to see a different side of an individual that had perhaps remained hidden through the friendly discourse and daily small talk.
One of the fellows whose residency overlapped with mine was Sharon Charde, and over the few weeks we were both at VCCA we chatted quite a bit. Our conversations were different from those I would have at other institutes and festivals with composers. After a day or so with a composer I would have a clear idea about how their music would sound and how they relate to their art form before even seeing a score or hearing a recording/performance. With Sharon we spoke about PBS programs, about interpersonal relationships, about graduate school (I was probably a bundle of nerves waiting to hear back after my Stanford interview), and so on. Toward the end of my stay, Sharon mentioned that she was going to present excerpts from one of her books after dinner. I was excited to hear her readings, but honestly was not predicting what it would be like based on getting to know her.
That evening I was floored. Sharon's selections from Branch in His Hand were so intense, so wrought with beauty and sadness that I did not know how to respond to what I was hearing. Underneath the family therapist, the mother, the wife, the friend, was someone with a profound ability to express loss.