Auto-bio, or how I got over my fear of composing

Watercoloring, my new hobby

Watercoloring, my new hobby


During school, I was focused on building classical repertoire. I started The Nouveau Classical Project around the same time I began my master’s program with $175 and luckily, musicians who were willing to volunteer to play for free for our very first benefit. The economy was ROUGH!

NCP started off very classical it has changed with me. After finishing my master’s, I became more interested in new music. I had also wanted compose but stopped whenever I tried to start: I respected composers and their craft so much that I thought I had no right to do it. Along with that, I was worried that I would not be good or successful at it since I did not start at four, like I did with piano. So I immediately walked away from the idea. 

As NCP grew, we commissioned composers and I, along with some members of my ensemble, would think of collaborative possibilities. This was the extent of my making activities. In retrospect, I wanted to be actually making things and not just assembling pieces, and that frustration would come out in weird ways.*

After primarily pursuing a career in performance and being solely a pianist for several years, I felt not just a desire, but a burning need to express and share my experiences and perspectives as a Filipinx American woman. It crossed my mind that I would have started doing this sooner if I saw more Filipinxes doing this.** Part of my motivation was just showing up, being a representative or an example for my people, but maybe that rationale was also a way to make it less personal and therefore less terrifying.*** I hit a turning point, where I decided I would make an attempt at this strong but long-feared desire to compose music.

A couple of things happened one year that pushed this decision. I was a Fellow in the Target Margin Institute for Collaborative Theater Making, which was not about theater, but about questioning one’s practice. This fellowship was a year long, and at some point during that year, two friends from high school around my age passed away. They were too young to die, and I realized that life is simply too short to not try to do something you want to do, regardless of whether or not you achieve conventional success. One other thing happened that I would rather not detail here. But just mentioning it so you know there was one other thing.

For the fellowship, I was meant to explore how to play the piano in unconventional ways, but as the fellowship went on, the TMT mentors (David Herskovits and Moe Yousuf) noticed that I often kept talking about how I wished I could compose. So they made my final investigation about finding ways to compose rather than about making a “good” composition, which further encouraged me to give myself permission to just try. Moe even said that my investigation should be trying to make a “bad” piece of music. It was hard to break out of my shell, so a lot of my practice has had to do with dismantling the perfectionist mentality.

I have always been a late bloomer so I suppose starting late makes sense. It is still often scary, and it is not easy, but I love what I do and I am grateful to be able to do it!

*This can be a whole other essay.
** Yes, there are many Asians, but we all are so different, so no, when I see another Asian I do not necessarily see someone who represents me.
***I wonder if this is part of the thought behind the zeitgiest of identity-focused art? By making it about ourselves but related to a broader identity it’s theoretically bigger than ourselves and feels altruistic? Anyway check out my piece Islander, which explores the residue colonialism has left behind and the resulting fragmentation of identity! :-D


My Worst Nightmare (Not Really)

Dream sketch 011919.jpg

Last night I had a stress dream about my new piece. I was workshopping with Laura and Hajnal, who are in my piece in real life. Laura is on her side, playing flute and trying things out. Then Hajnal’s husband, Dorian, comes to rehearsal too with small percussion equipment so I think, All right, guess I’m writing for that too. More people appear, because it turns out that Hajnal thought it they’d dig what we’re doing and would possibly take part.  

Then I see tables set up for brunch, staff bustling around in my periphery, a dance floor, some guests cheering, some dancing. I assume Hajnal had planned this as well. It turns out to be a wedding reception. I do not see a bride and groom; it simply becomes fact. We are standing next to each other, looking at the scene, and she says something that implies she is as surprised as I am. I say, You didn’t plan this? And it turns out she did not.  

I start to panic because I REALLY need to work. My friend Jay appears with an envelope that looks like one of the bank statements I actually receive in the mail and says he will go downstairs to the admin office to sort it out, since he needs to drop off a payment (which is in that envelope). Luckily, time moves by extremely slowly. I look at my phone and what was ten minutes normally was only three minutes. I don’t know how; I just know it was true in this dream. So I think, Okay cool, I have time.

Hajnal and I are talking (where the hell did Laura go?) and I tell her that some bratty girl we know, who does not exist in real life, I think her name was CJ, got put in her place.  

Right before this dream was another dream, that there was an Urban Outfitters closeout sale at the top of a mountain. This is really random, because I have not shopped there in several years. The company was bussing people back and forth at regular intervals and CJ was a diva and asking to be picked up at a specific time. She was told no (this was apparently her being put in her place). At some point, my cousin and I are on the bus but we had not gotten off, so we were going back up the mountain.  

There’s a little more, but I’ll stop there. To anyone who knows what my day was like yesterday, or knows me extremely well, this would make almost perfect sense. Psychologists theorize that dreams serve a role in memory processing, and this was absolutely a bizarre culmination of my Friday. Although it was cut short by an invasive wedding reception, I did receive one creative idea during my dream workshop.

I have felt stuck this month, but yesterday, I was able to sketch two tiny ideas. It did not make me feel like I had any more momentum, but perhaps just starting at least sparked a little bit of imagination that was able to manifest itself during sleep. Taking something from concept to creation sometimes seems nearly impossible: having to manifest all my research, personal stories, and the ways I think about life into a piece feels like trying to create a meal where nearly all of it is made from secret ingredients and no one in the world knows what they are.

I guess I should end with something cheesy like, perhaps the secret ingredients of my creativity will reveal themselves in my deepest dreams or some shit like that. I am not a writer and I need to start composing today. I just really want to make something good.