I struggle a lot with my musical career, always wondering if I am doing the right thing or if I went into the right field of study. I never formally finished my degree as a pianist and becoming a composer was not something that I anticipated when I first entered school to study classical piano. I have always had a fascination with the avant-garde side of music: I was obsessed with Cage and Ligeti early on in my life. John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes as well as Ligeti’s “Fanfares” from Études come to mind as works that truly blew my mind when I was in high school. I would find myself overwhelmed by their output and engraving style and because of this thought I could never write real “new” music. Despite some initial self-doubt in my undergraduate, I eventually switched majors to pursue Composition and completed both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree. Since finishing in 2015, I have been freelancing as a professional composer and pianist ever since.
Early on in my writing career, I learned how to write complex and dense music. It is a skill I am grateful to understand and happy to have in my back pocket, but especially as I traversed academia. One of the biggest lessons I remember from my graduate school professor Stacy Garrop at Roosevelt University, however, was that I did not have to limit myself to this way of writing. I had originally been taught that this style of writing was the proper - or even the only - way of acquiring work and becoming a “successful” composer in the academic field. After a year of grappling with this, I had a major breakthrough in my writing style and began composing music I not only felt proud of, but I also wanted to hear.
For some background: I employ a very eclectic style of composing ranging from theatrical music, sound-based composition and noise improvisation, to minimalism. I’m going to focus on minimalism for a little now for the purposes of this entry. I recently started a series at St. Vincent DePaul Catholic Church called “Music, Stillness, Solidarity.” It happens every Tuesday night for an hour in the evening and is meant to be a sanctuary for those looking for a moment to collect themselves after a long day. The church is a large, beautiful, resonant space that lends itself to introspective thought and meditation. The project has been slowly gaining steam, and I have begun inviting musical guests to improvise with me or to play for an hour themselves.
For the musicians performing, it becomes its own form of meditation since the music tends to be soft and relaxed. One fellow collaborator, tubist Akshat Jain, commented:
Jon’s meditation hour allows both the performers and those in attendance to break from their surroundings... you’ll find a mesmerizing soundscape, entirely improvised, using any combination of instruments and featuring their beautiful organ... Jon’s open mindedness and curiosity allow for a very free space for the instrumentalists to collaborate in.
I have been so happy with this series as of late because everyone who walks in leaves more at peace in some way or other. What is even more exciting is that people from all sorts of backgrounds have started to come into the space to meditate. It’s not just for musicians, but becomes a safe space for people in completely different places in their lives, from those recovering from abuse to those seeking a moment to themselves. In addition to the individuals embracing the quiet, I’ve seen entire families walk in and stay for more than half an hour just to sit in the quiet as we improvise, with our youngest participant being only a few weeks old. Among regular attendees is a person from AA who was among the first to come to the series when it began. They told me they felt more centered and at peace with themselves as they navigated their own issues. They then said they would tell their friends about it and now there is a regular group of people who come in to meditate and heal. I know that life is difficult and this meditation hour is not a solution to all problems, but hearing feedback like this inspires me to continue to provide this space for my community.
Since starting this series, I’ve seen movement towards a more relaxed sound in my own writing style. For example, in my first solo piano album, I am using my meditative improvisation style to compose a set of piano études that are challenging to play, requiring rhythmic control and virtuosic movement on the keyboard for the performer, but are meditative in nature for the listener. Rhythmic play is very stimulating and engaging to me, and I’ve found it’s also something that centers me. Transferring the complex language of writing I was originally taught into music that is also accessible to any listener is my ultimate goal. My wife and fellow Trade Winds Ensemble member Suzanne and quite a few of my friends have been encouraging me to write these improvisations down. It’s finally happening and it’s the most excited I’ve been to compose for quite a bit now!
My love for the avant-garde hasn’t left and I certainly still improvise in the “noise music” scene in Chicago, but this new form of writing has given just a bit more meaning and drive to my life as I navigate how to best contribute to my community as an artist.