Growing Pains: Leaning into the Unfamiliar

Art is a language that does not need to be translated.
Back Pocket Duo performing “Empathy” by Ivan Trevino Video by Toko Shiiki

Back Pocket Duo performing “Empathy” by Ivan Trevino
Video by Toko Shiiki

This quote from Jose, a clarinet student from Trade Winds’ 2017 music camp, still echoes in my ears every time I approach a new project, and working with Trade Winds for the past few years has really helped me better realize just how accessible and impactful music can be as a tool for transcending social barriers—language being just one example. This idea has evolved into my philosophy of teaching and has inevitably become more entangled with my composition projects, most recently, through a collaboration with the Back Pocket Duo called “The Empathy Project”.

Back Pocket (Annie Jeng, pianist and Colin McCall, percussionist) commissioned several composers to develop new works which focus on the theme of empathy to create an hour-long narrative concert experience which aims to blur the lines between traditional roles delineated in concert music: performer to performer, performer to listener, composer to performer to listener, etc. Back Pocket explains that “ultimately, we want audiences to walk away with a new perspective, hopefully with a newfound awareness for the way they treat others.” When we first sat down to discuss my piece for the project, they invited me to incorporate text, improvisation, movement, or anything else in an effort to approach empathy from as many interdisciplinary art forms as possible.

To explore this scary (to me) pursuit, I started somewhere familiar, by reading. Be it poetry, screenplays, or scripts, there’s something about reading words to myself that switches on my internal sonic space. Time and time again, I find myself looking to the poetry of Geoffrey Nutter for inspiration—the way he uses language and the way his words appear on the page and knock around in my mind’s ear, stretching my imagination and reality in a really satisfying way. I’ve always loved that at times his arrangements of words sometimes don’t make sense right away, but still inspire such a clear feeling or mood. To me, the “meaning” behind Geoffrey’s poetry is interpretive and subjective, derived from the overall essence of the words working together as they appear vs. standard linguistic rules. It’s a kind of comforting discomfort that is both gratifying—and confusing—to experience when you’re in an unfamiliar place. For the resulting work which I’ve named Crystals, I settled on one of Geoffrey’s poems that I broke up by stanza into four movements which can be arranged by the performers and placed throughout the concert in whatever arrangement they choose.

What if we were born immune to fire?
Some, I’ve heard, were born that way.
Others might become so over time.
You can’t understand them,
but they bear you up in their hands
through the flame.

To live in time is to watch all thoughts
the god of Love has posed
arrange themselves into star-like crystals—
You can’t understand those thoughts
but you can see them.

The shifting, brilliant patterns
big as the sea
fall into place;
then, like the sea,
shift and fall into place again.

And they all fall into place yet again.
And they bear you up in their hands
yet again.


And for the unfamiliar “outside-of-the-box” element of the piece, I turned to a space in which I have been most challenged as an artist and teacher. As a group, we work together to develop creative games and lesson plans for our students which, more and more, have incorporated elements of improvisation and composition. One particularly exciting activity utilized In C by Terry Riley as its model. The radical 1964 work has inclusivity built into its framework in that it can be performed by any ensemble of musicians, allows choice for when to play, and is all about participation and communication. Our students at RefugeeOne, non-musicians and non-native English speakers, created their own version of In C by using blank cells (a single measure with an open-ended repeat sign), basic solfège and note letter names, a simple rhythmic notation system, and iPad keyboards to contribute to an overall communal piece. The final work was given a public performance, and we highlighted each students’ cell by projecting their composition onto an overhead and acknowledged each as the cells were introduced into the texture. This exercise was inspired by our belief that anyone, regardless of native language or background, has the ability to create and express themselves using music composition and improvisation.

In a similar vein, Crystals explores the idea of musical “games” and uses improvisation in each of the four movements, inspired by those we play with our students. This includes providing loosely-written musical material on which the performers are asked to improvise, moments where the performers have to choose a mutual physical or musical gesture that is used throughout the piece as a motif, and on-the-spot decision making about various parameters throughout the piece. By building the work’s framework around aleatoric and improvisatory elements, my goal was to feature empathic responses, verbal and non-verbal communication, ambient sound, and meditation while inviting audience to do the same. In addition, Anne and Colin ask the audience to participate in the concert by contributing answers to thought-provoking questions, inviting audience members on “stage” to improvise alongside them, and reading aloud their reflections on question prompts. It is Back Pocket’s belief that “this communal participation helps the audience to feel as though they are part of the performance.”

While it may be difficult in the moment, I've learned to use poetry, empathetic teaching, “scary” artistic requests, and collaborations to embrace those uncomfortable, vulnerable moments in my work as a composer. And in those unfamiliar+uncomfortable spaces, I’ve found a surprising sense of comfort and clarity that allows the music or the teaching or the performance to be placed secondary and the human element of the work to come first; be it student, audience, participant, performer, or anyone else. It’s in this space that one might reflect on and wrestle with complicated topics such as “empathy” or “language” and thus come out on the other side as a changed person.