When you’re young, every small failure makes you feel as if you have been struck down. If you have fallen off your bicycle into the mud, you look around to see if anyone saw it happen. If you tripped on your own shoelace, your face goes red. If your failings are deeper than that as a child, heaven help you: you’re still glancing around months later to see if anyone is looking at you in the way you think you recognize, the way you fear because it makes you feel so incredibly small and awful.
When you get older, you begin to see failings as a kind of lesson; a lesson, or perhaps a kind of gift. You see the things you could not once do, and you see clearly the things you cannot do, and probably will never be able to do. These things are important, these closed roads, these impossible roads that we cannot, for the life of us, walk. It is as important to know what you cannot do as it is to know what you can do.
There was a box that arrived somewhere, somewhere faraway, and which someone opened. This someone found scribbled scores, pages and pages of written music. The music was all different, all radically different from piece to piece. A sympathetic soul — a teacher, maybe — might say that it was experimentation. It wasn’t: it was the attempts of a young man who perhaps was not meant to be a composer, who perhaps did not have a composer’s spirit within him, a composer’s imagination, who was struggling to find a voice that simply wasn’t there, and would never really develop.
The box arrived on a bus, I don’t know where. I don’t know where it ended up. Some kind soul ought to have looked through it, Googled the name of the composer, emailed me, and made arrangements for it to be shipped to me. No kind soul did this, but I cannot say I really, truly regret it. I have some recordings of my compositions from those early days, and someday I will be able to transfer them from the archaic DAT format to CD, and share them here on my website. But they will not be remarkable. They will not be anything like how I remember them.
I once heard a tape of a recital I performed, against my will. I had this professor who insisted I play saxophone recitals, even though, as a composition major, the recital requirements weren’t really clear and even though I’d reasonably written more than enough music to satisfy reasonable recital requirements with my compositions alone. The recital was not good, though at the time, I remember only a blankness in my mind, a strange conviction that I’d done alright, that I hadn’t choked any of the hard bits, and that it had come out alright.
The meeting with the professor afterward was crushing. He said that it wasn’t a bad recital, but nothing outstanding. He lowballed my grade — lowballed it hard, and I was certain I detected a touch of spite in the way it was just a point below a B. One single percentage point below. He was, I think, trying to give me a message I already knew; that I was not cut out to be a concert saxophonist. Of course, I already knew that; I had been fighting to have my real major — composition — recognized, and he was the one who’d forced me to give a recital as if I were a performance major. What was the point of forcing me to do something I already knew I couldn’t do? Does one, upon hearing a kid with bad Spanish, force him to give a lecture in Spanish to a class of his peers, and then tut-tut him for not doing well? That was why my professor did; and worse, he did it to me even though I had made very obvious efforts, despite a deep lack of love for the music he was making me play.
It was then that I transferred out of the Music Department. I considered it my professor’s fault for making me waste hours upon hours refining a “classical saxophone” technique that — for the sake of all that is sane — I knew I would never use, and didn’t even want to develop. I knew that I would be much better off studying other instruments, instruments that I could have used in my orchestrations if only I had a better grasp of them. I knew that this professor had wasted my time, but also that I’d been a fool for letting things be that way; that I could have done a straightforward honours in music and studied what I liked, progressed as I liked, and studied other things in other areas along the way.
I wish I could say that my biggest failure, in studying music, was that I gave into a programmed solution. I gave in to a program that was left half-built, and which by circumstance forced me into playing an instrument in a style so alien to me that I never wanted to play it that way. Yes, Branford Marsalis is an extraordinary classical saxophonist; he also wants to be one. I did not want that. But I should have seen it coming. I should have known. I should have looked harder to find a way to tailor my studies to what I really needed to learn.
But it wouldn’t be true. My biggest failing was being strongheaded in another way; I was strongheaded in my belief that I could, in fact, compose music. I even managed, by the force of will alone, to compose a few nice pieces; my first work, a minimalist piano piece, was interesting. I wrote a Latin Mass that was, people say, beautiful. And I wrote a saxophone piece in high school for my recently-deceased grandmother which was, I think, a good sketch or impression of a piece of music. But that was it. Of all my compositions, the rest were “experiments” that, in fact, consisted of me waving my hands at other composers, wondering if this was making any sense, hoping people wouldn’t catch on that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
My teachers had faith in me, though, and my friends. Several of my teachers communicated to me through siblings that I ought not to walk away from composing. Several of my friends told me that hoped I wouldn’t give up on music forever.
And I suppose I haven’t. I suppose that, in the years since, music has played a small role in my life, a role sometimes more than small. And it will play a role again, I am certain. Every few years, the itch comes, to take out a horn and start playing it, to not just fiddle a little bit, but to start with long tones and work my way through scales and modes and arpreggios and start playing melodies. The dream of playing with other people fades into and out of view.
One of the big secrets of walking away from music, you see, is that it hurts. It hurts more than you can imagine unless you have done it — or something like it — in your own life. When you walk away from music, it feels not like someone else has died, but rather that someone has left you, forever, and is living somewhere else without you. When you walk away from music, it feels like something within yourself begins to atrophy, as if your blood isn’t circulating properly and is failing to reach some part of you. It’s a horrifying, wrenching feeling.
And then you live through it. Of course you do. I was talking with a woman whose musical career was smashed to pieces in a car accident; her jaw broke, and that was the end of her serious pursuit of music. I can’t for the life of me remember whether she was a singer or a trumpeter, but I know that she had once loved music with all her heart, and lived deep inside it, and then she had needed to walk away from it. I remember saying, “I can’t imagine not being able to play music anymore. I think I would die.”
And I remember her smiling, and saying, “No, you’re just young. The human spirit is so resilient. It can spring back from just about anything.”
I guess she was right. I think about that as I contemplate living in Seoul. I think about the music I will hear, and, maybe, the music I will play there. I think about how much work it will take to be as good as I’d want to be to play in public. My time playing rock music was a reminder of how easy it is to play saxophone at a mediocre level, and just how much work it takes to really master the instrument; perhaps playing rock music was so hard for me for that reason itself — because it just didn’t take much work for me to convince people I was actually good.
I have learned one thing, though: the allure of polymathism is the allure of a man with not one finished product to his name. When I begin to approach mastery of something — an instrument, a discipline, a kind of writing — the mounting difficulty often puts me off. It drives me aside, or rather I often let it drive me aside, and then I end up courting other projects, in far-removed disciplines. Music was too hard, so I went on to writing. Writing got hard, to I went to playing sax in a rock band. That was too hard for me, so I went back to writing. I need to be vigilant about that: I need to point myself in the direction I truly want to go — publishing my writing — and push and push and push even when it gets harder and harder, until I break through.
And so that, I suppose, is my great resolution: to let none of my other interests jar me from this project of mine, this daily writing. Not music, not excuses about being tired, not health problems: I must let nothing draw me from the path I have chosen.
But what is hard, in this resolution, is the envy. Listening to Branford Marsalis, listening to the stunning compositions of Max Richter, whose album The Blue Notebook is a heart-wrenching collection of simple, beautiful minimalist pieces with a very accessible sensibility, I am filled with envy, horrible, saddened envy. Perhaps it is in this that I know writing was a firmer choice for me: I do not envy my favorite writers, but only celebrate them. But many of my favorite composers and improvisors, I envy… and this makes me listen to music less and less, which isa hurtful thing. A life is not a life without music.
I think this year I will hammer away at that: try to break apart that stone of envy and find the small bit of gold within it, and keep that for myself.
A resolution, then.