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Losing My Uniqueness

I’ve had this dream for the past two years to study music composition in Germany. This summer, I went to Darmstadt and Berlin to see if such a thought had any sanity or grounding to it. Over there, I discovered an unforeseen appreciation for the parts of me that were not unique.

For a short radio segment I asked composer Ling-Hsuan Huang to describe contemporary music in three words. Her response was, “Personal, Bold, and Child-like.”

I spent two weeks at the Darmstadt Ferienkurse. This once-every-two-years event is an international hub for contemporary music. A festival, study course, and research conference all at once, it's quite literally an all you can eat buffet of contemporary music. I was there producing a daily podcast, as well as writing concert reviews, spotlights, and interviews for the festival blog. Personal highlights included Sarah Nemtsov’s orchestral work dropped.drowned, Speak Percussion’s Fluorophone concert, a talk from Georgina Born on Audiencing, swimming in the lake by the hostel, and interviewing Liza Lim. Going to Darmstadt had also had a personal significance beyond just the concerts, lectures, and courses. This trip was a pilgrimage of sorts. When I entered into the contemporary music community five years ago I felt as though I was dropped into the middle of a longstanding discussion. Even outside of the music community, people understand that art and art-music has been existentially questioning itself for the past few decades. What is the purpose of art? Who is art for? Is art good/bad for society? Can art fight injustice? Is art too elite? These questions take on a particular urgent intensity in the contemporary music community, for whom this art is not only a passion, but also a profession and ideological statement. If my curiosity of Darmstadt would lead me to a greater family of like-minded artists, then I needed to go. However, if my curiosity was rooted in an invisible desire to become more elite and alienating, I still needed to go and discover that for myself as well.

In that same radio segment with Huang, another person gave the answer, “Fighting the Past.” Even another said, “I’m not ready.”

So which did my curiosity yield? Honestly, both sides of my imagined outcome. On one hand, the community was surreal. I found myself bumping into so many artists I had met over the years. Some had come to participate in courses and lectures, but many others simply came to hang out. Beyond those I knew personally, I found myself constantly walking past composers whom I had only seen through the internet. Brian Ferneyhough on the train, Rebecca Saunders at the pizza shop, Johannes Kreidler biking to a lecture, it felt a little bit like I was on the set for a contemporary music TV sitcom-drama.

As for the ideological discourse, in some ways it was even more urgent and active. This year, the festivals largest research conference was titled “Defragmentation.” It was a conference on curation, focused specifically on the ways art can better shift itself towards a direction of greater inclusivity. But on top of that, there was GRINM, Gender Relations in New Music. This grass-roots organization was not run by Darmstadt, but it held a parallel festival with its own programming on curation, diversity, and inclusivity on the front lawn of the festival’s main building. I sense that these conversations will always be a part of my contemporary music journey. They are not something I can opt out of. Rather, the very nature of being an artist in contemporary music means signing up for these discussions and fostering a practice of self-criticality.

I did find the community at Darmstadt to be extremely special. To my surprise, I was happy to find that I was actually not so remarkable out there. What do I mean by that? Throughout high school and college, I had the privilege of feeling quite “unique” among my community. Not only have I always been characterized as a strange, wild, and weird personality (something I accept happily), but also my professional pathway always felt like an uncommon one. In my whole four years at Harvard College, I was the only person, to my knowledge, who graduated with solely a degree in music (there were a handful of students who graduated with joint degrees). Within the music department, I was one of only five undergraduates who were pursuing contemporary music after college. On one hand, this had incredible benefits. I grew close with professors and graduate students. I was also the recipient of resources that I likely would not have gotten in a larger program.

Along with this though, I developed a particular sort of ego. I began to take pride in being unique only for unique’s sake, and this came with its own insecurities. When I was in a writer’s block, when I received a rejection letter, or when I saw a colleague of mine winning a prize I had submitted work for, it was hard for me to look around and know so few others who were going through similar experiences. At these moments, I would look at my dream of studying in Germany and wonder if I was absolutely out of my mind. At Harvard I met a lot of extremely talented musicians, most of whom were not going into music related professions. Was studying music really the best use of the resources and privilege that I had been given? When I arrived in Germany, these questions were cast in a completely different light. At Darmstadt, no one was amazed that I wanted to move to Germany. No one was amazed that I was interested in multi-media music theater. No one was amazed that I chose to study music at Harvard. Yet, while no one was amazed, there were many with whom I felt an empathetic connection. There were many interested in multi-media music theater, and there were many who had moved to Germany from their home country. There were many who had been granted similar resources and privileges and were choosing to steward them through a vocation in contemporary music. At Darmstadt, everything that I had invested in uniqueness effectively became insignificant. I felt challenged to not only seek that which was uncommon, but also to exhibit focus and profundity. I was inspired to not merely create music theater, but to create it in a way that stood strong among everyone else. For the opportunities I had been granted, I felt called to engage in those conversations I found at “Defragmentation” and GRINM with an even greater conviction than before.

I also felt a comfort, knowing that there were people out there, all over the world, who were making similar pilgrimages, asking similar questions, and seeking similar treasures. After Darmstadt, I took a language class in Berlin where I met Jiyou Kim. In this class for general language learning, I learned that Jiyou was a visual artist from Pusan, Korea. She was interested in doing a masters in visual art in Berlin because of its large contemporary art community. Not only was I surprised to meet a contemporary artist completely outside of an arts setting, I was surprised to see that she wasn’t that surprised by our conversation. While it is a dream for me to see the contemporary art community more integrated with the greater public, perhaps for Jiyou this was not such a distant reality.

Martin Luther, before he nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg, traveled into the mountains to live as a monk. It was in this solitude that he discovered his need to return to the public sphere.

Moving to Germany in 2019/2020 for a Master’s degree will not bring my art closer to the public sphere. In a way, I am actually making a decision to become even more isolated. But I believe that such a move has significance. I sense that chapter of life will be one of focus and reflection, but one that is unto an eventual return to the States. In the meantime, I’ll be living near Los Angeles, working at Monday Evening Concerts and teaching at the Orange County School of the Arts. Here’s to a smooth year of graduate school applications!

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