What I Would Do / What I AM Doing

While I have a lot of ongoing projects right now (between the opening of Prospect Hill with IU Theatre a few weeks ago, my Aspen projects - an orchestra piece, a chamber work for ACE, and a brass fanfare - and, of course, continuing work on the Ex-Files), the one which has been exciting me the most in recent weeks is a commission from composer-colleague and bass-vocalist Justin Parish. He has a recital coming up this summer and is graciously using that time to commission several of his composer friends to write new works. Justin has been a great source of support, care, wisdom, and compositional advice during my time at IU; he is also an adventurous spirit, so I was all too happy to work with him on this project.

From the premiere of hashtagmasonjar in Bloomington, IN
When we first met up to talk about the piece, we both agreed that we wanted to deal with subject matter outside of "unrequited love" and "lamenting, evil bass." He had heard my latest vocal work, hashtagmasonjar, and was hoping for something equally quirky and fun to break up the rest of what the program was shaping up to be. We toyed around for awhile with different poets, short stories, folklore, and non-literary text sources (such as old voicemails, Trump tweets, etc.), but I ended up stumbling on another idea entirely.  And, while I still wanted to write something that would act as a counterpoint to the other works on the recital, the text ultimately dictated a different feel from hashtagmasonjar entirely.

A long time ago - back when everyone was obsessed with decorative-quote-pictures - I read a question that has stuck with me. It simply asked: What would you do if you weren't afraid? The picture came to mind, and I was intrigued how other people might respond. So, using the wonders of social media, I asked (inviting those who didn't wish to post publicly to send a message). The varied range of responses was startling, especially since I ended up hearing mostly from people I didn't know very well. Most of my closest friends didn't contact me at all with their answers, but acquaintances and near-strangers were perfectly willing to divulge their secret dreams; many posted publicly, but I received a number of responses anonymously. One of the respondents and I even ended up chatting well beyond the confines of the post.

Over the next week or so, I compiled answers into a list and set to work making a text. Justin loved the idea and the resultant text, so we're both very excited to start work on this brand new venture. I've included the full "working version" of the text below:


What I Would Do

If I wasn't so afraid,
I would sing - sing at the top of my lungs
As if this room were a mountaintop.
I would even sing in front of
judgmental, sitting strangers.
I would sing if I wasn't so afraid.

I would learn to dance,
I would tell someone I love them,
I would drive someplace new,

I would...

If I wasn't scared,
I would travel the world alone,
Stop saving my money for worries, pack up my bags,
and go.
I wouldn't care what lonely people thought,
from the safety of their crowds,
I would go in a moment if I wasn't scared.

I would speak louder and call people on the phone,
I would skydive, or write a book,
I would quit my job,

I would...

If I wasn't petrified,
I would finally deal with my
obsessive, impulsive, self-destructive,
self-effacing, addictive behaviors.
I would function even though I've changed what I once believed
to be fundamental.
I would, if I wasn't petrified.

But I am.
I am so afraid.

So I will not sing.
I will not see the world.

And I will never change.


Usually I work with the vocal line in little chunks at a time, developing the accompaniment simultaneously - in this way, there are times for both the instrumental lines and the vocal line to take the lead, making the instrumental less accompanimental and more fundamental. However, this time I'm finding that setting the vocal line in it's entirety is actually proving a lot more productive. Something about the text is very forward and commanding, so I will be interested to see how the rest of the work develops around it. I'm finding that there are a lot of other colors to the voice that I'd like to explore - sounds outside of the standard bel canto sound. Justin has a particularly interesting array of colors in his voice, being able to sing in the low register of the bass with rich, full tone, but also manages some impressive falsetto ranges.

This is my decisive face. I promise.
Surprisingly, the instrumentation is still being finalized and it is a bit frightening how wildly my ideas have fluctuated regarding this seemingly crucial element of the work. At one point I thought perhaps just a string quartet - with it's natural tendency to fluctuate in performance. Then I was thinking all percussion, to highlight the incredible range of colors that Justin can accomplish with his voice. I considered a small mixed ensemble of a single string, wind, brass, and percussion instrument. I toyed with solo harp. I thought about doing away with the instruments all together. It's hard to say what will end up happening, but the more I work with the text, the more clearly I hear what is going to happen with the background.

I'm excited to explore all of this with Justin as we brave this new piece about fear together!