It's always about the credentials with you

At the beginning of the month my partner and I moved into a new apartment in Nashua. It’s been really great so far except for two things.


  1. There are four storage spaces in the basement but only three apartments. God knows who’s using the fourth but it didn’t really bother me. When we first moved in the last tenant left a brand new microwave. (She was evicted from the place - it took me a good two weeks to get the eviction notice off of our door - and I guess just left some things behind?). Anyway, we already have a microwave so I thought to myself that I was going to plan for the future and put the microwave that she left down in our storage space. Naively I didn’t buy a lock for the storage door. Why should I just assume that my brand new neighbors are going to steal? Especially a microwave. Anyway, the other day my partner went into the basement and came back to tell me that our microwave was missing. BUT she peeked through the slats in the wall into the other storage space and saw it sitting there. WHO’S USING THAT STORAGE SPACE? We don’t know! It’s not even that we need an extra microwave but it’s the principle of the thing. But I went out and bought a lock so now the flattened cardboard boxes sitting in my basement are nice and secure.

  2. That previous tenant that I mentioned earlier - she also left a washer and dryer. The washer is great but the dryer doesn’t produce any heat, it just kind of endlessly tumbles wet clothes around. My assumption was that tumbling wet clothes around might be even marginally quicker than letting things air dry but i was wrong. So that leads me to why at 11:00 PM on a Monday night is when I decided it’s time I start committing to writing a blog post every week.


What I want to talk about tonight is how I have a really cool part time job. It’s actually one of the only things outside of music that I really enjoy doing. I work for a non-profit here in New Hampshire. I’m actually not supposed to say too much about what it is I actually do because the company is pretty serious about employees not speaking publicly about their jobs.


At first when I was told that I thought, “That’s kind of weird. Any publicity is probably good publicity, right?”




One of my coworkers - I’ll call her “Erin” - discovered that one of my other coworkers - I’ll call him “Sam” - went on a podcast to talk about our job. Now without giving too many details about what we do, the easiest comparison is that we do something that is similar to the Big Brother / Big Sister program. Knowing nothing about that program I believe that ours is somewhat more structured and is paid for by school districts but that’s aside from the point. Anyway, Sam goes on this podcast to talk about our job and the podcast that he goes on is a largely weed-centric talk show that also often diverts itself to saying misogynistic and creepy things about girls - especially drunk girls. So Sam says a lot of things about our job and also reveals a bunch of personal information about his client and then proceeds to talk about “these drunk bitches” he met at a party the other night and you can kind of see where things might go from there. So Erin shows me this podcast and I suddenly totally understand why we’re really not supposed to talk about this job in a public forum. Even with really great intentions if I say something that the company doesn’t necessarily endorse it puts them in a really awkward situation - especially if that public forum might be even vaguely high profile.


So I’m not going to be specific about the job but what I really wanted to talk about today anyway is that I had a really interesting day last Friday. The client I got to work with has a part time job at a music school where he helps to fix instruments. The clients aren’t usually focused on music. It was just a happy accident and we get along quite well. So this client - I’ll call him “John” - while he’s working on fixing a saxophone says to me, “I know you’re a composer so I mentioned it to one of the teachers here. He wants to meet you! He’s going to come by and say hi.” “Great!” I say.


What follows is my conversation with the aforementioned teacher (who I’ll call “Steve”)


Greg and John are sitting at a table a the end of a long hallway lined by classrooms. Steve approaches.


JOHN: Hi Steve! This is Greg. The guy I told you about. He’s a composer.


GREG: Hi Steve - nice to meet you.


Greg holds his hand out but Steve ignores it.


STEVE: Hi Greg. So you want to be a composer?


GREG: Oh well I am a composer. John told me that you are too?


STEVE: Well are you a real composer?


GREG: I’m not really sure what that means.


STEVE: Anyone can say that they’re a composer. Do you have any credentials?


John continues working.


GREG: Well I have a master’s degree from Boston Conservatory.


STEVE: Oh, well have you written anything?


GREG: Well yeah. I’ve written an opera and a few orchestral pieces and a lot of chamber works.


STEVE: You can’t write for orchestra unless you can write for string quartet.


GREG: I guess so. But I’ve written for both so I think I’m okay. What kinds of things do you write?


Steve ignores Greg’s question.


STEVE: Well if you’ve written an opera have you written a song cycle?


GREG: Yes, I’ve written a few actually. I’ve done a lot of work for piano and voice but I’ve experimented with cello and voice as well. It’s a really great combination.


STEVE: Anything can be a good combination if you know what you’re doing.


GREG: Yes, that’s true. What kinds of things do you write?


STEVE: Well if you’ve actually written an opera you know how much work goes into organizing musicians.


GREG: Yes it is a lot of work.


STEVE: You don’t have to tell ME that it’s a lot of work.


GREG: Okay…


STEVE: Well i have my string quartets performed every year.


GREG: That’s great. I’d love to hear them sometime.


STEVE: Well they’re recorded.


GREG: Great. You’ll have to write down a website for me?


STEVE: So if you’re such an accomplished composer what are you doing working with John?


GREG: It’s just a job but I really like it.


STEVE: Well are you writing?


GREG: Yes I’m working on some commissions and I’m starting a concert series in Boston.


STEVE: Boston has bigger crowds. But it’s more expensive. I know people there.


GREG: That’s nice. It is more expensive. I’m lucky because I’m part of a really great and supportive community and I have a space for free.


STEVE: Well isn’t that nice?


Steve walks away without saying anything.


I hope that my depiction of the conversation accurately displays how frustrating and strange this conversation was. Nobody likes to feel like they have to argue for their legitimacy in a particular field, but it also seems like in new music we spend most of our time arguing for our legitimacy. So to have a fellow composer dismiss me out of hand like that I think is understandably vexing.


A few weeks ago I was really fortunate enough to attend (and even speak at) New Music Gathering - held this year at Boston Conservatory where I just received my Master’s in Music. Almost every conversation I had at the conference was the exact opposite of the one I had with Steve. Two moments stand out to more than the rest. The first is that I ran into Steven Snowden, a composer who I really admire and respect. I just saw him standing around before Helga Davis’ keynote address and walked over to say hi. He was really great and really friendly! He asked a lot of the same questions that our friend Steve did earlier but with the intention to actually learn and communicate. The second moment that’s been sticking with me is a conversation with the violist Michael Hall. Michael is a performer of new music and helped to start the Bandung Philharmonic. Michael is another musician I really admire and it was exciting to talk to him in person. Again, what was really cool is that he wanted to talk with me about my project The Boston New Music Calendar. Taking the time to crowd source, list, and promote new music events is a pretty dumb thing that is likely to drive me fucking insane but Michael had a lot of great ideas and input into the project. He treated me like an equal even though in my mind he’s a minor celebrity.


The theme of this year’s New Music Gathering was inclusivity and while a lot of the conversations focused on issues of making new music an equitable endeavor for everyone, one of the topics that came up more often than not was the issue of gaining a wider audience for new music. What that really means is that people want to know how to make new music something that isn’t entirely restricted to academia. This illustrates the central difference between my conversation with Steve and everything that happened at New Music Gathering. Steve represents the sect of classical music obsessed with credentials. Steve doesn’t remember that there was a time (not really that long ago) when when musical academics didn’t really exist. The idea of a musician having one full time job is a very modern idea, and one that’s fading so quickly it might as well not even exist. To be fair Steve is literally the first person I’ve ever met (or heard of) who’s asked another musician about their ‘credentials’ but he represents the pretentious elite of classical music. New Music Gathering represents the other sect of musicians who desperately want to see our small community flourish and grow. Being a member of the new music community reminds me a lot of what it feels like to go to a really great DIY punk show. Everyone wants to meet everyone else and even when the music you’re hearing sucks it doesn’t really matter because the act of doing the work is sometimes a little better than the work itself.


I don’t know how we can make our community have less people like Steve. He was a little outlandish but he’s definitely not an outlier. I actually suspect that a lot of people who aren’t involved in classical music might think that most of us are Steves. I actually met so many Steves when I was in high school that I swore off becoming a composer for a few years. It took meeting some real composers and performers of empathy to get me to where I am now (they don’t know it but I’ll always be indebted to Kate Soper and the MIVOS Quartet for this). Until we figure out how to treat each other with a little more compassion I’ll gladly be there to make Steve as uncomfortable as he made me.