Let me put it in other words: the best way to get a project off the ground is simply to put it out there and not be afraid to ask for support. The mantra "you can't win if you don't enter" has guided me in seeing this method through to a number of small successes over the years, though it has never left me feeling surprised when the people sitting across the big, intimidating (and proverbial) desk from me quickly and calmly say, "yes."
One current project of mine is no exception, and has begun to snowball into an exciting network of support, which I am happy to report is due to reach the bottom of the hill early in the Fall of 2014 with consecutive premieres in New York and Mexico City, myself conducting. The work (now in progress) is a song cycle inspired by the work of Mexican painter Enrique Chavarría, set to texts by Rimbaud, Éluard, Valéry and Breton.
My main collaborators are the Cuarteto Latinoamericano, who themselves hail from Mexico City and who continue to assure me of their enthusiasm for performing this new piece. While the Cuarteto was the first organization I approached with this project who said "yes," my real surprise and delight came after I reached out to a number of organizations here in New York and quickly won the support of the Mexican Cultural Institute of New York (a division within the Mexican Consulate), who will be producing the premieres. Needless to say, I am thrilled to have so much support, and can't wait to get this work ready to rehearse and perform.
Here's a little more of the back story:
About ten months ago, I was confined to my bed and the most comfortable nearby chair for nearly six weeks, while I recovered from open abdominal surgery. As you can probably imagine, under the circumstances I had a lot of time to think, especially after I finally convinced myself that my cat was not going to start talking back to me. A lot of good came out of it: escaping death (thanks to the appendectomy), the motivation to finally leave Pittsburgh and move back to New York, and the sudden ascension into a realm of clarity around a number of composition and writing projects that I could never seem to push past the stage of mere intention, not to mention freshly inspired new ones.
One such project (the aforementioned) came to me while I was chatting with an artist colleague of mine over the phone. I was attempting to recall to him a series of paintings I had encountered again and again as a young boy, in the home of a friend of my father's. Every so often, we would attend parties there, and these paintings seemed to leap off the walls at me, speaking directly to my developing creative psyche and certainly informing it, pushing it along the path upon which it continues to move today.
I never learned the artist's name nor did I attain anything but a superficial knowledge of these strange works of art. Still, I found them so entrancing that I devoted many subsequent hours to reproducing their weird imagery from memory in countless notebooks and sketchpads, probably even in the margins of a few homework assignments.
After the phone call had ended, and with so much time on my hands, I decided to reach out to that same family friend and learn a little more. It had probably been twenty years since I'd seen the paintings in person, but it didn't take long for our friend to guess which ones I was talking about. That is when I came to learn of the mysterious Mexican painter, Enrique Chavarría.
In short, Chavarría (1927—1998) was a reclusive orphan with a crippling speech impediment, raised by his three maiden aunts in an old mansion in Mexico City, surrounded by mouldering books and addicted to television. It was from this vantage that he painted hundreds of oil paintings, most often in his pajamas, that provided for him an escape to a metamorphic plane inhabited by alchemical chimeras and other weird characters, who answered to his longing to be transmuted from his uncomfortable and lonely existence into some kind of perfectly illuminated being. His work was not revolutionary. Indeed, some of his paintings paid such close homage to artists such as Remedios Varo as to be considered near copies.
That said, his weird biography is the stuff of fiction, and as a result of his quest to purge himself of his imperfections his work bears an unique and personal honesty that some of his more notable mentors (such as Salvador Dali, perhaps) may have set aside in favor of fame. The most compelling summary I have come across, thanks to art historian Emily Olson's paper on the topic (the only known piece of scholarship dedicated to Chavarría's work) refers to his paintings as "totemic self-portraits," in which various aspects of his being are represented by alchemical symbols, beasts and implied chemical and natural processes.
Learning all of this immediately brought me back to those parties, when I would stand in the corridor and stare into Chavarría's universe in amazement, through his psychic mirrors of masonite and turpentine. The realization that I now had to bring this early influence into the spotlight and create a new piece of music inspired by these paintings came quickly and easily. It was as though my adolescent self, unaware of his destiny to pursue the arts as a career, came face-to-face with my present self and gave me a strong kick in the pants, urging me to 'get on with it already!'
Don't worry, I'm on it!
Here is a recording of a past collaboration with the Cuarteto Latinoamericano, the world premiere performance of my string quartet "Himalaya," which won first prize in the Harry Archer String Quartet Competition, something like my junior year in undergraduate. After more than ten years I definitely lump this piece into my body of "student work," destined for the archives. That said, I'm still quite proud of a lot of the material, so please have a listen: