Loving Modern Music is Like Falling Off a Boulder
by Drew Holmes
In his recent article Do Something You Suck At, Michael Easter talks about his bouldering experiences the Mojave Desert near his home in Las Vegas, NV. An absolute beginner at the activity, he describes the process of gaining competency and how the first step was accepting that he would be bad at it. There were many falls (and one severely twisted ankle), but Easter learned that the risk of looking foolish was well worth the reward of enjoying the activity.
Through not caring what other people thought he discovered a new hobby that, while he will never be world class at, he thoroughly enjoys. In the process he broke up the ongoing monotony of his pandemic-era experience and learned more about himself.
Reading the article, I remembered my time in the Bridgewater State College Band. It was senior year in high school and the members of my brass quintet invited me to join the group. The concert band was fun and familiar, and I immediately fit right in. Being the self-assured (okay, cocky) trumpet player I was at that age, I said yes without hesitation when Dr. Garcia asked me to be in another ensemble.
At the first rehearsal I knew I had made a mistake. These was not the familiar pieces by Leroy Anderson or Percy Grainger I had come to expect. Instead, the piece on my stand was by William Duckworth, a composer I had never heard of. This was modern, experimental music and I was out of my depth.
Rather than look foolish by quitting the group, I decided to lean into it and give it a try. Besides, my friends had vouched for me to get the college band in the first place. I’d rather look bad fumbling my way through some modern music than make them look bad for including me.
And then a funny thing happened. Though the music we were playing was completely foreign to me, I started to understand it. Eventually I enjoyed it. Cracking the code was like learning the punchline to an inside joke and my time with the group was fun.
The next year found me a freshman at Drew University in Madison, NJ, and in a first-year seminar class about modern music. There I discovered the works of composers like Laurie Anderson and Meredith Monk. The class had a field trip to BAM, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where I was in the audience for the performance Philip Glass’ film score to La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast).
December of senior year the Drew University Orchestra collaborated with the University Chorale for the Daniel Pinkham Christmas Cantata. Professor Nair gave me high praise saying that I could “make a living playing this piece.” For my senior recital, the first half included Enesco’s Legend and the infamous Sonata for Trumpet and Piano by Kent Kennan.
At baccalaureate that same year we played a piece called Heart-Rhythm by Marius Monnikendam. From Professor Nair’s research, it had been commissioned for a cardiology conference in 1975 and our performance was only the second ever. After graduation I would return to BAM, not in the audience but as librarian for the Brooklyn Philharmonic, an ensemble known for performing modern and cutting-edge music.
Throughout all these experiences I have learned to love modern and experimental music. Whether it is as a performer, librarian, or audience member I enjoy participating and shaping the direction of this cutting edge of the art form.
By trying something new, taking a chance at embarrassing myself, and not worrying about looking foolish I found composers and music I did not know existed. And it was a lot less painful than falling off a boulder.