For the last 7 years I have been a composer of music, a writer, an occasional late-night painter, a designer of movement and an artistic director of many projects. One question has been asked of me over and over by colleagues, friends and family members: why is my art so dark? Must it be so violent and disturbing? And the answer is always yes, though few have inquired as to why.
Let me take you on a brief journey through my creative endeavors. My first project was creating my high school’s musical when I was 17. It was a 90-minute project about a two young women, one of whom is emotionally tormented by her parents and kicked out of her home because her family discovers that she is a lesbian. The other struggles with her attachment to a physically abusive boyfriend. When the women befriend one another, they support each other and encourage each other to begin healthy lives away from their traumatic pasts.
When I arrived in college, I wrote many personal pieces about my struggles with anxiety and depression, including a set of 24 piano preludes, many of which alluded to feelings of abandonment and insufficiency in their titles. I used Sylvia Plath and Charles Bukowski as muses for several instrumental works. I created a 2-hour long ballet about women’s self-abuse and distorted self-perception in America. And I ended up my college experience with an entire program about rape. These aforementioned pieces are only a smattering of my entire catalogue.
Throughout my entire professional status as a composer, I have only written 2 or 3 “happy” pieces. And only one of my friends ever asked “why?”
There are many reasons to create. For some people, it is to chronicle certain events or feelings. For others, it is to construct a logical system; to give art an intellectual order. Some people have no idea why they create, and they are simply compelled to do so. For me, my art has always been a detoxification process. When I take my feelings and memories and manifest them in an abstractly communicative fashion to be shared communally, a part of them becomes more distant. It is as if the honesty and vulnerability gives me permission to let go. Though it seems contradictory, immortalizing specific experiences in my life keeps them at arms length. By laying every part of me out to be seen, it is as if I give myself permission to stop keeping secrets and repressing my aches and pains.
It is not entirely a selfish process, though. My hope is that by being as open as I can stand to be, others can feel less alone in their own struggles. I have found much solace in seeing that I have shared experiences with those around me, and by seeing that those people have moved beyond their trauma or are at least on a trajectory of healing. After all, that’s what group therapy facilitates, doesn’t it? My wish is for my work to be a healing opportunity for my community, for my friends and my family. After all, once the piece is over, I am still standing before you with more to give and aspirations for the future.
My most recent endeavor, on violence, was kindly supported by the Awakenings Gallery and Foundation in Chicago. It was a seven-movement confessional piece that utilized music, performance art, film, prepared recordings, movement and audience participation. I invited all attendees to a pre-show reception in the gallery where we provided wine, cheese and the opportunity to view the featured art pieces. The gallery is home to a plethora of art works by sexual assault and abuse survivors, so when most people arrived they were shocked by the volume of disturbing images surrounding them. After that initial experience, they were to then sit through a 50-minute long work which involved a barrage of horrifying sonic and visual aspects. The climax of the piece involved the singer beating herself with her own hands until the collapsed on the floor in agony. I asked audience members to bring items that reminded them of a violent incident in their lives and leave it on the fallen performer’s back.
Needless to say, by the end of both performances, most people were in tears or deeply upset. My parents (who had known for over two years what had happened to me) were so scarred that they refused to attend the second performance. Friends came from 6 different states, and I could see in their eyes that they had a new image of me and what I struggle with on a daily basis. I could see a new reality and a new compassion for assault survivors in every person who attended. It was truly a powerful experience for everyone involved.
Since this very dramatic piece, I have felt better than ever about my own trauma, and I feel grounded enough to be more open than every, offering aid and support to others who’ve experienced the same tragedy. I am a vocal activist and I share about my experience on social media with the hope to educate as many people as possible about how survivors live and what they deal with on a daily basis. My personal happiness has skyrocketed and I feel more confident when I am at work in a bar or walking alone. I cannot put my finger on exactly what changed within me, but I attribute most of it to having the opportunity to detoxify from this awful event, and what came out of me was this incredibly sickening and disturbing work of art.
I am at a point in my career where I am striving to create more positive products, but I know what puts my mind at ease with consistency. I am grateful to have this outlet, which doubles as my own form of activism and community-building. I am grateful for those who are brave enough to sit through my work and try to understand me better. Every concert or show that I put on reveals another layer of who I am. I am grateful to know others and to be known. Furthermore, I am grateful for the peace of mind I have achieved after many attempts to be honest with myself and others.