Reach: A Correspondence
I had the pleasure of meeting Michi back in late 2017, at a late-night music department get-together, while we were both grad students at Stanford. Like others who’ve had the privilege of speaking with her, I was blown away by her intellectual energy, by the range of her creative interests and capacities as a visual artist, violinist, writer, and scholar. In the few years we overlapped in Palo Alto, I was lucky to riff with her on topics we still care deeply about—musical and kinesthetic imaginations, composition across media, aesthetic crunchiness, queer women of color feminism, decolonial theory-praxis, community building. Many of those conversations were made possible by a critical-creative Tiny Studio Salon series that Michi organized and ran out of her apartment for those few years, which she did on top of her coursework and performance responsibilities. Totally inspiring.
Last July, amidst the convergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the global protests for Black life (what Stuart Hall would have called the present “conjuncture”), after having just moved to a new place in Los Angeles, and Michi to her childhood home in North Carolina, I could think of no better way to stay connected than through making music somehow. I sent Michi a quick text. Thankfully(!), she was game to collaborate.
In the three months that followed, what came of that collaboration was essentially an epistolary musicking—a vibrational correspondence both asynchronous (in our inventing and sounding separately, then sharing over the Internet) and synchronous (in the shared, fictive, musical time of our experiments). We exchanged a wide range of audio files—serene, crackly piano loops; crunchy violin textures; experimental pop stems; local, outdoor sound recordings; anything that moved us. We honestly didn’t know at first what form we wanted our work to take; we just wanted to create something together. This still strikes me as an honest way of doing closeness, of practicing friendship. Our closeness, a sonic proximity, pursued during an apocalypse in which physical distance meant biological safety; our epistolary musicking: a sharing of sound letters that, as anthropologist David Scott notes of written ones, can in the best cases “disclose” and “enact” “relational sentiments and virtues we commonly think of as internal to friendship”: “affection, loyalty, indulgence, sympathy, complementarity, tolerance, equality, stability, candor, respect, truthfulness, liberality, trustworthiness.”
“More than any other . . . form,” Scott continues, “the letter has the capacity to honor friendship—to give friendship its measure and its due.”
Eventually, after some laggy live jamming via Zoom, some tipsy syncopated improvisations, and some refreshingly “out” explorations of timbre, Michi and I began circling back to where we’d started—toward a wistful, even pastoral musical universe filled with subtle, unnamed dissonances. There was a familiarity to this aural space that spoke to and shook both of us in ways that marked our differences and distances, our traumas and musical experiences. As artists conscious of our social positionalities—as a white-presenting Japanese American woman from North Carolina, on the one hand, and a light-skinned Chicanx man from South Texas, on the other—we began to acknowledge these difficulties, interrogating our difficult relationships to Western art music while composing a piece in its cosmos.
In conversations and letters, Michi generously shared stories of her upbringing in the very house to which she’d returned in Greenville, and of her early years studying violin with her mother. Michi’s mom taught her using the Suzuki method—a form of music instruction developed by Shinichi Suzuki in part “to create channels for peace in the wake of Hiroshima,” and also deeply entangled “with oppressive and exclusive power structures.” I shared stories of my mother as well as my maternal grandfather—about their lives and musicalities shaped by the U.S.–Mexico borderlands, their shared solaces in Romantic sounds, and their presence in my musical intuitions.
As Michi and I continued working on our piece—the form of which had emerged from unmuting, rearranging, and processing over fifty separate violin recordings, which, as Michi put it, felt incredibly “on-the-nose” metaphorically(!)—we reflected on some of the ways we and our families have suffered classical music’s colonizing infrastructures: the entanglements of sound and timbre with gender, ability, race, class, empire; the insistent whiteness of many music conservatory spaces; the tacit associations of personal worth and musical performance. As La Maestra Cherríe Moraga instructs: we “dug up the dirt.”
As we opened up to one another across our many distances, geographically removed from many people we love, something wonderful and unexpected happened: through our doing of friendship, our epistolary musicking, we started to hear ourselves, each other, and our families’ musical histories with a new compassion—a compassion arrived at, surprisingly, by way of a familiar and estranging musical language, a shared “mother tongue” that both is and is not our own. This felt, still feels, like what it might mean for the two of us to “honor friendship,” to give it “its measure and its due.”
When we finally finished this piece, and we’d sent it to dear friend and producer-historian Charlie Vela in the Rio Grande Valley, who generously mastered the track to bring forward the rich, bassy depths of our explorations, Michi and I started reflecting on what this had meant to us—how difficult and rewarding our shared excavations had been. As I listen to our track now, gazing out my darkened window at the western edge of a breathless country, I can’t help but feel closer to home, to family, to Michi—to the hope inherent in reaching for someone, somewhere.
I met Jonathan a few years ago and developed the sort of full-throttle creative and scholarly crush that in high school and undergraduate years would have entirely prevented me from talking to him. At the time, he was working intensively on his dissertation, while also shaping and tending what could easily have counted for a second dissertation, his transmedia collaboration Futuro Conjunto with producer Charlie Vela and a network of amazing Rio Grande Valley artists. My first taste of this project came in one of my Tiny Studio Salons, when Jonathan, seated on the floor of my studio apartment, gathered all twenty or so of us who were participating into the warm, page-long world of a fictive concert set in the year 2120. Just over a year after that Tiny Studio gathering, in the early days of the COVID lockdown, he shared a musical track with a group of people gathered via Zoom: “HEATDEATH,” by the in-universe band Simonada. The track still puts a lump in my throat as I listen today—the gorgeous bend of those trumpets, the urgent stagger of the beat.
So obviously, when Jonathan asked if I wanted to make music together, I immediately said yes.
We had both just moved away from campus, Jonathan to Los Angeles for an academic position, and me to my childhood home in North Carolina, so our collaboration took the form of a web of exploratory video calls, Google Jamboard sketches, texts, emails, and layers of audio recordings and Logic projects. The track we’re sharing here is less the tip of an iceberg than a single snapshot of a multi-part trip, the highlights of which for me include jamming to groovy bass lines sent by Jonathan and inventing textural corners of an imaginary shared space.
There were a couple of moments when I got stuck. Early on, Jonathan sent a serene piano-based response to a reaching gesture, a tonal nugget I’d embedded in a flurry of crunchy textural layers. I didn’t feel like I was in the same space at the time (serenity scared me a bit), and so Jonathan generously suggested that we take that as a cue to explore some other areas. When I got obsessed with and then stuck in our new corners of rhythmic groove, he suggested that we could revisit the earlier space (serenity, reach). I listened back and thought, yes! Now I can hear space for some friction. I imagined a single violin line that pushed gently but firmly against the serenity of what Jonathan had outlined. I recorded a bunch of takes and sent over a Logic file with all of them muted except the last one, in which I had decided (within the deeply ingrained language of Western harmonic conventions) to flat-out contradict what Jonathan had created.
In response, Jonathan told me he had tried unmuting all the takes I’d recorded and playing them back at once, and he kind of loved it. He sent a new version, in which he had removed his serene piano layer like no-longer-needed scaffolding. He had unmuted and then painstakingly interwoven the heap of files I’d recorded and dismissed. This was exactly the sort of drastic reorienting I love, and I was delighted and honored by what he’d heard. But under the influence of late-night doubt and an episode of Unorthodox in which I heard resonances between orthodox Judaism and Western conservatory culture, I started to worry that we’d landed in a sound-world that was uncomfortably centered in the world of Western art music, a space whose complex histories and ongoing oppressions I was trying to disentangle myself from.
Over the past three years at Stanford, I had gone from feeling at the cusp of a creative synthesis involving my love for violin performance, cross-categorical conversation, and wild visual metaphor, to feeling a deep disillusionment with the engrained colonial toxicities of my hybrid conservatory and liberal arts educations, reflected back to me in the dispassionate lens of a musicology Ph.D. My hope came from collaborative explorations of intermedial spaces, inspired by the genre-bending and community-minded work of Matana Roberts, Claire Chase, and Mazz Swift, and more immediately by Jonathan’s own work at the intersections of fiction and inventive popular music genres. Listening to the rich tapestry that Jonathan had woven from my muted takes, I felt fear: Had I dragged him away from his place of growth and fullness, into a space that felt thick with the weight of my own attachment to nineteenth-century European tonal harmony and lush, socially insulated lyricism?
In a careful and generous letter, Jonathan unfolded some of his difficult past as a student of Western art music in the Rio Grande Valley and then at the University of North Texas, where his grandfather had had similarly trying experiences as a music major fifty years before. He ended with a gesture of compassion: “When I hear your violin, the re-arrangement of all those muted tracks into a steady rise and fall, I hear something my mother would find comforting.” Listening to Jonathan listening to our sounds through the ears of his mother, I found myself comforted too, and wrote: “In your sharing I realize that here’s yet another place where I’d been imagining a linear track that is in fact a richly inhabited and complex space.”
I’m reading Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, by adrienne maree brown, and I want to quote the entire book here, but I’ll settle for a section in which she describes “Visionary Fiction” (a term from Walidah Imarisha, co-editor of Octavia’s Brood). “Art is not neutral,” brown writes. “It either upholds or disrupts the status quo, advancing or regressing justice. . . . visionary fiction is a way to practice the future in our minds, alone and together.” And: “One of the outcomes of the ‘Engage Community of Practice’ year of building relationship and sharing of ourselves, was an idea articulated toward the end by participant Gibrán Rivera: coevolution through friendship. Meaning: we evolve in relationships of mutual transformation.”
The emergent music that Jonathan affirmed in hearing and sculpting what I’d dismissed, and in being present as we each articulated our frictions and reachings, gave me a way to understand that what is gentle and loving can also disrupt. (Or: what is disruptive can also be gentle and loving.) The track we made and the spaces with which we connected in the process disrupted my stuckness, made space for complexity. Like Futuro Conjunto, a visionary fiction, but formed in the (small, personal, deep) space of our friendship. I want to share that.