Naked Piano Playing

On Sunday (May 12, 2019), I finished up a four-month run at the theatre, performing in two shows for Capital Repertory Theatre, in Albany, NY. The first was a 3-week TYA tour of Friend Of A Friend, a 45-minute play with music about the enslavement and release of Solomon Northup and the surrounding social and political climate. The second was a mainstage production of Shakespeare In Love, a theatrical adaptation (also with music) of the 1998 film of the same title. The end of this extended artistic period means a few things for me: 1) I have to resume work at my day job cooking in a restaurant, 2) I have to begin looking for auditions and other artistic projects to work on, and 3) I have to think about what I’m doing with my life in general. With a week’s vacation ahead of me before going back to the restaurant, I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on my art-making process and what it means for me to be an artist. I’m not sure this reflection will help settle the question of No. 3, but it’s worth a try.

When I was at college at SUNY Purchase, I took a class with Lenora Champagne called “Performing The Self In Society”. It was a class on performance art, specifically solo performance. Think of the work of John Leguizamo, Spalding Gray, Diamanda Galás, Laurie Anderson, etc. We learned about the history of solo performance and its connection to, but distinctness from theatre; how personal narrative drives the art form, rather than being presentational in nature. As a final project, we each crafted our own solo performances to present to the class, workshopping them in snippets throughout the semester. The class was extremely valuable to me for a number of reasons (coming out of my shell, using my depression as a fuel for art, etc.), the most important being I began to understand that in every moment of life, we choose to present a different version of ourselves to the world. Cultural theorists have spoken a lot recently about “code switching” in reference to the way we change our speech depending on the social situation. (Adele Givens has a great bit about this.) Lenora (and I) would argue that our speech is not the only thing that is switched. Rather, every choice of every day is part of a highly curated self-representation, an art project that extends for the duration of our lives. This is not to say that we consciously think about these choices. Rather, informed by our perceptions of others’ perceptions of us, we are all complicit, to varying degrees, in how we present ourselves to world.

I bring up this class because I was reminded of it while thinking about a comment offered to me by a friend of mine about my lyrics. We were talking about a big concert I had several years ago when he said (and I’m paraphrasing), “I found your music really compelling, but your lyrics left something to be desired.” I was immediately offended, but I wanted to know what he meant by that. He went on to explain that he felt they were a bit one-note and that had I more worldly experience under my belt—travel and so forth—I might be pushed to write about different topics and themes. Now, it’s true that for the majority off my songwriting career, 18 years and counting, I’ve focused on two things: relationships and mental health. My friend made an astute and accurate observation regarding my topic choice, but something still didn’t sit right with me. That conversation took place 6 months ago, and ever since I’ve been trying to figure out why his comment stuck with me, irked me so much. I’ve always been content and proud of my lyrics, perhaps more than my music. But it’s taken me this long to be able to say with confidence that, no, I don’t think any amount of worldly experience would change my lyrics. I’m not interested in the representation of the natural world, in describing experiences outside of myself, nor do I care for poetics and superficial imagery. I care most about describing my inner life, and no amount of travel and culture could fundamentally alter the fact that I care about exploiting myself above all else for artistic gains. In this way, I’ve come to consider myself a solo performer rather than a musician, and every medium of expression I take up, whether it be songwriting, classical composition, visual art, theatre, or even on social media, is a branch on my solo performer tree. My personal narrative has been artistically executed systematically over nearly the last two decades and can be thought of as a single, long-form work of art.

Now that I’ve defined what it is I do, I want to discuss a philosophy that’s been brewing in my head for quite some time. But first, I want to reference a few of my album covers to illustrate my point.

Each of these covers has imagery with no obvious meaning to anyone but me. A collection of houses, the chemical structure of dopamine, a drawing of a mouse and a ghost, a stuffed turtle at a party: they could mean anything, and they have, at best, tenuous relationships to the songs’ materials. So why choose these images to grace the covers of these projects? In truth, I’m more concerned in displaying imagery that has deep meaning to me than showcasing something decipherable. And these images aren’t meant to be decoded, either. It’s more important to me that the viewer knows that they have meaning to me than to know what that meaning is. In fact, I would go a step further and say that I have no interest in relating to the viewer (or listener) at all. All the art is created for me and sometimes other people are there to experience it too. This art is cathartic in nature and serves no purpose other than catharsis, which is inherently self-serving. Therefore, I would like to coin (if it hasn’t been coined already) the term Personal Symbolism to define the kind of art I create. It is distinct from ordinary symbolism in that the “Personal” refers to the products of expression that 1) symbolize something in reference to the artist, and 2) that exist only for the artist. There is a Turtle wearing a party hat on the cover of my ninth Christmas album because 1) that means something to me, and 2) because I don’t need you to know what it means for it to have meaning. The catharsis comes through the act of expression alone and not from having anyone relate to the products of that expression.

Now that I’ve completely intellectualized the issue, what does this philosophy mean for my work? Well, part of my current crisis is that I’m trying to define what success means to me. Unsurprisingly, my current definition is at odds with my approach to art-making. While I don’t need anyone to know about my art for it to have value in my life, I can’t build a career in art without the support of others. I need people to buy tickets to my shows, download my albums, come see readings of my musical, and interact with me on social media. How do I engage an audience when my work is purposely opaque? And how can I continue to write new material when I don’t always feel as though people want to engage with it? Is it worth continuing to make new work when the old work hasn’t been released/has no way of being heard? I’m thinking specifically about my classical compositions. With my Cummings Project, I’ve written hundreds of pieces, but only a handful of them have ever been recorded, never mind heaving been heard by anyone. I have pieces written for large ensembles and there’s little chance they’ll ever be performed unless I end up in grad school or with a connection to an orchestra that wants to play them. (Honestly, the same is true for the solo, duo, trio, and other small ensemble works, too.) Why bother? I don’t actually have a good answer for that. I write them because it makes me happy. And I also hope that after I die, someone will find them all, neatly catalogued and expertly notated, and figure out what to do with them. In that way, I’m actually preparing much more for my death than setting myself up for success while I’m alive. That’s not meant to be morbid, just realistic. As for my albums, I’ve actually had a modicum of commercial success, albeit locally. My 2016 concert at Proctors Theatre was very well attended and the EP and short film I was releasing at that show have been praised by everyone who’s heard and seen them. I’ve been a part of two great bands, most notably, Stockade Kids, and have played all over New York state. I don’t mean to just list my accomplishments, but in terms of how it relates to this Personal Symbolism, my career path has largely taken me into bars and clubs where I play 3-hour sets of covers for a few hundred bucks a night. That’s not cathartic, and the work isn’t mine. It reminds me of a story from John Cage’s Indeterminacy, wherein he’s asked, “Mr. Cage, are you willing to prostitute your art?”, though at least in his case, he was using his own compositions. While I appreciate the work and money, and I enjoy performing for performing’s sake, plus I like seeing my friends and family who come to these shows (not to mention the attention for strangers; even though I have no desire to relate to other people, who doesn’t like attention and praise?), it does make me a bit of a whore. That’s how I feel, anyway. In the theatre, too, I’ve tried to inject my philosophy into all of my work. It’s easy to do when I’m writing the score to a musical. (My writing partner, Cleo Handler, probably doesn’t even know all the small references to other works of art, including some of my own, that I’ve included in the score to our show, From The Fire; not because she’s not smart enough to get them (she’s actually incredibly astute), but because I’ve buried them on purpose.) It’s harder to do when I’m acting in a show. How does one remain faithful to a philosophy of selfishness when the very nature of acting requires one to become someone else? The way I see it, I’ve tried to tap into all of the parts of myself that would most identify with a given character. (There’s probably some famous acting technique that encompasses this idea, but I’m not good with studying all that, so forgive my ignorance.) Last year I was in a TYA show where I played a slave master. The obvious question is: “So, Justin…what part of you is racist?” The answer, truthfully, is “lots of parts”. I’ve got unconscious biases just like everyone else, even some conscious ones instilled in me at a young age by society at large that I have to actively stave off. If I can tap into those biases and figure out what makes a person act on them, then I’m doing justice to the character. So really, I’m myself on stage, even in a role that, on the surface at least, couldn’t be less like me. In this way, I’m expressing nothing other than my own experience, even as I say someone else’s words. This is consistent with Personal Symbolism.

So back to No. 3. What am I doing with my life? Well, the real question is: How can I make a career out of doing nothing other than expressing myself? It would seem that imperative that I find other people who support my philosophy. And there have been people. I owe much to Maggie and Margaret, Artistic Director and Assistant Artistic Director, respectively, at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany (where I just finished Shakespeare In Love) who have cast me in 8 shows over the last 5 years. They don’t know specifically about my approach to art-making, but they’ve obviously seen something in me that they want to use in their own art-making. I would love to find patronage like that in my composing and songwriting. If only a rich family could give me money to make art without stipulations. More realistically, I need to be accepted to a PhD program or sign a record deal. There are often a lot of strings attached to both of those things, but I’ve been careful in the past not to sign up for things that aren’t consistent with my personal philosophies. So it’s unlikely I would apply to anything or sign any contracts that would take away an uncomfortable amount of my artistic freedom. Maybe that’s an unrealistic and naïve expectation on my part that will actually prevent me from succeeding, but it’s a risk I’m comfortable taking if it means maintaining philosophical and personal integrity.

1 Comment

  • cathie says:

    Justin, I can relate to everything that you’re saying here. Truth is, you need to perform, because you have something to give to those who listen. Whether it is in your songwriting, your singing, your musicality your acting, your writing. You have something to share with all of us. Never stop. You will be “discovered: or not. You will be famous …or not. but you will be true to your nature. Make art. For you. and for those lucky enough to share your gifts.

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