A Composer’s Life Not Lived
There are four large boxes of compact discs sitting in my living room. I’m not referring to CDs bought in the 1990s—I have those, too—but to a freshly pressed, contemporary classical album that I made with my bare knuckles and my spare change from 2012 to 2020. It’s called Song of the Redwood-Tree and it was released on MSR Classics in 2020. I was scheduled to have my album-release concert at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall on, wait for it… March 31, 2020. Not only is that two weeks after the world ground to a halt, but it is also my birthday. Cue the sad violin.
Great timing, Knable, grumbles the self-defeating voice in my head. Four dusty boxes take up precious room in the cramped one-bedroom apartment in Forest Hills, New York, where I live with my wife. On a positive note, the stack makes for an excellent book holder next to our Yamaha electric piano. As we know, it’s what’s inside that counts, and that is what concerns me. Each box has 125 of those shiny plastic cases with a beautifully designed cover and booklet made with care for its intended audience—an audience who never had the chance to show.
Thanks to the generous folks at The Church-in-the-Gardens where I serve as Music Director and to a few adventurous faculty members at Queens College and LaGuardia Community College where I teach, I sold a whopping 13 hard copies before the world shut down. So, if my calculations are correct, 487 CDs are sitting in my living room. Would you like one? I’ll be throwing them out of my window between 3-5 PM today. Come on by!
My album revolves around the bassoon in all its glory. You read that correctly. The two main pieces are titled “Song of the Redwood-Tree” and “The Busking Bassoonist” featuring my heroes, soprano Stefanie Izzo, bassoonist Scott Pool, and pianist Natsuki Fukasawa. More bassoon works written for Gina Cuffari and Xelana Duo caused me to look through my catalog one day and realize, “My God, I am a bassoon composer.” So, I embraced it, hired the musicians, recorded the album, and geared up for an album-release concert. This was going to change something for me, I decided. “Go big or go home,” right? Before New York City, there was Sacramento, the forgotten capitol of California, the City of Trees and the birthplace of Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird”, so you’ll understand, going home was not an option. I decided to bring it to Carnegie Hall.
It was all building to the big day in late March. Writing that sentence for me conjures the same dread as watching literally anything on Netflix. Among all those people in the crowd, shaking hands and kissing strangers, is a silent killer lurking, and only we know it’s coming for them in the year 2020. “Haven’t you ever heard of social distancing?!” It was going to be such a good year this year until, gulp, COVID-19 came into our global consciousness. Now, walking down the steps to the subway platform in my eerily quiet city (a retrograde-inversion of Aaron Copland’s Quiet City), I am struck by the old-but-perfectly-preserved posters clinging to the walls like a snapshot of our lives just before the worldwide paradigm shift. The tagline for the 2020 film, The Invisible Man, reads like a premonition: “What You Can’t See Can Hurt You – In cinemas on February 28.” It was right there, spelled out in black and white! Question for you, Elisabeth Moss, and everyone else: when your imagined future is not lived, where does it go to die? It seems as mysterious as death itself.
I know artistic loss is not as important as human loss. Believe me, I am so thankful that my family is healthy. My church lost two of its members, both older dedicated churchgoers, and both persons of color. One of our three part-time ministers lost multiple family members, all African American. Coincidence? I think not. Black Lives Matter has come to the forefront of our daily discussion while a Presidential election inches toward November 3rd. It’s not the time to feel sorry for myself.
But, I do feel and I feel deeply. This is what makes me an artist in the first place. And I feel at a total loss, with no direction to turn. There are very few outlets for my work and little to look forward to this coming year. Check my concert calendar and you’ll see a host of performances, like everyone else’s: CANCELLED. I can’t seem to find my footing. The thing I love doing most in life has been temporarily taken away from me. It is a loss that many artists feel. Hell, it’s what everyone is feeling right now, from teachers, parents and students, to the sports players and fans, to the restaurant workers and patrons, and everyone else in between. We are grieving a life not lived. Some of us are grieving even worse.
There is just one request I have for my community: take the time to mourn. Let’s not pretend that streaming our events, however valiant, is a true replacement for the live experience. I’ve attended and performed them myself. The Met Opera showing Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel gave me a much better view than the seat I paid for when I attended it live, but it didn’t have the smell of the plush red seats, nor the sight of the chandeliers ascending directly overhead, nor the feel of the crinkly program in my hands, nor the taste of the Black Label whiskey at intermission, nor the sound of opera-lovers breathing next to me, listening (or sleeping) intensely, all of us bearing witness to the ephemeral nature of theatre and, thus, humanity. Luis Buñuel was an oracle. All of us are trapped in this house, holding tightly to our screens, boxed in by the fears of the world with only a thin cloth over our faces to protect us from one another. We can’t escape this after-opera dinner party, not until we collectively, calmly and rationally find a way to leave the room. And even then, how long will it be until we are sucked back in? Before we build a new normal, plan for our hybrid future, or make the best of what we have now, let’s acknowledge that we have experienced a profound and communal loss. That life we planned is not coming back. Have you really allowed yourself to feel that?
Personally, I am sitting in that loss. Writing words like these in the middle of the night draws out some of the poison. Grabbing my guitar to scream my head off helps, too. We’re all dealing with this differently. Being interviewed on the new-music podcast, Relevant Tones, I asked the interviewer, composer Seth Boustead, how he was doing. Smiling with his teeth and frowning with his eyes, he responded, “I’m fine, with all the usual caveats.” Eighth Blackbird’s recent video advertising the 20/21 season shows the founding pianist, Lisa Kaplan, saying something that would have confounded us all six months ago: “I am so excited just to play with humans in a room together whenever that can happen.” Mary Kouyoumdjian’s essay published on icareifyoulisten.com rings all the bells in my head; its title says it all: “I’m a Composer, and I Am Choosing Not to Create Original Art Right Now”.
Composing for me happens in dribs and drabs but I’m trying not to pressure myself. The only silver lining is that I am working on new skills: cooking for my wife, making cocktails while catching up with my old high school buddies on Zoom, taking French classes at FIAF and educating myself about minority injustices and white privilege. During the week, I teach my private students through FaceTime and this fall, the CUNY faculty (those who are left) are preparing to teach online for what is surely to be the strangest academic year in history. C’est la vie… en noire. These are bleak times, but I don’t have to tell you that.
In September, my wife and I are moving down the block for a little more space and a lot more quietude. As painful as it is, moving is allowing us to take stock. We are going through all of those artifacts we were so sure we had to keep, most of them now sitting in recycling. Shuffling through last year's concert programs, I am warmed by the musical life I lived, the places I went and the people I met. I might never shake their hands again, but I was there and I remember when. In late August, we will pack up the essentials of our life into boxes right alongside 487 copies of my album. I’ve decided to keep them after all. Sorry, but my previous offer has been rescinded. These four boxes are not only essential, they are my very essence. Contained within them is my hope for the future.
Sunny Knable, is an award-winning composer, a multi-instrumental performer and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Queens College and LaGuardia Community College. Professional credits include his albums “American Variations” on Centaur Records and “Song of the Redwood-Tree” on MSR Classics; and bassoon works published with TrevCo-Varner Music. He holds a PhD from Stony Brook University, an MA from Queens College and a BM from CSU Sacramento.