On New Music New Haven, the composers’ series at Yale, we were always asked to speak before our music was performed. The composers at the School of Music (myself definitely included) complained about this regularly. Though it is becoming a more frequent fixture in the new music world, talking before performances is still not a comfortable thing for composers. Perhaps we feel that the piece of music should stand on its own feet, that it shouldn’t require explanation. Maybe we just don’t know how to translate what we do into words, and for the most part, it’s not a skill we’re required to develop. Maybe it’s that being so vulnerable in front of an audience of educated musicians is a little unsettling. We just hoped that people would read our program notes, in which we had a chance to be comfortably ambiguous, to provide questions instead of answers. Such is the general aesthetic of new music in the west.
I’m kind of talking from both sides of my mouth here: I completely understand the culture of vagueness in western art music. Recently, I’ve stopped agonizing over the titles of my pieces, and have moved back to very non-descriptive names: Aria. Piano Quintet. On the other hand, I know that even at concerts of my own peers’ music, whose development I have followed with great interest for years, a certain degree and type of explanation goes a long way towards warming me up to their latest work. It’s a tough line to walk between being blatant and being unintelligible.
But I must confess that in the last week or so, I have been extremely grateful to the directors of New Music New Haven for forcing me out onto the stage with a microphone in hand and shutting the door behind me.
A few weeks ago, I had just stepped off an overnight train from Jodhpur and I got a text from Lakshmi Pratury, the curator of the INK Conference (in association with TED) – she was in Delhi for a few hours on a layover between the UK and Bangalore — could I meet her?
Lakshmi is an incredible woman — among her many accomplishments, she is known as the person who brought TED to India.
I have to take a moment to describe to you my love for TED. For those of you who aren’t familiar with TED, it’s like having an Inspiration Channel on your television. People from a wide range of fields, from entertainment to medicine to technology, give lectures of 20 minutes or less about revolutionary ideas in their field that are so accessible that any reasonably intelligent person can immediately grasp the concepts.
For at least the last two years TED has been a staple in my life, my go-to source for inspiration. Every summer, my plans inevitably include long afternoons and evenings of as many TED lectures as I can watch in succession. One summer I watched almost 300 lectures. I have TED marathons the same way people watch whole seasons of tv shows. I have a database that details which lectures I have watched and which ones I want to watch next. Whenever I need inspiration, I always turn to TED, and it never fails to inspire me (though it also sometimes terrifies me – what am I doing with my life when Dean Kamen is revolutionizing the prosthetic arm as a tribute to our military forces and Jamie Oliver is fighting childhood obesity all over the UK and US?). The people who spoke at TED were the role models I had been seeking for years: people who didn’t just follow the rules their field laid out for them, but took what they learned and implemented it in radically innovative ways. Since I first started watching these lectures, I’ve dreamed of one day being the kind of person who could speak at TED, the same way some people want to climb to base camp of Mt. Everest or run a marathon.
So you can imagine my excitement to meet Lakshmi, to have an opportunity to speak to her about what I do, and to be invited to speak at an INK Salon in Chennai.
Then, about a week before coming to Chennai, Lakshmi asked me: did I want to speak at the AdAsia Congress in Delhi? It would be short, and a good chance to practice what I was going to say in Chennai. Also, it was the next day.
Twenty four hours and an emergency trip to FabIndia later, I found myself in a ballroom at the Taj Palace Hotel in front of a little under a thousand people from advertising firms and companies all over the world. I shared the stage with Lakshmi and Ronda Carnegie, one of the head global strategists at TED. I briefly told my story, and played an excerpt of my orchestra piece, Aria.
It was incredible to actually be on stage as part of a presentation about TED and INK, to be speaking under the banner of one of my greatest sources of inspiration. I was also able to talk to Ronda before the presentation, learn a lot about the inner workings of TED, and share with her how much TED has inspired me.
Four days later, I gave a longer version of this same presentation at the Hyatt Regency in Chennai, and shared the stage with Anil Ananthaswamy, a writer who goes to the ends of the earth to study telescopes (whose lecture I had seen on TED last year), Niren Chaudhary, who gave the deaf in India a new chance at life by opening KFCs with special working conditions to meet their needs, and his fifteen year old daughter, Aisha, who gave a simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting talk about the lessons her lifelong battle with chronic illness has taught her.
Before these two events, I thought that I had sufficient public speaking experience. Every Saturday for three years I had taught anywhere from six to eight classes back to back at Manhattan School of Music. I spoke about topics ranging from counterpoint to composition to the proper voice leading of six-four chords. My students would ask me any number of difficult and complicated questions in front of the class, and I grew used to (and actually began to enjoy) thinking under that kind of pressure.
But I’ve realized that talking about yourself is a whole different thing. While I have spent a good deal of my career thus far explaining things to people, I haven’t spent much time trying to explain myself. I know who I am: I am a bunch of jumbled experiences that can be codified in any number of ways. Depending on who I’m talking to and what we have in common, a different assortment of those things will be relevant, and will form themselves into one possible explanation of me.
But what about when I’m talking to a sea of hundreds of people I’ve never met? How do I give people the essence of me in ten minutes flat? What is the essence of me, anyway? How can I speak with any authority about a journey that I’ve just begun? And how do I know which of my experiences are defining? I know that those things change over time, and based on the situation, and that sometimes our memories blur together as they grow distant.
But then I thought: Every single person who has ever given a TED lecture must find themselves in this exact situation. The typical TED speaker isn’t a person with a straight path, with a singular, linear story to tell. It’s not like most people think as a child, “I’d like to get to know a certain field and then figure out how to think about it differently.” One of the classic traits of TED speakers is their tendency to venture off the beaten path, to have a story that isn’t easy to reduce into the time they are allotted. But people as accomplished as Meryl Streep, Steve Jobs and James Cameron have managed to do a wonderful job of it, and their stories are far more complex and mature than mine.
Maybe life isn’t a clean narrative in the same way stories are, but teasing those stories from our lives is an important point of connection between people. It’s not about reducing ourselves down to a ten minute chunk, but about giving people a keyhole view into our lives, allowing them to open the door and to get to know us better, if they choose. It’s like the 500-word bio that’s printed in a concert program, but instead of listing titles and awards, it recounts the actual moments that we feel define us in that work.
That’s not to say I know what I’m doing as a speaker. At least not yet. In the way that I can feel orchestrations click into place, or one melody lock in with another as I compose, I still feel like I am on slightly uneven footing as a speaker. Though I wasn’t particularly nervous either time, it was a little dizzying to speak to people on such a large scale – I love discussion and engaging with people, so speaking in a monologue without the safety of interaction is still something I am getting used to.
But at the same time, I see how important it is to be able to talk about myself and what drives me: after both talks, I met such a wide variety of people who approached me from all angles: some had a similar heritage to me — their family was Indian but had lived in Africa or Pakistan or had emigrated to the US around the time my parents had. Some knew people who were also doing things similar to what I was doing but in rock, jazz, etc. Some were interested in my work in western classical music. Some were from America and wanted to know more about my life in the west. And some even had their own interesting musical ideas to share with me — ideas that came from many years of listening with undivided attention to the music they loved . Even in my first crude attempts to explain myself, people pulled so many different things out of the little I had said. And each perspective allowed me to see my own path in ways I might not have previously considered.
A few days after I drafted this blog entry, I got another call from Lakshmi: She invited me to be an INK Fellow for this year’s conference in Jaipur, in December! I am so excited and grateful for this opportunity to share what I love with others, and to spend four days amidst hundreds of talented people who are passionate and innovative in their fields.
I don’t say this lightly: It is a dream come true.