Gratitude: Conrad Susa
A leading 20th Century American composer who gave us so much more than we realize.
I'd like to say more about Conrad Susa and how he changed my life.
I was quite traumatized at the beginning of my college education as a musician. I had grown up ten years before that, thinking of music as my armor. It was the only thing I felt set me apart from others and made me relatable and likable. In high school, I was tormented by classmates. After coming out at sixteen, I had a very rough year. My involvement in music was the only thing that kept me going. That's why when I met my first college professors, excited to hear their thoughts and advice on my musical self, I was crushed when they told me that I should not pursue music professionally. I was ready to take their advice because, of course, I assumed they were right.
Conrad plucked me out of that. By some miracle, I ended up transferring to the conservatory in San Francisco (after a trip clear across the country and back) and ended up with him as my private studio teacher in composition.
He knew right away that I wasn't a book learner. He knew that I was a person who had to experience things, get my hands dirty, fall on my face, fall off the bike, and skin my knee to know what to do and what not to do. Still, he was hard on me when he knew I needed it. Sometimes, he imposed his viewpoints on me forcefully. Even if I didn't agree with them, I always managed to find a way to understand his reasoning for his truths, and I learned something from that each time. The first orchestration lesson he gave me was done in the kitchen while cooking. We cooked and talked for hours, and he systematically and methodically related ingredients and flavors to the instruments of the orchestra and their various properties and potencies. It was the only orchestration lesson I ever needed (though I was required to take a full year's course with him at school as well).
One time, he took a piece of mine home with him and asked me to visit him at home several days later for a lesson. When I arrived, he had wholly re-written my score by hand just so that he could take me through it and show me the whys and hows of what he'd done and why he'd suggested those changes to me. He must have spent hours on it. Again, it worked. I couldn't help but be open and grateful for the time he'd spent thinking about me and my work instead of being put off or defensive about the liberties he'd taken with it. By the way, that composition teacher in Conrad was the same human being who never walked out of the grocery store without handing a fistful of cash to the homeless person at the exit. He would turn to me and say, "we can't walk out of here with all this food and not help someone who doesn't have any."
What I loved and appreciated most about him was his unlimited and demonstrative imagination. He lived in a fantastical parallel world to ours. Even though his realistic self shone through often, as I described above, he preferred to continually imagine what the world could be and surround himself with artistic and literal depictions of what he felt and saw around him. To be near that was to have a constant reminder that what we make as artists is limited only by ourselves and not be anything or anyone else. I found myself wishing that I could spend even one hour inside his mind. I was lucky he let me get as close as I did to him. It was, by turns, beautiful and terrifying.
His life must have always been a feast and a famine at the same time. He must have had moments of ecstasy interrupted with moments of harsh reality. He once described his work "Hymns for the Amusement of Children" as a representation of being a young, hopeful person buried against his will under the rubble of contemporary war, chaos, death, politics, illness, and uncertainty. The movements of that piece are each influenced by a different popular singer style of the 70s: Joni Mitchell, Harry Belafonte, Robert Flack, and Elton John, among others. He said he heard those sweet memories calling out from underneath the rubble of real life.
I can't help but be comforted by his description of that experience of time in this country when things were also uncertain, when abrupt change, dirty politics, and sure heartache were expected continuously. I think, "if he got through it and made so many beautiful works of art because of it, I surely can do the same."
Today, I ask Conrad to intercede for me in whatever way he can, wherever he is. I ask him to loosen the bonds of my perceived limitations and lift my sometimes buried spirit from underneath the rubble. May he always rest in golden peace. I love him with all my heart.