6 December 2010
© Shawn Connell
A year ago I was sitting in a music history class at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, listening to my classmates discuss the meaning of the famous Mahlerian quote: 'I am thrice homeless'. Little did I suspect that, 12 months on, this quote would gain new meaning for me as an Australian, born in Greece, now residing in the United States.
I left Australia over three months ago to begin my Master's degree in composition at the Eastman School of Music in New York. Upon arrival, I was of the opinion that the transition from one English-speaking country to another would be relatively smooth. I soon learnt that this was quite wrong. It seems that, after the War of Independence, Americans made a point of abandoning all things English - from tea drinking to crotchets, cricket and beyond. The three weeks I gave myself to ease into the US system of paperwork proved to be a third of the time actually required to adjust. And only now, as the end of the semester approaches, have I completed a lengthy list of administrative hurdles, and am feeling 'at home' in my new surrounds.
The Eastman School of Music is located in upstate New York in the downtown of Rochester. Founded by the magnate-industrialist George Eastman, the school was built during America's 1920s golden epoch before the Great Depression. Its architecture lays testament to the confidence and wealth felt by the country which would come to dominate the 20th century politically, economically and culturally. Whilst sitting in the magnificent concert halls at the school, it is hard not to think of the strange path which history carves out for a nation - in less than 80 years, the US is once again in the grips of an economic recession.
Despite the economic turmoil surrounding the US, in the field of education there have been no compromises. All of my teachers are devoted, passionate, and experts in their fields of knowledge. They also expect a level of dedication and work which I have never before experienced. My days often begin with classes at 8:30am and end with rehearsals at 11pm. A weekend is spent at school, either in a practice room or in the library. Any free time is usually filled with a faculty or student recital. This protestant work ethic was at first overwhelming, but as I begin to adopt this routine, I find that it yields results.
The Master's degree in the US is coursework-based, and my program of study requires me to learn an instrument alongside my major in composition. This unique emphasis on composition and performance (I like to think of this as 'practicing what you preach') was one of the key factors informing my choice to study in America. The other factor relates to how I feel my music is received back home. While Australia has a thriving musical culture and a rich history, during my undergraduate studies I often sensed that my music did not fit the preferred aesthetic which dominated the contemporary music scene. For some reason I just don't feel this in the US. Perhaps this feeling of a diverse approach to composition is the result of a nation which is comfortable in its simultaneous embrace of Elliott Carter, John Coltrane and Ke$ha. Or perhaps this diverse approach results from living in a large population where there will invariably be more composers, each of whom will contribute to a smorgasbord of genres.
As my first semester heads towards its close, I'd like to think that, alongside my musical education, this experience has provided me with the opportunity to contemplate my compositional identity. What does it mean to be a Greek-Australian in the US? What does it mean to be a female composer? What does it mean to be a composer at all in the twenty-first century? As I reflect on the past year, Mahler's quote often resurfaces in my mind. Sometimes, only by removing yourself from the familiar can you truly realise who you are and what you want to be. I hope that the next two years provide me with greater insight as to what comprises my identity, and how this should shape my music.
Eastman School of Music (www.esm.rochester.edu/)
© Australian Music Centre (2010) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Aristea Mellos is undertaking her Master’s degree in composition at the Eastman School of Music in New York. She currently holds the Paul Sacher scholarship and studies under Professor Robert Morris.
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