Feralcat discusses his feelings about being true to himself as a musician even when it can be difficult.
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Please understand my reticence in describing this feeling I’m about to detail. It feels self-centered, and like I roll through life with my head held high above Mt. Washington.
My work as a musician has been to blend in and suffer the consequences of my perceptions. The work that makes me money ends up being the work that most saxophone players are used to playing background music, playing in horn sections, or thrusting their hips around and barely playing (pop music).
Hired gun status was fun for a while, don’t get me wrong! Vague as my mind’s eye pictures it now, I still see a potential future where more lucrative opportunities present themselves to me and I have the urge to play music for a talented (if not yet clear, well-funded) touring artist. The dreams I once had of doing well-paid touring work, at least from a starting place like Pittsburgh, have long been squashed.
I’ve been exhausted from this work for years because none of it feels like me. I’ve been SCREAMING to the masses (Twitter) that this isn’t me. I’ve found joy in learning and becoming the type of musician who can do whatever is asked of him. Utilitarian and useful as I may be to my peers in the arts/music, my ability to do whatever is asked soon turned into a pigeonhole. Ultimately, I’ve felt locked into the perceptions that my primary instrument had created well before I blew into one.
My work as an artist, by contrast, has been to break molds. Like many innovators on the instrument before me (and I do, perhaps through hubris, consider myself among innovators), I looked to the past. I looked to my favorite Black American and Latinx composers for inspiration, while simultaneously re-absorbing the post-hardcore music I loved from my adolescence. I looked to the future, where the musicians in rock and “heavy” music scenes look less like they do in Hockey arenas and more like the multi-racial melting pot that is America.
The “stuck” feeling that had been festering was transformed by the boundlessness of imagination (who knew?!). My artistry pushed me into unique, niche, and interesting musical perspectives…
…and I’ve felt a certain alienation because of it.
My music is by no means inaccessible. Every time I perform with my band live, the room lights up with undeniable bewilderment. The crowd is both in awe of the spectacle (I am a performer, after all) and yet wonders why they hadn’t heard anything like it before. They jam-pack their praises with phrases like “jazz meets X” or “I didn’t know a sax could do all of that.”
That is my work. That is my charge. To create for people moments where they can see music/art as limitlessly as I do. Where the casual listener flips a switch, suddenly brimming with confidence over what they could do with their next day. What they could do with a lifetime of existing as their full, honest selves.
Too few peers of mine venture away from the common themes of the saxophone. There are some ardent, masterful improvisers around Pittsburgh whose work continues to inspire me. Outside of that, most of my peers are content playing the roles that society has given to them.
I feel a sense of complacency that I actively and vehemently run away from. A sense that, if I do what they do, I’ll never be happy. I can’t just be another improviser whose best gig is at the local jazz club on a Friday night. I can’t just be another dancer that plays the saxophone as a complement to their crowd-pleasing “saxiness.” I can’t be some run-of-the-mill mono-instrumentalist, sandwiched between two brass players who had given up on creativity decades ago.
I am not without community. I am indeed still a saxophone player and enjoy the camaraderie of others who share my interests. I’ve even found a limited number of brass/woodwind instrumentalists on Twitter (and the greater internet) whose fondness for heavy guitar music has gifted them opportunities to play some of the coolest music I’ve ever heard.
As my interests grow, and my palette widens, I do hope to find more kin in the same vein. Until then, I stay impatient and peerless.