Musical theater composer, Avi Amon, talks to me about losing his songwriting process, First Generation identity, and finding new perspectives from dementia patients. We also talk about being peanut butter and how in creative work everything is Olympic training #truth.
Kiddo: You’ve been researching memory, forgetting and processes. Talk to me about where this work began.
Avi: I had a residency with Target Margin Theater all about developing your process in a new way. I had a realization before I started the residency: I was performing composerdom. I was performing this role of what a composer is. I had this set of muscle memories that I was very comfortable with. They were successful, they were achieving their goals, I was receiving positive feedback. But in that, I was just doing slightly different versions of the same thing over and over and over again.
You can’t do that your whole life. You gotta come up with new shit.
So, it started off as a quest to lose habits. And it just grew from there. That’s just on the process side. The spark into an actual project came from a New Yorker article.
The smallest thing in the article — just an offhand mention —through a cultural and archeological process we rebuilt a picture of the past that had serious implications for the future.
I was also thinking about identity. It’s in the air right now. As First Generation [American] some of my identity is very available to me and some of it is consciously made unavailable. Have I lost anything and how do I figure it out?
K: what came from those conversations with your parents?
A: It made me want to understand what it meant to be Turkish. My parents aren’t really thinking about [identity] because it wasn’t in the air for them.
K: And your parents didn’t speak Turkish in the house?
A: They did. They were speaking all kinds of languages to me and I wasn’t speaking giving them anything back. Now I can only speak English; I can understand all these other languages which further complicates it. I’m not fully American, but in Turkish spaces — even Turkish Jewish family spaces — I’m not quite there either.
That’s loss of a communication tool. My grandmother who passed away last year spoke a dozen languages, but the only one we could communicate in was the one she knew the least.
Growing up it’s like, this is normal!
“I’m not fully American, but in Turkish spaces — even Turkish Jewish family spaces — I’m not quite there either.”
— AVI AMON
K: Will you unpack that?
A: Many of us live in a liminal space between lots of different identities; we perform femininity, we perform masculinity, we perform American, Jewish, Turkish…whatever. All of these identities are true simultaneously. It became apparent that I wasn’t fitting into these spaces 100%.
I asked my parents questions to piece together a history, but there are holes in the information available.
A: It made me understand outsider status in a real way. It’s an empathy tool.
K: I want to come back to de-habituating creative process — how did you begin?
A: At the start it was hard. Making conscious choices. Find a different way.
It took longer. Which sucks! Because, The Deadline, or I’m sick of this song. But I have to invest in this process now because in 10 years I’ll be less flexible in the ol’ noggin.
K: Being a beginner at something you are already an expert at is infinitely more frustrating than starting a brand-new skill.
A: I don’t remember the last time I started something new. Everything I do is related to something I already do. We are so averse to pure failure.
But that shit’s fun.
If you build failure into your process, if you build not being precious about losing a thing, or losing at a thing, then it allows you to glide a little bit.
K: Yes – I forget the joy of the experience in favor of being good at it. Externally a “good” outcome.
A: Do you think it’s a peer evaluation thing?
K: Probably. Some fear of failure or humiliation, which of course under the slightest scrutiny I see is ridiculous. I need to consciously steer into “new.” I know it’s uncomfortable but if I power through, the fear evaporates.
A: After grad school, I could just crank that shit out. Songs would all be totally different but they were still in this “thing” and I fucking hate these.
Thank god for the 52nd Street Project thank god for working with people who aren’t song writers across mediums. There are no expectations.
[Nontraditional collaborators] say, I like music or I like sounds.
And I’ll say, yes but what kind of sounds? Tell me exactly so that I can deliver what you want and you can give me a 10 out of 10.
The collaborator is thinking no, that’s why I hired you to figure that out – I don’t know shit about composing.
Now it’s uncovering a voice and opinions you didn’t even know you had.
K: You broke down the process, you worked with these non-songwriting professionals — what tools came out of that?
A: Everything is additive. I still write songs. But I also have the freedom to wander and get lost. Solnit wrote about it —about the value of being lost and bored in a process.
On a micro tangible level, the way I save ideas on my iPhone has changed. I used to be very literal. I’d have a quick idea — I would name it, “it’s in this key, it’s in this time signature and it’s this feel.” Now ideas are named “Texas cloud pillows” or “bread on a Tuesday.” So, when I listen back to them it doesn’t give me any more information. It’s just a quick capture of a feeling.
I’ve been almost militant about getting ideas down but now, much more so. Those improvised things that you lose the second after you finish playing them…I have had so many times when I think, fuck! That was my arrival moment. I have achieved all of my dreams and I literally can’t remember it.
Now, to the point of obsession: get ‘em down.
More than 50% of the time it turns out to be a little bit of garbage (I’ll keep it — you never know), but sometimes I’ll listen back and it’s there. Oh yeah, That.
I’ll try to reproduce it and each reproduction gets worse and worse and worse. I have these polished finished songs that sound perfect, but I still prefer the original seed of an idea.
K: Liz Gilbert talks about ideas as entities that exist outside of ourselves trying to collaborate with a human. Pure idea.
A: The feeling of that specific creation is the temporary thing you lose as you refine and refine. You’re not trying to create a Thing, you’re trying to share the experience of making — of creating — with people. It’s elusive.
Feel how I feel when I’m making this.
K: For you — as the artist.
You’re trying to manage that experience for other people — impossible. But that creative birth that you love that’s lost to you as you play the refined finished version, is NEW for the audience.
A: It’s also a reminder to do work when you think of it. There have been pieces I have started that I loved when I started them. This could have been something. But now I go back to it and I don’t care about it anymore. Fuck, I really wish I finished it.
K: Will you talk a little about your process and how the The New Yorker article fit into what you’re working on now?
A: The [New Yorker] article was my in. I kept stumbling upon things with similar themes. One thing and led to another piecing histories together.
An old matzo factory in Turkey was closing down and my artist cousin was printing matzo ghosts on paper. Next I read about the only man who died on the Lewis and Clark expedition — his appendix burst which we know based on symptoms in journal entries. From there I found out about a man who woke up in a park in Seattle and didn’t know who he was. Which led to research I did about patients with dementia.
Dementia patients tend to repeat certain phrases. What are you actually trying to say? Why is this the thing you are repeating? A lot of researchers think that dementia patients aren’t actually losing their memory, but rather losing the capacity to form a through line. Space and time become less linear — it’s more like a cloud and they are jumping around. From there, I learned about Memory Studies which is a subject you can get a fucking PhD in. It’s all about studying how and why we forget. For instance, institutionalized erasure, or personal trauma blocking.
One thing led to another and now I have a massive collection of stories and ideas that I’m not sure what to do with yet but they’re all connected. They’re all loss.
Sometimes you have a deadline. The thing’s due next week. You’re not allowed to be inspired. You have to finish it.
This is different. The appreciation of time in a thing, enough time for boredom to occur. Looking at one thing and then another and another and another until you say “ohh, that’s it.”
Not everything can be Googled.
K: Thank god.
A: Thank god.
K: Does it bother you creatively that this might not become a Thing? That the amorphous pieces aren’t connecting?
A: No. Right now that’s my aesthetic. I’ve been finding narrative really boring. I’ve been into things that are paintings. This is a cloud of an idea of a meditation on a Thing. [laughter]
We all have things we don’t understand. Take the dementia patients for example. Losing your mind — whatever that means — at first understanding of that phrase, it’s terrifying. To be lost in a thing I already don’t understand. But maybe there’s something interesting in there; a new viewpoint, a new appreciation from which to be a better human.
K: What have you seen so far that leads you to believe that?
A: It’s the appreciation that at any moment I could be 100% wrong. Then taking ownership of that potential wrongness throwing it into the mix when I sit at the piano.
Assume the thing you are doing is incorrect.
K: What does loss mean to you in your creative work?
A: It’s two-fold: it’s losing processes that I thought were important or things I thought were the rules – appreciating that that doesn’t have to be the case. Being more flexible. A loss of structure.
Then, appreciating a loss or a lack of identity as an identity in it’s own right. The stories we tell are the skeleton we hang the whole world on. If you lose those stories because of a specific event or because of an unknown history you are in a state of trauma until you can rewrite a narrative to fill that.
Loss of personal narrative as opportunity for reinvention and genius. Being prepared for that in process and in practice so that when it happens I can exploit it to understand the world better.
K: What does that preparedness look like for you?
A: Getting better at no assumptions. I’m so far from that, but getting better.
sincerely hope that you’ve enjoyed this first Loss Letter interview, you’ll see more in the coming weeks. Thank you to Avi Amon and his many works of creative brilliance. If you are in the New York area I urge you to see The 52ndStreet Project, follow Avi Amon’s latest vehicle, and stay ever-open to creative way-finding in loss.
This interview has been condensed and edited.