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Rising Stars: Meet Erin Graham of San Diego

Hi Erin, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I grew up in a very small town in central PA. My parents are both reasonably experienced musicians – and they always made sure I was studying one instrument or another as a child. I remember practicing both the violin and piano when I was very young and frankly having very little aptitude or patience for either discipline. The events that steered my interest in composition and percussion were surprisingly trivial – percussion, in particular, is a good story! I must have been about ten, and remember having been very excited to discover a set of plastic toy drums at a local playground. Upon finding these drums, I did what any kid would do and began pounding the most obnoxious beat I could muster. Soon after this, a random person who had been wandering through the park passed by, mumbling something to the effect of “sick beat, dude!”.. Witnessing this, my parents jokingly suggested that I should study percussion – and years later, I found myself spending most of my hours in a swelteringly hot practice room at Eastman School of Music doing just that! I was very lucky as a high school student to have had extremely patient parents and supportive teachers and a mentor (Patrick Long), an extremely talented composer and percussionist.

As an undergraduate student, I was double majoring in performance and composition but always felt that my time and energy were skewed unevenly towards percussion. This made sense to me at the time because there were simply so many high stakes performances and challenging concerts that I really needed to spend a ton of time preparing so that I’d be able to productively contribute to rehearsals and get the most out of lessons. I also really enjoyed practicing and felt like I sometimes lacked the mental focus and endurance to fully realize my ideas as a composer. However, much later in my degree, I started to notice a sense of unfulfilled curiosity in combination with a degree of frustration at not being able to really dig into the structure of the repertoire I was studying. I realized that there were so many pieces I wanted to thoroughly analyze and scrutinize and so many unanswered philosophical questions I wanted to explore – and consequently arrived at the somewhat difficult decision to pursue my graduate degrees in composition. My present preoccupation as a Ph.D. student here at UC San Diego is to find ways of coming to terms with and fusing these disparate aspects of my musical identity. I have always kept my work as a performer and composer conceptually very separate and have somewhat alienated myself both from performing my own music and from writing much music for percussion. One of my overarching goals is to find new ways to embrace both parts of my identity and to allow these two disciplines to energize and feed one another, rather than existing as separate roles and forming barriers. I feel immeasurably lucky to be surrounded by such interesting, inspiring, and supportive mentors and colleagues here!

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as relatively smooth road?
The most difficult time, identity-wise, in my career thus far was the first year of my master’s degree at Rice University. As I mentioned previously, I really had been focusing my energy primarily on percussion during my undergraduate degree – and starting my master’s degree in composition really shook up the center of my priorities. As I remember, it was a very stark and sudden transition – all of the hours I’d spent practicing were now dedicated to writing music, and percussion was almost immediately relegated to the distant background of my studies. This naturally led to a lot of imposter syndrome and identity crises. It was a combination of feeling like I had to work very hard to keep up with my colleagues who had focused on composition during their undergraduate degrees, questioning whether I had made the right decision and had the intellectual capacity to survive as a composer, and feeling intensely guilty for practicing less and less frequently and losing touch somewhat with my capabilities as a performer. I was also in denial about the level of burnout I felt as a performer following my undergraduate degree – and it took a ton of time and energy to accept this and to allow myself to refocus my energy. There were some weeks where I questioned whether I was meant to be a musician at all, and remember panicking about the prospect of starting a completely new field of study during my master’s degree. Looking back on this time, however, I feel very grateful to have persevered through these doubts and have learned to find a level of acceptance when these thoughts occasionally reemerge. Going through that first year at Rice also really helped me to find a sense of security in my commitment to studying music and provided an odd reassurance that insecurity is natural and can provide opportunities to reaffirm the things I’m passionate about as a musician.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I’m currently a second-year Ph.D. student in Music Composition at UC San Diego. The bulk of my creative life is devoted to writing music and to various collaborations with performers at the moment! I briefly touched on this in a few of the previous questions, but one of my fundamental goals in developing my musicianship is to find ways of letting my work as a percussionist and my work as a composer interact more freely with one another. One of the specific ways I’m working on facilitating this unification is gradually breaking down a self-imposed estrangement from writing for percussion. My overarching goal for the year is to breathe new creative life into my perspective as a percussionist by approaching it from the lens of a composer.

Consequently, I’m centering my projects this year around collaborations with percussionists. I’m currently working on a piece for the Frozen Earth percussion duo, and additionally a solo for Lee Vinson as part of a project with Nashville’s Intersection Contemporary Music Ensemble. I’ve approached my process with these pieces by first attempting to reframe some of the crutches I’ve noticed in my percussion writing as puzzles or open-ended questions that spark my curiosity rather than fixed entities or tired obstacles. I’m aiming to tie these discoveries into some of my larger structural interests as a composer, including using a process I refer to as “rhythmic scrapbooking” – which essentially is a way of taking long, asymmetrical rhythmic patterns or polyrhythms and creating a kind of mosaic which then forms the primary architectural basis for a piece. It’s exciting to have an ongoing project and plan for revitalizing this creative relationship!

What makes you happy?
This is an alarmingly broad question that is admittedly throwing me for a bit of a loop! I’m going to take this into the “small and specific” realm – a few odds and ends that make me happy are making weird lists, discovering anomalies and outliers in the pieces I’m studying, making schemes and drawing diagrams when I’m starting a new piece, contentious debates in seminars, flying, embracing the inherent awkwardness of zoom hangs with my friends, and my nightly angry power walk! To broaden this a bit, I think I’m happiest when I’m busy and have a variety of projects, deadlines, and events overlapping one another. I have a short attention span and tend to feel more excited and engaged when I’m under a bit of pressure.

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Image Credits
Ruta Kuzmickas, Nadine Sherman, N. Baker

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