Career pivots and perseverance in new music: Interview with Mendel Lee

Mendell Lee

Mendel Lee (he/him) (b. 1975) is a New Orleans-based composer whose music explores both the evolution of singular ideas over a long period of time and layered syncopated rhythmic patterns and hemiolas over an underlying groove. Recognized as a VCCA Fellow and a NPN Take Notice Fund Grantee, he is committed to using his creative practice and entrepreneurial spirit to strengthen collaboration between composers, performers, and audience to show that new music can be for everyone.

Tell me about your career shift from Assistant Director of Bands at Tulane to your current roles. What prompted this decision, and how do you feel several years later?

On the one hand, leaving Tulane Bands was one of the hardest decisions of my life. Marching band and music education has been an important part of my identity for over thirty years, and Tulane Bands was a dream job in many ways. It was a great conduit to create a positive impact on my students while also fostering a strong community for Tulane and the city of New Orleans. Tulane Bands also gave me amazing once-in-a-lifetime professional opportunities. I played with the New Kids on the Block. I played in a brass band for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. I directed a group that performed at the World Expo 2020 Dubai.

On the other hand, I knew that leaving was a matter of “when” and not “if” as early as five to six years before I finally quit. There were certain parts of the job that were steadily chipping away at my mental health, and I wasn’t okay with the impact I started to see on my students. When I was a student myself, it was painfully obvious when my teacher was checked out but stayed in the job for the steady paycheck and coast to retirement. I made a commitment to never be that teacher, so as soon as I started seeing signs that my burnout was making me be less than my best self, I knew that I had to step aside.

I considered getting another job, but by time I had made the final decision to leave Tulane Bands in 2022, I knew that I wanted to pursue composition and new music advocacy full time. It was a scary plunge to take, but it was also an exciting one. I’m fortunate to have a partner that fully supported me chasing after that dream—so long as I completely took over the cooking. The career pivot has been a roller coaster, but focusing on my own creative practice full-time profession has helped me shed a lot of self-inflicted barriers. I’m now much more confident about my compositional and entrepreneurial instincts and intuition. It’s only been in the past year and a half that I’ve been able to shift how I introduce myself from “I have degrees in composition” to “I am a composer.” It’s been immensely liberating, and I’m excited to see where it all goes from here.

How is the new-music scene in New Orleans? Whose work is exciting you and what should outsiders know?

The new music landscape has changed a great deal since I first moved into the city in 2008. A pretty sparse and non-existent scene has evolved into a modest but strong community of new music personalities and organizations that are trying to boost the identity of new music in this already music-rich city. Helping to shape the new music scene is something I’m passionate about and take very personally, so it’s gratifying to work with people who feel the same way and see the New Orleans scene continue to grow. It’s exciting work, and it feels great to be an influential part of it.

As far as whose work is exciting right now, a few things come to mind just from the past couple of months. First, in mid-May I hosted a concert featuring Chris Alford, a local composer/improviser/guitarist, and a week later I also performed in a Versipel New Music show with him. His talent and innovation blows me away, and it’s been an absolute pleasure to interact and collaborate with him. Second, there’s a relatively new venue called the New Marigny Theatre that has become one of my favorite spots to host new music events. Third, even though it’s not based in New Orleans, I need to give a shout out to New Music on the Bayou, a four-day summer new music festival that has events in Ruston and Monroe in northern Louisiana. In its short history the festival has cultivated a strong community of composers and new music performers through its concerts, workshops, and commitment to integrating deeply within the local community.

I’m planting some new seeds and collaborations that I hope will not only strengthen the New Orleans new music scene but also extend its identity further outward in Louisiana. Fingers crossed that the groundwork I’m doing right now will bear fruit in the coming years.

I’d like to hear specifically about nienteForte Contemporary Music, which you founded. What have you learned while running this group, and what advice would you give musicians who want to start a new-music concert series?

During my graduate degree, I was in a twentieth century music class with about thirty peers. A handful of them were graduate-level composers, but a majority of them were graduate-level music education majors who, along with the professor that was teaching the class, had a huge disdain for new music. The class openly laughed at musical examples, scoffed at the significance of icons like John Cage and Steve Reich, and generally made the composers in the room feel like outsiders and freaks.

Going to a new music recital during my undergraduate degree changed my life. It saved me from failing out of my music education degree, and it gave me a purpose to my life. I had gone into my graduate studies with this newfound enthusiasm and passion for composition and new music, and it was being trounced by graduate music majors. I remember thinking, “these people are aspiring music teachers. If this is how they feel about new music, how will their students feel when they start teaching?”

This is one of the major reasons I started nienteForte. I needed to control the narrative of new music as something that can spread joy and be celebrated for its diversity and innovation rather than dismissed or ridiculed. So when I first moved to New Orleans and found that there was no real new music scene to speak of, it felt like my only choice was to create one.

Running nienteForte has been a remarkable journey, and I’ve learned—and continue to learn—a great deal. One key takeaway is the notion that audiences unfamiliar with new music don’t realize how important collaboration can be between a living composer and the performer. There can be actual dialogue and the performer can be a key part of the creative process. When that collaborative relationship is front and center I like to say that I write with the performer rather than for the performer. That conversational energy and equitable agency between performer and composer is a key part of what makes new music exciting and relevant to me. I’ve found that once that understanding clicks with audiences, they become more open to new music as a whole, even if there are individual works or composers they don’t connect with.

Another key takeaway that I’ve learned is that it’s important to be open-minded to outside perspectives and give up control to people that I trust. nienteForte would not be where it is today if I stubbornly let my singular vision be the only thing steering the ship. There were times when the people who came on board pushed the organization in ways that started to grow beyond me. Rather than try to rein it in, I forced myself to change my comfort level to catch up to it. I’m grateful for that and for the people that pushed and continue to push me, because both I and the organization are stronger because of it.

For musicians who want to start a new music concert series, probably the biggest piece of advice I can give is: don’t do it because you want to, do it because you have to. When I moved to New Orleans and saw this void, I felt obligated to fill it. It didn’t feel like a choice, it felt like a necessity.

The next thing to do is ask a lot of questions about how you will navigate the relationship between your vision and the community you’re trying to engage with. What exactly are you trying to accomplish? Who are you trying to serve? How does what you’re offering distinguish you from similar efforts in your area?

I should also point out that had it easy in the early years of nienteForte. I had a lot of wiggle room to stumble because the stakes and expectations were incredibly low. My first season back in 2011 was a single concert that I planned maybe three months in advance that featured a percussionist friend of mine that traveled from Washington D.C. to play the show in New Orleans for no payment other than dinner and a couple of beers. It wasn’t just that I had no organizations or similar efforts to compete with, it was also that I was doing this as a passion project in my spare time and had no designs on paying myself or creating a sustainable business. That gave me the time to establish and develop nF’s brand organically and let it grow in ways that I didn’t expect. It was only after years of trial and error, and the eventual help and guidance of others, that I feel like nienteForte shifted from a pet project into an influential force of new music in New Orleans

That’s probably the other thing that I feel is key: perseverance. Arts organizations with the best foundations and missions still have to persevere through a mountain of rejections of funding, venue space, audience cultivation/retention, and other levels of support. Even after 14 seasons, my anxiety level still spikes before every nF show because I’m worried about how many people are going to show up and how well the show will be received. Every grant or funding rejection makes me stress about how I’m going to make sure my performers get paid while laying a foundation to make nF more sustainable. It’s a constant and tireless struggle, but at the end of the day, I find a way to keep going and try to make it better and stronger with each new season.

You’re active as a composer, performer, and arts administrator (and I’m sure other activities as well!). How do you balance your time among these activities and your personal life?

One of the big things that makes it easy to balance all of my projects both professionally and personally is coming from a career in the marching/pageantry arts. Collegiate marching band in particular has a huge precedent that sacrificing your time and energy is expected and normal. Before classes officially started, I would run and direct two straight weeks of 12-14 hour rehearsal days. On Mondays during the school year, I wouldn’t get out of rehearsals until 9:30-10pm. I had practically no free weekends during the fall season and would sometimes have to work over Thanksgiving, Christmas, and/or New Years. That’s on top of full work days year round devoted to keeping the operations and business side of the band running. So achieving balance between my job duties and my life wasn’t even an option. My choices were to either sacrifice my personal life and mental health or sacrifice my quality of work.

As I first started to navigate this new career path, I knew that I could maintain that paradigm and level of work ethic and energy and therefore get a lot of stuff done. I also knew that if I did that, then I would burn out and have no one to blame but myself. So it was important to me to use the discipline and endurance that I learned in the marching world but without sacrificing that need for balance. That was made easier because the terms of my new path are pretty much completely in my control, which translates to me working smarter and more efficiently to ensure that while I’m working less physical hours, I’m making the most of them and valuing quality of work hours over quantity.

I also think that being introspective about how I do my best work is also important. My work paradigm generally falls into two distinct categories. One is the “immensely focused” category where I put my head down for hours or days at a time and pour a majority of my energy into a single project, and the other is the “short-attention span” category where I take a half hour or hour to work on something, then get bored or impatient or distracted, so I shift to something else for a half hour to an hour, then I shift again, and then my dog scratches at the back door needing to be let out which takes me out of my focus so I shift to something else when I sit back down, and so on.

What’s odd about those two paradigms is that any of my projects and hobbies can exist in either headspace depending on varying factors. You’d think that creative work such as composition would always have to be in the “immensely focused” space, but there are times when I can put it into the “short-attention span” space too and still get some quality work done. I think that that interchangeability works for me because I’ve embraced the idea that these seemingly contradictory paradigms complement each other. If my focus project is composition, I might palette cleanse by pulling out a practice pad to drum, or work on that one grant proposal narrative, or I’ll clean the kitchen. If my focus project is an immersive video game like Oxygen Not Included, I’ll palette cleanse by finishing the notation work on that one percussion duet, or I’ll watch a Davinci Resolve or Ableton Live tutorial, or I’ll take a quick trip to the store to grab groceries for dinner.

I always have the big picture of my projects and life duties running in my head, and I’m constantly planning my days, weeks, and months in loose and flexible blocks of time that keeps all of my target project deadlines in sharp but malleable focus. Whenever I come up for mental air from a long session of focused work or play, it’s a reflex for me to assess where I am. If I find myself falling behind in one area, I adjust accordingly to ensure that I’m never missing an important internal or external deadline.

It’s also a matter of knowing and being disciplined with myself. I mentioned Oxygen Not Included deliberately because that’s a game I have sunk an insane amount of obsessed hours into due to the rabbit holes of complexity that I can drown in, not dissimilar to Max/MSP programming. In the past nine months I’ve had more compositional projects than normal that I knew would take up a lot of time and energy, and I remember very distinctly telling myself around September of last year, “The next time that I can let myself play this game is June of next year.” I know myself well enough to push but not break my limits of what I can do and how I balance my time between the spectrum of work and play.

Thanks for sharing your experiences and advice Mendel! Readers, I invite you to check out Mendel’s YouTube reel of recent works:

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