Education and Musical Composition and Production are two fields that demand considerable dedication, focus, and patience without the guarantee of celebrity or financial gain. These fields involve constant contemplation and reflection and can cause grave frustrations and self-doubt. At times, the musician or educator, or, “by the gods’ cruel hands”, someone whose vocation involves involvement in both fields, can be left feeling like nothing more than a grizzly bear aimlessly wading in uncertain waters trying to catch an ever-elusive salmon.
34 year-old Jersey City resident Elliot C. Cole is a composer, instructor, and professor who is that grizzly; his strikes have proved to be anything but aimless – just don’t tell him that. Cole ardently believes in process, not product. To him, being labeled as “accomplished” can be detrimental, given that both art and education involve the evolution of humankind and a need to continuously challenge perspectives in light of the same. He prefers and welcomes the label “emerging.” Cole received his B.Mus in Musical Composition and his B.A. in Cognitive Science (Linguistics) from Rice University in 2008. In 2012, he received his Master of Fine Arts in Composition at Princeton University. There, he spent four years instructing undergraduate courses in Ear Training. He has provided private and group lessons for over ten years and has taught the basic principles of practical theory and musicianship to inmates at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. He takes none of his talents for granted.
He has been producing and creating original work since 2005. So, how did this “emerging” artist get a grip on those elusive keys?
Do you feel that you have “arrived” as an artist and as an educator, or do you feel that labelling yourself, “emerging,” “arrived,” could be detrimental to your progress?
Watching something emerge in me and my work — that’s what’s interesting about life and art and I don’t ever want that to end. May it always be unfinished, unfolding. The moment I ‘arrive’ is the moment I start looking for a hobby.
When did you decide, or at least realized, that music and education were fields you were destined to claim as your “own”?
When I was a teenager I wanted a life in music very badly, and when I got to college (at first not for music) I worked extremely hard to get a foot in the door. Teaching was something I grew into — I was a bad piano teacher for a while in my 20s, but as I phased out of graduate school I decided it was something I wanted to do well. For a few years I took every opportunity to practice that came my way — TA positions, adjuncting at multiple schools, private students, a prison. I wrote a number of courses from scratch, I gave extra time to struggling students, I worked many, many unpaid hours. That was my training ground. I began to feel more confident in the classroom, and take more pleasure in it.
I noticed you make references to literature, mythology, and Eastern philosophy and religion in your writings: Hecuba of the Iliad, Ramayana: the 2500 year-old epic Indian poem. How important is cross-pollination of disciplines when it comes to your work?
It’s not necessarily cross-pollination that is essential to me, it’s learning. I only take on composition projects that are going to afford me a chance to get to connect deeply with a book, or learn a new instrument, or explore another tradition, something that makes my world bigger. I consider that part of my ‘income’ from the work. For my Roda I learned to play the berimbau and trained in capoeira. My Movements is a VR musical instrument that brought my computer programming skills to a new level. I’m writing a Death of Arthur this year for the medieval ensemble Alkemie that’s giving me a chance to develop as a singer, learn to play bendir and organetto, and explore a cool old book. Writing music without learning a lot in the process just isn’t that interesting to me.
What scares you most about being an artist and an educator?
I’m scared to teach Composition with a capital C. I’d enjoy it, but I feel very conflicted… a ‘composition career’ is for most a ticket to poverty and frustration. I don’t want it to be my job to mentor young people into that, especially with the high cost of college etc etc.
Was there a particular moment when you failed or saw yourself as failing? How did you move beyond that moment?
I’ve led some bad classes — poorly planned activities, vague lectures, my own ignorance clearly on display. I usually deal with those moments by owning up to them, telling the class, “wow, it’s obvious I don’t really know what I’m talking about, I thought this activity was going to work and it totally doesn’t.” I try to be gentle to myself in those moments, and not prideful.
What do you consider the most profound sacrifice you have made, thus far? What do you inform your students as to what may be the greatest sacrifice they may have to make as an artist?
I’ve been very fortunate; I have at the moment life that suits me which hasn’t required profound sacrifices…yet (I’m still young). But I try to be realistic with my students (when they ask) — being an artist is a rich and rewarding way to live, but trying to achieve success and security through art is like, oh, maybe trying to fish for salmon like a grizzly bear. For most it’s a disappointing and perilous project, especially the older you get. And there are many more effective ways to achieve success and security. I taught myself to code websites and supported myself that way for many years. It was a drag but a liberating one. I recommend that students learn other ways to make money and build self-esteem.
You have a degree in the cognitive sciences. How do you view the mind-body connection with regards to musical composition and aesthetics?
For me, all music is dance music. The more I connect what I do to my body, the more pleasure there is in it, the more life. While I have heard many arguments in aesthetics and ideology that ‘art music’ should transcend/critique/counter this pleasure, I am not convinced. I am after musical experiences that make me feel that “I am, now, truly in the heart of life.” And the body is the site of life.
Some educators and artists have a “catchphrase” or mantra with which they motivate their students to think. What would your students say is your “catchphrase,” if you have one?
I think the phrase that my students hear me say the most is: “I can’t wait to see what you come up with.”