• Katie Madonna Lee

The Composer's Chronic Condition: The Everyday Existential Crisis

Updated: Jul 25, 2019




Urban dictionary defines the extensional crisis as "when and individual person starts to question their entire existence and questioning if being alive even has a point or if it's all pointless. It also is hard to get out of because when you are debating if reality has a purpose it gets in the way of everyday things, like Making Cereal or writing music."


Over the last the two years, I have been fortunate enough to attend several classical music festivals and composer's intensives. For those unfamiliar with classical music festivals such as Mostly Modern, Atlantic Music Festival, etc., these festivals should not be confused with Bonnaroo or Coachella. Musicians and composers attending these festivals have formal lessons, presentations, rehearsals, and a full day of activities such as lectures and workshops. Additionally, all evening musical concerts are in formal concerts halls fully equipped with working plumbing too!


It is fair to say that one attending a classical music festival will not be forced to a use a port-a-potty.


Yet even in such outstanding conditions, all composers have voiced and echoed what I'd thought was only my own inner anxiety and turmoil. Each composer I spoke with vocalized the extensional crisis they face on a continued basis. So much in fact, that it is to be expected, that the composer lives in a constant state of questioning their existence and if all the work done in isolation is worth it.


I will be honest. When I encountered my first extensional crisis I was in full blown music school. I felt the romanticism stripped off of my creative coating. In high school, which was heavenly, this feeling rarely visited me. How could it? I was surrounded by so many interesting and talented people that I never really felt the need to question the purpose of my life.


I never really felt cut off from the world in high school. My high school was based on the movie "Fame," we were surrounded by people who wanted to be there, pursuing a life in the arts. And also, I was not only surrounded by musicians. I interacted with visual artists, dancers, writers and actors. My personality and creativity flourished in this environment.


It was not until I attended a stand alone music school that I discovered the isolation and misery of music programs. The quiet and unspoken religion of music school resembled Catholic school without any of the possible excitement of rebellion. The elitism and the judgement combined with a total lack of real world experience did not jive well with my inner city Chicago education.


And it was here that the dark night of the soul occurred for almost four years.


The worse thing about this: I was not the only the person who struggled with this question yet most people fronted as if they had all the answers. This made me feel even more alone and damaged.


This is why I am so thankful that I attended these composer's intensives and festivals. It was there that others opened up about their lives and struggles. It was there composers came together and spoke about this on-going fear and dark night of the soul all of us faced back home.


Does any of this matter? Why I am doing this?


What I found out is all of us face the existential crisis everyday. Each step and each time we invest in music we are wrestling with doubts and anxieties chasing and attempting to interrupt us. There is a reason Charles Ives wrote a piece called "The Unanswered Question," after all.


The answer of the existential crisis is to endure it. To push past it. To take a break from it. To continue writing music at your own pace.


After years of fighting this battle, the dark night of the soul has finally shown me some stars, and has become more calm and quiet. Yes it does show up from time to time yet I don't live in total darkness anymore. I am starting to see in the dark, and listen to my own inner wisdom to light the way.


All I can say is that so far this part is working.






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