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In 88X50: A Memoir of Sexual Discovery, Modern Music, and the United States of America (Dissonant States Press, 2013), acclaimed pianist Adam Tendler recounts the nine months he spent performing an ambitious program of modern music in some of America’s more out of the way locales. Part travelogue, part coming out story, the book is an unsentimental and at times harrowing self-portrait of an artist in the act of self-becoming. Tendler also uses the book as an opportunity to rethink the very nature of memoir with web links to photographs, performance clips and journal entries that draw the reader even deeper into the experience of the America 88X50 tour.
Tendler recently spoke to the Lambda Literary Review about his favorite memoirs, the advantages of self-publishing and coming out on the page.
The 88×50 tour wrapped up in 2006. How much time passed before you were ready to address yourself to the task of writing the book? Did you feel you needed to get some distance from this period before you could write about it?
I barely remember a time when I wasn’t writing 88×50. It was my Siamese twin for nearly a decade. Besides all the drafts, there are probably close to a thousand pages of journals from during the tour itself. The problem, however, is that a lot of it in the beginning was pure autobiography, just me purging, and a lot of it also wasn’t true. I was lying to myself to such a degree, at least about my sexuality, that I would lie straight into my journals. It took about two years after the tour for me to realize that in every respect the book was a coming out story, and that if I wanted to produce something honest and compelling, I’d need to go back and sort out a lot of difficult things and reshape it completely.
Modern music becomes a marvelous conceit for just about everything going on in your life during the tour, especially the dissonant realities of your public life as a performer and your life as a closeted gay man. Did you always understand the appeal that this music holds for you as being somehow related to your sexuality?
Yes and no. I mean, from the minute I discovered modern music as a teenager, I “got” it. It could be a gay thing or not. You’re right, though, that these composers’ often dissonant language spoke to the dissonance in me at the time. I thought they were so brave for writing that music down on the page, notes that didn’t always “go together,” so in part I think I wanted to absorb their bravery by playing their music.
And did it make a difference that many of them were also gay and closeted?
I always found out about their sexual identities after I heard the music, believe it or not. And even if it came as some kind of relief at the time, I wasn’t going to point this aspect of the composers’ lives out to anyone nor really analyze its significance for myself. Music was an escape for me when self-expression was, at least so I thought, a punishable offense. I was bullied about my sexual identity before I even knew I had one. That was my behavior training. So maybe I didn’t want to invite the thing I was trying to escape into my actual method of escape, if that makes any sense. I couldn’t mix the two at the time.
But you seem comfortable mixing them now.
Well, I earned that luxury by coming out, really. These days, I think everything’s related and that art suffers if we compartmentalize. But I still have my moments. A few years ago in San Francisco, a friend overheard someone at my concert say, “I’ve seen pianists who happen to be gay, but this is a gay who happens to be a pianist.” I have no idea what this means, but at the time it really bothered me. Some stupid comment like that was enough to trigger me into that old spiral of shame and self-doubt, only at that point I was questioning my validity as an artist. Sometimes I feel like I’ve come a long way, and other times I’m reminded that it’s still been less than a decade since when I was walking around telling people I was straight.
I was enjoying your performance of Phillip Glass’ “Two Pages” the other day and thinking to myself, this is about edging, which is perhaps not something I would have thought of before reading 88×50.
Oh my God!
But in all seriousness, learning to live without resolution is another of the big themes in the book. Can you talk a little about this as it relates to your development as a gay man and as a musician?
Well, I’ve never thought of “Two Pages” that way, but I completely get it! That’s probably why I like it so much. I also play a lot of John Cage…
Another gay American composer…
Right, and Cage’s work also tends to be more about the act of composition or the act of performance than about some kind of goal or climax, which people still have trouble with. There’s still a common expectation that in art, something is always “supposed” to happen to make us feel a certain way, and if an agenda isn’t expressed and met, the art supposedly fails. This expectation trickles into our everyday lives and influences the expectations we often have of ourselves. Our culture tells us that if we do such-and-such thing, then such-and-such result should happen.
Your book is sort of about what happens when those expectations aren’t met.
Oh, totally. The book itself edges, if you think about it, for most if not all of its two-hundred something pages. We’re always waiting for the big “ta-dah!” That was a big problem for every agent and publisher who ever considered taking it on. These people wanted a kind of cute, inspirational romp with a clear-cut, happy ending where all my needs were met and every problem solved. But that wasn’t my reality, so it was never going to be my book.
But given the do-it-yourself nature of the 88×50 tour, it seems to me the only right way would be to self-publish your memoir about it.
It took me years of rejection to realize that, though. Even though the book is about taking leaps of faith without asking permission, in seven years of dancing with agents and publishers, I somehow came to feel like I needed permission to publish it. I never lost hope in my work, but I did become pretty bitter about commercial publishing. I think it’s an industry run by kids in a classroom where everyone’s looking at the answers on someone else’s test. To put it kindly.
So when did you finally decide to publish it yourself?
In August of 2012. I realized that if I only wanted to share my story, which is what I told people, then I needed to just ignore my ego and self publish. I had more money in the bank than I do now, and so I bought my own publishing name, Dissonant States Press, and started the process with CreateSpace, all the while still talking to agents and publishers. After over a year of development, I realized that I’d created the book I wanted. I liked its brevity and tone and the fact that people could go as deep into it as they wished with the online components. I couldn’t imagine changing it for anyone.
Speaking of the book’s interactive element, your Dissonant States blog collects a good deal of correlative photographs and music as well as passages that did not make it into the final version of 88×50. It also elaborates on your quest for perfection. How does it feel to have this material creation of yours, this book, floating around out there?
Well, honestly I think nobody really reads my blog, but I do appreciate that it, the book, and everything else is all floating around for people to find in their own time, for their own reasons. That said, you’re right that I am a perfectionist. The blog posts, like the book, or like any pieces of music I’ve ever learned…none of these things ever really feel done. I could tinker with them forever. I’ve lost sleep over typos. My YouTube clips might have a bunch of hits, but my stomach turns when I think about it because I only hear the imperfections. That stuff really bothers me more than any of the provocative subject matter. But of course when I think of my mom reading certain parts of 88×50, I squirm. Or like when you brought up edging just before, I thought to myself, “Oh my God, that’s right, he read that…”
Are there particular memoirs that were touchstones for you as you worked on 88×50?
Ned Rorem has been writing about the gay classical musician’s experience for half-a-century, starting with The Paris Diary, though my favorite is Lies from 1999. I think every young writer who imagines they’re producing frank confessional material needs to go buy Edmund White’s My Lives, which is a masterpiece. As for musical memoirs, I read everything from Charlie Louvin’s Satan Is For Real to Boy George’s Take It Like a Man to Blair Tindall’s Mozart in the Jungle. Alex Ross is the Carl Sagan of our musical universe, so his books were a huge inspiration, too. The late Reinaldo Arenas set an impossibly high bar for memoir writing with Before Night Falls, which haunts me daily. I re-read John Krakauer’s Into the Wild, which to me is about the dark side of wanderlust, and I loved Justin Spring’s The Secret Historian, a rare artist biography where virtually nothing ever works out for the subject. Alicia Abbot’s Fairyland showed me that sometimes a good story is enough. Rick Whitaker’s Assuming the Position demonstrated, with almost surgical effectiveness, the power of restraint. Hilton Als’s White Girls simply took my breath away. I read every sentence twice. And Rachel Zucker’s MOTHERs is the most original and shattering piece of memoir I’ve experienced in recent memory. Oh, and everyone should read Stephen King’s On Writing.
You seemed genuinely amazed at how warmly both you and the music were received at most of the stops on the tour.
I was amazed! It amazed me that anything was even happening in the first place, that people were saying yes to the project, inviting me into their homes, showing up at my concerts. I’m still amazed when people come to my concerts now, honestly, or every time someone reads the book. To me, it’s such a huge gesture of trust and kindness, to give me that time. The fact that people responded positively to the music during the tour was just a cherry on top, and really proved to me that there’s no such thing as a lay audience. I patently disagree with the idea that certain music requires certain ears.
Do you plan on writing a follow-up in a few years?
Probably not a follow-up specifically, but I think I have other books in me. I’ve wanted to write about the very gay years I spent in Texas directly after the tour, years that still feel like another life to me. And I also see myself publishing a collection of my more recent New York City writing. That’s probably next. I’ve also recently wondered why the space between 2003 and 2005, between graduating college and the tour, feels like a complete blur to me. I remember, like, five things that happened during those years. So it might be cool to unravel that on the page at some point.
What other projects, literary or musical, are you working on now that we should be aware of?
An e-book version of 88×50 will appear soon, which will allow readers to connect directly from the manuscript to all the pictures, musical examples, videos, and expanded passages. Print edition readers can access this stuff pretty easily now, but with the e-book, people can just tap the screen and they’re there, so I can’t wait to unveil that. A great artist, Matt Fisher, is working on the digital conversion. I’m also recording an audio version of the book, full of surprises, which will be available on iTunes and Spotify and wherever else people get their music. Besides that, I’m mostly preparing recitals and performance projects for the spring, summer, and beyond, some of which are, like, dream-come-true cool. I’m also preparing for my first label recording of music by an unsung and fascinating midcentury American composer named Robert Palmer, which will be out next year I hope. So I’m in laboratory mode, putting things together and hoping it all works out. I’m the first to say that America 88×50 never really ended so much as it opened into a new version of itself, and it happens again and again. I’m still scrapping around, engaging the mystery and miracle of getting from Point A to Point B. To borrow your word, I’m still, in general, amazed.