Addiction and recovery are struggles common to many artists, and violinist and composer Jackie An is included in this number. But rather than keep their journey toward recovery private, as many do, An has decided to make it the focus of their current artistic project, a foray into composing music.
Their composition A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Addict is a string trio, to be performed in Seattle on September 9 by themselves on violin, along with cellist Lori Goldston and violinist/violist Heather Bentley. The performance is part of Nonsequitur’s NonSeq series curated by Michaud Savage.
This composition is based on An’s personal experience, as they have felt called to bear witness to their past. “Largely, I’ve described my addiction recovery through language, either speaking or writing in a recovery context,” said An. “The thing that’s so beautiful about strings is that they’re lyrical in nature and also able to capture textures that are challenging-guttural, grating, shrieking, so music can communicate in animal language that the non-verbal brain connects with.”
During their recovery, An found that suppression and denial did not work. “I imagine the process of writing this string trio is similar to what writing a memoir feels like,” they said. “I went through old journals and even an old email account. It was excruciating at times to feel the distress radiating off of the page.”
But developing this composition was not necessarily foreordained after Savage contacted An about participating in the NonSeq series. “He gave me a list of performers he thought might be a good fit for my work,” An said. “The first time we all met up in person, to discuss some of the ideas that I had, it was Michaud, Heather, Lori, and myself sitting in a circle in Lori’s living room. Lori was like, ‘You can make this about you and what you want for yourself as a musician.’”
For An, this felt like an intervention. “I’m happy to say that this period in my life is the safest I have ever felt in my body,” they shared. “As a result, I’m actually able to metabolize the emotional impact of a lot of intense events that have occurred in my life.”
An’s rehearsal process has been to build confidence as a composer and create connections with their musicians. “The relational component of collaboration is so important to me,” they said. “With time, the lens of sobriety, a trauma-informed framework, and a lot more support, I have a new perspective that holds more room for understanding the complexity and gravity of what I was going through.”
To do this, An drew upon musical skills built since childhood, watching both their siblings play violin and piano.
When An became school-aged, they began studying violin with Willa Deane Howells and piano with Martha Harrison Hays. But this passion faded out during An’s teenage years.
“After high school, I did not go to conservatory, as it did not occur to me I was a musician, or that I had a vital, life-preserving need to play music,” they said. “Music found me again in my mid-twenties, when I was emotionally unwell and my nervous system was wrecked.”
Then reconnection came out of the blue when a friend set them up on a blind date. Feeling socially anxious, they brought their violin to the party they were meeting at because they were told that this “friend group liked to play Bob Dylan and other folky stuff.”
An found this new setting very liberating having grown up in a risk-averse environment, hostile to making mistakes. In addiction recovery, as well as their growth as an artist, An now understands that mistake-making is an important part of nurturing growth, expression, and creativity.
As an immigrant, An had felt intense pressure to assimilate and conform.
“Once I discovered, seemingly by accident, that I could play music in a self-generated way, I felt lucky to have been asked to join different collaborations as I connected with people that I met through making music,” they said.
“Each project I have been involved with has been practice for the next, so the transition from accompanying a guitarist playing a Bob Dylan at an open mic night evolves into a West Coast tour in a doom folk band, to a studio residency with a modern ballet company, to drone orchestra, seems like the incremental progression necessary for me to become willing to consider myself to be a musician, let alone an artist.”
In addition to their work in music, An is also a Somatic Educator in the tradition of Thomas Hanna, thanks to her early violin teacher Willa Deane Howells.
An believes it’s important to be proactive about bodily health. “In the capitalist technocracy we find ourselves in, we’ve been discouraged to have a relationship with our body that isn’t mediated by some consumable good,” they explained. “It’s a powerful stand to even want to be in the body, when the world we live in encourages self-loathing and shame of the body.”
They state that Hanna Somatic Education uses subtle and gentle movement to help the brain surrender old habits of tension. “I think of it as being a couples counselor for body and brain, creating cooperation and communication out of conflict and pain.”
They continued: “So rather than seeing the body and brain as two individual entities at odds with each other, this approach encourages the individual to see their soma as the harmonious relationship of bodymind.”
Likewise, in their music, An said they are working from their gut. “The challenge in A Portrait of An Artist as a Young Addict is I had to how to convey my creative instinct to others,” they said. “I’m typically doing improv with my loop pedal, improv with another musician, or accompanying a dancer, so being in a lead creative role is one of the biggest creative jumps I’ve had to make in a very long time.”
Following the September 9th performance, there will be a post-show talkback hosted by writer and dramaturg Jesse Roth. An hopes the talkback will be a form of community.
“In a world littered with all the intrusive content we’re forced to gorge ourselves on,” they said. “iIvt’s a reclamation of our humanity to make an old-fashioned energetic vortex by experiencing live art together.”
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Addict will be performed on September 9 at Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, 4649 Sunnyside Ave. N, 4th floor, Seattle.
CORRECTION on September 11, 2023, 10:19 a.m: A previous version of this article misgendered Jackie An, whose correct pronouns are they/them.