Pleasant Grove, a community in the southeast outskirts of Dallas, Texas, was not a nice neighborhood when keyboardist Elliot Figg was growing up in the eighties and nineties. He and his big family lived there for much of his childhood, neighbors with a diverse, blue-collar bunch. Petty crime was a normalcy and thefts were common in Pleasant Grove, according to Figg. He now performs, conducts and writes music in New York.
This isn’t to say Figg’s youth was totally saturated with the crimes of Pleasant Grove. There were tranquil refuges in nature and in music. Woods behind his home were often explored, fond details of them remembered decades later. At a cafe on the Upper West Side in New York city he and I go back and forth sharing cherished memories of our respective childhood forest romps—forts, good climbing trees, enchanting hollowed stumps.
Though Figg found comfort in nature, music was where his passion truly lived. His father an amateur folk musician, his grandmother a pianist, and his grandfather a music professor, music was always regarded with importance in his home. But finding his own individual musical identity was difficult in a large family, so he did so at night, during solo moments at his house’s piano:
“The emotional magic that I remember feeling, the kind of creative trance I could fall into in the middle of the night in solitude, those vignettes of memory stand as defining experiences, which taught me about the profundity in the contemplation of art, or in the creation of art.”
This contemplative approach to music is evidenced in Elliot’s thoughtful demeanor when it comes to speaking about music. He seems to regard his craft with an old-world nuance, unencumbered by the common obvious desire for fast success that many hungry New York artists harbor. The existential pondering that comes with creation can often feel lost in a world that serves everything to us in bite-sized Instagram posts and tweets, but Elliot retains it when he composes and plays.
In fact, he emphasizes this love of tradition in how he physically composes music. Music-writing software was gaining popularity in his college years, he tells me. Most musicians utilized these software, in which music could be typed on a page quickly and neatly, producing sheet music that’s consistent and easy to read. He resisted this wave of new technology, though, and continued to write all his compositions by hand. He still does so today. He knows it’s conventional, but he doesn’t care, which I can appreciate as someone whose career is in a dance style that hasn’t changed in centuries:
“If only I were more tech-savvy and didn’t write all my music out by hand, alas I’ve always been a sucker for musical calligraphy.”
Circling back to discussing Pleasant Grove, Texas, he laughs as he watches my reaction to hearing him recount the several break-ins his family endured in their home in the area. He talks about them with the nonchalance of discussing his community’s regular barbecues or pickup baseball games, rather than with the alarm I’d expect. I naively forget that the Rockwell-esque upbringing I had in the suburbs of Virginia is far from universal. It’s alarming for me to hear of neighbors breaking windows and ransacking a family home, especially when such cathartic artistic discovery is occurring.
While Figg smiles casually at the memory of a slew of petty household thefts, there is one that draws him into a more serious state. Sipping espresso across from me in this café, he shifts in his seat before telling me of a theft for which no reparation really exists.
It was 1999, and Figg had driven home from college for the weekend. Though he doesn’t remember the exact date of the event, he assures me his mom, who has a curious ability to recall specific dates of nearly every significant event, would be able to tell me. There is some solace in knowing that even if he forgets the month and day, she doesn’t.
It was the middle of his freshman year at the University of North Texas, where he was studying music composition. It was sometime in January or February and raining; his parents were in the middle of getting divorced. He parked his gold Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight in the driveway, an undated car he describes as “crappy”, and made his way into the house.
Not much was going on, he says. It was just his dad at home, his siblings were out and about. Naturally, Figg fell asleep on the couch. Grave and blunt words from his father woke him up from his couch slumber:
“Son, your car’s been stolen.”
It would make sense for an eighteen or nineteen year-old to be infuriated and distraught upon hearing that their prime mode of teenage freedom, their car, had been stolen. It wasn’t the car that concerned Elliot though.
Housed from the monotony of the rainy weekend home, in a beautiful leather valise were Figg’s original musical compositions. Everything he had written during those midnight sessions alone at the home piano, every piece he had ever composed, every note he had committed thoughtfully to paper, it was all in the valise. His mother had found it at a thrift shop, like she did with much of the family’s material goods, and given it to Elliot. Some thirty pieces of music rested inside the rich leather, written over the course of his eighteen years. And the valise had been sitting in the backseat of his gold Oldsmobile.
Figg says he immediately became frantic, upset, worried. His entire musical development as a keyboardist and composer had been taken—years of creative progress, and the evidence robbed from him so easily.
The gravity of it all strikes me. The theft happened at such a pinnacle moment for a person, the entry into adulthood, the last moments of childhood. To have the hand-created records of all that encompassed an artist during his development taken so quickly is something I can’t even imagine. I don’t have a tangible portfolio of all the scattered moments of artistic revelation I encountered as I grew up dancing, not that there were a plethora anyway.
The police were immediately called, and Figg recalls yelling into the receiver, “My compositions have been stolen!” Surely not a common complaint for the Dallas Police to hear everyday.
There wasn’t much to do after this, though. He called his mother and told her about it. She then reached out to the local news station. She scheduled an interview for Elliot to speak about the taken manuscripts. A supportive mother, she agreed that this robbery was so much more serious, the stolen goods were worth so much more, than the previous thefts of their home.
A few days later, the car was found. It wasn’t far from Figg’s family’s house in Pleasant Grove, on a quiet street somewhere. It had been hot-wired clearly, but it was in fine shape. The valise wasn’t in the backseat though.
Figg did the interview with the news station after finding the car, on the radio. He doesn’t remember the precise wording, but tells me the tagline was likely something along the lines of “Local Musician Is Robbed of Original Compositions.” I wonder how many people listened to it, how many people recognized how devastating an event this was for a young composer. I hope a few people.
Figg never found the stolen valise of manuscripts. We checked all the local pawn shops for it, he says. In the past, when items of value were stolen from their home, Elliot’s family would sometimes find them again in these shops. Once at one of the shops, his father bought back a Martin guitar which was originally bought at a garage sale by his mother.
It’s been some time now since the theft of his fist compositions. And this time has been spent writing more music, always by hand, though his composing will forever be tainted by the theft of his works at eighteen. Robbed of the documents which were colored so much by the innocent growth of a young artist, Elliot tells me he’s still not over the whole thing. He has, however, still looked back at the memories of those compositions in the valise and drawn upon them now:
“…[This] traumatic incident, the disappearance of one’s corpus of juvenilia, at the apex of that teenage development, cause[d] a kind rift or reassessment, a new direction. But still, those old pieces of music hang in my memory, though I can’t recreate them precisely. They still hold as a background for what I do today. They shaped my musical personality.”
He tells me he has fantasized about one day being somewhere far from Pleasant Grove, maybe even far from New York, and hearing one of his childhood compositions being played. When I asked if he’d recognize something he wrote all these years later just by hearing it, he says, with no hesitation, of course.
So I fantasize too—I picture Figg walking down a street in Europe, Asia, Africa, anywhere. Notes perfectly arranged touch his ears from an open window or around a corner and and ignite the nostalgic pulse of the void he’s carried for decades. Something is unlocked in him, and all the youthful hope he gripped onto since his compositions were stolen resurfaces and is repaid with the sound of his music. The time lost with his treasured archive after it was stolen can never be replaced for him. But at the very least, he can perhaps find relief in knowing someone is encountering young Figg through his meticulous handwriting on these stolen sheets of music, someone is realizing those innocent years of Figg’s development in the present. I hope this happens someday.