thoughts on comprehensive exams

I’m doing a month-long frantic study dance for quals right now, which in our program consists of taking a hybrid comprehensive-exam-on-western-classical-music-plus-state-of-the-field-oh-yeah-know-some-ethnomusicological-literature-as-well-and-we-hope-you-also-still-know-music-theory mash-up. With a sprinkling of popular music and terms from other music traditions around the world as well. As you can imagine, this means I am trying to cover an awful lot of material and hold it inside of my head for at least another two and a half weeks.

I had to learn some of this for my previous MA exam, but being able to cite scholarly literature off the top of my head to answer as-of-yet-undetermined questions is a new one, so that’s what’s getting most of my energy. No, I don’t know who I’m kidding, I’m also frantically reviewing the other stuff. It’s a frustrating exercise, because it involves memorizing a lot of history in a very uncritical way. Basically, one has to temporarily undo all of that lovely critical thought one tries to accomplish in one’s day-to-day life in favor of being able to recite details from an established historical narrative. I know I’m not alone in this by any means, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. (It also doesn’t mean that the practice of giving comprehensive exams to music history graduate students is a good one.)

But I have now found the solution, in the form of a brilliant and biting quote from Alejandro L. Madrid in the 2011 colloquy on the state of the study of American music from the Journal of the American Musicological Society. I will simply write this in response to the term and score identification portions of my exam:

The U.S. higher education music system has become too comfortable with the reproduction of formulas that aspire to ensure its own replication. When a system occupies itself with reproducing a given set of aesthetic values (absolute music, organicism, harmonic complexity, the idea of musical genius, teleology, etc.) and their embodiment in a given musical repertoire (the European learned music tradition), it becomes more a matter of propaganda than a project in musical thinking. (701)

And, as I just said on Twitter a moment ago, this will obviously result in the faculty appreciating my reflection on the development of the field of musicology and the pressing issues facing it today–certainly NOT in them failing me for being a smartass. Well, I can dream.

concert review

i. timbral juxtaposition

ii. motion along a perimeter

iii. movement within a bounded space
constant but minute

iv. motion in lines; parallels & mirrors
falling and bouncing
outward & away


[Found this little essay in my papers today while I was unpacking. Just some musings (I initially typed “musicings”) on the intersection and disconnect between creative writing and music performance, and how I got where I am now.]

before I wanted to be a musicologist—
before I wanted to be a musician
—I wanted to be a writer.

I started writing and taking music lessons at about the same age. But they felt like very different things.

Music was about practicing. Repetition. Perfection of a pattern.

Writing was about creation. Expansion. Shaping of ideas.

Writing was where I could SAY something. I know there are people who feel this way about classical music performance (and doubtless countless others who claim to feel this way but actually just like to get things right), but I was never really one of them. Performing is beautiful and awe-inspiring, but it’s not the same as writing.

The first song I taught myself to play was “Jingle Bells”—on piano. (On flute, it was “Ticket to Ride.”)

The first story I taught myself to write was about time-traveling, globe-trotting doppelgängers—one good, one evil—and their ultimate epic confrontation. I’m not saying it was a good idea, I’m just saying it was MINE. And I didn’t have to share it if I didn’t want to; it was made manifest simply through the act of putting pen(cil, and later its digital equivalent) to paper.

I could take my time. Writing was experiential, but on an expanded temporal scale, not there in one instant and gone the next. When it was too late to articulate the note the way I’d wanted to, to make that leap with the flawless precision I’d achieved ten times out of ten in a room by myself. On a stage, with everyone looking at me, I seized up.

But writing is oddly personal and impersonal. An embodied and disembodied act. Possibly the very essence of a body, its chemical, electrical, neurological processes, but removed from their context within that system. When you read something I write, you are looking at me, but not at me. You know me and do not know my physicality. I give up my deeper weaknesses to you in exchange for not displaying my superficial weaknesses—the form of my body, that cracked note, that misplaced breath, the awkward way I take my bow belying my discomfort at the whole spectacle of asking for and receiving attention and recognition—all overlooked or even obscured.

It was that intimacy, though, that did me in. Creative writing felt too bare. Better to hide it behind something agreed or disagreed or talked past each other about. And what better than music?

assassinating classical music

I found myself with too many thoughts about my UNC graduate colleague Will Robin’s piece for the New Yorker today to feel comfortable subjecting him to the following post as an email (which is how it started). You should read his article, as I’m sure much more thought went into it than went into my impressions here, and as he is an excellent and persuasive writer. But to summarize: Will challenges the notion that a tradition with a thousand-plus-year past can simply die out and excoriates journalists who would suggest otherwise, in part through a sublime infographic* showing the long tradition of lamenting new trends in Western music. Along the way, he makes several important points about the role of classical music in American society, e.g., that one factor in its decline is the drop-off in the government’s interest in using it to assert cultural dominance over other parts of the world. And so on. Really, go read it yourself.

I always wonder what’s at stake in the constant doom-mongering, as he puts it, especially when it comes from people who seem to consider themselves as existing outside of the classical music world.** What’s the point in asserting the imminence of the death of classical music if you are ambivalent, if you are interested neither in reviving it nor in helping to kill it off? If you don’t even want to engage with new trends in any way, thinking about how things might be changing as a whole rather than dying out entirely?

That’s the beauty of the infographic, thinking about it historically: had Pope John XXII been able to hear Beethoven’s music, he wouldn’t have even considered it to belong to the body of work he was trying to defend. But today we place the two together as part of a developmental trajectory. So even if all the American orchestras were to fold tomorrow, against all odds, wouldn’t we just come up with something else to act as Western art music’s new standard-bearer? (And aren’t we constantly in the process of doing so anyway?)

This is to say that I’m not sure what the point in talking about the death of classical music is either, when the sum of what we consider to belong to this category is flexible and to a large extent retroactively constructed. But I have a hypothesis as to why people do so. I think that this particular social and historical construction of “classical music” that is being taken down, this art of the symphony hall, opera house, and recital stage, stands in for many things to its would-be antagonists, particularly in an American context: Western cultural imperialism; elitism and classism; Eurocentrism in American culture; intellectual disdain for popular forms of expression. It represents a period in our cultural history that many people would like to think is receding into the past–or dying out with aging audiences, as it were. None of the above associations are entirely unfair. But as I see it, none of them are disappearing any time soon, even if we do end up replacing the symphony orchestra with chamber pop or indie classical or online choirs or so on, or even if what we might now consider popular music does take over entirely. Killing off classical music in the press is merely a statement; it can only serve as a toothless assertion that mainstream or dominant American society is rejecting these troubling values. It can do nothing to actually change the musical past, and it does very little to alter the course of the inevitable progression of our own cultural self-definition. And it certainly does not absolve any of us of our collective cultural sins.


* Created in collaboration with Andy Doe, who also has written an impassioned takedown of the Slate article that Will references.

** I think it’s important to note quickly that there is a difference between the type of article to which Will seems to be responding and those written with an explicit interest in reforming classical music institutions and practices, most often in an attempt to increase popular appeal.

on unicorns

Here’s the deal. At 3:41 PM, my darling friend, excellent composer, and all around wonderful person Gabriel Lubell’s Kickstarter will have ONE WEEK left until its conclusion. I have been acting as Gabe’s unofficial campaign consultant and motivation expert and believe pretty deeply in his project, which aims to record, master, and release the first album of his music–both digitally and on vinyl. This is all nothing out of the ordinary for a Kickstarter campaign. The difference with Gabe’s project is that in addition to paying all the production costs, he also wants to pay over 30 young professionals (musicians, a conductor, and a visual artist) for their time and effort. He wouldn’t dream of doing this project without compensating them for their work, and so he’s chosen a goal that seems pretty daunting for any starving artist: $7500. None of that money, assuming he raises it, will go to him. He’s gotten a lot of support so far from his network of friends and family, but as you can see from the link above, he still has a ways to go.

But enough small talk. In a moment of whimsy, Gabe agreed that if I could enlist ten of my friends to support his project, he would credit me on the record sleeve and in the digital materials as a “magical unicorn princess.” Like most people, I have long felt that I embody the principles of magical unicorn princesshood, and have merely been waiting for this fact to be officially acknowledged. Once I am credited on his album as a magical unicorn princess, I will have received the institutional and cultural legitimation required to include this title on professional documents such as my resume and CV, if desired, in addition to receiving a much needed boost to my self-esteem.

The catch is that these friends can’t be people Gabe has ever met, which means that most of the friends I made in the past two years are right out.

So far, I have enlisted two qualified supporters in my endeavor. But I, like Gabe, have a long way to go. At the same time, I recognize that you may be asking, “Well what’s in it for me, aside from making a good friend very, very happy?” As such, I have decided to launch my own system of rewards (think of it as a Kickstarter within a Kickstarter). The reward system is the same for everyone—give any amount to Gabe’s campaign, as little as $1, and I will include you my magical unicorn court. As a member of my court, I will grant you a magical unicorn name. I will also Photoshop your face, complete with your new Unicorn Horn of Inclusion, into a picture of myself surrounded by the members of my court. (You may opt out of inclusion in the unicorn court portrait if you wish, but I will still give you an official unicorn name.)


I’m thinking something like this. But probably without the nudity, so that it’s more employer friendly. (I mean, what’s the point of being in a unicorn court if you can’t have the portrait linked to your Facebook? Am I right?)

Unlike with the Kickstarter, I will go through this effort even if Gabe isn’t successful in raising the money he needs, just to thank you for spending the two seconds to fill out your info on the page. However, we do need to reach ten donors, or else I won’t be an official magical unicorn princess and thus will have no authority with which to grant you unicorn court status. As I said, you can give as little as $1, but you can also give a little more (starting at $5) and get a reward from Gabe himself—so I hope you’ll take the time to check out his music and decide if that’s something you might want. It’s really all quite good.


I’m not promising anything, but I hear that being a unicorn makes you very popular with the ladies. Of course, they might be chaste ladies. But I bet they’re still a lot of fun to hang out with.

**I feel a little bad that my friends that Gabe DOES know can’t be included in this effort, so I’d like to give anyone who falls into that category and has given to the Kickstarter the chance to be grandfathered into the unicorn court. Contact me if you meet that description and would like more details.

in praise of uncommon sense

I’ve been doing a lot of studying for my upcoming comprehensive master’s exam in music history, so I’m not particularly inclined to write about music at the moment, in spite of my long absence from the blog. What I am inclined to write about at the moment is the common sense argument and how I’ve seen it implemented over the course of this summer.

Maybe it’s just that it’s been a summer particularly fraught with polarizing political issues (Supreme Court decisions about gay marriage, abortion bills, findings in the Trayvon Martin case), but I’m noticing a greater number of arguments that invoke, whether explicitly or implicitly, the precept of common sense. This precept can be used to justify just about any opinion regardless of the issue or the point of view, political or otherwise, of the individual commenting on it. I find myself particularly irked by its use in calling out other individuals for being misled by the proliferation of information via public opinion or media coverage, in contrast to the ostensibly level-headed and right-minded analysis of the person who has deemed the rest of us in dire need of being straightened out. It’s one thing to state an opposing opinion with differing justifications; it’s another to claim that others are wrong because they’re thinking about something in a manner that is too convoluted and that ought to be pared down to fit an optimally simple solution.

The presumption behind common sense has everything to do with its commonality. “Common” implies, on the one hand, that the method of thinking comes easily and naturally. On the other, “common” means this way of thought is universal; just about anyone should be able to understand it if they just think practically. But practicality is, of course, a relative principle, and in a way this is belied by the second half of the phrase, the “sense” part. Senses are gut feelings. They’re not at all universal. They have everything to do with individual perception, even if they might be corroborated by other people’s observations or responses. So when you argue that you express the position of common sense, you claim to express an objective, universal reality that most people should be able to relate to. In fact, you are merely constructing a reality in which group consensus more than likely aligns with your own individual perspective, couching your argument in a rationalization that is difficult to argue with by the simple virtue of your claim that it represents the higher authority of the common.

All of this is to say that I don’t want to hear any more common sense arguments. I want uncommon sense. I want to believe that someone has thought about something from a variety of perspectives, that they understand that everything that matters necessarily involves nuance, and usually a great degree of it. I’m not demanding that everyone justify everything they say by enumerating and addressing all possible points of contention. Nor am I saying that people should cultivate a belief system in which every issue falls into some ambiguous moral middle ground, or that they shouldn’t pick sides or believe that something is mostly right or mostly wrong. I just wish that people would behave with a greater degree of empathy and thoughtfulness when considering what they believe and why they believe it–especially that they’ve thought about why someone else might not agree, and that aspects of that person’s argument might be completely valid and useful. And I wish that they would admit that in coming to any conclusion they have had to make a value judgment, inextricably connected to who they are and the situations they’ve encountered in the past, rather than attempting to construct a dispassionate, objective, and infallible false front to the process by which they have arrived at a conclusion. Claiming the high ground of common sense might fallaciously help protect you and your argument–be it political, personal or intellectual–from criticism, but it’s lazy and it’s cowardly.

a life update / some videos

Last night I told my friend Sean that I was editing video of a performance by the ensemble I’d co-founded. I guess I hadn’t told him about Bonn Feier, because he was surprised and wanted to know what we did. This made me realize that I’ve been relatively quiet about all the fun things we’ve been doing over the past year, so I thought I’d bring all my non-Bloomington friends up to speed about this business. I also did finish editing a couple of videos, so I wanted to share those as well.

(If you don’t want to read my blabbering and just came to watch some videos, okay, fine, click here.)

First of all, I always feel that I’m using “ensemble” pretty loosely. I guess we’ve earned that status at this point, since we had a real life concert about two weeks ago, along with a couple of side performances (one at a John Cage centennial celebration, where we performed a piece we collectively wrote involving homemade fortune cookies, and another more loosely affiliated event just yesterday, which I’ll get to in a minute). But we’ve been developing to this point for about a year. Bonn Feier started when my friend Paula had the idea to apply for an on-campus grant that would allow us to put on a performance of Pauline Oliver’s 1976 piece Bonn Feier, which we had encountered in Phil Ford’s Fall 2011 “Process Music” class. We performed Bonn Feier last year, in the middle of the madness of IU’s Little 500. (As a note: This year’s Little 500 is happening this weekend, making it our approximate one-year anniversary!) Then the next fall, Paula (who had the idea to apply for the grant that allowed us to put on Bonn Feier) and I decided to organize a group that would meet about every week and read through similar types of pieces and scores to Bonn Feier and others that we had encountered in the class–pieces that not everyone might recognize as music, although they often have sonic elements, because they are very dependent on the individual or collective experience of the performers rather than on the presentation of rehearsed musical material to an audience. So Bonn Feier (named after the piece that started it all) essentially began as a reading group, albeit a very experiential one.

We decided that we wanted to have some sort of performance, and the Technologies of Experience Symposium that Phil and Dawna Schuld from the Art History department at IU were organizing seemed like a good time to do it. So Paula and I started getting everything worked out…and then I realized that I had agreed to produce a live commentary on IU’s production of Falstaff on the same night we had planned for the concert. But that was okay. I did whatever I could to help out, came to dress rehearsals, and was generally annoying, I’m sure.

Here’s the program from the concert:waiting for the gong program

We had a really good variety, and both the first and last pieces on the program proper involved audience participation. The two at the bottom were more like installations; for the Stomping Piece, we set up various materials for people to step, hop, and stomp on. For the Poem, we had notecards set out for people to write individual words on and create a collective work of poetry.

I’ve uploaded two of the pieces to YouTube. I’m sorry for the poor video quality–it’s the best I could do with the source material–but hopefully the audio and the excellent performances make up for it. The two pieces are also probably the most similar of the concert, but they’re also the best suited to watching in video form.

The first piece is R. Murray Schafer’s Hear Me Out. You may know Schafer as someone who’s written a lot about acoustic ecology (or you may not, that’s cool too; the gist is that he’s concerned with noise pollution and with the particular qualities of local soundscapes), but he’s also a composer. Performing on this piece are Nathan, Laura, Paula, and Michael.

The second piece is Toby Lurie’s Sound Composition for Six. Here we have Laura, Liz, Nathan, Paula, Michael, and Gabe.

Finally, a quick note about the awesome thing that happened this past Friday. Bonn Feier had wanted to do a performance of A. M. Fine’s Piece for Fluxorchestra, in which performers are planted in an audience and begin to engage in all sorts of disruptive behavior, but we couldn’t think of a good opportunity to put it on this semester. Liz suggested that it might work if we performed it in M402, a lecture-style undergraduate music history course, on a day she was to lead the lecture. I’ll admit, I was a little skeptical at first, but my doubts went away as we put everything together (her way more than me, although I did get to help assign parts, which was really fun!). We (again mostly Liz, I’m not trying to steal her thunder here) got all sorts of people involved–students from her discussion section; the other AIs (associate instructors, IU’s term for teaching assistants) for the class, and Halina Goldberg, the course instructor; people from Phil’s seminar this semester; and participants in Bonn Feier, including Laura’s mom, who was in town for the weekend.

Liz started off the class by announcing the topic of her lecture (Varèse, Babbitt, and Cage) and promptly sitting down in the first row of seats–our cue to begin the piece. One of the next actions, after a minute had passed, was Dr. Goldberg standing up and exclaiming, “I was planted here as part of the performance, and as such, I refuse to perform!” She then left the hall. And all hell pretty much broke loose from there. Way too many events happen throughout the piece for me to recount them all, but it involved balloons being blown up and released or popped, Laura running around the hall being disruptive, and inaccurate excursuses on the nature of the fugue.

My favorite moment, though, actually happened before the piece had gotten into full swing. Two students sitting behind me had been talking to each other before class began, wondering if they were going to have a quiz (the AIs each told their students they really wouldn’t want to miss class that day, without revealing what was going to happen). When Liz sat down after announcing the title of the lecture, one turned to the other and said, “Is she really doing 4’33″? I can’t believe she’s doing 4’33”.” Well, no, not quite, as was clear within the next couple of minutes, but she was using it as an intellectual lead-in to explain how some of Cage’s ideas had been taken up by later composers, so close enough.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 102 other followers