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.

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.

bonn feier

At the end of last semester, my friend and fellow IU musicology student Paula had the idea of applying for funding from IU’s Arts Week Everywhere to put on Pauline Oliveros’s instruction score Bonn Feier. The piece (pronounce it like “bonfire,” with a bit of a German accent if you like) has two main premises. One, it draws attention to the sounds of the campus or city in which it is being performed. Two, it aims to gradually take over the campus or city with strange activities:

The intention of BONN FEIER is to gradually and subtly, subvert perception so that normal activity seems as strange or displaced as any of the special activities. Thus the whole city or campus becomes a theater, and all of its inhabitants, players.

We came across this piece as a part of a class we took last semester with Professor Phil Ford. The class was entitled Process Music, and its contents are somewhat difficult to describe; the way that I’ve come to generally explain the title to people is that in the music we discussed and performed, the process of enacting the piece is just as important–if not more important–as any actual music or sound that results from the performance. This is music that is intended to be experiential, and that means it takes a variety of forms that don’t always really approach what we normally think of as musical performance. Bonn Feier definitely falls under that category; although there’s a sonic or ecoacoustic element, there’s also a good deal of performing that may not seem to have anything to do with music. More on this later, though!

Early this semester as the funding deadline approached, Paula sent out an email to all of the students from our class asking if they’d be interested in participating or helping with organization. I volunteered to help fill out the application and help with planning and logistics if we actually got the money. To that end, Arts Week claimed that they were looking for unusual performances, but we weren’t sure they wanted something this unusual. Our budget included four African log drums, several piñatas, wood and supplies to make our own totem pole, and a generous costume budget which included a gorilla suit rental. The piece also culminates in a bonfire, and although it would be acceptable to have some sort of non-fire alternative, we wanted the real thing.

In spite of our worries, we got all of the money we asked for, and so we began figuring out how exactly we were going to put things together. I won’t bore you with all of the details that went into our planning, but let’s just say that organizing an entire day’s worth of activities AND trying to get permission to hold an open fire on IU’s campus AND reserving the space in which to do it AND buying all of the equipment necessary to pull it off was not an easy task.

Fast forward to yesterday, April 21, the day of the performance and also–completely coincidentally, as we’d originally planned to perform the piece on the 14th–the day of IU’s infamous Little 500 bicycle race. (The Wikipedia article fails to mention the copious partying that traditionally accompanies the event.)

Continue reading

iu artsweek 2012

I posted a somewhat cryptic status update about receiving “artsweek funding” on Facebook a few days ago, and I wanted to write a quick post to share what it was all about.

My friend Paula had a great idea last semester. Several members of our Process Music class (under the leadership of Professor Phil Ford) had expressed interest in performing a performance piece by Pauline Oliveros. However, the piece we had in mind required too much special equipment to put it on convincingly without financial assistance, and it would take more time and planning than we could pull off as a part of our class. Paula had the brilliant idea of submitting this piece as a project for IU ArtsWeek, so we put together an application and sent it in. We weren’t sure if the ArtsWeek committee would be interested (the piece is a little unorthodox, to say the very least!), but thankfully they were, and so we’ll be performing the piece at IU later this spring.

We’re keeping the details under wraps for now as the element of surprise is extremely important to the piece–in fact, I hope I’m not giving too much away!–but any IU students who are interested in finding out more and potentially participating can feel free to leave their contact info as a comment below (I won’t make these comments public). I’m also planning on writing something up after our performance, which will occur sometime in early April in conjunction with ArtsWeek.


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