Desert Island Mix

Photo by Paola Frogheri. CC-BY-NC-SA
Photo by Paola Frogheri. CC-BY-NC-SA

Just like the rest of academia, doctoral students usually don’t do coursework in the summer. But don’t you dare call it a vacation.

Somewhere between high school and now, my summers stopped being vacation and became the golden opportunity to do all of the things that are vitally important to my artistic growth and couldn’t possibly have happened during the previous nine months. This particular summer, that involves (among other things) writing the curriculum and copy for a new ear training software; a new piece for trumpet and a handful of Gershwin arrangements for the fall; reviewing a groundbreaking new text from Prof. Ed Sarath; spending much-needed time with my wonderful fiancee and last (but CERTAINLY not least), beginning the process of studying for my oral preliminary exams next May.

The oral prelim, the last checkpoint before a doctoral student becomes a doctoral candidate, takes different forms at different institutions. At Michigan, it works basically like this: I compile a list of ten pieces to which I want to dedicate the next nine months. I study, analyze, and learn practically everything about them. In May, I appear before a committee of five Michigan faculty to perform an hour-long monologue comprised of all my findings over the last nine months.

My esteemed colleague and professional smart person, Garrett Schumann, is using his blogspace to roll out his list of ten and his reasons for choosing them. Garrett’s list (of which I still haven’t seen the second half) is interesting, diverse, and he presents his reasons for the ten pieces beautifully. It inspired me to do the same thing here, but there’s one hitch: I don’t have my list yet.

It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about it; rather, my borderline-obsessive personality has made it awfully hard to think about anything else. The roadblock I’m encountering over and over is the very nature of the exams itself. This format (pick ten pieces, talk about them), presents an extremely daunting task. It challenges you, the academic/artist/composer, to boil down all of music history, Western and otherwise, to ten pieces – pieces that, more than all of the other millions out there, represent you and your musical personality.

So how do you conquer a challenge like that? What’s the starting point? Obviously it’s pieces you love… or is it? In a context like this, is love really the important thing? I love a lot of music that’s clearly outside the standard canon – Jaga Jazzist is probably not a super-great addition to my oral prelim list. More acceptable in this context, maybe, is that all ten pieces have to be important.

But what does that word mean, then? What constitutes importance in music? Is it music that broke boundaries, changed systems, and otherwise stood out as idiosyncratic? Because here’s a confession: I dislike a lot of that music. Moreover, it’s a bit of a personal conviction that some of the best music and musicians are either forgotten or underestimated simply because they didn’t break new ground. How often did you talk about Persichetti in your music history class? Durufle? Herbert Howells? And isn’t that whole definition of “importance” pretty culturally narrow in modern academia, anyway? We’ve come a long way from just studying dead white men, but I still don’t remember much discussion of Nina Simone or Stevie Wonder along the way.

Or does “important” simply mean “good”? “Good”: that elusive, subjective concept which everyone views through a different kaleidoscope lens. Because it’s such a subjective measure, it’s not a great starting point. If I’m going to present ten pieces as the ten best pieces ever, I’d better be prepared to explain why. That is, of course, where the research and analysis comes in… but there’s a lot of music out there whose craftsmanship is intricate and awe-inspiring, from Brahms to Schoenberg to Xenakis to Glass. It doesn’t narrow the playing field much even if we define “good” in terms of construction, and it’s not long until we’re back at idiosyncracy as quality, the “best” music being the stuff that broke the systematic mold.

The way I see it, there are two sides of a coin here. There’s the sensual side of me, the side that loves music because it grooves, or sends chills down my spine, or stands for something that I can’t define but believe in with all of my heart. Then there’s the academic, the artist that delights in the architecture and construction of composition, who harbors a reverence for craftsmen who can find beauty in systems and experimentation, and respects – or even loves – music that changes the way we think about music. They’re both there, in equal parts, and my particular list of ten lies somewhere in the middle.

The trick, though, is the proportions. On the one hand, music that I present out of unabashed love; on the other, music that I present out of reverence, respect, or just because it changed the world. This is a perennial balancing act for every composer: the mix between head and heart, instinct and training, artistry and craftsmanship. And this prelim exam, the swan song of my artistic tutelage, is a challenge to define the proportions in which they exist in me and my voice, as an academic and as a composer.

Your homework: think about your prelim exam. If you could live with only ten pieces, under your pillow and at your breakfast table, for the next nine months, what would they be? Where is your line between love and respect, between the musical mind and the musical soul? Come up with a list. Share it with me if you like. And then wish me luck, because mine might take a while.

1 Comment

  1. Luckily I don’t have to do this for real (yet) but after a couple minutes here is my draft list, which reflects my great interest in lesser-known gems, orchestral and piano music, and British and Latin American works.

    Gerald Finzi – Dies Natalis
    Francisco Mignone – Maracatu de Chico Rei
    Charles Ives – Symphony No. 2
    John Foulds – April-England
    Frederic Rzewski – De Profundis
    Heitor Villa-Lobos – Bachianas Brasileiras No. 7
    Luciano Berio – Sinfonia
    Ferruccio Busoni – Piano Concerto
    Percy Grainger – Irish Tune from Country Derry (in all its various versions)
    Thomas Ades – Asyla

    Good luck, Greg. I look forward to hearing what your list is.

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