Saturday, February 25, 2006

What the----?

Yet again, another rant on contemporary art music.

On thursday, I had the absolute "privelege" of sitting in a darkened classroom listening to a ten-minute recording of a "pling pling" song done on the piano. It sounded exactly like that: imagine someone playing completely random whole notes on the piano for ten damn minutes. Let me explain. This year, our school is hosting three visiting composers who present snippets of their work, followed by a discussion about composition and all that that entails. A few weeks ago, Gunther Schuller came and we listened to one of his symphonies (10 minutes of diverse, stimulating music), followed by a question and answer session. He was amazing and adorable. He wore a blue-plaid blazer, short blue socks exposing elderly ankles, loafers, and bifocals hanging around his neck, while clutching a green-flowered tote-bag between his knees. He talked about how writing a score with pencil (as opposed to composing on the computer) connects the mind with the heart through the fingers, and how a score can be visually stunning as well as engaging. He talked about, how as a child growing up in Germany, had to sing Bach chorales everyday at the start of school. His parents were professional musicians who played music constantly, and little Gunther, like a little sponge, apparently sang Wagner's Tannhauser in the bathtub--imitating all the different instruments, while he played with his rubber duckies. At eleven he was studying medieval scores in the New York City Public Library. He also talked about jazz, and how it hasn't changed since the sixties--the bass players having to play the "same goddamn E-Flat seven chord over and over again," (direct quote--he swears like a sailor). The whole discussion was amazing and enlightening. Contrast that with this: a man in his sixties with messy, balding gray hair and wrinkled clothes, as if he had just rolled out of bed or walked through a wind storm, prefacing his presentation with the promise to discuss "compositional methodology" after listening to his compositions for an hour and fifteen minutes. I jotted down "compositional methodology" in my notebook because it sounded important. The lights were dimmed, and a fifty-second contemporary piano piece tinkled through the speakers. Great. Second piece: Maple Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin, 3 minutes, 13 seconds (Okay, why is he playing this? There must be a reason? But must he play the whole thing? We've all heard it before...). Next: a 13 minute, 38 second EXTREMELY SLOW piano "pling-pling" piece (What the----?). For the first ten minutes I sat there stunned. Can he be serious? I looked around: the "composer" stood by the CD player, drinking, what I'll assume was coffee, out of a styrofoam cup. The screen was down and cast a blue haze around the room--I kept waiting for something visual to pop up to pique my interest. Nothing. I looked around. Everyone was looking at their desk--were they as confused as I was? I attempted to study for a forthcoming history test later that day. Meanwhile, I was feeling ill--it was such an uncomfortable feeling to sit there and listen to this, this utter bullshit--and I was getting angrier and angrier that he expected us to sit here and listen patiently. I looked on the list he gave us of other works he was planning on playing that hour. I just about passed out: the next pieces were, respectively, 3 minutes, 10 minutes, 12 minutes, and 19 minutes long. For f's sake! If this piece was any indication of what the rest of the pieces would be like, I'd rather watch ants eating crumbs for two hours. I was fuming. I sat there full well knowing that the vein in my temple was beginning to throb and imagined steam coming out of my ears like a Popeye cartoon. How arrogant! That we're supposed to sit here and take this crap, this utter waste of my time? His "music" embodied everything I hate about contemporary art music--it's inaccessible and borders more on annoying sound than music. Indeed, can this even be called music? I'm sorry, but John Cage was doing this in the forties, scraping seeds out of a pomegranite under a microphone. Been there, done that. I couldn't take it anymore. Knowing what torture lie ahead, I quietly closed my notebook (in which I had hoped to jot down some insightful thoughts on the compositional process), and left the room through the back door. Luckily there was a back door, and that I decided to sit there before the torture started. I was hoping that my leaving would start a whole stream of students walking out, to teach him a lesson. I'm still stunned. This man is supposedly a great theorist and composer, but what I witnessed was anything but. I was guessing that he had really come unprepared and just decided to thrust his crappy random whole notes onto us. For all I know they could have had a riveting discussion after the "music" was done playing. But the fact that he expected us to sit through this amount of "music" for over an hour made me want to vomit. If you want to present your music, please play only 1 minute of each. Then say, "Oh, it pretty much sounds like this for the next fifteen minutes. That would have been fine. I think I can tolerate anyone's music for 1 minute. Was it wrong of me to walk out? Should I have given him a chance?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


I need to vent. I feel like I'm working a 60-hour a week job with none of the benefits, like a salary, pension, or health insurance. Ok, yes I get most of my tuition paid for, and 80 bucks every other week, but still, I'm really just a slave working for 2 cents an hour. The amount of homework and paper-grading I had to do this past 3-day weekend was insane. And I was only able to get about 1/3 of it done. Saturday was spent recovering from the previous week, but Sunday and Monday I worked literally all day long. What is this slave labor that pretends to be graduate school? Ever concerned with how things ought to be done in education, rather than the way things actually are, it seems counter-intuitive that graduate students, A) have more work than undergrads (grad students have more responsibilities in general: bills to pay, children to feed, etc.), and B) the graduate students with assistantships have to take at least 10 credits a quarter, but yet they have more work to do outside of school work (grading papers, teaching classes, running the recital hall, making copies, sending out emails, heading committees--ie--the busy work of professors). And this makes sense how? I'm so busy with miscellaneous "stuff" that I don't have time to do the thing I came to grad school for: music. Writing music, performing music, listening to music. I'm wondering how I'm ever going to put together a recital when I've been averaging about one composition per 3 quarters. Seriously, I just finished a composition I started at the beginning of fall quarter. Ug! Not only do we have all this misc. "stuff" to do, our graduate program here is so stuffed with credits (60, compared with the 30 of most grad programs) that I am forced to take large ensemble and private lessons even though they are indirectly related to my specific degree program. Even more aggrivating, it that it is an unwritten rule that all grad students take 2 years of lessons and large ensemble when the graduate catalogue says I only have to take a year.

On top of all this, I don't have time for real life: exercising, corresponding with friends and family, sending thank-you notes for birthday and Christmas presents received, reading for pleasure, writing for pleasure, making crafts, playing piano for fun (I don't have time to play the used piano I just bought! It is a beautiful upright I found for 300 bucks), and the list goes on and on. By the time my weekend comes, I am spent. But if I don't do homework during the weekends, the next week is completely shot. If this is what being in the academic or real working world is like, I want nothing to do with it. I don't want to spend my life feeling frazzled and stressed out. I'm crabby, tired, always feeling like I'm coming down with something, stiff and sore from not exercising, and just plain not happy.

It all makes me wonder about the efficacy of graduate school, and of institutionalized education in general. I feel like I'm not learning anything except how to cut corners, speed read chapters in my music history books, practice once a week and get away with it, and in general, half-ass everything. I really feel like I won't be a "master" of music when I'm done--just a master of faux-learning.