Why didn’t I get in?

February 6, 2009

A few weeks ago, an applicant to our undergraduate program in music composition emailed me, complaining that he was rejected without an explanation. I wrote him back an email that seemed to answer his questions, but I then did something I had never done: I offered him a free lesson.

He came today for his lesson. We talked for a while, I looked at some of his new pieces, and he reminded me what pieces were in his application. Here were his problems, and these problems were common to other applications:

1. He didn’t have any performances by people; all of his “performances” were computer playback. He doesn’t participate in the musical process. I told him to GO to that oboe recital instead of partying with his friends; befriend performers and offer to write pieces for those you admire.

2. Besides UCLA, he applied to three other schools, known for the modernist tendencies. I told him that it was unlikely that he would be admitted to those schools, writing the way he writes. I encouraged him to not be disappointed because the teachers he would be working with there, would not approve of the music he is writing (nor did I see any interest on the student’s part to embrace their esthetic).

3. His music had no performance detail, other than notes and rhythms: no tempo, no dynamics, no articulation. No description as to how the piece should go. I sang one passage and showed how it might be faster or slower, or louder or softer, or with different articulation to make the point; and each, a different musical utterance.

But the component most lacking, was being involved with other musicians. Music is a social art, and if you don’t like people, you are in the wrong art. Young composers can’t just sit at home at their computers, churning out music for no one. Music must be for warm bodies; for live performers who play music by living composers for a live audience.

On second thought: I disagree. Music CAN be for live people and such, but it is just fine on an iPod, a personal home sound system, or as a pre-canned soundtrack for dance, theater, movies and such. I do feel strongly that experience with real instruments and live performers is invaluable.

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Why I Didn’t Let You In « Amaranth Arthouse Music
February 15, 2009 at 2:51 pm

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

David Ocker February 9, 2009 at 3:34 am

I’m bothered by the obvious good sense of your post, Roger, because I think of myself as someone who does his best work solo. The social aspect of music is way overblown, in my opinion, with two exceptions: if one wants to participate in the educational process or if one wants to earn a living. (Yup, those are massively big exceptions.) And I think the reason for attending live performances is more often social than musical. For most people, dressing up and having a good time or feeling self-important at concerts is at least as important as the music itself. Maybe more.

Meanwhile, musical technology is making it increasingly possible to enjoy music or compose by oneself. A century of sound reproduction, culminating in the self-absorbing iPod, have reduced the social aspect of listening to zero. And decades of computer-controlled synthesizers let a composer just push a button to hear a realization of those blasted dots.

I’m not suggesting that you were wrong to refuse admission in this case – this kid is probably a bad fit with any music school at the moment. I am suggesting that someday someone like him is likely to really shake up the music world. A young musician could come along who really can think outside the standardized musical box – because he or she never got inside that box in the first place.

Roger Bourland February 9, 2009 at 9:29 am

Yes, there is a solitary aspect to musicians’ lives, especially composers, and I wouldn’t deny that. But the experience of working with actual musicians is important — don’t you think??

I’d never tell a student that they need to go to college in order to a: have a career, b: be any good, c: get a job in music.

And yes, I could imagine music evolving to an internet activity, where all the social background and roots disappear.

Brad Wood February 9, 2009 at 9:56 am

But Roger, I would argue that the internet is very much social—for me at the moment, a primary means of interaction with others. Admittedly I don’t expect the latency problems to ever get to the point of allowing networked performances per se though.

However, I do have to side with the sentiment that the compositional experience is ultimately vitiated by the elimination of the performers. I well understand the frustration of trying to get one’s music properly performed, and the respite taken by composers in performerless realizations. But something is missing.

One frustrated guy that comes to mind was Raymond Scott, who had a group of virtuosi to record his stuff, but was never satisfied with the results, and eventually constructed an electronic music studio filled with gadgets, including ones of his own design, so that he could exert total control over the results. He made some fascinating recordings, including ones he suggested be played to infants! I gave one of these to some friends who had just adopted a baby, and intended it as a joke, but who knows.

And then there’s Nancarrow…

Roger Bourland February 9, 2009 at 5:13 pm

Interacting with performers of every instrument was an important component of my education; finding out what sounds like what, and what works and what doesn’t. Sure, you can read about it all in books or on the internet, but until you see and hear it, it doesn’t always sink in. THAT process is a social activity. To learn a bassoon by just playing it on a keyboard is not a complete education, and it was THAT component that was missing from this fellow’s music. It all came from a keyboard on a computer. The instruments are just another sample.

Daniel Wolf February 9, 2009 at 10:50 pm

Roger — Without any actual notes in front of me, I can’t second guess your opinion, however as an application to an undergraduate program, I have serious reservations about the notion that lack of live performances is a disqualification. If a kid is coming from a typical High School anywhere in California, the possibility that he or she can get live readings or performances by singers or instrumentalists, let alone good ones is slim to null. (The problem doesn’t end there, of course: I just had a meeting with a tenured composition professor at a very good Southern California college who can’t get the local choral or band directors to even look at his scores, which are mostly pretty, tonal pieces, but his name is not on the choral or band directors’ “in”-list).

One of the few really good reasons a composer in training would choose to enter a larger music school (as opposed, for example, to a smaller liberal arts environment with more opportunity for one-on-one teaching) is the promise of such performance opportunities. On this issue, I’m afraid, you’re penalizing someone for the one set of circumstances concerning her or his music over which she or he has absolutely no control and perhaps unfairly advantaging the kids from more central and upscale urban or private school environments.

For a graduate application, on the other hand, if a student has been unable to organize such contacts within four undergraduate years in a music school, then sure, off with his or her head, the kid’s a fool.

Roger Bourland February 10, 2009 at 6:09 am

Yes, I do understand this, then how is it that the majority of the applicants HAVE had experience with a real, live musician? This fellow admits that he was surrounded by musicians, but CHOSE to work alone.

As I said above, it’s not too hard to imagine a future world where music is solely a personal experience: gone will be the stadium concerts, or chamber music, or church celebrations, it will all be experienced on our personal eyeglass computers with ear buds…

comporgan February 11, 2009 at 8:46 am

Hey Roger –

Chris Sahar stopping by after a long haitus.

I agree with your assessment wholeheartedly. What some people are missing is that the student’s scores reflect a very weak conception of the vast parameters of music outside pitch and rhythm.

You may rely on just written pitch and rhythm IF you are in a social context wherein the dynamics, rhythmic inflection may be communicated verbally. Otherwise it very frustrating. For non-jazz players, think of the experience you have playing a jazz chart or transcription to a jazz musician. At best you’ll impress the musicians with your sight reading ability but most often it will feel horribly wrong — plus there will be dynamics and timbral possibilities absent.

Notation is surprisingly vague – whether over or undernotated or ideal. So, the point is the students’ score shows NO effort to even try it out on a live musician.

Now, the case of never being satisfied with live performances and resorting to electronics – well. ahem, you are reinforcing Roger’s point.

Roger, I applaud your generosity – I have showed my scores to Adler. He was very nice and very helpful but he didn’t offer a free lesson!

Brad Wood February 11, 2009 at 10:25 pm

“Now, the case of never being satisfied with live performances and resorting to electronics – well. ahem, you are reinforcing Roger’s point. ”

And if I didn’t make that clear—I was indeed agreeing about the importance of performers and performance. I merely wanted to acknowledge, and empathize with, the motivation of composers when they attempt to do without them.

Chris, you make an especially good point using the jazz example. In the days of my youth (teens) I used to try my best, in the absence of sufficient recorded or live performance examples, to learn jazz from transcriptions. It was elusive to say the least.

jamescombs February 14, 2009 at 9:53 pm

Unfortunately, you’re behind the times (20 years or so), but more unfortunate for the student who you made go through the motions when perhaps you its who needs a lesson or two.

I look forward to blogging about this. Thanks for the material.

Brad Wood February 15, 2009 at 11:05 pm

My goodness this thread has legs!—even if some are attempting to cut them off at the knees.

I guess my problem with trying to second-guess the propriety of Roger’s decision is imagining what the candidate would do if admitted.

If MIDI-means are what you have to work with, and they can provide an adequate outlet for your muse—by all means go for it. When I was in high school in North Hollywood, and before that in even more of a hothouse atmosphere at Walter Reed (junior high for among other MT Thomas), the school for many children of the then flourishing movie studios’ musicians, I was beginning to write. Abruptly in my first year at North Hollywood the family uprooted and moved to Granada Hills, very much the boonies in those days. I tried to continue writing, but after many frustrating experiences I worked with smaller and smaller ensembles. At the end I’d made friends with a few players who were willing to make the effort to rehearse my stuff. The happiest moments were with a fine french horn player who was substituting for the regular music teacher; with him and two others we performed a few short pieces in my senior year.

But that experience makes me more sympathetic to the potential for a pretty completely inimical high school environment in which to attempt to get one’s music played—maybe at all, but especially at any semblance of what one may expect.

Now, with additional experience and wisdom, one could imagine being able to scale down the difficulty of the writing to where it would fit the abilities of the local performers. But in the throes of adolescence this is a mighty tall order.

So I can readily imaging the predicament.

The question again for me is: what is this individual going to do going forward? UCLA is becoming a fantastic school for performance, especially compared to the years that I was there (as a student, ’65-’69). But Roger has the difficult role of having to assess potentials based on current information.

I am glad that I am not in his position. I would ask those ready to slam him to put themselves in his place for a moment and imagine what he or she might do—particularly in our reality of scarce resources.

One thing I am comforted by. If someone is driven to compose, he or she will do it regardless of the challenges. I forget who said (although I believe it was related to me by Alden Ashforth) that such ambitions should be strongly discouraged—since those who really have the necessary devotional bent to such will persist despite the obstacles, and those who don’t might as well find something else to do as soon as possible.

Evidently I didn’t have what it takes 😉

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