15 October 2013

Picking Battles

How to reform musical academia while stopping short of outlawing aestheticism? Easy: greater institutional specialization.

The realization that a truly comprehensive musical education is no longer feasible should be accompanied by the realization that truly comprehensive orchestra programming is equally unfeasible for exactly the same reason. Instead, music schools must team up with other music schools, and orchestras with other orchestras, to create statewide and nationwide networks of institutions which collectively cover more ground more ably than any of them ever could individually. And it's not rocket science to see how the stylistic pie might begin to be divvied up: by local preference and tradition, by a school's extra-musical academic strengths, and, most trickily, as I will discuss shortly, by more extreme specialization based on big-picture affinities among seemingly disparate musical styles.

It makes sense for music schools at universities where technology looms large to lead the way in areas like complexism, electronic music composition, and music recording and production. Ditto for research science and music cognition. Ditto again for business school and arts administration. (Hand to heart, I'd personally rather that neither of those were taken seriously as academic subjects, but hey, just maybe today I could get through one blog post without attacking someone else's right to exist?)

The larger, older, established private schools like Northwestern and USC make sense as backward-looking art music conservatories, since they have the endowments, traditions, and locations to make it work. It doesn't really make sense for any other kind of school to be oriented in this way, however, and the small number of schools that are well-suited to it is probably about the right number that we really, truly need, don't you think?

Small out-of-the-way liberal arts schools, meanwhile, are bound to be more ideal places for navel-gazing composers, wooly-headed experimentalists, and angsty critical theorists to take their long walks in the woods and ever longer draws on their bongs.

Major research universities with multiple specialties and ever-shrinking state appropriations which are nonetheless charged with serving tens of thousands of students would be better served offering a hodge-podge of musical opportunities for the general student population to stay involved in music rather than cutting them off nearly completely from such opportunities in order to pour all of those resources into pre-professional training in musical traditions that don't exactly reflect that community's breadth of interests. (Okay, so I kind of gave away who I'm thinking of here.) Their faculties should be the most generalist and their accredited music degree-granting activities the smallest in scale and the most difficult to get admitted to. These music majors should be few enough in number to each be fully financially supported and afforded significant, meaningful teaching opportunities as undergraduates, thus allowing the schools to serve even more of their general student bodies. Obviously, under such circumstances, these music majors would be receiving generalist training themselves. Admission as a music major should be applied and auditioned for at the end of the student's sophomore year at the earliest, after they've had a chance to acclimate to college life, demonstrate some aptitude(or not), and figure out what they really want to specialize in. Because musical activities will be available to them from day one regardless of their major, they can take their time in figuring all of this out, as most of us wish we had been able to do. Upon admission, they should be granted four full years of study on top of whatever they've already had, leading to bachelor's and master's degrees.


Owing to the inertia of prestige, a lot of this has been happening somewhere, if not everywhere it should, for decades. The next step, strategic pairing of musical styles and specialties within these music departments, is equally crucial yet I suspect far less widely observable and probably bound to be unpopular with many. Here's what I mean:

It might ultimately prove that Indian classical music, for example, fits the structure and mandate of a rigorous jazz or classical music university-conservatory much more closely than that of a small liberal arts school where multiple non-Western traditions are studied quite a bit more casually than would traditionally be demanded of aspiring practitioners of Indian music.

Contemporary pop music and music technology obviously belong together, and that has already been happening.

The quarantining of the supposedly best-and-brightest classical music composers, theorists and historians in academically prestigious Ivy League-ish schools with few performers around to either keep them honest or do them an occasional solid has never made much sense to me, and I don't think I'm the only one; it seems obvious that the Brahms interpreters and the Brahms scholars (as well as the Webern interpreters and Webern scholars) would both be better served housed under the same roof, where they can drive each other crazy instead of the rest of us, and probably learn a lot of other important stuff from each other, too.

Improvisation could easily serve as a unifying principle in a specialized music department: jazz, pop, creative music, and heavily improvised, aural musical traditions from around the world could together comprise the exclusive focus. Imagine if there were just a few schools like this scattered around the country, where no one read music at all; then we could all stop fighting each other over this issue while trying to cohabit the same overextended institutions, and everyone could institute appropriate evaluative standards for their own students without having to make sacrifices to the demands of generalist musical accreditation.

And of course, what instrumentalist or singer hasn't dreamed of a music school free and clear from the meddling of the other group? Perhaps that species of institutional specialization is ultimately a bit too arbitrary and radical, but I still think it's an excellent example of the way we ought to be approaching this issue conceptually. You could rattle off x number of abstract ways this sort of insularity would be bad for the students and the student experience, but seriously, can anyone reading this who has been to music school honestly say they've never wished for it, or that it wouldn't have had major benefits for them?


I could go on, but I hope you see where I'm going with this. Most of this is perfectly conceivable in the abstract, but getting from here to there looks pretty much impossible. You would have to convince a lot of schools to shutter accredited degree-granting programs they already have, something almost no one is willing to do for just about any reason imaginable. Additionally, even if they were willing, someone has to blink first, and again, while certain local affinities can indeed be seen reflected in the identities of places like UCSD (nicknamed SCUD), Northwestern (classical Chicago), North Texas (baaaand), Mills (it's totally NorCal, man), every school in NYC (so killin' man) etc., etc., who is ever going to up and close down the other half of their department, lay off the other half of their faculty, hire seemingly redundant faculty in their place, and try to sell the rest of their immediate community on the notion of such a specialized focus? It seems impossible; but I think it's also inevitable and overdue. It simply is no longer possible for the flagship state school in every city, every state, even every region, to maintain an unspoken dominance of 19th Century orchestral performance while quarter-assing everything else just to look more pluralistic than they really are. And, it's no longer necessary! Why are we still doing it? If we could all be within a day's drive of a classical conservatory, a jazz/pop incubator, a world music hub, a scorched-earth modernist outpost, and a small, flat rock under which distanced scholarship is pursued, there would be no need for our local school to fake its way through all of those things at once...unless, of course, that was its mandate and there were only a few others like it in the country. We can always use a few. But only to work in tandem with the others.

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