Boston: A Close Call in Waltham

Julia Werntz
Julia Werntz
Photo by Michele Macrakis

First, the good news for composers and friends of contemporary music: the Brandeis University graduate program in composition and theory is alive and well after surviving a proposal for its elimination announced last year. The program, created by composer Irving Fine at the University’s inception in 1948, has contributed the following figures to the new music world: graduates Elaine Barkin, Sheila Silver, Peter Child, Ross Bauer, Alvin Lucier, Peter Lieberson, Steven Mackey, Marjorie Merryman, and Scott Wheeler, to name a few, and now the program will continue to contribute. Its faculty has included Irving Fine, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Berger, Seymour Shifrin, Alvin Lucier, Harold Shapero, Yehudi Wyner, and, currently, Martin Boykan, Eric Chasalow, and David Rakowski, and now that lineage will continue as well.

Now, the bad news: small groups of composers poring over the details of this art form evidently seem as obscure and puzzling to the rest of the population as ever, and this can affect “life-or-death” choices at some universities, even at liberal arts schools such as Brandeis. And so, having made my complaint here in NewMusicBox in mid-May about the academic ambience of the new music scene here in Boston, it’s time to speak out in defense of the university musician: without university support, American contemporary music would lose its primary, nurturing home.

In October of 2004, Brandeis Dean of Arts and Sciences (and economist) Adam Jaffe announced his proposal to eliminate the graduate program in composition and theory—along with undergraduate linguistics and ancient Greek—as part of a plan to reallocate funds within the School of Arts and Sciences. In his proposal, Jaffe cited the need at Brandeis to “globalize and diversify our curriculum and faculty,” a sentiment closely tied to the University’s mission to address issues of social justice. Although sympathies elsewhere in the administration fell in favor of the music department, whose record for excellence is widely known, Jaffe had great support on this point. In the end, the graduate composition and theory program was saved—though admissions will be trimmed down somewhat—and in exchange, the dean and the administration won a promise from the music department to add more undergraduate courses on topics in world music and popular music, even to add a “cultural studies” track to the undergraduate music major.

Composer Eric Chasalow, who was chair of the music department until this past year, when he went on sabbatical, sees in all this a danger that some American universities are adopting a sort of “cultural tourism” in the name of diversity, at the expense of art music. He takes care to distinguish this sort of requisite, lip-service-paying survey course from genuine, in-depth ethnomusicology of the sort that some universities offer.

My own take would be this: if today’s college students graduate with even a superficial knowledge of music from other cultures, this will certainly enhance their understanding of the world, and for the better. The music majors among them will inhabit a richer musical world, as well. (I can attest to this based on my own experience taking non-Western music courses as an undergraduate at the New England Conservatory.) Classroom study of American popular music also may help students to understand themselves better, for what it’s worth.

On the other hand, if schools choose to replace in-depth training in the craft of musical composition and analysis with these sorts of undergraduate survey courses, which are of a less musical, more sociological or anthropological nature, as Chasalow suggests they are doing, then where will future generations of composers learn to compose? And where will they learn to teach?

New music is in big trouble as long most of the world sees it as an unnecessary and obsolete indulgence. In the end, I return to the same theme I wrote about in May: the profession suffers from its lack of connection to the general population. The burden is on us, the practitioners—not to change the music we are writing (as some would argue), but to work to make the field as a whole more relevant to the rest of society.

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Composer Julia Werntz lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband, jazz pianist Pandelis Karayorgis, and their daughter Anna. Since the mid ’90s her music, mostly chamber pieces, has been almost exclusively microtonal. Her music has been performed around the Northeastern United States and Europe, and may be heard, together with works by composer John Mallia, on the CD All In Your Mind (Capstone Records). She is currently working in collaboration with choreographer and dancer Christine Coppola and violinist Gregor Kitzis on a piece for solo violin and viola and dance, based on poems of E. E. Cummings.