I am the product of a public education. All of my schooling has taken place in state-run schools of one sort or another—first in public primary schools and a research university in Maryland, then at a public research university in Illinois, and now at a public research university in Minnesota. Consequently, the standards I’ve had to meet in order to progress have been pretty even, based more often than not on some constellation of statistical accomplishment data rather than on some eccentric’s idea of what books I ought to have read. It’s not hard to do well in school when the benchmark is neither unclear nor unreasonably high.
This is a potentially problematic environment for the study of composition for several reasons, but one in particular has been on my mind. In the “Author’s Preface” to Genesis of a Music, Harry Partch (an iconoclast, but not a bad student by any means) declares that “no aspect of the musical scene could be more depressing than the prospect that those with the ability to get good grades in school, to copy others, to absorb and apply traditions with facility, shall hold the fort of good music” (p. xvi). What’s an honor roll kid to do? Partch’s interdiction is a spur in the side of people like me. Writing music is not about meeting statewide criteria of competence.
But composition isn’t the only realm of endeavor upon which graded complacency can descend: As it turns out, scholarship—really good scholarship, anyway—is not so easy either. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of dissertations, some very solid, that must have gotten their authors terminal degrees (otherwise we’d never see them) but are open to various sorts of criticism. Maybe they rely too heavily on secondary literature. Maybe they strain to maintain an ideology or grind an aesthetic axe. Maybe they’re just poorly written. None of these complaints are necessarily damning, but that they manage to bedevil the fruits of long-term research even in the final incarnation thereof is disappointing. If you want to rise to the top of the top, you have to enforce the highest standards of scholarship on yourself from within, I suppose. There’s a real craft to research, I’m realizing, and the more intricate I recognize that craft to be, the less enthusiastic I am about pursuing it. Being a water-cooler theorist or musicologist is no better than being a water-cooler composer. I’d give those figures like Partch who do both with near-equal aplomb an A-plus, but that would be missing the point.