Making Conservatories Less Conservative

The Department of Music at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) seems to be the antithesis of the typical music program, as it is dedicated specifically to the development and understanding of the music of our time, and of the future. Classical and Romantic music are not a part of the curriculum, and the Department’s goal is not to simulate the experience of a music conservatory. A fundamental decision was made to replace the emphasis that most schools place on yesterday’s music, and move it to the present.

A performer at UCSD’s Music Department should expect to concentrate on composers from the last half of the 20th Century. As a clear example of the Department’s focus: of the twenty-five faculty members that are listed as regular faculty members four deal with computer music, while there is only one music historian. This does not mean that music of the past is ignored. It is evident that one cannot really understand today’s music of without having an understanding of the past. While undergraduate courses that typically exist in other schools also exist at UCSD – such as history sequences, ear training, counterpoint, etc – even within these courses the examination is from a perspective of the present.

Composer Roger Reynolds, who has been at UCSD since the department’s inception, explained to me that the UCSD campus was established in the 1960s as a research university intended only for graduate students. Although the University today includes undergraduates, the mission has not changed. Those who are interested in music of the past should look elsewhere. Reynolds told me that, in any case, a student would not be admitted as a graduate student if their predilections were in the past, unless they had a very strong desire to change their point of view, because the Department would have very little to offer them.

UCSD is now the only A-rated public undergraduate program in the country, and only admits students who were in approximately the top 8-10% of their high school. However, because this country lacks good musical training for young people, even students at the top of their class who are very musical, usually lack important skills and knowledge. And there is a great chance of unevenness in background among the students. Even at the Graduate Level, although admittance criteria are more rigorous, there are still irregularities in the students’ prior musical preparation. Upon entrance, Graduate students take advisory exams and are given options as to how to resolve their deficiencies. All student composers are expected to perform at some level, and are also required to study conducting.

The Department believes that courses should be taught in such a way that the professors feel committed and passionate about. So, the faculty is given a great deal of latitude, and each class reflects the opinions and point of view of the professor who is teaching it. Therefore, the content of the classes can vary radically, and this requires much collaboration among the faculty to ensure that they know where each student stands.

Currently, the faculty includes composers such as Chaya Czernowin, Roger Reynolds, Harvey Sollberger, Rand Steiger, Chinary Ung and Anthony Davis. Other faculty of note include sitarist Ravi Shankar, and contrabassist Bertram Turetzky, who appeared as a soloist in a recent CD release of Wadada Leo Smith‘s Concerto for Contrabass. Composer and flutist, John Fonville, is the Chair of the Department, and has premiered works by Ben Johnston, Roger Reynolds, and Paul Koonce. Perhaps the most notable of the performance faculty is Steven Schick, percussionist of the Bang on a Can All-Star Schick also founded UCSD’s resident percussion ensemble, red fish blue fish, which has gone on to perform around the country and make recordings.

Music students receive a great deal of personalized attention at UCSD. Twice a year, first year graduate composers and some undergraduate composers are the subject of public forums called “juries” that are attended by the entire Department of Music. Following a performance of a recently completed composition, there is a discussion during which the composer defends his or her piece. The faculty meets later to evaluate the students’ work. For undergraduates, the faculty decides if the student composer merits individual attention or if they should remain in a composition seminar. Graduate composers receive a letter from the composition faculty that is a sympathetic, but serious appraisal of their work and what they are expected to rectify in the future. It is at this point that the graduate students’ mentors are agreed upon. This mentor relationship becomes the center of a student’s work for the remainder of his or her time at the school.

In addition to these juries, the composition faculty and students gather together regularly for composition seminars, at which faculty, students and visitors discuss works of interest and new ideas. These seminars encourage understanding among the students and faculty. Examples of composers that have been invited include John Cage, Morton Feldman Toru Takemitsu, Jonathan Harvey, Kaija Saariaho and John Harbison.

The Department of Music has sophisticated facilities for its Computer Music program Students, faculty, and visitors explore new techniques for electronic music composition and performance through coursework, research and concerts.

Like the Music Department, the theater and visual arts departments are also oriented toward contemporary activity. However, while collaborations do sometimes occur, individual programs are so intense and absorbing that collaboration is less frequent than it should and could be. However, a program exists called the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts, which explores collaboration between scientists, technologists and the arts – visual arts, music, media arts, literature, theater, and architecture. An example of an interesting collaboration includes a student, Jarek Kapusczinsky, who was sent to USCD on a scholarship from Lutoslawski. He was interested in chaos theory and so was tutored by the head of UCSD’s “Non-Linear Institute.” The student went on to create works with super-computers driven by these ideas and incorporating image synthesis and live video.

There are over 150 musical events per year at UCSD. These include a Composers’ Forum concert series that is completely under the control of the students. They get a budget, and decide what they will do with it. The open exchange of ideas between the performance and composition programs helps foster many new works in student recitals, which also typically include faculty music.

In addition to all of the other activity, SONOR, the UCSD’s contemporary music ensemble gives three concerts each year and several other performances around the country. SONOR performs 20th Century “classics,” but has a bias toward recent works by American composers. Examples of composers presented in SONOR programs include Cage, Feldman, Earle Brown, Crumb, Davidovsky, Druckman, Foss, Oliveros, Tower, Wuorinen, and Zwilich.

Among the group’s CDs is a recording of Bernard Rands’ Pulitzer Prize< http://www.pulitzer.org/>-winning composition, Canti del Sole, for CRI, with the composer conducting. SONOR also plays music by UCSD student composers, and sometimes requests that a particular student write for the group. Live performances by SONOR are broadcast on a monthly radio program, in addition to being seen and heard on cable television stations in the San Diego area.

La Jolla Symphony, the resident orchestra, while not directly affiliated with the school, is conducted by faculty member Harvey Sollberger, and performs a great deal of new music. Also, they commission a new student work each year, and providing occasional student readings.

Along with the expected areas of study – composition, computer music, and (contemporary music) performance – there is a new, and an equally vital department called “Critical Studies/Experimental Practice” (CS/EP). George Lewis, who is known both in the contemporary music realm and in the jazz world, as well as for his work with artificial intelligence and computer music, heads this department, which combines performance with academic work in cultural theory, postmodernism, poststructuralism, and theories of race/sexuality. In addition to composition and performance, students in this program may also incorporate video, computer technologies, dance, and other theatrical components into their work. Roger Reynolds describes these students as “performance artists.”

Recently, the Composition Program has undertaken a new three-year initiative called SEARCH, which will involve about ten new courses, between twenty and thirty visitors, and numerous events. Among the visitors who have already agreed to participate include Robert Ashley, Chou Wen-chung, David Lang, Liza Lim, Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho. The Department is taking this new program seriously, and is inviting delegations of three students from other music programs around the country to participate. Perhaps they are hoping to spread some of UCSD’s remarkable advocacy of new music to other universities and conservatories.

From Making Conservatories Less Conservative
by Stefan Weisman
© 1999 NewMusicBox

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