There’s a disease that afflicts certain composers, a malady whose symptoms appear with particular strength in the presence of university placement exams. Many composers who live with this illness manage to keep in remission most of the time, but when served with a hundred-question multiple-choice diagnostic on the history of Western music, it can metastasize ferociously.
I’m speaking, of course, about the “tip of the pyramid” syndrome. Because most music curricula are structured around composers, those of us who actually are composers have no choice but to consider the possibility that we squat atop the hierarchy of all other musicians by virtue of our job title. I mean, come on—Beethoven was a composer, I’m a composer. Do I have to spell it out for you?
With great power, however, comes great responsibility. Specifically, we are responsible for putting students of every other academic discipline in music to shame. We have to out-theorize the theorists and out-musicologize the musicologists. It’s always satisfying to bust out some Derrida or Adorno, although such citations verge on the embarrassingly asymmetrical, like using breech-loading rifles against the Zulus. Also, no fair making reference to pieces from the past twenty years, because your colleagues haven’t heard of any of them.
We can’t be held responsible for our behavior when this febrile state descends on us. Normally we’d never presume to pee on another musician’s lamppost so brazenly. Obviously doctoral musicology students know their stuff—they wouldn’t have gotten this far if they didn’t. Ditto for theorists, who have it even worse because they know that we know that they’re probably going to steal all our teaching jobs before long. But the sting that we feel when we don’t obliterate the grade curve is very real, and it can spur us downhill to truly reproachable depths of pettiness. Thankfully, once the battery of examinations is finished, our arrogance usually stabilizes in a more or less healthy level, and people can stand to be around us again.