Quiz Show (Composer Ph.D. Edition)
I’m reaching the point in my terminal degree studies where the specter of a preliminary oral examination is beginning to loom. It’s still a year or two off, I expect, but I’m already beginning to sweat—spurred, no doubt, by a horror story from one of my colleagues. On a dark and stormy morning not too long ago, my composer friend entered the Chamber of Questions and was struck without warning by this completely unexpected salvo: Name as many pieces as you can in the key of C major.
Go ahead, give it a shot. You can probably name quite a few: After all, you’re sitting in front of your computer, drinking a cup of coffee, luxuriating in a gap in your Wednesday schedule and surfing the new music blogosphere. In fact, if I weren’t making sure to add this disclaimer, I’m sure some of you would chime in with comments about how many pieces in C major you can cite off the top of your head. I’m sure you can name a whole bunch.
But imagine you’re in front of a jury of your superiors, confronted with a question that has almost no relevance whatever to your field of contemporary music, that you must answer or face a setback that will cost you years and quite possibly tens of thousands of dollars to overcome. When my friend busted this gem out on me after his exam, I was tongue-tied—I only named three pieces!—so I shudder to think what would have happened had I been in the hot seat for reals.
Am I the only grad student terrified at being sunk by a question like this? “Name as many pieces as you can from the past ten years”; “Name as many pieces as you can for Pierrot ensemble with or without substitutions”; “Name as many pieces as you can with parametric staves”—these I could deal with. But C major?! Never in a million years would I have expected to be hit with that kind of challenge.