Time flies when you’re having fun. It feels like I just got here, but already I’m initiating the process of submitting my thesis. It’s a portfolio of compositions with critical commentaries to be defended in front of one external and one internal examiner. Unlike my master’s defense at Illinois, which didn’t cover my own work, this one focuses on the pieces I’ve written since I got here: a saxophone quartet; a piece for small vocal ensemble and string trio; the largish chamber piece I recently finished; and an ongoing and continually vexing viola solo.
In a way, this is nice: I won’t have to worry about the music of Sibelius, say, or Tom DeLio, two topics of scrutiny on my MMus exam. But talking about other people’s music is something I do a lot more often than I talk about my own music; in the former case, I have to take responsibility for my opinions, but in the latter I’ll be held accountable for my own aesthetic positions. Moreover, judging by the makeup of my committee, critical theory is likely to figure prominently as the basis of challenges I’m presented with, the basis on which I’ll be expected to respond, or both. This area of study is by no means my home turf, so I’ve been reading up in preparation.
Is this kind of defense common in American composition programs? Although there’s a lot to like about a more outward-looking examination like the one I had two years ago at the U of I—you could certainly make the case that someone with a master’s degree in composition should be able to talk coherently about musical phenomena other than those he or she deals with personally—the model of my upcoming exam could be an antidote to the epidemic of unquestioned cultural and aesthetic assumptions that plagues students of composition. On the other hand, higher education is a business like any other, and what might at first seem like a valuable, mind-opening keystone experience may in fact turn out to be a dog and pony show whose purpose is to keep the institutional conveyor belt moving—it depends on who’s giving the exam, who’s taking it, and who decides how it’s to be proctored. In that light, it strikes me as sort of funny that exams aren’t usually mentioned when grad schools make their recruiting pitches and prospective students size up their options. It has the potential to be a very significant landmark in a composition student’s formation; maybe we should give it some more thought.