[Ed. Note: NewMusicBox welcomes Joelle Zigman to Chatter. Joelle, an aspiring composer and music critic, is currently an undergraduate student at The Shepherd School of Music at Rice University (Houston, TX) where she is pursuing a double degree in English and music composition. Her composition teachers at Rice include Anthony Brandt and Arthur Gottschalk. Originally from Jersey City, NJ, Joelle began as a singer/songwriter playing on an out-of-tune piano and recording in her makeshift basement studio with friends, inspired primarily by riot grrrl and 1990s female singer/songwriters like Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Ani DiFranco, PJ Harvey, Amanda Palmer, Sleater-Kinney, etc. According to Joelle, “Curiosity and frustration with the repetitive, limited scope of singer/songwriting led me to studies with Randall Svane, the ‘discovery’ of notated music, and music theory. I continue to write the indie-pop music that comes naturally to me, but use my training to think intelligently about my material: notating what I write while thinking in terms of structure and motivic development.”—FJO]
Earlier this week I found out that one of my favorite electronic artists, the IDM legend Brian Transeau, known by his initials BT, was DJing at the House of Blues on Wednesday night. Transeau spent some time at Berklee College of Music studying synthesizers, and I hold his album This Binary Universe as the standard for great electronic composition. But, as a college student with early morning classes and a heavy workload, making the commitment to go to such an event on a school night would mean making sacrifices to my schoolwork. Thus the Great Question arises: Should I go to the techno concert on a Wednesday night when I have a Romantic Era Music History test at nine in the morning on Thursday or should I stay home?
I think it’s more than a question of “having fun,” Ferris Bueller-style, versus “being responsible,” because composers don’t have traditional responsibilities. Artists have different priorities than the average college student. It’s not like in pre-med programs where your organic chemistry grade could determine your acceptance into a good medical school. It’s not my music history grade that’s going to get me into grad school (not to undermine the importance of music history), it’s my music, and my music is influenced by far more things than just my education.
There is more than one way to receive a music composition education. What I’ve learned in conservatory classrooms is just as relevant as what I’ve learned at the Village Vanguard or various popular music venues. There’s a Dylan Thomas quote that has stuck with me since I first read it in his collection of short stories and essays, Quite Early One Morning:
To take no notice of the work of your contemporaries is to disregard a whole vital part of the world you live in, and necessarily to devitalize your own work: to narrow its scope and possibilities: to be half dead as you write. What’s more, a poet is a poet for such a very tiny bit of his life; for the rest, he is a human being, one of whose responsibilities is to know and feel, as much as he can, all that is moving around and within him, so that his poetry, when he comes to write it, can be his attempt at an expression of the summit of man’s experience on this very peculiar and, in 1946, this apparently hell-bent earth.
Thomas’ description of the role a poet should play in society is equally as true for composers. Immersing one’s self in a live “commercial” music concert—with all the social entanglement that implies—is a way of connecting with a movement and an emotionally involved community experience. So what if my peers perceive it as a “bad decision.” They are reasonably misunderstanding my motivations. But it’s a matter of weighing your own priorities—a question of personal balances.
I don’t, in any sense, seek to undermine the value of a conservatory education. I also don’t seek to undermine a parent’s decision to keep their musically inclined child at home on weeknights. My parents would never have let me go to a concert on a school night in high school, and I’m glad they didn’t because it showed me that they cared about my schoolwork. But I’m in college now, I make my own decisions, and I think it’s important to hear techno on a Wednesday night.
Tell me what you think: what do you think is the morally responsible decision? Do you have any stories about similar experiences or dilemmas?