The music major at Dartmouth was recently updated (a fact that, thank God, has no bearing on my own graduation requirements) to differentiate into three different areas of study. Without letting my biases show too much, suffice it to say that I would rather focus on the positive implications of offering degrees in performance (my degree will not, unfortunately, say violin performance on it) rather than focusing on the other implications of offering a degree in “sonic arts.” To each their own I guess. What sort of bugs me about new wordings and euphemisms isn’t so much that they are wrong/intrinsically bad, but rather that the attempt to sum up my experience as a music major into one of three tracts is laughable. At times I have studied music “generally,” I guess. But at other times it has been so ridiculously specific as to barely maintain cohesion with the rest of my academic pursuits. I prefer the characterization of my musical life at Dartmouth as twelve-tone.
For those who don’t know, twelve-tone music is a rather progressive branch of 20th century classical music pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg. A large part of the origin of my musical life at Dartmouth was Schoenberg, for I was given the honor of page-turning at my friend’s senior conducting recital for this piece my freshman year. A twelve-tone composition abides by the rule that each of the 12 pitch classes must be played before any one can be repeated. The point of twelve-tone music is multifaceted. On the one hand, it seeks to treat all pitch classes equally. I could compare this to the two music course I took freshman year – ethnomusicology and introductory music theory. Both courses fulfilled a major requirement – you could say each of them was an individual tone treated equally. But music theory was the first class in my life that I got a B in, the first class that posed a substantial challenge to me at Dartmouth, and it was the class that convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that I wanted to study music. Ethnomusicology didn’t challenge me academically or intellectually, but I’d be lying if I didn’t credit it for opening up my musical horizons and making me confront the fact that the music I listen to (and that everyone listens to) occupies a relatively small fraction of the total musical output of the world.
On the other hand, twelve-tone music seeks to unify these pitches into a singular composition. As I consider the prospect of how music will be in my life after college, I am forced to evaluate myself as a musical composition. In some ways (the music study abroad foremost among them), my musical education vastly outpaces what I could achieve at a conservatory, just like atonal music can access new emotional realms when it abandons the rules of tonal western harmony. In other ways, the ways of tradition still seem supreme. There isn’t a strings faculty of 20 and enough violinists at Dartmouth to form a new (awful) nation-state, and that relieves pressure from me. And musicians need pressure to get better sometimes. Similarly, the interval of a perfect fifth will always sound more consonant than a tritone. It just will.
A Dartmouth career spans 12 on-terms, which for me represent 12 different tones I can select. I have to put thought into each note, for I don’t get to repeat any terms, and taking an opportunity now can mean abandoning another later. I like the tones I’ve picked so far. I feel like I’ve built something meaningful out of them, something that I can say is distinctly my own. When I was studying in London, my private teacher made me hold pitches until I could hear the overtones. I would stand and play a C4 for 20 minutes until I began hear the resonance of the note, the implication of upwards of 16 other notes in a single tone. My music education at Dartmouth has been private lessons and chamber music and concerto competitions. It has also been TAing a theory class, working in the music library, and managing the orchestra. If I reflect hard enough, it has even been the history classes I’ve taken, the very nature of my liberal arts education, even merely living in Hanover. These are the more remote overtones of my music degree.
Perhaps the greatest similarity I could draw is that twelve-tone music forces you to become inventive as you make music. You can’t rely on tried and true harmonic progressions or voice leading to guide your composition. At Dartmouth, I’ve had to get creative as well. I went to Europe to study music, I sought extra lessons from the visiting opera company in the summer, I organized and performed in a recital with friends. You learn to be a self advocate and a well rounded musician, and that is the ultimate reward of choosing all twelve-tones. It may be unorthodox, it may sound a little weird, but as someone who lives it every day, I can say it is worthwhile.