Nicht Bach, Sondern Maurer by Sam M. '07
The proudest moment of my life since figuring out that "Wok & Roll" was a pun.
DID YOU KNOW? Chess prodigy Bobby Fischer has been wanted by the US Government since 1992, when he violated economic sanctions against Yugoslavia by engaging in a chess match there. However, he has sought political asylum in Iceland.
I was just about to get some sleep last night–I had to wake up for a 1 PM lunch with some of my marching bandmates from high school, which required considerable effort–when I heard Sam’s Mom crying from the living room. “SAM!” she yelled. “The Cornucopia of Doom is on!” Okay, well that’s only my favorite episode of Star Trek EVER, next to the one where Spock says “Logic is a little bird, chirping in a meadow.” So I thought I’d start yet another blog entry while watching Commodore Decker fail to save the universe with his well-intentioned but ultimately meaningless sacrifice.
Anyway, Sam’s Mom just figured out how her brand-new DVR system works (unlike JKim’s household, not all electronic tasks are left to MIT students here in rainy Harrisburg, PA), so I’m going to hold off on doomsday until tomorrow.
Another class that almost killed me in the past week was 21M.500: Senior Seminar in Music, which, as devoted fans of my blog (are there any left?) probably know, is taught by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison. I remember one time, a book was recommended to me on the basis that “It won the PULITZER PRIZE.” I really hope that I am in that situation again so I can be like, “Oh yeah? I took a small seminar class taught by a Pulitzer Prize-winner. I got a B+.”
Wow, I’m a jerk.
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison is not a jerk though. He’s seriously a genius. Long long ago, in one of my favorite MITblogs entries of all time, Mitra writes about
The outdoor terrace, where mes amis mingled until our feast was ready. We played this “game” in which non-MIT people would yell out a number, and MIT people would say to which course it corresponded. Fun for toute la famille!
I think that you could play the same game with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison and Bach cantatas. You call out a number from 1 to 220 or whatever, and he tells you the name of the cantata, the year it was written, the Sunday on which it was to be performed, the English translation of the German text, outlines all of the movements for you, and sings the chorale melody on which the entire cantata is based. I seriously have never met anybody who knows so much about music, and is yet so unpretentious about it and able to communicate it so well to sleepy engineering undergrads burnt out on problem sets and grad school applications.
The class was all about late Bach, when he abandoned all pretense of working for commissions and decided to start writing the weirdest, most groundbreaking counterpoint of all time. We spent about half the semester just studying his Musical Offering to Frederick the Great (by the way, I love German adjective rules more than most people), in which he wrote quite possibly the world’s first 6-part fugue, transcribed a two-week old improvisation from memory, and wrote ten canons based on a theme that Schoenberg judged to be nearly impossible for canon-writing. Schoenberg was kind of stupid, but I really like Pierrot Lunaire. Anyway, as a result of this class, I now know more about Bach’s ancestry and personal finances than I do about inorganic chemistry. But guess which class is on my resume!
After that, we did some work on the cantatas and gave presentations on the nature of improvisation. Mine was about Ives’s Concord Sonata, and as I chronicled in this entry, it made Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison laugh. Intentionally! Or maybe he was just laughing at Ives’s weird dissonances. Seriously, there’s this one recording of Ives “improvising” at the piano, in which he just plays random notes for a whole minute, and then ends on a high Ab, and then he’s like, “OOPS! My finger slipped!” and he hits a high G instead. It’s fantastic.
Our last project was to take pieces from Bach’s organ mass and arrange them for small ensembles of our choosing. I had originally been talked into arranging my prelude, which was essentially in four voices and only used the manuals of the organ, for violin, viola, soprano voice, and baritone saxophone. Hey, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer wouldn’t steer me wrong, would he? Realizing the night before the project was due that I sucked at writing for strings, I took a closer look at the piece and found that each of the four parts was set almost exactly in one of the ranges generally associated with human voices. So, mustering up every bit of my courage, I defied Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison and produced…
It totally deserves its own line. Why? Because Pulitzer-prize winning composer John Harbison called it “ingenious and appropriate … a worthy addition to the motet repertoire.” I was ecstatic, but I then faced the challenge of rustling up three other singers with whom I could perform it five days later. Of course, I rocked that too, and we gave an excellent peformance marred only by my own numerous singing mistakes (you would think that I would make the fewest pitch errors, having written the song for twelve hours, but no).
In the end, it still wasn’t enough to earn me my favorite grade in the class: an A-. Since MIT doesn’t count plusses or minuses in calculating your GPA, getting an A- is pretty much the best thing in the world. Well, besides chocolate fountains. I was a little disappointed about my B+ at first, but then I remembered: at least I’m not a triple amputee. I should be thankful for that.
I should also be thankful for the fact that I GO TO MIT AND BRILLIANT DOWN-TO-EARTH PULITZER PRIZE WINNERS TEACH MY CLASSES.