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MIT student blogger Sam M. '07

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.

(I will finish grad school applications as soon as I beat Startropics on Nestopia! I’m already at Zoda, okay?)

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.


20 responses to “Nicht Bach, Sondern Maurer”

  1. How rude!

    (It’s funny because Stephanie from Full House was addicted to crystal meth.)

  2. Melissa '11 says:

    Bobby Fischer. The sad thing is, I’m just now trying to learn to play chess. I can’t get past the EASY level on this Cyber Chess game that I bought.

    .. now I feel stupid =)

  3. PAKISTANI says:

    Well guys its gonna be the first post here so I’m gonna ask a question. Recently, a friend of mine had an interview with an EC. It was a nightmare. He discouraged my friend so much that when he came back he called me straight and told me the whole interview and how it went. He had made up his mind not to apply. Now I’ll tell you something. He got 8As and 3Bs in O-level. EC said it was just ok result. He got 4As in AS-level all on 95 or above, EC didnt have time to admire or even say a thing about it. He had 710 in Maths Lv.II, he said your app is gonna go to trash. My friend had 750 in SAT-II Physics, he said it was crappy, you need to give Maths Lv. II and Physics and get 800 again or you dont stand a chance.

    I agree that to get in as an international student is much much harder than to get in as an american citizen. Yet, thats no way of taking an interview and I want you people to share a bit about your interview stories, especially if you are pakistani or indian. Thanks

  4. Alex says:

    haha dont feel bad, my sister can beat me all the time…..and she barely plays while i try to improve my skills all the time =T

  5. Sam says:

    Hey PAKISTANI, just wanted to offer you my own words of advice on your friend’s interview. My freshman year roommate was an international student from Brazil (he was Mexican, but that’s another story entirely). He had a similar experience with his interviewer criticizing him and telling him not to even bother applying. My roommate said that he got in contact with the admissions department and explained this situation, and they responded that they would disregard it from his application and speak with his interviewer to make sure that he did a better job in the future. It obviously worked out for him, so it could work out for you and your friend too. Unfortunately, I don’t know my roommate’s SATII scores, but I certainly wouldn’t let a 710 and a 750 discourage me from applying, even considering the competition for international admissions.

  6. Nina says:

    Yeah, uh, I’d be pretty proud of a B+ from PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING COMPOSER JOHN HARBISON. Don’t worry about it.

    Also, YOU LIKE STAR TREK: TOS???!!!! Or are you just being ironic? Because if you REALLY loved TOS (and, more specifically, Spock), we’d probably have to be best friends. Just sayin’.

    (Oh, and not only do we have Pulitzer Prize winners, we have HUGO and NEBULA winners. Ahem. Everyone should take Joe Haldeman’s classes, EVERYONE. Okay, over and out.)

  7. Colin says:

    I happen to know that Nina got an A from Hugo and Nebula award winner Joe Haldeman.

    Sam, I think there is such a thing as “too smart.” and I think you crossed the line.

    This is a great post for a lot of reasons, but mostly for the bit about Schoenberg being stupid.

  8. well… great post, as usual…!!! and hey PAKISTANI!!! regarding that interview, its really sad that you met such an EC… i am an Indian… and i was lucky enough to meet a really co-operative EC… interview went great… he gave me some valuable inputs about MIT… he was a nice man, basically… i’m satisfied with the way my interview went… i suggest that u probably contact the admission office…!!!

  9. sarah says:

    ahahah great post, so funny! though your fondness for star trek or wars or whatever is more than slightly disturbing…

    its good to know that the US government has got its priorities straight – chasing after deadly chess players is sooo much more important reducing prostitution within its own country…

  10. Anonymous says:

    so what part do you sing? tenor or bass?

  11. Snively says:

    dangit, high school, my bad. ignore my last comment. . .

  12. PAKISTANI says:

    wow SAM i never thought, you would reply. you did!!!! and thanks for the advice about that interview thing. I’ll make sure he applies with me to MIT. he became so dishearted that I can’t tell you. I’m gonna show him your post. Thank you very much sam, you dont know how much this means. i myself have 620 on maths II, 790 on physics and chem. 800 and no matter what I’ll apply. happy christmas!!!

  13. theresa says:

    hey sam what instrument did you play in band — I’m in the pit —and are you in the MIT band? if you are, does it have a pit?– I don’t want to have to do drumline (I’m not so good at rudiments – raspberry ) thanks smile

  14. Snively says:

    Marching Band! Gah! You’re the only person I’ve managed to find that is actually in the MIT marching band. Quick question for ya. . .

    How big is it and is it worth it?


  15. Monika says:

    “because the tenor section in concert choir is more fun. Sorry, it’s true.”

    I agree;)
    btw: In our Hs choir are so few boys that girls sing the tenor section…so we are a laugh;)

    where did you learn german;)
    I’m german…I love Bach…especially his “Weihnachtsoratorium”…

  16. Ling says:

    Ich liebe die Adjektiv-Endungen mehr. Du weisst es schon: Grammatik ist mein Geliebter.

  17. Sam says:

    Melissa — well, if you like you can take my uncontested title of Worst Chess Player at MIT from me when you get there next year (although I’m sure you’d totally destroy me if we had the opportunity to play)

    Nina — SUPER CONGRATS on your A from Joe Haldeman, although I have no idea who he is (I guess it’s the same for all my readers and John Harbison, though… sorry, Professor Harbison). I’m not obsessed with TOS or anything, but my grandfather used to have it on every day when I got home from school, plus Sam’s Mom watches TV Land pretty much 24/7, so I think I’ve probably seen and loved almost all of the episodes.

    Colin — He’s stupid, but I’m listening to “Mondestrunken” right now and rocking out to it.

    Triple Amputee — Sorry. But by the same token, you seem to be thankful that you’re not a crystal meth addict. Wouldn’t that offend poor Stephanie?

    Snively — Not gonna lie, but we have, oh, about 20 active members right now. You can count on about a dozen to show up to any event. But these events are inevitably AWESOME. I’ll post a picture soon to prove it to you. Anyway, my HS marching band was ranked #2 in the tri-state area and it was quite refreshing to get out of that supercompetitive environment and actually enjoy marching band music for once.

    Anonymous — My vocal range is probably closer to that of a bass, but I continue singing tenor, because the tenor section in concert choir is more fun. Sorry, it’s true.

    theresa –A pit, eh? We have, uh… this girl plays synthesizer (I think we hooked a battery pack and a speaker up to her). Sometimes when our one drummer gets tired.

    I know a lot of you are scoffing at my description of the MIT Marching Band, but make no mistake, THE MIT MARCHING BAND COULD KILL YOU.

  18. Michelle says:

    ur blogs are funny….bt 25% of it goes 50 feet abve my head..nd dats wat contributes to it being funny (50% of it)
    nwz b4 u die with all dose numbers…i’m dying to noe?????……why is it dat half of what u’ll write is so difficult for others to connect with?
    is it just u and becuz u’re from MIT…or is it just me nd bcuz i’m not from MIT.????
    nways b4 i stop makin sense…dat can be becuz i’m me…or becuz i’m not from MIT…………OK I SHUD STOP.
    actually it’s just MIT…dats scaring me…..why does it have to be the best???..
    nwayz u’re blogs are gud…fun to read.

  19. Molly says:

    WOW! see i knew i liked MIT for its science/math/engineering stuff, and that they had a good music program, but i had NO idea there were other music kids like me ACTUALLY THERE!!! seriously, i am so pumped to press the submit button on my app right now….and schoenberg was stupid, but he did have good tastes outside of composing…he thought brahms was the MAN and wrote articles about it.

    ps how awesome is the marching band? orchestra (im tired and dont want to search the site about it…. raspberry )

    anyway peace, thanks for the good read!

  20. Sam says:

    Monika — ha, I had that experience in high school. Here at MIT, though, we have a very good, if small tenor section.

    Ling — Lukas Podolski ist mein Geliebter. Er ist mir schoener als Grammatik.

    Michelle — Well, this entry was about specific musical pieces that I studied in detail this term and presented in my class, so it makes sense if some of it went over your head–there’s no reason that you would have specifically looked at any of these compositions or composers if you weren’t taking this class.

    Molly — Well, the marching band is around 20 people large, and you can count on maybe 12 or so to show up at any given time. I was in a competitive band in high school, and it’s nice to remember, sometimes, that marching band is supposed to be about making music together, having fun, and going to sporting events.

    The MIT orchestra, MITSO, is actually pretty great, and a lot better than some other college orchestras I’ve heard. I’ve been to a few of their concerts. I think it was two years ago when they did Debussy’s La Mer, and they actually found the 16 cellists that Debussy calls for, and it was spectacular.